Jeffery Amherst: The man behind the town name

Lord Jeffery Amherst – 1st baron and commander-in-chief of the British forces during the 18th century – never set foot in the area presently known as Amherst, Mass.

But the Massachusetts town and a score of others across the United States and Canada are named after him. When Amherst, Mass., became a town in 1759, it was powers across the ocean that chose the name, said Peter d'Errico, retired legal studies professor at the University of Massachusetts. Locals wanted the town to be named Norwottuck, after the native tribes that had lived in the area, d'Errico said.

And it was in the French & Indian War, in 1763, when Amherst sent a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet with instructions for defending Fort Pitt. The letter contained a post-script which approved Bouquet's suggestion to use smallpox blankets as a way to eliminate the native forces. Whether or not these instructions were carried out is unclear – although d'Errico believes they were – yet the damage was done for Amherst, who two and a half centuries later is notoriously credited for ordering one of the earliest recorded instances of biological warfare.

During his tenure at UMass, D'Errico went searching for these letters and found them down the street, at Amherst College in an archived British Manuscript Project collection.

For the most part, the British general has little to no daily effect on the town that bears his name. Small local movements are made now and again to change the name of the town, said Robert Romer, retired professor of physics at Amherst College. Romer responded to one movement by sending a spoof letter to the editor, suggesting the name of the town be changed to "Bob" – a name, said Romer, which is devoid of all potential controversy.