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Pontiac’s War

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Map of Pontiacs War
Map of Pontiacs War

Early in the eighteenth century the French had commenced extending their influence among the tribes who inhabited the country bordering on the great western lakes. Always more successful than the other European settlers in conciliating the affections of the savages among whom they lived, they had obtained the hearty good will of nations little known to the English. The cordial familiarity of the race, and the terms of easy equality upon which they were content to share the rude huts of the Indians, ingratiated them more readily with their hosts, than a course of English reserve and formality could have done. The most marked instances of the contrast between the two great parties of colonists may be seen in the different measure of success met with in their respective religious operations. While the stern doctrines of New England divines, as a general rule, were neglected or contemned by their rude hearers, the Jesuits met with signal success in acquiring a spiritual influence over the aborigines. Whether it was owing to the more attractive form in which they promulgated their creed and worship, or whether it was due to their personal readiness to adapt themselves to the habits, and to sympathize with the feelings of their proselytes, certain it is that they maintained a strong hold upon the affections, and a powerful influence over the conduct of their adopted brethren.

Chief Pontiac
No authentic images of Pontiac are known to exist. This artistic interpretation was painted by John Mix Stanley.

Adair, writing with natural prejudice, says that, “instead of reforming the Indians, the monks and friars corrupted their morals: for in the place of inculcating love, peace, and good-will to their red pupils, as became messengers of the divine, author of peace, they only impressed their flexible minds with an implacable hatred against every British subject, without any distinction. Our people will soon discover the bad policy of the late Quebec act, and it is to be hoped that Great Britain will, in due time, send those black croaking clerical frogs of Canada home to their infallible Mufti of Rome.” The Ottawa, Chippewa, and Pottawatomie, who dwelt on the Great Lakes, proved as stanch adherents to the French interests as were the Six Nations to those of the English, and the bitterest hostility prevailed between these two great divisions of the aboriginal population.

When English troops, in accordance with the treaty of 1760, were put in possession of the French stations on the lakes, they found the Indians little disposed to assent to the change. The great sachem who stood at the head of the confederate western tribes was the celebrated Ottawa chief Pontiac.

British Occupation Of The Western Posts

Michilimackinac
Michilimackinac

The first detachment, under Major Rogers, which entered the western country on the way to Detroit, the most important post on the lakes, was favorably received by the Indian chief, but not without a proud assertion of his own rights and authority. He sent a formal embassy to meet the English, and to announce his intention of giving an audience to their commander. Rogers describes him as a chief of noble appearance and dignified address. At the conference he inquired by what right the English entered his country; and upon the major s disavowing all hostile intent towards the Indians, seemed more placable, but checked any further advance, until his pleasure should be made known, with the pithy observation: ” I stand in the path you travel until to-morrow morning.” He finally allowed the forces to proceed, and even furnished men to protect them and their stores.

Pontiac assisted and protected this garrison for a period, but probably even then was pondering in his mind the great scheme of restoring his French allies and exterminating the intruders. He has been frequently compared to Philip, the great Wampanoag sachem, both for his kingly spirit and for the similarity of their plans to crush the encroachments of the English. Pontiac had an immense force under his control, and could well afford to distribute it in as many different detachments as there were strongholds of the enemy to be overthrown. It was in the year 1763 that his arrangements were completed, and the month of June was fixed upon for a simultaneous onslaught upon every British post. The eloquent and sagacious Ottowa chief had drawn into his conspiracy, not only the people of his own nation, with the Chippewa and Pottawatomie, but large numbers from other western tribes, as the Miami, the Sacs and Foxes, the Huron and the Shawanees. He even secured the alliance of a portion of the Delawares and of the Six Nations.

In vain were the officers of the garrisons at Michilimackinac and other distant forts warned by traders, who had ventured among the Indians, that a general disaffection was observable. They felt secure, and no special means were taken to avert the coming storm.

So well concerted were the arrangements for attack, and such consummate duplicity and deception were used in carrying them out, that nearly all the English forts at the west were, within a few days from the first demonstration, in the hands of the savages, the garrisons having been massacred or enslaved. No less than nine trading and military posts were destroyed. Of the seizure of Michilimackinac, next to Detroit the most important station on the lakes, we have the most particular account.

Hundreds of Indians, mostly Chippewa and Sac, had been loitering about the place for some days previous, and on the 4th of June they proceeded to celebrate the king s birthday by a great game at ball. This sport, carried on, as usual, with noise and tumult, threw the garrison off their guard, at the same time that it afforded a pretext for clambering into the fort. The ball was several times, as if by accident, knocked within the pickets, the whole gang rushing in pursuit of it with shouts. At a favorable moment they fell upon the English, dispersed and unsuspicious of intended harm, and before any effectual resistance could be made, murdered and scalped seventy of the number. The remainder, being twenty men, were taken captive. A Mr. Henry, who, by the good offices of a Pawnee woman, was concealed in the house of a Frenchman, gives a minute detail of the terrible scene. From his account, all the fury of the savage seems to have been aroused in the bosoms of the assailants. He avers that he saw them drinking the blood of their mangled victims in a transport of exulting rage.

Over an immense district of country, from the Ohio to the lakes, the outbreak of the combined nations spread desolation and dismay.

Siege Of Detroit

Reddition de Détroit
The Surrender of Detroit by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster

Pontiac himself turned his attention to the reduction of Detroit. He well knew that a rich booty awaited him if he could possess himself of this important place, and laid his plans with caution and care suitable to the magnitude of the enterprise. The town was fortified by pickets and block-houses, and contained a garrison of one hundred and thirty men. The other inhabitants consisted of only a few traders.

Pontiac s intention was to demand a conference with Major Gladwyn, the commandant, taking with him as many of his warriors as could obtain admittance; and at a given signal to fall upon and kill the officers of the garrison. The work of destruction was to be completed by the aid of his followers from without the fort. Those whom he had chosen to share with him the danger of the first onslaught, were each furnished with a rifle, having the barrel so shortened that it could be concealed under the blanket usually worn by an Indian as his outer garment.

The account generally received of the manner in which Major Gladwyn became acquainted with the plot, and of the means resorted to by him to ward off the danger, is as follows: Pontiac, with several hundred warriors, presented himself without the camp, and requested an audience. On the evening of the same day, a squaw came to deliver to the major a pair of moccasins, which he had engaged her to make from an elk-skin. After he had praised her work, paid her handsomely, and dismissed her, with directions to convert the rest of the skin into similar articles, she continued to linger about the premises, apparently in an unsatisfied frame of mind. Her answers to those who questioned her were so singular, particularly a hint that she dropped respecting the difficulty she should have in “bringing the skin back,” that the major examined her closely, and succeeded in obtaining full particulars of the impending danger. The poor woman, affected by his kindness, had been unwilling to see her patron murdered, but fear of the vengeance of her own people, or a natural feeling of interest in their success, had restrained her from sooner betraying their deadly purpose.

Through the night, and previous to the morning’s conference, the Indians were distinctly heard performing their war-songs and dances; but no intimation was given them of any suspicion, and the party deputed for the grand talk was admitted within the pickets. Pontiac saw that the garrison was under arms, and he at once asked the reason for such precautions. The major represented that it was merely to discipline his soldiers.

The Ottawa chief opened the council with a haughty and threatening speech, and was about to give the signal for attack by some peculiar mode of delivering a wampum belt to the commandant when a sudden change in the demeanor of the English, quelled and discomposed him. He heard the drums beat, and saw every soldier s musket leveled, and the swords of the officers drawn and ready for use. Major Gladwyn, stepping to the warrior nearest him, lifted his blanket, and disclosed the shortened rifle. He then upbraided the sachem for his intended villainy, and, taking no advantage of the opportunity for securing him, gave proof of his own high-minded sense of honor by dismissing the whole party unharmed. The premeditated treachery of Pontiac would have fully justified the commandant in taking his life, had he deemed it necessary for the protection of himself and people.

Immediately subsequent to the failure of this undertaking, the Indians began openly to attack the town. They barbarously murdered a Mrs. Turnbell and her two sons, who lived a short distance from the fort; and killed or took prisoners the occupants of an establishment belonging to a Mr. James Fisher, still farther up the river.

From five hundred to a thousand Indians were now seen collected to lay siege to the town. The condition of the garrison appeared perilous in the extreme, not only from the insufficient supply of provisions, but from the necessity for keeping constant watch throughout the whole extent of the stockade. The soldiers were wearied by being continually on duty, by the loss of their natural rest; but their courage and spirit appeared to be unsubdued, and the commandant abandoned his first intention of evacuating the place. The French who were residing in Detroit brought about a negotiation, but Pontiac insisted upon the surrender of the town, and of all the valuable goods stored there, as the only condition upon which he would discontinue hostilities. The major was equally determined in his intention of maintaining his position.

The siege commenced early in May, and no succor or supplies reached the garrison for more than a month. About the end of May an attempt had been made to land forces and provisions by boats sent from Niagara, but the vigilance of the Indians rendered it abortive. Many of the English were slain, and many more were reserved to glut the vengeance of the savages at the stake.

In the month of June, a vessel, also from Niagara, made her way up the river, in spite of the attacks of the Indians, who exposed their lives with the utmost temerity in at tempts to board her. Fifty soldiers were landed at the fort, and a timely supply of provision gave new courage to the weary garrison. Mr. Thatcher, in his “Indian Biography,” gives extracts from various letters, written from the fort during the siege, which quaintly enough portray the condition of its inmates. “We quote the following from a letter of July 9th (1763):

“You have long ago heard of our pleasant situation, but the storm has blown over. Was it not very agreeable to hear every day of their cutting, carving, boiling, and eating our companions? To see every day dead bodies floating down the river, mangled and disfigured? But Britons, you know, never shrink; we always appeared gay to spite the rascals. They boiled and ate Sir Robert Devers; and we are informed by Mr. Pauly, who escaped, the other day, from one of the stations surprised at the breaking out of the war, and commanded by himself, that he had seen an Indian have the skin of Captain Robert son’s arm for a tobacco-pouch!”

Battle Of Bloody Bridge

A reinforcement of some three hundred men, under Captain Dalyell, reached Detroit the last of July. Thus strengthened, the commander deemed it advisable to make an immediate sally, and, if possible, break up the Indian encampment. Pontiac heard of the intended movement, and was well prepared for the English when they made their sortie in the evening. So deadly and unexpected was the fire of the Indians, who lay concealed on either side of the path, near the bridge over Bloody Run, that more than one hundred of the troops were said to have been killed or wounded.

Subsequent to this period we have no reliable history of the acts of the great sachem of the Ottawa. His people hung round Detroit until the ensuing spring, keeping the inhabitants in continual alarm. The strong force, which was led into the western country by General Bradstreet in the early part of the summer of 1764, effectually overawed and quieted the hostile Indians.

Pontiac is said to have been assassinated by a Peoria Indian, in the English interest, while attending a council in 1767. Considerable uncertainty, however, attends the recital of the latter events of his life, and of the causes, which led to his death.


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