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Amherst College drops Lord Jeff mascot

The school's longtime unofficial mascot Lord Jeff — based on Jeffery Amherst, the 18th-century military commander — has fallen out of favor with some because in 1763 he endorsed giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans.

Nathaniel Brooks/New York Times

The school's longtime unofficial mascot Lord Jeff — based on Jeffery Amherst, the 18th-century military commander — has fallen out of favor with some because in 1763 he endorsed giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans.

AMHERST — Pack your bags, Lord Jeff.

The Amherst College trustees announced Tuesday that the school would relieve its unofficial mascot of his duties.

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Lord Jeff has drawn criticism as an inappropriate symbol for the elite liberal arts school. Historians say his namesake, Lord Jeffery Amherst, the commander of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War, supported giving blankets laced with the smallpox virus to Indians to advance the goal of destroying their race.

“Amherst College finds itself in a position where a mascot — which, when you think about it, has only one real job, which is to unify — is driving people apart because of what it symbolizes to many in our community,” the trustees of the college said in a statement.

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The trustees said they considered the views of alumni, students, and faculty, most of whom expressed unfavorable views of the Lord Jeff symbol.

“It is fair to recognize that historical context may influence, or make us cautious about, judgments concerning Jeffery Amherst the man. It is equally fair to decide that 18th-century standards should not govern a 21st-century choice of symbol.”

Amherst, in the town of Amherst, in Western Massachusetts, is regularly at or near the top of lists of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges. The trustees’ decision followed a wide-ranging debate over whether the mascot was offensive and racially insensitive, or whether it is fair to judge a historical figure by modern sensibilities.

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In November, a group of faculty voted to drop the symbol, and a group of students called on the college’s president to condemn the “inherent racist nature” of the mascot. In a poll of students conducted in November, 83 percent said Lord Jeff should be removed as the mascot.

Late last week, as the trustees were convening, the debate over the mascot was a hot topic on the picturesque campus. In brief interviews, several students expressed support for ditching Lord Jeff.

“Amherst can have a mascot that is more representative of the student body,” senior Olivia Truax said as she entered the dining hall.

Erica Brousseau, 22, noted that the mascot had provoked heated debate on campus and that “some people have needed convincing,” but the issue is an important one.

“We want everyone to feel comfortable on campus,” Brousseau said.

Amherst football player Isaiah Holloway Jr., a junior, had no qualms about talking.

“If so many people are talking about it and they feel so passionate about it, then I believe it is an issue that should be discussed,” he said. “If it is hurting people, I think it should be removed.”

The college was named after the town, which in turn had been named after Lord Amherst, as were towns in New Hampshire and New York. On his antipathy toward Indians and support for using disease in the fight against them, the historical record is clear.

In the summer of 1763, Amherst wrote in a letter to a colonel, “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?”

In a later letter, Amherst writes: “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.”

Elizabeth Fenn, a historian at the University of Colorado who has researched the episode, said correspondence from the time shows that the British military gave infected blankets to the Indians at Fort Pitt in 1763, shortly before Amherst suggested the plan himself.

“That the attempt was made was very clear,” she said in an interview. “He generated the idea independently, not knowing it had already been implemented.”

In a journal article published in 2000, Fenn wrote of the possibility that the episode at Fort Pitt — located in modern-day Pittsburgh — may not have been isolated.

“The fact that a single wartime outbreak could prompt two independent plans of contagion suggests that the Fort Pitt incident may not have been an anomaly,” she wrote.

The controversy at Amherst comes amid growing opposition to mascots that many Native Americans find offensive, such as the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Many schools have changed contentious nicknames, including The University of North Dakota, which dropped the Fighting Sioux nickname in 2012.

Until the early 1970s, teams at the University of Massachusetts Amherst were known as the Redmen, but the school changed the nickname when it came under criticism.

Closer to home in Tewksbury, residents are gathering Wednesday to discuss whether the high school’s Redmen nickname should be changed.

College campuses have been recently been roiled by disputes over their history.

At Harvard University, the law school’s seal has come under scrutiny because it includes the coat of arms of a slaveholding family.

In December, Harvard announced it would stop using the term “house master” for faculty members who oversee undergraduate residences, an issue that has come up at other schools.

The Amherst trustees made it clear that the college’s name is not in jeopardy.

“To those who argue that stepping back from Lord Jeff as an unofficial mascot takes us down some sort of slippery slope that calls into question the name of the town or the college,’’ they said, “the board would respond that you can find slippery slopes anywhere you look. . . . Amherst College will always be the name of the school.”

Lord Jeffery Amherst is portrayed in a painting that hung in the Lord Jeffrey Inn in downtown Amherst.

John Blanding/Globe Staff/File

Lord Jeffery Amherst is portrayed in a painting that hung in the Lord Jeffrey Inn in downtown Amherst.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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