In 1757, John Nash, Isaac Ward, and Nehimieh Dickinson, three of the leading citizens of “East Hadley”, petitioned Governor Thomas Pownall Esquire, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Provinces in Massachusetts, to create a new precinct, independent of Hadley, which they recommended be named Amherst. In their letter, the petitioners extolled the virtues of Major General Jeffrey Amherst, who was being hailed as a hero in England’s war with France and had not yet been associated with the heinous recommendation to use germ warfare against the indigenous peoples of New England.
On February 13, 1759, Governor Pownall signed the documents establishing the new precinct of Amherst. According to UMass Emeritus Professor Peter d’Errico, the author, Frank Prentice Rand wrote, in The Village of Amherst: A Landmark of Light (1958), wrote that “…at the time of the naming, Amherst was the most glamorous military hero in the New World.”
It is unlikely that Nash, Ward, or Dickinson would have known of Jeffrey Amherst’s active support of the plan to use smallpox-inoculated blankets to infect the native population. It was not until four years after the naming of the new precinct, that Major General Amherst included the following postscript in a July 13, 1763 letter to Swiss mercenary Henry Bouquet: “This is a good idea to spread smallpox – just be careful you don’t get it yourself.” Given a few days to think about his recommendation, Amherst wrote Bouquet again on July 16, saying… “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Note: according to Google, possible synonyms for “execrable” are: abhorrent · abominable · accursed · atrocious · confounded · cursed · damnable · defective …
Professor d’Errico suggests these letters to the Swiss mercenary were not anomalies but part of a pattern, as he references the following quotes from Major General Amherst’s correspondence during the summer of 1763…
- “…Measures to be taken as would Bring about the Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations” (July 9)
- “…their Total Extirpation is scarce sufficient Attonement….” (August 7)
- “…put a most Effectual Stop to their very Being” (August 27). 1
It is interesting that we may, on occasion, hear today the suggestion that Lord Amherst is somehow not culpable because the recommended act of germ warfare may not have occurred, or if it did occur, it was probably not effective. The written documentation remains clear that Amherst supported an act that would be recognized as genocide today. Even so, diseased blankets were just the “tip of the iceberg” of a 500-year pattern of genocide that took many other forms in the former British colonies and later in the United States.
In retrospect, we can understand why Nash, Ward and Dickinson might support naming their new precinct after the illustrious war hero. It is more difficult to understand why the citizens of the many towns and organizations in Canada and New England that currently carry the name of Lord Amherst, would continue to honor his memory in the same way.
Most attempts to change the name Amherst, have been sidestepped by local governments. In 2019, the City of Ottawa decided not to change the name of a suburban street called Amherst Crescent “because no one officially requested it, and… there’s no proof that it was named after an 18th century British general who advocated for the genocide of Indigenous people.” In 2017, the Premier of Nova Scotia refused to change the name because “he has not heard concerns about the town of Amherst being named for the controversial historical figure.”
On the other hand, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, while explaining why a street named after Lord Amherst was changed to Atateken Street, declared that “he [Amherst] wanted to exterminate Indigenous peoples.” Coderre didn’t wait for a formal complaint from an aggrieved party when he said “Goodbye, Mr. Amherst,” the same day that he announced the addition of an Iroquois symbol to the city’s flag. Michael Rice, an Indigenous studies specialist with Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, called it “one of the best decisions that Coderre has made, because [Amherst] was universally hated by native people at the time.”
When a request to change the name of Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst National Historic Site on Prince Edwards Island was being debated, elders of the Mi’kmaq Confederacy argued that Lord Amherst was an enemy of Indigenous peoples. Parks Canada, which managed the fort and had ignored a request for the name change in 2008, issued a statement in 2018 “in the spirit of reconciliation” saying the Mi’kmaq name “skmaqn” (pronounced Ska-MAA-kin) will be added to the park’s name.
Of course, the name “Amherst” has different meanings for people living today than it did in 1759, when it was a way to celebrate the war victories of the British military. And frankly, changing the name of the town might seem like a “heavy lift” for a local government. But perhaps public and private organizations carrying the name Amherst would consider a name change, as a way of bringing attention to the history of indigenous genocide by the colonial settlers.
Reporting on Amherst College’s change in the name of their mascot, Peter d’Errico wrote in Indian Country Today, “Lord Jeff can take on a new role, as an example of the way that America—or any nation—can revisit its history: not to deny it or cover it with whitewash (which amounts to the same thing), but to face it.”
Perhaps organizations that continue to “raise up” Lord Amherst on their building signs and letterhead would consider a name change as a way to shine a light on the past, so that we do not forget. Professor d’Errico continues… “Every generation has a duty—to study this lesson and to find ways to leave their own history enlightened by acknowledgment of their own mistakes and misdeeds.” A name change might be a beginning of a longer process of reflection, reconciliation, and reparation, for as d’Errico concludes “without learning and critique, removing a symbol of history becomes only a way of hiding the truth.”
In a recent Amherst Indy article on local native sites, Hetty Startup boldly stated that the “Indian ‘wars’ are still being waged in other guises.”. People and the land continue to be exploited by accepted practices of the dominant business culture. Perhaps by acknowledging the “original sin” of the European colonialists, we will begin to find the courage to see that systemic oppression continues today.
At the very least, we might support Native American reparations, ranging from a voluntary tax on stolen lands, to having the true story of colonization by Europeans being told, something that seems particularly important as we again approach November 24, 2022, the National Day of Mourning. And perhaps if we are truly courageous, we might ask ourselves why Amherst is still called Amherst, today.
John M. Gerber is a long-time resident of Amherst and Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture. His blog page can be found here: https://changingthestory.net/