Event Date: 1763
Conflict between Native Americans and British troops and colonists that followed the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Pontiac's Rebellion, also known as Pontiac's War or Pontiac's Uprising, was named for its principal leader, the Ottawa Indian Pontiac.
The conflict sprang from the defeat of the French. Most Native Americans had allied themselves with the French against the British in the contest between the two great colonial powers. Indeed, the alliance between the French and most natives had been both long-standing and warm as well as beneficial to both sides. Many Frenchmen lived among the natives and married native women. French policies toward the natives were also far more benign than were those of the British.
The reason for the benevolent attitude of the government of New France toward the natives is obvious. Vastly outnumbered by the British, the French desperately needed Native American support in times of war. That the arrangement worked may be seen in the fact that most Native Americans repeatedly fought on the French side in the wars against the British. It was therefore most disquieting to Native Americans of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley region to have their long-standing friends depart and be replaced by their enemies. As early as 1761, the Senecas of New York had circulated a wampum belt among the natives of the region calling for the formation of a confederation to continue the armed struggle against the British. Although this Seneca appeal elicited little response, it nonetheless was indicative of the widespread native discontent.
Native American policy fell to Major General Jeffrey Amherst, the British commander in chief in North America. Amherst thought little of the natives and did not understand the need for policies that would allay their fears and win their friendship. Although George Croghan and Sir William Johnson, two men with wide knowledge of native affairs, sought to dissuade him, Amherst proceeded to raise the price of trade goods and end the longstanding French practice toward the natives of gift giving as part of diplomatic negotiations. These decisions outraged and deeply offended many native people and increased the natives’ desire to resist the British. By the spring of 1763, natives from western New York to the Illinois River were prepared to go to war.
Two Native Americans had a decided influence on subsequent events. The first was the Delaware mystic Neolin, known as the Delaware Prophet. In part influenced by Christianity, Neolin preached a nativist religion that called on his people to reform their habits but also to break off relations with the Europeans and return to the ways of their forefathers. Neolin had an immense influence on the people of the Great Lakes.
The second individual was Pontiac. He too was deeply upset over the British victory and now decided that the time had come to oust the British from the region. Pontiac issued a call for a meeting, and in April 1763 the Great Lakes nations sent representatives to a place near Detroit on the Ecorse River.
For about a month the natives discussed the course of action to be followed. Pontiac added his impassioned oratory to the Prophet's teachings and assured the representatives that the time for action was at hand. For practical reasons, Pontiac assured his listeners that the Delaware Prophet's teachings regarding Europeans did not include the French, who were to be left alone. It was the British and the few natives allied with them who were to be attacked and annihilated. After the native representatives had reached agreement to go to war, they returned to their villages to build support for the effort. Each native group was assigned certain military objectives to attain.
The British military presence in the Great Lakes area was concentrated at Fort Detroit and at Fort Pitt in the Ohio Valley. Another dozen smaller British posts were scattered throughout the region. Pontiac himself took responsibility for the reduction of Detroit, while in semicoordinated assaults warriors of various nations were to attack British forts all along the frontier.
On May 7 Pontiac and a large party of warriors entered Fort Detroit. He had arranged with the commander of the post, Major Henry Gladwin, to hold a ceremonial dance there, with the plan that once the dance had begun, the natives, who would carry concealed weapons, would fall upon the unsuspecting British. Either because he had been forewarned or because he was naturally skeptical, Gladwin forestalled the plan. His men were fully armed and prepared, leading Pontiac to call off the attack.
After he and his men had departed the fort, Pontiac found himself the object of heavy criticism from a number of his warriors and therefore allowed his followers to open hostilities by mounting attacks on those settlers who remained outside the fort. On May 10 Pontiac called for a parley with Gladwin, who refused. Captain Donald Campbell then offered to meet with Pontiac. Glad-win sought to dissuade him but allowed Campbell to depart. When the British captain reached the designated meeting place outside the fort, the natives immediately took him hostage. Pontiac then demanded that Gladwin surrender the fort. Gladwin refused, whereupon Pontiac initiated what would become the longest North American native siege of a fortified position.
While the siege of Detroit went forward without result, the natives were enjoying great success in their operations elsewhere. On May 16 warriors secured entrance to Fort Sandusky by pretending to call a council. They then killed or captured all the men at the fort, both soldiers and traders, and secured the trade goods there. At Fort Miami (near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana) on May 27, the native mistress of fort commander Robert Holmes asked his assistance in bleeding her sick sister. As Holmes exited the fort, he was killed. A second soldier responded to the gunfire and was captured. The remaining nine men of the garrison then surrendered to an overwhelming number of warriors.
To the north, on June 2 at Fort Michilimackinac, the largest of the forts taken by the natives, Ojibwas and Sauks staged a game of bag'gat'iway, similar to lacrosse, outside the fort. Native women and other spectators watched with guns and other weapons hidden under blankets. After several hours of play, the ball was launched into the fort. Securing weapons from the spectators, the players then entered the fort, supposedly to retrieve the ball, and seized the post in the last of the surprise attacks on British garrisons.
In a two-week span, eight forts had fallen to the natives. The British forts lost also included St. Joseph (Niles, Michigan), Ouiatenon (Lafayette, Indiana), Venango (Franklin, Pennsylvania), Le Boeuf (Waterford, Pennsylvania), and Presque Isle (Erie, Pennsylvania), all of which had been held by fewer than 30 men each. The British abandoned Fort Burd and Fort Edward Augustus. Fort Pitt, Fort Ligonier, and Fort Bedford were all attacked but held out, as did Fort Detroit.
On May 28 a British force of 96 men in 10 bateaux under Lieutenant Abraham Cuyler put in to Point Pelee on the western end of Lake Erie on their way from Niagara to Detroit with supplies. Not long after making camp, they came under surprise native attack. Cuyler and only a handful of his men managed to escape in 2 bateaux.
Attacks after mid-June 1763 confronted a now-alert British military. Various Native Americans, including but not limited to the Senecas, Mingos, Shawnees, Delawares, and Wyandots, assaulted the string of forts leading to Detroit and the roads that supplied it.
The key was Detroit, and victory there eluded the natives. At Detroit, Pontiac led a coalition of Ojibwas, Pottawatomis, Wyan-dots, and Ottawas in a loose siege. Although the natives could block access to the fort by land, they could not do so on the water. Two ships, the schooner Huron and the sloop Michigan, were able to reach Detroit and resupply it. Pontiac ordered fire rafts floated down the Detroit River into the anchored ships, but the latter were moved in time to avoid destruction. A native attempt to board the ships and take them by storm was discovered and beaten back. In November, a frustrated Pontiac ended the siege and withdrew his forces to the Maumee River.
The British were not idle, and soon reinforcements were on their way to the northwest. Able British colonel Henry Bouquet led 400 men from Fort Niagara to relieve Fort Pitt, which had been under considerable pressure since the beginning of the fighting. Its commander, Simeon Ecuyer, refused to yield to Delaware demands for surrender and reportedly sent smallpox-infected clothing among the natives that led to an epidemic.
About 30 miles from Fort Pitt, Bouquet's relief column came under heavy attack by a large force of Delawares, Wyandots, Mingos, and Shawnees. In the Battle of Bushy Run (August 5–6, 1763), Bouquet's men drove off the attackers and marched on to Fort Pitt, relieving it.
The Battle of Bushy Run proved to be the turning point in the struggle. Although sporadic warfare continued for another two years, isolated native groups began to conclude peace with the British. Pontiac himself eventually recognized the hopelessness of his position and made peace in August 1765. His dream of a final victory over the English would not be realized.
Amherst, Jeffrey; Bouquet, Henry; Bushy Run, Battle of; Delawares; Ecuyer, Simeon; French and Indian War; Johnson, Sir William; Neolin; Ottawas; Pontiac
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