Pontiac’s Rebellion Against the British


By Henry Howe, 1857

Chief Pontiac

Chief Pontiac

In 1760, the French yielded to the English power in Canada, and on the western waters. Three days after the fall of Montreal, Major Robert Rogers was dispatched with forces to take possession of the French posts along the southern shore of Lake Erie, and at Detroit, Michigan.

At this period, there sprung upon the stage, one of the most remarkable Indians in the annals of American History. It was Pontiac, the chief of the Ottawa tribe, and the principal sachem of the Algonquian Confederacy. He was distinguished for his noble form, commanding address, and proud demeanor. To these qualities, he united a lofty courage and a pointed and vigorous eloquence, that won the confidence of all the Great Lakes Indians, and made him a marked example of that grandeur and sublimity of character sometimes found among the Indians of the American forests. He had jealously watched the progress of the English arms, and their rapid encroachments upon the lands of his people.

When Pontiac first heard of the approach of Major Rogers with a detachment of English troops, he roused like a lion from his den, and dispatched a messenger, who met Rogers on November 7, 1760, at the mouth of Chogage River, with a request to halt until Pontiac, the king of the country, should come up.

Major Campbell arguing with Pontiac

Major Campbell arguing with Pontiac

At the first salutation, Pontiac demanded of Rogers, the business on which he came, and asked him how he dared to enter his country without his permission. He was informed by Rogers, that he had no design against the Indians; his only objective being to remove the French out of the country, who had been an obstacle in the way of mutual peace and commerce between the Indians and English. The next morning, Pontiac and the English commander, by turns, smoked the calumet, and Pontiac informed Rogers that he should protect his party against the attacks of the Indians who were collected to oppose his progress, at the mouth of Detroit River.

Rogers having obtained peaceable possession of Detroit, made peace with the neighboring tribes, and leaving Captain Donald Campbell in charge of the fort, departed on the 21st of December, for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Indians in this region, at first, regarded the English as intruders, and the smile which played upon the countenance of Chief Pontiac when he first met the detachment of Major Rogers on the shore of Lake Erie, only tended to conceal a settled hatred — as the setting sunbeam bedazzles the distant thundercloud. He had made professions of friendship to the English as a matter of policy until he could have time to plot their destruction.

The plan of operations adopted by Pontiac for effecting the extinction of the English power evinced extraordinary genius, courage, and energy of the highest order. It was a sudden and cotemporaneous attack upon all the British posts upon the Great Lakes — at St. Joseph, Ouiatenon, Green Bay, Michiliraackinac, Detroit, the Maumee, and the Sandusky — and also upon the forts at Niagara, Presque Isle, Le Boeuf, Venango, and Pittsburgh; the last four of which were in Western Pennsylvania. If the surprise could be simultaneous, so that every English banner which waved upon a line of thousands of miles, should be prostrated at the same moment, the garrisons would be unable to exchange assistance; while on the other hand, the failure of one Indian detachment would have no effect to discourage the other. Probably, the war might begin and terminate with the same single blow; and then, Pontiac would again be the Lord and King of the broad land of his ancestors.

He first called together the Ottawa, and the plan was disclosed and enforced with all the cunning and eloquence he could master. He appealed to their fears, their hopes, their ambition, their patriotism, their hatred of the English, and their love for the French. Having warmly engaged them to the cause, he assembled a grand council of the neighboring tribes, at the River Aux Ecorces. With a profound knowledge of the Indian character, aware of the great powers of superstition over their minds, he related, among other things, a dream, in which he said the Great Spirit had secretly disclosed to a Delaware Indian, the conduct he expected his red children to pursue. This dream was strikingly coincident with the plans and projects of the chieftain himself. “And why,” concluded the orator, “why, said the Great Spirit indignantly to the Delaware, do you suffer those dogs in red clothing to enter your country, and take the land I have given you? Drive them from it! Drive them! When you are in distress, I will help you.”

The effect of this speech was indescribable. The name of Pontiac alone was enough, but the Great Spirit was for them — it was impossible to fail. A plan of campaign was concerted on the spot, and for a thousand miles, on the lake frontiers, and even down to the borders of North Carolina, the tribes joined in the grand conspiracy.

Meanwhile, peace reigned on the frontiers. The unsuspecting traders journeyed from village to village; the soldiers in the forts shrunk from the sun of early summer, and dozed away the day; the frontier settler singing in fancied security, sowed his crop, or watching the sunset through the girdled trees, mused upon one more peaceful harvest, and told his children of the horrors of the long war, now — thank God! — over. From the Alleghanies to the Mississippi River, the trees had leaved, and all was calm life and joy. But, even then, through the gloomy forests, journeyed bands of sullen red men —  like the gathering of dark clouds for a horrid tempest.

Surprise of the English Forts

Siege of the Fort at Detroit, 1763 by Frederic Remington

Siege of the Fort at Detroit, 1763 by Frederic Remington

The Maumee post, Presque Isle, Niagara, Pitt, Ligonier, and every English fort, was hemmed in by mingled tribes. At last, the day came. The traders everywhere were seized with their goods, and more than 100 put to death. Nine British forts yielded instantly, and the Indian drank, “scooped up in the hollow of joined hands,” the blood of many a Briton. More than 20,000 people were driven from their homes, and horrible, unparalleled devastations committed on the frontiers of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. Most, if not all of the forts which fell, were taken by stratagem — pre-concerted by the mastermind of Pontiac. Generally, the commanders were first secured by parties admitted into the forts under the pretense of business or friendship. At Maumee, the officer was betrayed by an Indian woman, who, by piteous entreaties, persuaded him to go some 200 yards with her to the succor, as she stated, of a wounded man who was dying; the Indians waylaid and shot him.

In some few of the forts, individuals escaped; but, too generally all were massacred. At Presque Isle, three Indians appeared in holiday dress and persuaded the commander and clerk to accompany them to the canoes of their hunting party, as they said, about a mile distant, to examine and purchase a lot of peltries. In their absence, about 150 Indians advanced toward the fort, each with a bundle of furs on his back, which they stated the commandant had bought and ordered them to bring in. The stratagem succeeded. When they were all within the fort, the work of an instant threw off the packs and the short cloaks which covered their tomahawks, scalping-knives, and rifles, the last having been sawed off short for concealment. Resistance was useless, and the work of death and torture rapidly proceeded, until all, except two of the inmates of the garrison, had passed to the eternal world.

The forts of Bedford, Ligonier, Pitt in Pennsylvania, and Fort Detroit, in present-day Michigan, were saved with great difficulty. The Indians invested Fort Pitt with a strong force; information of which having been conveyed to Lord Jeffrey Amherst, he dispatched Colonel Henry Boquet to its relief with two regiments of regulars. He was fiercely attacked at Bushy Run by the Indians, and lost over 100 men in killed and wounded; but, he defeated the Indians, though with great difficulty, and succeeded in saving the fort. Fort Ligonier was bravely defended by Lieutenant Archibald Blane and his little garrison.

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