In the mid-1700s, British commander Lord Jeffery Amherst ordered that Native Americans be killed by smallpox. But germ warfare would not immediately tarnish his name; in fact, several North American towns and locales would bear it. More than 200 years later, however, his enthusiasm for smallpox has returned to haunt the British commander’s legacy.
At Amherst College, the selective New England liberal arts school in Massachusetts, there is a decent chance Lord Jeff could be replaced by a rodent.
For years, the Amherst College mascot and sports teams were unofficially known as the Lord Jeffs. The college itself is named after the Massachusetts town where it is located; the town, in turn, was named after the British baron when it was incorporated in 1759. Still, references to Lord Jeff dotted the campus, with his name displayed on an inn, a coffee shop and other businesses.
In early 2016, amid a national conversation about controversial team names and trademarks, Amherst’s trustees decided to officially give the unofficial mascot the heave-ho.
“Lord Jeff as a mascot may be unofficial, but the college, when its own resources are involved, can decide not to employ this reference in its official communications, its messaging, and its symbolism (including in the name of the inn, the only place on the campus where the Lord Jeffery name officially appears),” the Amherst board chairman, Cullen Murphy, wrote in a January 2016 letter, as The Washington Post reported.
Rising to the rank of major-general in the Seven Years’ War campaign against New France, Amherst could be a courteous warrior — if his enemies were colonists of European descent. In 1760, the commander praised Montreal nuns for tending to the British wounded, Alberta’s Edmonton Journal reported in 2001. He sent the women a letter of thanks along with bottles of wine.
But, toward Native Americans, such gallantry evaporated. In a 1763 missive to his subordinate Henry Bouquet, Amherst encouraged sickening the indigenous tribes with smallpox microbes.
“Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among the disaffected tribes of Indians?” Amherst wrote, as noted in historian Henry W. Brands’s biography of Andrew Jackson. “We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.” When Bouquet indicated his plan to deliver smallpox via blankets, Amherst replied, “You will do well to try to inoculate [by which Amherst meant infect] the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
With those words, Amherst would become, as the Journal put it, “the first bioterrorist in North America.”
(A few historians have disputed the claims that the British would have had the prerequisite knowledge to wage microbial war on their enemies. Others argue that smallpox had already infected Native Americans before Amherst approved the blanket weapon. But University of Massachusetts Amherst political scientist Peter d’Errico concluded that the general certainly had the intent to sicken the native people with smallpox. In his analysis of the letters between Amherst and Bouquet, d’Errico wrote that the correspondence removed “all doubt about the validity of the stories about Lord Jeff and germ warfare.”)
Commenting on the trustees’ decision, many students expressed their support. “Lord Jeffrey Amherst was a genocidal maniac,” one said, according to the announcement on Amherst’s website.
“If schools can have dead trees as their mascots, or shrimp, we can have something that is not this,” went another.
Not every Amherst alum embraced the rejection of Lord Jeff. “We think of ourselves as Jeffs, and we always will,” said Donald MacNaughton, class of ’65, to the New York Times in 2016.
After dropping Lord Jeff, Amherst launched a replacement campaign. A new mascot would be selected from a pool of submissions, as long as they met criteria such as “visually pleasing” or representing the “Amherst experience or history.”
The school recently announced that it had winnowed down, from more than 2,000 suggestions, 30 semifinalists for its new mascot. These include more traditional team names: The A’s, the Aces, the Wolves. And the unconventional: Fighting Poets, Hamster (an anagram of Amherst), Moose (because, as one suggester put it, “a moose wandered onto campus a year or so ago”) and Dinosaur. Other potential names include: Amethyst, Blaze, Irradients, Luminaries, Octagons, Purple & White and Valley Hawks.
The hunt for a mascot will continue into March, by which time the mascot committee plans to have the Amherst community vote on five finalists.
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