Portrait of Jeffrey Amherst (1717–97), British general, by Joshua Reynolds (oil on canvas, 1765)
Seven Years War
Jeffery Amherst first saw active service in the War of the Austrian Succession. During the Seven Years War, his first position was as commissary to Hessian (German) troops that had become part of the British army in 1756. Thanks to the help of some influential friends, Amherst was given command of an expedition against Louisbourg in 1758. He obtained the town's surrender on July 27 by a careful, slow siege against the French fortress by his overwhelming forces.
Amherst was made commander in chief in North America in late 1758 and led a methodical, cautious advance up Lake Champlain in 1759. However, this had little effect on French efforts to stop General James Wolfe's operations against Quebec City, which fell to the British in September 1759.
In 1760, Amherst planned a three-pronged attack against Montreal. On 8 September 1760, the French surrendered Montreal to the British. This marked the end of French rule in Canada. Amherst left North America in November 1763 for England, where his handling of the Pontiac uprising provoked criticism.
Amherst was knighted in 1761 and ennobled in 1776. He twice served as commander in chief of the British army before retiring in 1796 as a field marshal. Amherst made his reputation in North America, and he owed much of his later advancement to his success during the Seven Years War.
However, Amherst’s legacy is controversial, primarily because of his policy regarding Indigenous peoples. This includes his suggestion in 1763 to deliberately infect Indigenous peoples with smallpox during Pontiac’s War. Under Odawa chief Obwandiyag (Pontiac), a loose coalition of Indigenous nations revolted against British rule between 1763 and 1766.
In July 1763, Amherst wrote, “Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them." Later that month, he revisited this idea, writing to Colonel Henry Bouquet: "You will do well to try to inoculate [sic] the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” By this point, British defenders at Fort Pitt had already sent an infected handkerchief and blankets to the Indigenous forces who were laying siege to the fort.
Since 2000, there has been pressure to remove Amherst’s name from streets, towns, historical sites and educational institutions. In 2019, Montreal’s Amherst Street was renamed Atateken Street; Atateken means “brothers and sisters” in Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language.