Confirmed: Ward Churchill is a Fraud, Part 1 · 07 June 2005


By Kevin Vaughan - Rocky Mountain News - 06/08/05

The following is the third installment of a multi-article investigation launched by the Rocky Mountain News. This installment, written by reporter Kevin Vaughan, focuses on allegations of fraud. Click Here to see an overviewof the newspaper's findings. Click Here to see part two (dealing with the charge of plagiarism). The remaining installments, on the charges of micharacterization and misrepresentation, will be posted in a future issue of FrontPage Magazine. -- The Editors.

The Charge: Fraud
by Kevin Vaughan, Rocky Mountain News

The year was 1837, the place was the Upper Missouri River Valley in present-day North Dakota, the disease was smallpox, and the effects on American Indians were devastating.

None of that is in dispute.

One key fact is: how the disease got there.

Numerous historical accounts put the blame in the same place - infected travelers on a steamboat bound for a trading post called Fort Clark who unwittingly spread the illness to several members of the Mandan tribe, unleashing an epidemic that decimated the region's indigenous population.

Enter Ward Churchill.

The University of Colorado ethnic studies professor has a different version of events, alleging in at least seven different writings dating to 1992 that the disease was a deliberate plot of the U.S. Army and part of a larger campaign of genocide against American Indians.

Churchill tells his readers that the Army gathered blankets from a smallpox infirmary in St. Louis, shipped them to Fort Clark and deliberately distributed them among the Mandan as a way to spread the lethal disease.

Churchill also has said on several occasions that a "post surgeon" or an "Army doctor" told the Indians to take refuge in their home communities - which he alleges helped spread the disease - and that the military locked away the vaccine that could have saved Indian lives.

But a Rocky Mountain News examination of Churchill's assertions found that they aren't supported by the sources he cites. In fact, the pages of various books he refers to not only don't buttress his argument, they contradict it.

None mention the Army's presence at Fort Clark - it wasn't a military post.

None mention an alleged "parlay" at which smallpox-infested blankets supposedly were distributed to Indians.

None mention the "post surgeon" or "Army doctor" accused by Churchill of sending infected Indians out into the countryside.

None mention a store of vaccine locked away, deliberately withheld from Indians.

Three of the authors - including a UCLA professor who is a member of the Cherokee Nation - unequivocally refute the assertions that Churchill attributed to their works.

"My own view is Churchill probably just wanted to have something more to holler about," said the UCLA professor, Russell Thornton.

"I think it's just out-and-out fabrication. It depends on how you want to look at it, but in one sense, it's just making up of data, and that kind of thing shouldn't be tolerated in scholarship or science."

The News also found that Churchill's story grew over time, with new characters and details emerging in successive versions, and that some of his basic facts changed from one telling to another, including fluctuations in his estimates of the number of American Indians who died.

Churchill, however, stood by his assertions in a recent interview with the News.

He said he could make a "slam-dunk" case for his version of events.

"What happened at Fort Clark was far worse than I indicated. Far worse," he said. "And now I've got the documentation, the paper, to prove it. So next time I iterate it, it's going to be a much sharper finding on genocidal intent with Fort Clark."

However, the sources he pointed the News to don't support his assertion either.

Life and death at Fort Clark

It was a different place and a different time.

What is today the Upper Midwest was still considered the Western frontier of the young nation. Thomas Jefferson had been dead a little more than a decade.

Trappers, traders and Indian tribes called the region home, coexisting peacefully at times, not so peacefully at others.

Along the west bank of the Upper Missouri River - six miles southeast of present-day Stanton, N.D. - sat Fort Clark, a trading post owned and operated by the American Fur Co.

The introduction to a book of the writings of Francis A. Chardon, Chardon's Journal At Fort Clark, 1834-1839, paints a vivid picture of life along the Upper Missouri.

Fort Clark looked like the typical trading post of the day - wooden picketed walls, gates on either end and blockhouses on two of the corners.

It sat on high ground overlooking the river, visible for miles to the steamboats headed north and west from St. Louis, loaded with the goods that fed the trade-based economy of the region.

Within its walls, a small group of traders and laborers worked and lived - sorting furs and hides, dealing with stretches of mind-numbing boredom, weathering tough winters and drinking too much.

Nearby, more than a thousand Mandan Indians lived in a village of earthen mounds - huts made of timber covered with mud. The region also was home to numerous other tribes - including the Hidatsas, the Lakota Sioux, the Arikara, the Blackfeet and the Gros Ventres.

Enter Chardon.

Philadelphia-born and thought to be a veteran of the War of 1812, he headed west sometime around 1815. By the late 1820s, he was working in the fur trade of the Upper Missouri, where he lived with a succession of Indian wives, including one, Tchon- su-mons-ka, who bore him two sons. Chardon, a great admirer of Andrew Jackson, named one of his sons after the president.

In June 1834, Chardon became the bourgeois - or manager - at Fort Clark.

With his new post, he began a daily recording of his activities, bare- bones recitations of the comings and goings at the fort.

His first entry, dated June 18, 1834, simply read: "Steam Boat Assinniboine arrived."

The entries in his journal paint Chardon as a hard man living in a hard time. In April 1837, his wife, Tchon-su-mons-ka, died.

He recorded the event, and the day's other goings-on, in the most austere fashion.

"The Mandans that crossed the River the 20th . . . arrived to day with plenty of Meat - report cattle far off, and scarce," he wrote on April 24. "My Childrens Mother died this day at 11 OClock - Sent her down in a canoe, to be entered at Fort Pierre, in the Lands of her Parents - Pressed Packs 15 - Trade going on slow -"

In all, Chardon covered five years of life at Fort Clark in his journal, which historians think he then gave to a famous French explorer named Joseph N. Nicollet, who died in 1843. Nicollet's possessions were gathered in a chest with his name on it and shipped to the Topographical Bureau of the U.S. War Department, where they sat until 1921.

The journal's discovery opened a window on life at Fort Clark, as seen through Chardon's eyes. It also provides important evidence when considering Churchill's assertions.

Chardon's entries for Sunday, June 18, 1837, and the following two days matter-of-factly describe the arrival of the St. Peters, a steamboat operated by the American Fur Co.

"The Steam Boat St Peters hove in sight at 2 P.M." he wrote, in part, that Sunday.

A day later, Chardon's entry was simple: "Started at day light and arrived at the Mandans at 3 P.M., unloaded the Merchandises for the Fort - all hands a Frolicking, found my hunters Out - "

On the third day, he recounted the departure of the St. Peters: "The Steam Boat left here this Morning early for Fort Union . . . "

It wasn't until July 14 - more than three weeks after the departure of the St. Peters - that Chardon recorded the first episode of smallpox.

"One of the warmest days that we have had this summer - Weather smokey -," Chardon wrote that Friday. "A young Mandan died to day of the Small Pox - several others has caught it - the Indians all being out Makeing dried Meat has saved several of them -"

'Fabricated all these events'

For at least the past 13 years, Ward Churchill has asserted that the smallpox epidemic of 1837 was the result of deliberate genocide.

In 1992, he wrote a legal brief after being arrested during Denver's Columbus Day parade.

By then, Churchill was a well- known - and divisive - figure in the American Indian community. He already was engaged in a long-running feud with some founding members of the American Indian Movement, even as he had been embraced by others.

And that fall, on Oct. 12, Churchill was among hundreds of protesters who interrupted a Columbus Day parade. He and several others stood in the street until they were arrested, and he ultimately was charged with disturbing the peace, ignoring a lawful police order and blocking a public roadway.

As part of the defense, Churchill filed a long legal brief arguing that the charges should be dropped because the protesters were standing up against genocide.

Churchill reproduced the brief in his 1994 book, Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America.

In part of the brief, Churchill discusses what he describes as "history's first documentable case of biological warfare" - a much-discussed and historically verifiable plan by Jeffrey Amherst, a British military commander, to distribute smallpox-infested blankets to Ottowa Indians surrounding Fort Pitt. Evidence indicates that the plan was attempted by a subordinate, although scholars have disagreed on the ultimate result.

Then Churchill veers to Fort Clark.

"Such tactics were also continued by the United States after the American Revolution," Churchill wrote. "At Fort Clark on the upper Missouri River, for instance, the U.S. Army distributed smallpox-laden blankets as gifts among the Mandan. The blankets had been gathered from a military infirmary in St. Louis where troops infected with the disease were quarantined. Although the medical practice of the day required the precise opposite procedure, army doctors ordered the Mandans to disperse once they exhibited symptoms of infection. The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number."

Churchill attributed "the Fort Clark incident" to pages 94-96 of Thornton's book, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492.

Thornton's passage dealing with the arrival of smallpox appears on page 96.

"Steamboats had been traveling the upper Missouri River for years before 1837," it began, "dispatched by Saint Louis fur companies for trade with the Mandan and other Indians. At 3:00 p.m. on June 19, 1837, the American Fur Company steamboat St. Peter's arrived at the Mandan villages after stopping at Fort Clark just downstream. Some aboard the steamer had smallpox when the boat docked. It soon was spread to the Mandan, perhaps by deckhands who unloaded merchandise, perhaps by chiefs who went aboard a few days later, or perhaps by women and children who went aboard at the same time."

Thornton, the UCLA professor, in describing how Churchill's work related to his own passages on the origins of the smallpox epidemic, accused Churchill of having "just fabricated all of these events."

"I don't know what else to say - it's black and white what he said, and black and white what I said."

Churchill responded that he cited Thornton as a source "on demography only."

"I don't believe I've mischaracterized his book because my reference on Thornton goes to the magnitude of it," Churchill said.

But a year after Indians Are Us?, Churchill wrote Since Predator Came.

On page 28 of the 1995 book, he wrote again of the smallpox epidemic and his allegation that the U.S. Army was to blame. He began with a passage on the Revolutionary War's Amherst.

Then, he wrote, "In a similar instance, occurring in 1836, the U.S. Army knowingly distributed smallpox-laden blankets among the Missouri River Mandans; the resulting pandemic claimed as many as a quarter-million native lives."

Churchill endnoted the passage this way: "The dispensing of smallpox-infected blankets at Fort Clark is covered in Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492."

He again referred specifically to pages 94-96 of Thornton's book. A careful reading of those pages finds no mention of the U.S. Army, a smallpox infirmary or blankets.

When asked about it in his office in the Ketchum building on the Boulder campus, Churchill did not have a copy of the book with him.

He argued that his book, Since Predator Came, is not part of the case being investigated by the university because it wasn't mentioned in the complaint lodged by Thomas Brown, a sociology professor at Lamar University in Texas who has extensively studied Churchill's writings on smallpox.

Churchill also denied that he based the core of his assertion on Thornton's work.

"If there is another reference to Thornton someplace in Predator, and the appearance is that I'm citing him with regard to my interpretation of the event, rather than the demography of it, one of two things happened," Churchill said. "Either - and I don't have the thing here to be able to have a look at it so that I can tell you one way or the other - either you misread the citation, or it's an incomplete citation."

The passage in Since Predator Came also has another problem - there, Churchill put the arrival of smallpox at Fort Clark in 1836, a year before it actually appeared there.

Churchill declined follow-up requests from the News to address the subject.

In 1997, Churchill followed Since Predator Came with A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present. Once again, he wrote about the smallpox epidemic that started near Fort Clark.

Churchill began his discussion with a look at the Amherst incident. Then, on page 155, he moved to Fort Clark.

"This was by no means a singular incident, although it is the best documented," he wrote. "Only slightly more ambiguous was the U.S. Army's dispensing of 'trade blankets' to Mandans and other Indians gathered at Fort Clark, on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, beginning on June 20, 1837. Far from being trade goods, the blankets had been taken from a military infirmary in St. Louis quarantined for smallpox, and brought upriver aboard the steamboat St. Peter's. When the first Indians showed symptoms of the disease on July 14, the post surgeon advised those camped near the post to scatter and seek 'sanctuary' in the villages of healthy relatives."

He had not mentioned the steamboat St. Peters or "trade" blankets in his two earlier versions of the story.

But that wasn't the end of the account.

He went on to write that by the time the "post surgeon" was telling members of the Mandan tribe to seek "sanctuary" in their villages, the disease already had been seen at Fort Union, miles upstream.

"The trader there, Jacob Halsey, who was married to an Indian woman, then attempted to administer a vaccine which had been stored by the army rather than used to inoculate the people for whom it was supposedly provided," Churchill wrote.

He footnoted the passage to pages 15 and 16 of Evan S. Connell's 1984 book Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Big Horn.

Connell's book does briefly mention the smallpox epidemic, and it notes Halsey's attempts to inoculate Indians against smallpox.

Various sources, including the journals of a fur trader named Charles Larpenteur, detail Halsey's attempt to protect Indians in the area.

"As we had no vaccine matter, we decided to inoculate with the smallpox itself," Larpenteur wrote, according to a book of his journals called Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872.

The cited pages of Connell's book don't give much detail on the effort to inoculate Indians at Fort Union, and they don't mention any vaccine "stored by the army."

Connell, well-known for his novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge in addition to the Custer book and other works, said he was perplexed after learning that Churchill had attributed to him the assertion that the Army had vaccine it kept "stored."

"It sounds as though Mr. Churchill's stuff should be examined rather carefully," Connell said from his New Mexico home. "He attributed to me some knowledge of an unused vaccine. . . . I don't know anything at all about that - at least if I did, I've totally forgotten it.

"I don't think I mentioned it anywhere in the book. . . . I think he invented that."

Churchill attributed the substance of the story - the Army, the Mandans, the blankets, the infirmary - not to Thornton, but to two other books.

One was a 1945 book, The Effect of Smallpox on the Destiny of the Amerindian by E. Wagner Stearn and Allen E. Stearn. The other was Chardon's Journal at Fort Clark, 1834-39.

The book by the Stearnses, a husband-and-wife scientific team, devotes several pages to the 1837 epidemic. The section begins with an "unsigned letter" of "someone who evidently witnessed at least part of the horrors of this epidemic." The letter includes, in part, the following passage:

"The small-pox was communicated to the Indians by a person who was on board the steam-boat which went, last summer, up to the mouth of the Yellow Stone, to convey both the government presents for the Indians, and the goods for the barter of the fur dealers. The disorder communicated itself to several of the crew of the steam-boat. The officers gave notice of it to the Indians, and exerted themselves to the utmost to prevent any intercourse between them and the vessel; but it was a vain attempt; for the Indians knew that presents and goods for barter were come for them, and it would have been impossible to drive them away from the fort without having recourse to arms."

The rest of the section goes on to describe the spread of the disease, but - as with the Thornton and Connell books - has no mention of the involvement of the Army, a military infirmary, a post surgeon or an order to seek sanctuary among healthy relatives.

But Churchill hasn't backed off the assertion.

In fact, in an interview with the News, he said again that Connell's book - specifically page 16 - helps underpin his charge.

"OK, it says right there on that page, 'soldiers,' " Churchill said. "Now, I don't know where soldiers fit in your universe, but they fit in the Army's in mine. . . . It says soldiers clear as day."

Connell does touch on the smallpox epidemic on page 16. And the word soldiers does appear on that page, in a paragraph that talks about five "opportunistic Assiniboin" Indians who stole horses from Fort Union.

"They were chased and caught by a detachment of soldiers who persuaded them to give up the horses, so the incident ended with no trouble - except that one of the soldiers happened to be infected and the Assiniboin horse thieves innocently took the disease home."

Nowhere on that page does Connell accuse a soldier of intentionally infecting anyone with smallpox.

Witness lost son in epidemic

If anyone had a reason to lash out over the 1837 smallpox epidemic, it was Francis Chardon.

The trader, an admirer of Andrew Jackson and the bourgeois at Fort Clark, watched as the horrible scourge killed Indians left and right through the summer and into the fall.

On July 28, in one of the longer entries in his journal, Chardon wrote of the feeling of dread that permeated the Indians living near the fort.

The Mandans & Rees gave us two splendid dances," he wrote. "They say they dance, on account of their Not haveing a long time to live, as they expect to all die of the small pox - and as long as they are alive, they will take it out in dancing - "

From there, he began chronicling the sight of death.

"Several more Mandans died last night," he wrote July 29.

"Four More died to day -" he wrote Aug. 8, "the two thirds of the Village are sick, to day I gave six pounds of Epsom salts in doses to Men, Women and children, the small pox has broke out at the Little Mandan Village - three died yesterday, two chiefs -."

On Aug. 17, he wrote, ". . . the Indians dying off every day - Were the disease will stop, I Know not - We are badly situated, as we are threatened to be Murdered by the Indians every instant, however are all determined, and Prepared for the worst . . . "

For Chardon, the burden was, on one hand, economic - he depended on the Indians of the area as trading partners.

It eventually also took a very personal toll.

"My youngest son died to day," Chardon wrote Sept. 22, a Friday.

The boy's name was Andrew Jackson Chardon, named for the president his father so admired, a man he referred to affectionately as "the Old General."

The child was 2 years old.

'Irrespective of particulars'

After a lull of several years, Churchill returned to the smallpox story in a flurry of writings in 2003.

In Acts of Rebellion: The Ward Churchill Reader, he repeated many of the same assertions he had made in earlier writings, accusing the Army of distributing "smallpox-laden blankets as gifts among the Mandan."

Once again, he attributed the passage to Thornton's book.

The same year, Churchill published On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality.

On page 48, Churchill revisited the Army-smallpox story - with new details.

This time, he wrote that the blankets were distributed at a "parlay requested by the military."

Churchill again got the year wrong, putting the epidemic's beginning in 1836. But he did not cite a specific source for the information.

His third telling of the story in 2003 came in an essay, An American Holocaust? The Structure of Denial, published online at the Web site Socialism and Democracy.

In it, Churchill told his most expansive version of the Army-smallpox story.

He began, again, in the wrong year - 1836 - but quickly moved to new territory.

"It was considered desirable to eliminate the Mandans, who were serving as middlemen in the regional fur trade, and, by claiming a share of the profits in the process, diminishing the take of John Jacob Astor and other American businessmen," Churchill wrote.

"So the commander of Fort Clark had a boatload of blankets shipped upriver from a smallpox infirmary in St. Louis, with the idea of distributing them during a 'friendship' parlay with the Mandans. There's a bit of confusion as to whether they actually started passing them out, or whether some young Indian men -'stole' a couple of blankets, but it really doesn't matter, because the army was planning on distributing them anyway.

"Irrespective of the particulars in this regard, when the first Mandans began to display symptoms of the disease, they went straight to the post surgeon. They knew nothing about treating smallpox, but they'd heard about it and were terrified of it, and, since it was a white man's disease, they went to the white doctor to find out what to do. What did he tell them? To scatter, to run for their lives, to seek shelter in the villages of healthy relatives as far away as possible."

Churchill attributed that part of the essay to the 60-year-old book by the Stearnses - a book that tells a very different story about the arrival of smallpox at Fort Clark.

In the News interview, Churchill also pointed to another book that he said backs up his version of events: Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian by Arizona writer R.G. Robertson.

"Now, my conclusions and Robertson's are a little different, too," Churchill said. "But overall, what I've put into my conclusions is in Robertson."

But Robertson was skeptical of Churchill's contention.

"I wonder whether or not he understands that Fort Clark was not a military post," Robertson said. "That was a trading post.

"The military didn't have anything to do with it."

'A well-documented story'

Across the country, academics who have encountered Ward Churchill's writings on the smallpox epidemic have had the same reaction: surprise.

One was Brown, the Lamar University professor. He was reading one of Churchill's books when he came across a passage about the epidemic.

It was the first time that Brown had encountered the accusation that the U.S. Army was to blame for the 1837 smallpox outbreak in the Upper Missouri River Valley.

"I wasn't reading Churchill as a historian; I study ethnic nationalist politics in the U.S.," Brown said. "And I was reading Churchill as an example of political rhetoric. I wasn't reading him for his history. But then I found this claim and, I mean, I study, I'm a historical sociologist. I read a lot of history, and I thought, 'Well, I would have heard of this before.'

"Just out of sheer curiosity, I decided to pull the source, which happened to be Thornton, and of course immediately saw that Thornton had said it was entirely accidental and did not support Churchill's claim at all."

In late January, Churchill's name exploded onto the scene after a college journalist in New York read one of his essays, which referred to some of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns."

Brown went to work, reading Churchill's various versions of the Army-smallpox story, checking the original sources. Then he wrote an essay deconstructing it, a piece that he posted on the Internet.

It helped fuel a much closer examination of Churchill's scholarship.

Churchill dismissed Brown as a "punk."

"You all have quoted him 80- some-odd times now without ever asking who the hell he is," Churchill said. "We've got me all the way back to potty training, but who's this guy? Don't your sources, and their credibility, or lack of same, have any significance to you at all, or is this just a prosecution?"

But Brown wasn't alone.

In Santa Fe, Connell, who doesn't have a computer, said he had been only vaguely aware of Churchill. That changed when a reporter called and told him that Connell's book on Custer had been cited as a source for part of Churchill's story.

That, he said, "would seem to be a distortion or a misquote."

In Los Angeles, Thornton - the UCLA professor whose work is at the center of the Churchill smallpox assertion - watched the unfolding controversy with a sort of bemused detachment. Thornton, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had heard for years in "Indian Country" that Churchill wasn't credible.

Thornton said he believed that Churchill had misrepresented his work in the past, but he had never taken the time to examine the way his work had been characterized by Churchill.

Until now.

"It's all there in black and white," Thornton said. "I don't really know what else to say about it. The stuff I quoted or referenced was standard stuff about a smallpox epidemic - a major smallpox epidemic - in the late 1830s.

"There's a lot of journals from that time period and some other sources, and I just kind of cited the standard sources, and that's just the story that has been told. It's a well-documented story."

As far as Thornton is concerned, there is no controversy: Churchill mischaracterized and misrepresented his work.

"For some reason, Churchill subsequently wrote about the same thing, and as far as I can tell, just fabricated all of these events, saying the epidemic was spread intentionally by the Army, saying that the Army kept the Mandan within their villages, and made all these wild accusations, and then said something to the effect of 'see Thornton' for this description of this event."

In Arizona, Robertson said he had paid attention to Churchill only tangentially, watching the debate play out on The O'Reilly Factor.

As he took a closer look and examined specifically the way in which his own book was cited by Churchill, he said his ire grew.

"I believe history is history," Robertson said. "Facts are facts. And trying to color them or change them I don't agree with. And I think that obviously, Churchill has his own agenda, although I don't know the man."

At its core, the allegation that anyone intentionally infected the Indians doesn't pass the common sense test, he said.

"The Indians were the trading company's customers," he said. "It made no more sense for them to want to kill their customers than for J.C. Penney to shoot people coming in the front door."

Changing numbers

During the past 13 years, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill has written in seven different places about his allegation that the U.S. Army deliberately spread the smallpox virus among the Mandan tribe of the Upper Missouri River region. Churchill's estimates of the death toll from the epidemic have fluctuated:

  • In a 1992 legal brief - reprinted in Churchill's 1994 book Indians Are Us? - he wrote: "The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000, and may have reached a toll several times that number."
  • In his 1995 book Since Predator Came, Churchill wrote: ". . . the resulting pandemic claimed as many as a quarter-million native lives."
  • In his 1997 book A Little Matter of Genocide, Churchill wrote: "There is no conclusive figure as to how many Indians died - it depends a bit on how many one is willing to concede were there in the first place - but estimates run as high as 100,000."
  • In a 2003 essay called An American Holocaust? The Structure of Denial, Churchill wrote: "(Author Russell) Thornton suggests it may have been as many as 400,000."
  • In his 2003 book Acts of Rebellion, Churchill wrote: "The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number."

Audio: Kevin Vaughan talks with Churchill about how Churchill believes an 1837 smallpox outbreak in present-day North Dakota originated. The outbreak affected the Mandan Indians and many other people of the region. Vaughan and Churchill also address Churchill's citations on his work concerning the outbreak. Listen »

The series

Confirmed: Ward Churchill is a Fraud, Part 1

By Kevin Vaughan
Rocky Mountain News | June 8, 2005

The following is the third installment of a multi-article investigation launched by the Rocky Mountain News. This installment, written by reporter Kevin Vaughan, focuses on allegations of fraud. Click Here to see an overviewof the newspaper's findings. Click Here to see part two (dealing with the charge of plagiarism). The remaining installments, on the charges of micharacterization and misrepresentation, will be posted in a future issue of FrontPage Magazine. -- The Editors.

The Charge: Fraud
by Kevin Vaughan, Rocky Mountain News

The year was 1837, the place was the Upper Missouri River Valley in present-day North Dakota, the disease was smallpox, and the effects on American Indians were devastating.

None of that is in dispute.

One key fact is: how the disease got there.

Numerous historical accounts put the blame in the same place - infected travelers on a steamboat bound for a trading post called Fort Clark who unwittingly spread the illness to several members of the Mandan tribe, unleashing an epidemic that decimated the region's indigenous population.

Enter Ward Churchill.

The University of Colorado ethnic studies professor has a different version of events, alleging in at least seven different writings dating to 1992 that the disease was a deliberate plot of the U.S. Army and part of a larger campaign of genocide against American Indians.

Churchill tells his readers that the Army gathered blankets from a smallpox infirmary in St. Louis, shipped them to Fort Clark and deliberately distributed them among the Mandan as a way to spread the lethal disease.

Churchill also has said on several occasions that a "post surgeon" or an "Army doctor" told the Indians to take refuge in their home communities - which he alleges helped spread the disease - and that the military locked away the vaccine that could have saved Indian lives.

But a Rocky Mountain News examination of Churchill's assertions found that they aren't supported by the sources he cites. In fact, the pages of various books he refers to not only don't buttress his argument, they contradict it.

None mention the Army's presence at Fort Clark - it wasn't a military post.

None mention an alleged "parlay" at which smallpox-infested blankets supposedly were distributed to Indians.

None mention the "post surgeon" or "Army doctor" accused by Churchill of sending infected Indians out into the countryside.

None mention a store of vaccine locked away, deliberately withheld from Indians.

Three of the authors - including a UCLA professor who is a member of the Cherokee Nation - unequivocally refute the assertions that Churchill attributed to their works.

"My own view is Churchill probably just wanted to have something more to holler about," said the UCLA professor, Russell Thornton.

"I think it's just out-and-out fabrication. It depends on how you want to look at it, but in one sense, it's just making up of data, and that kind of thing shouldn't be tolerated in scholarship or science."

The News also found that Churchill's story grew over time, with new characters and details emerging in successive versions, and that some of his basic facts changed from one telling to another, including fluctuations in his estimates of the number of American Indians who died.

Churchill, however, stood by his assertions in a recent interview with the News.

He said he could make a "slam-dunk" case for his version of events.

"What happened at Fort Clark was far worse than I indicated. Far worse," he said. "And now I've got the documentation, the paper, to prove it. So next time I iterate it, it's going to be a much sharper finding on genocidal intent with Fort Clark."

However, the sources he pointed the News to don't support his assertion either.

Life and death at Fort Clark

It was a different place and a different time.

What is today the Upper Midwest was still considered the Western frontier of the young nation. Thomas Jefferson had been dead a little more than a decade.

Trappers, traders and Indian tribes called the region home, coexisting peacefully at times, not so peacefully at others.

Along the west bank of the Upper Missouri River - six miles southeast of present-day Stanton, N.D. - sat Fort Clark, a trading post owned and operated by the American Fur Co.

The introduction to a book of the writings of Francis A. Chardon, Chardon's Journal At Fort Clark, 1834-1839, paints a vivid picture of life along the Upper Missouri.

Fort Clark looked like the typical trading post of the day - wooden picketed walls, gates on either end and blockhouses on two of the corners.

It sat on high ground overlooking the river, visible for miles to the steamboats headed north and west from St. Louis, loaded with the goods that fed the trade-based economy of the region.

Within its walls, a small group of traders and laborers worked and lived - sorting furs and hides, dealing with stretches of mind-numbing boredom, weathering tough winters and drinking too much.

Nearby, more than a thousand Mandan Indians lived in a village of earthen mounds - huts made of timber covered with mud. The region also was home to numerous other tribes - including the Hidatsas, the Lakota Sioux, the Arikara, the Blackfeet and the Gros Ventres.

Enter Chardon.

Philadelphia-born and thought to be a veteran of the War of 1812, he headed west sometime around 1815. By the late 1820s, he was working in the fur trade of the Upper Missouri, where he lived with a succession of Indian wives, including one, Tchon- su-mons-ka, who bore him two sons. Chardon, a great admirer of Andrew Jackson, named one of his sons after the president.

In June 1834, Chardon became the bourgeois - or manager - at Fort Clark.

With his new post, he began a daily recording of his activities, bare- bones recitations of the comings and goings at the fort.

His first entry, dated June 18, 1834, simply read: "Steam Boat Assinniboine arrived."

The entries in his journal paint Chardon as a hard man living in a hard time. In April 1837, his wife, Tchon-su-mons-ka, died.

He recorded the event, and the day's other goings-on, in the most austere fashion.

"The Mandans that crossed the River the 20th . . . arrived to day with plenty of Meat - report cattle far off, and scarce," he wrote on April 24. "My Childrens Mother died this day at 11 OClock - Sent her down in a canoe, to be entered at Fort Pierre, in the Lands of her Parents - Pressed Packs 15 - Trade going on slow -"

In all, Chardon covered five years of life at Fort Clark in his journal, which historians think he then gave to a famous French explorer named Joseph N. Nicollet, who died in 1843. Nicollet's possessions were gathered in a chest with his name on it and shipped to the Topographical Bureau of the U.S. War Department, where they sat until 1921.

The journal's discovery opened a window on life at Fort Clark, as seen through Chardon's eyes. It also provides important evidence when considering Churchill's assertions.

Chardon's entries for Sunday, June 18, 1837, and the following two days matter-of-factly describe the arrival of the St. Peters, a steamboat operated by the American Fur Co.

"The Steam Boat St Peters hove in sight at 2 P.M." he wrote, in part, that Sunday.

A day later, Chardon's entry was simple: "Started at day light and arrived at the Mandans at 3 P.M., unloaded the Merchandises for the Fort - all hands a Frolicking, found my hunters Out - "

On the third day, he recounted the departure of the St. Peters: "The Steam Boat left here this Morning early for Fort Union . . . "

It wasn't until July 14 - more than three weeks after the departure of the St. Peters - that Chardon recorded the first episode of smallpox.

"One of the warmest days that we have had this summer - Weather smokey -," Chardon wrote that Friday. "A young Mandan died to day of the Small Pox - several others has caught it - the Indians all being out Makeing dried Meat has saved several of them -"

'Fabricated all these events'

For at least the past 13 years, Ward Churchill has asserted that the smallpox epidemic of 1837 was the result of deliberate genocide.

In 1992, he wrote a legal brief after being arrested during Denver's Columbus Day parade.

By then, Churchill was a well- known - and divisive - figure in the American Indian community. He already was engaged in a long-running feud with some founding members of the American Indian Movement, even as he had been embraced by others.

And that fall, on Oct. 12, Churchill was among hundreds of protesters who interrupted a Columbus Day parade. He and several others stood in the street until they were arrested, and he ultimately was charged with disturbing the peace, ignoring a lawful police order and blocking a public roadway.

As part of the defense, Churchill filed a long legal brief arguing that the charges should be dropped because the protesters were standing up against genocide.

Churchill reproduced the brief in his 1994 book, Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America.

In part of the brief, Churchill discusses what he describes as "history's first documentable case of biological warfare" - a much-discussed and historically verifiable plan by Jeffrey Amherst, a British military commander, to distribute smallpox-infested blankets to Ottowa Indians surrounding Fort Pitt. Evidence indicates that the plan was attempted by a subordinate, although scholars have disagreed on the ultimate result.

Then Churchill veers to Fort Clark.

"Such tactics were also continued by the United States after the American Revolution," Churchill wrote. "At Fort Clark on the upper Missouri River, for instance, the U.S. Army distributed smallpox-laden blankets as gifts among the Mandan. The blankets had been gathered from a military infirmary in St. Louis where troops infected with the disease were quarantined. Although the medical practice of the day required the precise opposite procedure, army doctors ordered the Mandans to disperse once they exhibited symptoms of infection. The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number."

Churchill attributed "the Fort Clark incident" to pages 94-96 of Thornton's book, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492.

Thornton's passage dealing with the arrival of smallpox appears on page 96.

"Steamboats had been traveling the upper Missouri River for years before 1837," it began, "dispatched by Saint Louis fur companies for trade with the Mandan and other Indians. At 3:00 p.m. on June 19, 1837, the American Fur Company steamboat St. Peter's arrived at the Mandan villages after stopping at Fort Clark just downstream. Some aboard the steamer had smallpox when the boat docked. It soon was spread to the Mandan, perhaps by deckhands who unloaded merchandise, perhaps by chiefs who went aboard a few days later, or perhaps by women and children who went aboard at the same time."

Thornton, the UCLA professor, in describing how Churchill's work related to his own passages on the origins of the smallpox epidemic, accused Churchill of having "just fabricated all of these events."

"I don't know what else to say - it's black and white what he said, and black and white what I said."

Churchill responded that he cited Thornton as a source "on demography only."

"I don't believe I've mischaracterized his book because my reference on Thornton goes to the magnitude of it," Churchill said.

But a year after Indians Are Us?, Churchill wrote Since Predator Came.

On page 28 of the 1995 book, he wrote again of the smallpox epidemic and his allegation that the U.S. Army was to blame. He began with a passage on the Revolutionary War's Amherst.

Then, he wrote, "In a similar instance, occurring in 1836, the U.S. Army knowingly distributed smallpox-laden blankets among the Missouri River Mandans; the resulting pandemic claimed as many as a quarter-million native lives."

Churchill endnoted the passage this way: "The dispensing of smallpox-infected blankets at Fort Clark is covered in Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492."

He again referred specifically to pages 94-96 of Thornton's book. A careful reading of those pages finds no mention of the U.S. Army, a smallpox infirmary or blankets.

When asked about it in his office in the Ketchum building on the Boulder campus, Churchill did not have a copy of the book with him.

He argued that his book, Since Predator Came, is not part of the case being investigated by the university because it wasn't mentioned in the complaint lodged by Thomas Brown, a sociology professor at Lamar University in Texas who has extensively studied Churchill's writings on smallpox.

Churchill also denied that he based the core of his assertion on Thornton's work.

"If there is another reference to Thornton someplace in Predator, and the appearance is that I'm citing him with regard to my interpretation of the event, rather than the demography of it, one of two things happened," Churchill said. "Either - and I don't have the thing here to be able to have a look at it so that I can tell you one way or the other - either you misread the citation, or it's an incomplete citation."

The passage in Since Predator Came also has another problem - there, Churchill put the arrival of smallpox at Fort Clark in 1836, a year before it actually appeared there.

Churchill declined follow-up requests from the News to address the subject.

In 1997, Churchill followed Since Predator Came with A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present. Once again, he wrote about the smallpox epidemic that started near Fort Clark.

Churchill began his discussion with a look at the Amherst incident. Then, on page 155, he moved to Fort Clark.

"This was by no means a singular incident, although it is the best documented," he wrote. "Only slightly more ambiguous was the U.S. Army's dispensing of 'trade blankets' to Mandans and other Indians gathered at Fort Clark, on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, beginning on June 20, 1837. Far from being trade goods, the blankets had been taken from a military infirmary in St. Louis quarantined for smallpox, and brought upriver aboard the steamboat St. Peter's. When the first Indians showed symptoms of the disease on July 14, the post surgeon advised those camped near the post to scatter and seek 'sanctuary' in the villages of healthy relatives."

He had not mentioned the steamboat St. Peters or "trade" blankets in his two earlier versions of the story.

But that wasn't the end of the account.

He went on to write that by the time the "post surgeon" was telling members of the Mandan tribe to seek "sanctuary" in their villages, the disease already had been seen at Fort Union, miles upstream.

"The trader there, Jacob Halsey, who was married to an Indian woman, then attempted to administer a vaccine which had been stored by the army rather than used to inoculate the people for whom it was supposedly provided," Churchill wrote.

He footnoted the passage to pages 15 and 16 of Evan S. Connell's 1984 book Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Big Horn.

Connell's book does briefly mention the smallpox epidemic, and it notes Halsey's attempts to inoculate Indians against smallpox.

Various sources, including the journals of a fur trader named Charles Larpenteur, detail Halsey's attempt to protect Indians in the area.

"As we had no vaccine matter, we decided to inoculate with the smallpox itself," Larpenteur wrote, according to a book of his journals called Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872.

The cited pages of Connell's book don't give much detail on the effort to inoculate Indians at Fort Union, and they don't mention any vaccine "stored by the army."

Connell, well-known for his novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge in addition to the Custer book and other works, said he was perplexed after learning that Churchill had attributed to him the assertion that the Army had vaccine it kept "stored."

"It sounds as though Mr. Churchill's stuff should be examined rather carefully," Connell said from his New Mexico home. "He attributed to me some knowledge of an unused vaccine. . . . I don't know anything at all about that - at least if I did, I've totally forgotten it.

"I don't think I mentioned it anywhere in the book. . . . I think he invented that."

Churchill attributed the substance of the story - the Army, the Mandans, the blankets, the infirmary - not to Thornton, but to two other books.

One was a 1945 book, The Effect of Smallpox on the Destiny of the Amerindian by E. Wagner Stearn and Allen E. Stearn. The other was Chardon's Journal at Fort Clark, 1834-39.

The book by the Stearnses, a husband-and-wife scientific team, devotes several pages to the 1837 epidemic. The section begins with an "unsigned letter" of "someone who evidently witnessed at least part of the horrors of this epidemic." The letter includes, in part, the following passage:

"The small-pox was communicated to the Indians by a person who was on board the steam-boat which went, last summer, up to the mouth of the Yellow Stone, to convey both the government presents for the Indians, and the goods for the barter of the fur dealers. The disorder communicated itself to several of the crew of the steam-boat. The officers gave notice of it to the Indians, and exerted themselves to the utmost to prevent any intercourse between them and the vessel; but it was a vain attempt; for the Indians knew that presents and goods for barter were come for them, and it would have been impossible to drive them away from the fort without having recourse to arms."

The rest of the section goes on to describe the spread of the disease, but - as with the Thornton and Connell books - has no mention of the involvement of the Army, a military infirmary, a post surgeon or an order to seek sanctuary among healthy relatives.

But Churchill hasn't backed off the assertion.

In fact, in an interview with the News, he said again that Connell's book - specifically page 16 - helps underpin his charge.

"OK, it says right there on that page, 'soldiers,' " Churchill said. "Now, I don't know where soldiers fit in your universe, but they fit in the Army's in mine. . . . It says soldiers clear as day."

Connell does touch on the smallpox epidemic on page 16. And the word soldiers does appear on that page, in a paragraph that talks about five "opportunistic Assiniboin" Indians who stole horses from Fort Union.

"They were chased and caught by a detachment of soldiers who persuaded them to give up the horses, so the incident ended with no trouble - except that one of the soldiers happened to be infected and the Assiniboin horse thieves innocently took the disease home."

Nowhere on that page does Connell accuse a soldier of intentionally infecting anyone with smallpox.

Witness lost son in epidemic

If anyone had a reason to lash out over the 1837 smallpox epidemic, it was Francis Chardon.

The trader, an admirer of Andrew Jackson and the bourgeois at Fort Clark, watched as the horrible scourge killed Indians left and right through the summer and into the fall.

On July 28, in one of the longer entries in his journal, Chardon wrote of the feeling of dread that permeated the Indians living near the fort.

The Mandans & Rees gave us two splendid dances," he wrote. "They say they dance, on account of their Not haveing a long time to live, as they expect to all die of the small pox - and as long as they are alive, they will take it out in dancing - "

From there, he began chronicling the sight of death.

"Several more Mandans died last night," he wrote July 29.

"Four More died to day -" he wrote Aug. 8, "the two thirds of the Village are sick, to day I gave six pounds of Epsom salts in doses to Men, Women and children, the small pox has broke out at the Little Mandan Village - three died yesterday, two chiefs -."

On Aug. 17, he wrote, ". . . the Indians dying off every day - Were the disease will stop, I Know not - We are badly situated, as we are threatened to be Murdered by the Indians every instant, however are all determined, and Prepared for the worst . . . "

For Chardon, the burden was, on one hand, economic - he depended on the Indians of the area as trading partners.

It eventually also took a very personal toll.

"My youngest son died to day," Chardon wrote Sept. 22, a Friday.

The boy's name was Andrew Jackson Chardon, named for the president his father so admired, a man he referred to affectionately as "the Old General."

The child was 2 years old.

'Irrespective of particulars'

After a lull of several years, Churchill returned to the smallpox story in a flurry of writings in 2003.

In Acts of Rebellion: The Ward Churchill Reader, he repeated many of the same assertions he had made in earlier writings, accusing the Army of distributing "smallpox-laden blankets as gifts among the Mandan."

Once again, he attributed the passage to Thornton's book.

The same year, Churchill published On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality.

On page 48, Churchill revisited the Army-smallpox story - with new details.

This time, he wrote that the blankets were distributed at a "parlay requested by the military."

Churchill again got the year wrong, putting the epidemic's beginning in 1836. But he did not cite a specific source for the information.

His third telling of the story in 2003 came in an essay, An American Holocaust? The Structure of Denial, published online at the Web site Socialism and Democracy.

In it, Churchill told his most expansive version of the Army-smallpox story.

He began, again, in the wrong year - 1836 - but quickly moved to new territory.

"It was considered desirable to eliminate the Mandans, who were serving as middlemen in the regional fur trade, and, by claiming a share of the profits in the process, diminishing the take of John Jacob Astor and other American businessmen," Churchill wrote.

"So the commander of Fort Clark had a boatload of blankets shipped upriver from a smallpox infirmary in St. Louis, with the idea of distributing them during a 'friendship' parlay with the Mandans. There's a bit of confusion as to whether they actually started passing them out, or whether some young Indian men -'stole' a couple of blankets, but it really doesn't matter, because the army was planning on distributing them anyway.

"Irrespective of the particulars in this regard, when the first Mandans began to display symptoms of the disease, they went straight to the post surgeon. They knew nothing about treating smallpox, but they'd heard about it and were terrified of it, and, since it was a white man's disease, they went to the white doctor to find out what to do. What did he tell them? To scatter, to run for their lives, to seek shelter in the villages of healthy relatives as far away as possible."

Churchill attributed that part of the essay to the 60-year-old book by the Stearnses - a book that tells a very different story about the arrival of smallpox at Fort Clark.

In the News interview, Churchill also pointed to another book that he said backs up his version of events: Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian by Arizona writer R.G. Robertson.

"Now, my conclusions and Robertson's are a little different, too," Churchill said. "But overall, what I've put into my conclusions is in Robertson."

But Robertson was skeptical of Churchill's contention.

"I wonder whether or not he understands that Fort Clark was not a military post," Robertson said. "That was a trading post.

"The military didn't have anything to do with it."

'A well-documented story'

Across the country, academics who have encountered Ward Churchill's writings on the smallpox epidemic have had the same reaction: surprise.

One was Brown, the Lamar University professor. He was reading one of Churchill's books when he came across a passage about the epidemic.

It was the first time that Brown had encountered the accusation that the U.S. Army was to blame for the 1837 smallpox outbreak in the Upper Missouri River Valley.

"I wasn't reading Churchill as a historian; I study ethnic nationalist politics in the U.S.," Brown said. "And I was reading Churchill as an example of political rhetoric. I wasn't reading him for his history. But then I found this claim and, I mean, I study, I'm a historical sociologist. I read a lot of history, and I thought, 'Well, I would have heard of this before.'

"Just out of sheer curiosity, I decided to pull the source, which happened to be Thornton, and of course immediately saw that Thornton had said it was entirely accidental and did not support Churchill's claim at all."

In late January, Churchill's name exploded onto the scene after a college journalist in New York read one of his essays, which referred to some of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns."

Brown went to work, reading Churchill's various versions of the Army-smallpox story, checking the original sources. Then he wrote an essay deconstructing it, a piece that he posted on the Internet.

It helped fuel a much closer examination of Churchill's scholarship.

Churchill dismissed Brown as a "punk."

"You all have quoted him 80- some-odd times now without ever asking who the hell he is," Churchill said. "We've got me all the way back to potty training, but who's this guy? Don't your sources, and their credibility, or lack of same, have any significance to you at all, or is this just a prosecution?"

But Brown wasn't alone.

In Santa Fe, Connell, who doesn't have a computer, said he had been only vaguely aware of Churchill. That changed when a reporter called and told him that Connell's book on Custer had been cited as a source for part of Churchill's story.

That, he said, "would seem to be a distortion or a misquote."

In Los Angeles, Thornton - the UCLA professor whose work is at the center of the Churchill smallpox assertion - watched the unfolding controversy with a sort of bemused detachment. Thornton, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had heard for years in "Indian Country" that Churchill wasn't credible.

Thornton said he believed that Churchill had misrepresented his work in the past, but he had never taken the time to examine the way his work had been characterized by Churchill.

Until now.

"It's all there in black and white," Thornton said. "I don't really know what else to say about it. The stuff I quoted or referenced was standard stuff about a smallpox epidemic - a major smallpox epidemic - in the late 1830s.

"There's a lot of journals from that time period and some other sources, and I just kind of cited the standard sources, and that's just the story that has been told. It's a well-documented story."

As far as Thornton is concerned, there is no controversy: Churchill mischaracterized and misrepresented his work.

"For some reason, Churchill subsequently wrote about the same thing, and as far as I can tell, just fabricated all of these events, saying the epidemic was spread intentionally by the Army, saying that the Army kept the Mandan within their villages, and made all these wild accusations, and then said something to the effect of 'see Thornton' for this description of this event."

In Arizona, Robertson said he had paid attention to Churchill only tangentially, watching the debate play out on The O'Reilly Factor.

As he took a closer look and examined specifically the way in which his own book was cited by Churchill, he said his ire grew.

"I believe history is history," Robertson said. "Facts are facts. And trying to color them or change them I don't agree with. And I think that obviously, Churchill has his own agenda, although I don't know the man."

At its core, the allegation that anyone intentionally infected the Indians doesn't pass the common sense test, he said.

"The Indians were the trading company's customers," he said. "It made no more sense for them to want to kill their customers than for J.C. Penney to shoot people coming in the front door."

Changing numbers

During the past 13 years, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill has written in seven different places about his allegation that the U.S. Army deliberately spread the smallpox virus among the Mandan tribe of the Upper Missouri River region. Churchill's estimates of the death toll from the epidemic have fluctuated:

  • In a 1992 legal brief - reprinted in Churchill's 1994 book Indians Are Us? - he wrote: "The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000, and may have reached a toll several times that number."
  • In his 1995 book Since Predator Came, Churchill wrote: ". . . the resulting pandemic claimed as many as a quarter-million native lives."
  • In his 1997 book A Little Matter of Genocide, Churchill wrote: "There is no conclusive figure as to how many Indians died - it depends a bit on how many one is willing to concede were there in the first place - but estimates run as high as 100,000."
  • In a 2003 essay called An American Holocaust? The Structure of Denial, Churchill wrote: "(Author Russell) Thornton suggests it may have been as many as 400,000."
  • In his 2003 book Acts of Rebellion, Churchill wrote: "The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number."

Audio: Kevin Vaughan talks with Churchill about how Churchill believes an 1837 smallpox outbreak in present-day North Dakota originated. The outbreak affected the Mandan Indians and many other people of the region. Vaughan and Churchill also address Churchill's citations on his work concerning the outbreak. Listen »

The series