Tracing Lord Jeff

In March 2013, Mike Kelly, director of the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections published a piece about Lord Jeff on the Archives blog The Consecrated Eminence. The post “explore[s] how Lord Jeffery Amherst, one time Governor-General of British North America, became ‘Lord Jeff,’ the mascot of a small liberal arts college in bucolic Western Mass,” a research topic that has become increasingly relevant as debate continues about the appropriateness of the Lord Jeff mascot. Since the ways in which the Amherst College community has interpreted and depicted the Lord Jeff character reveal larger cultural attitudes about Native people, a contextualized analysis of the mascot allows us to broaden the debate to include a more nuanced understanding of our relationship to colonialism.

Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst

Lord Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797) was a British officer who served during the French and Indian War. Regarded as a hero following a victorious attack on Louisbourg, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the British army in North America and, after the war, the colonial general of all of British North America. In 1761, Amherst used this position of authority to end the tradition of giving gifts to Native allies, against the recommendation of Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs. This change in policy ruptured relations with several tribes and and resulted in a Native uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.

It was during this conflict that Amherst’s unveiled his infamous smallpox blanket scheme to exterminate Native people and communities en masse. “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox [sic] among those disaffected tribes of Indians?” Amherst wrote to British Colonel Henry Bouquet in June 1763. [1] Though debate remains as to the actual implementation and success of the plot, Amherst’s writings to Bouquet, analyzed in more depth by Peter d’Errico and Philip Ranlet, indicate a clear genocidal intent: not only did he want to decimate Indian combatants, Amherst sought to “extirpate” the entire “execrable race”. [2]

Debates about Lord Jeff’s suitability as a mascot tend to focus on this incident. Opponents emphasize the discrepancy between Amherst’s racist views and actions and the culture of diversity and tolerance the college tries to foster in the present day. Supporters of the mascot instead argue that such behaviors are of a different time and should not be judged by today’s ethical standards. While the smallpox incident is rightfully highlighted in these conversations as a particularly nefarious act of war, it is not the only reason Amherst makes a problematic school symbol. As a military and political leader of British North America, Amherst was a powerful agent of settler colonialism, with many of his less criticized choices and policies having devastating effects on indigenous communities. For instance, oral histories of Rogers’ Raid, an attack Amherst ordered on the Abenaki village of Odanak during the French and Indian War, testify to the trans-generational trauma Native communities have borne as a result of colonizers like Amherst. In addition to acknowledging his contributions to the development of biological warfare, conversations about the legacy of Lord Jeffery Amherst should consider his broader role in subjugating Native people and upholding the colonial system.

From Historical Figure to Campus Icon

Prior to Pontiac’s Rebellion and at the height of Amherst’s notoriety, several geographic locations (far from where he actually lived, served, and fought) were named in his honor—Amherst County, Virginia; Amherst, New Hampshire; and of course, Amherst, Massachusetts. According to historian and Amherst alumnus Frank Prentice Rand, Amherst “became overnight the most glamorous military hero in the New World” after his victory at Louisbourg, so “the name was so obvious [for the town] in 1759 as to be almost inevitable.” [3] After Pontiac’s Rebellion, Amherst was summoned back to England and castigated for his role in provoking the conflict, and his reputation in North Americaaccordingly suffered.

When a college was founded in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1821, it simply took the name of the town. For the time being, there was no connection between Amherst the man and Amherst the college.

Click here to continue to part 2 in the “Tracing Lord Jeff” series.

[1] D’Errico, Peter. “Jeffrey1 Amherst and Smallpox Blankets.” Amherst and Smallpox. University of Massachusetts/Amherst, Department of Legal Studies, n.d. Web. 11 May 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rand, Frank Prentice. The Village of Amherst, a Landmark of Light. Amherst, MA: Amherst Historical Society, 1958. 15. Web, archive.org.

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