If you’re just joining us, this is the latest post in an intermittent series on Native Americans whose names may be familiar, especially to those from the American Midwest, but whose stories most probably are not. Traditional history curricula have often relegated these individuals, their influence, and their accomplishments to afterthought, but commercial and place names in the United States and Canada keep them from total obscurity. Many sources have inadvertently promoted the impression that these individuals sprang to prominence from virtually nowhere, failing to provide the background and circumstances by which we can better understand their actions.
This time, we meet Pontiac (Obwandiyag, pronounced Bwondiac), and explore the context from which he arose to plot against and fight the British and their colonists, in a glorious, but ultimately vain attempt to preserve traditional Indian lands from permanent settlement and European cultural expansion.
Although very little is known of Pontiac’s earliest years, various sources have placed his birth between 1712 and 1725, most likely in an Ottawa village located on either the Maumee River or the Detroit River, close to Lake Erie. Most sources also agree that while Pontiac’s father was of the Ottawa tribe, his mother may have been Ojibwe. Even though Ohio History Central indicates the Ottawa didn’t move into northern Ohio (per migrations anticipated by this map) until around 1740, other sources place Ottawa villages in this area much earlier.
Tradition held that the Ottawa and Ojibwe, along with the Potawatomi, were once one clan, descending out of the Proto-Algonquin-speaking people, whose history in the woodlands of northeastern North America goes back over 3,000 years. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Upper Great Lake Algonquins divided at Michilimackinac, the strait at which Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet, with the Ottawa (“traders”) remaining near there. The Potowatomis (“those who keep a fire”) moved southward along Lake Michigan, and the Ojibwe (“puckered moccasin”) north and westerly to the Sault Ste. Marie area. This shared tradition would prove meaningful in the 18th and 19th centuries, when tribes formed alliances to protect their lands against colonial and American expansion.
In the early 18th century, during Pontiac’s childhood, French missionaries and voyageur traders exploited western New France using the Great Lakes and their tributaries for transport. Forts and trading outposts marked their progress. At the time of Pontiac’s birth, the population of New France in its entirety numbered 25,000. It would triple by 1755.
The Far Indians (Ojibwes – by now in Michigan, northern Wisconsin and Minnesota; Potawatomis – in southwestern Michigan; and the Ottawa in the Maumee and Detroit River areas, as well as western Ontario), were also known as the “Three Fires.” They connected with the French through trading and intermarriage in the Pays d’en Haut (literal translation: “country in top”). Stone tools, bone implements and spears gave way to knives, traps, and nets, propelling Native Americans into the modern ways of the Europeans.
Perhaps as early as 1747, Pontiac allied with New France and led his people in battle against the positions of Nicholas Orontony, of the Wyandotte clan of Huron. Orontony had come under the influence of British traders and settled near what is now Cleveland, Ohio, going on to lead a series of skirmishes that resulted in the destruction of the French fort at Detroit. Ultimately, the Wyandotte resettled to the east near New Castle, Pennsylvania, when their parallel coalition against the French faltered. It is possible Pontiac’s efforts to build his own coalition were inspired by Orontony’s example.
British probes into French-held territory occurred frequently. One of the most notable introduced George Washington to the international scene. Sent by Lord Dinwiddie, the Governor of Virginia Colony, in November, 1753 to assess potential British claim to the Ohio River Valley, the 21 year old Washington was treated well by the French at Fort Le Boeuf, who nonetheless rejected British dominion. Washington’s subsequent report was published in London after having been sent by Dinwiddie as a positions and strategic assessment.
Washington was back in the area six months later. Also in 1754, French forces had appropriated a small strategic settlement at what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and expanded it into Fort Dusquesne, intending that it militarily protect French control of the Ohio River Valley. Knowing that economic partnership was the key to strategic alliances with the Indian people, the French had continued to forge strong relationships. Trading with the French had brought the Indians such innovations as guns, alcoholic spirits, powder and ammunition along with supplies of tobacco and food in exchange for fur.
Into this milieu came Washington with a small force of Virginians, provoking an attack in Jumonville Glen. It was by all accounts a debacle. Washington’s Native American allies bashed the French lead man’s head in with a hatchet after he had surrendered. The French retaliated with a force from nearby Fort Dusquesne as Washington’s native allies abandoned him. In less than a day, Washington surrendered, signing a French document in which he admitted to the assassination. Washington rued his participation in these events altogether in a letter to his half- brother:
I doubt not but you have heard the particulars of our shameful defeat, which really was so scandalous that I hate to have it mention’d.
Despite the French victories at Fort Dusquesne and other initial skirmishes, there was a fatal strategic flaw in their activities. VirginiaPlaces.org tells us: The French strategy was to create trading stations to acquire furs from Native Americans, in contrast to the English strategy to flood the colony with Protestant immigrants who would be loyal to England in any fight with Spain/France. The failure of the French to establish colonies on the Atlantic seaboard south of the Saint Lawrence River, and their slow occupation of the Ohio River and Mississippi River valleys, ultimately allowed the English to gain control of the North American continent.
The events at Fort Dusquesne ignited long-standing hostilities between the French and the British, resulting in what some have called the first world-wide war: The Seven Years War, also referred to in North America as the French and Indian War.
In 1755, Pontiac became chief of the Ottawa, and shortly after became head of the Council of the Three Fires. In the same year, British forces headed by General Edward Braddock, along with American Colonials including George Washington, attempted to re-take Fort Dusquesne. Pontiac is believed to have been part of this ambush, which was a disastrous defeat for the British. These events gave rise to the legendary prophecy that Washington, who had 3 horses shot from under him during this battle, was divinely immune to wounding. Taken prisoner, Washington was released by the French, fortunately for him and our future country. Later, in 1758, Washington was among the British forces that retook Fort Dusquesne.
In the meantime, tales of Indian triumphs as allies of the French were often repeated at native councils and campfires. Pontiac went on to fight under General Montcalm, wearing the general’s gift of a French uniform on ceremonious occasions. However, Montcalm was eventually defeated on the Plains of Abraham, a deciding moment in the French and Indian war. Eventually, the Treaty of Paris was signed on February 10, 1763 with France ceding the territories of Canada and Acadia to England, as well as the forts at Niagara, Detroit, Michilimackinac, Great Bay on the Maumee and Wabash Rivers, and other river forks and locations in the west and southwest frontiers.
The Treaty of Paris was followed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, in which King George III outlined an administrative framework that included provisions for negotiating with the First Nations. Because of this, the Proclamation has been referred to as the Indian Magna Carta, providing for a vast land reserve of the North American interior for them in an attempt at political stability.
All this came about as a result of brief seizures Pontiac and his followers made of British military posts that had been recently captured from the French. Asserting military dominance, Pontiac’s acts created the necessity for the Crown to acknowledge and provide for Indian interests. Strategically, it made perfect sense: appease the Indians who had fought alongside the French and stabilize the frontier by imposing law and order in the most cost-effective way.
The Royal Proclamation geographical line, to the west of the Thirteen Colonies, was intended to hold westward settlement in favor of Indian land reserves. Unfortunately for the British, colonial outrage over this imposition was one of the key factors in the American Revolution.
The Treaty of Paris afforded Great Britain unprecedented empirical power. The French and Indian attacks had been dealt with. In the minds of the American colonists, the West was wide open for expansion up to the Louisiana Territory, which had been given to Spain in exchange for Florida. French positions in the New World were reduced to two small islands off the coast of Newfoundland.
Emasculating the French footprint meant the British could impose their ideas on how to co-exist with Native Americans under their new jurisdiction. These ideas were quite different than those of the French. The policy was personified by Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst, whose methodical strategy involving an advance up Lake Champlain to take Quebec City during the war had awarded him military governance over the newly defined territory.
Almost immediately, Amherst suspended trade in gunpowder, ammunition and weapons with the Indians. Additionally, Pontiac’s characterization of the British as “invaders” was underscored when the British eliminated the French custom of offering gifts and hospitality. Amherst’s opinion was that such gifts were bribes. To the Indians, this discontinuation was perceived as a hostile act on top of the ever-encroaching flow of settlers. Amherst facilitated the sale of Indian lands, which Pontiac and others maintained had never been available for sale pursuant to the Proclamation and earlier treaties. Overall, Amherst’s policies were rooted in contemptible methodology that could “serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.” Conditions were ripe for rebellion.
Concurrently, Neolin, of the Delaware Indians, was emerging as a spiritual leader and prophet among the Ohio societies. Neolin saw the reliance on European goods as part of the overall problem. Rather than assimilation, Neolin preached reversion to the traditional bow and arrow and other ancient ways. The danger in moving away from traditional Indian customs would be expulsion from Heaven by the Master of Life. Succeeding against the English settlers moving westward would entail a return to tradition. Neolin’s ultimate warning was that if they did not, God’s blessing of game to hunt would be revoked.
Pontiac was in favor of ending Native American reliance on Europeans, but only to the point of not giving up muskets. Realizing that a coalition unarmed with modern appurtenances would soon be doomed, Pontiac still hoped for the Master of Life’s ultimate blessing, which he viewed would be the restoration of traditional lands.
A flood of settlers intending not to trade, but to farm, advanced past the line imposed by the treaties and the Crown’s Proclamation. Seizing opportunistically on overall Indian discontent, Pontiac called for unification based upon the traditional religious values Neolin promoted, and forged a coalition via numerous secretive council meetings that included members of the Ottawa, Objibwe, Huron, Delaware, Illinois, Miami, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Seneca and Shawnee tribes.
The first secret council meeting was held on the shores of the Ecorse River, in what is now Lincoln Park, Michigan, a few miles from the Fort at Detroit, on April 27, 1763. Pontiac, by all accounts, was a charismatic figure, “lithe as a panther,” a powerful orator who possessed a keen intelligence and skill as a strategist. He believed that the French would back up an Indian revolt to reclaim the forts and restore the former relationship with the tribes.
Addressing those assembled, Pontiac’s appearance would have been formidable. Dressed in traditional garb, his skin would have been heavily oiled with bearfat to bring out the details of multiple tattoos. His ceremonial face paint would have been complemented by the pompadour hairstyle favored by the woodland tribes. Ornamenting his person were ear beads, a stone through his nose, and silver bracelets, as well as neck and hair feathers. The message to the more than 400 chiefs and warriors of the Three Fires eloquently invoked the prophecies of Neolin and urged dramatic action against British military positions in order to return control to the French.
Flashing a red and purple wampum belt he said he had been given by the King of France, Pontiac’s oration incited the warriors and the plan was hatched. On May 1, 1763, Pontiac and several young braves appeared at Fort Detroit asking to dance the Calumet, indicating an intention of loyalty to the British. They were really there to case the joint.
The plan was to return under the guise of holding a council at the Fort. However, they were betrayed, some say by the Indian mistress of the fort’s commander, Maj. Henry Gladwin. Instead, on May 7 and again on May 9, when Pontiac and his warriors returned, Gladwin had armed the fort’s soldiers and civilian residents, and informed the Indians their access would be severely restricted. The attack was thwarted.
Instead, Pontiac’s warriors took violence elsewhere. In what must have been the 18th century equivalent of “shock and awe,” British held forts fell to the Indians with remarkable precision in the next few weeks:
May 16, 1763 – Fort Sandusky on Lake Erie, which Amherst had built in 1761 in defiance of local Wyandots
May 25, 1763 – Fort St. Joseph, at what is now Niles, Michigan, seized by the Potawatomi
May 27, 1763 – Fort Miami, seized by the Miami (later renamed Fort Wayne, after “Mad Anthony” Wayne), where the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana now stands
June 1, 1763 – Fort Ouiatenon, close to what is now Lafayette, Indiana, taken without firing a shot by Wea, Kickapoo and Mascouten warriors
June 2, 1763 – Fort Michilimackinac, taken by the Ojibwes in a storied hoax arising out of a lacrosse game entertainment
June 16, 1763 – Fort Venango, near Franklin, Pennsylvania, taken by the Iroquois, Mingo and Senecas
June 18, 1763 – Fort LeBoeuf, burned with survivors escaping to Fort Pitt, the former Fort Dusquesne
June 19, 1763 – Fort Presque Isle, near what is now Erie, Pennsylvania, surrendered to the Ottawas, Ojibwes, Wyandots and Senecas
Within six weeks, nine out of 11 British fortifications had fallen to the Indians, Fort Pitt and Detroit were under siege, and numerous raids had been taken against settlers in the frontier areas of Pennsylvania and Virginia. Colonel Henry Bouquet, writing to Lord Amherst, encapsulated the hysteria and fear that pervaded the region:
There appears to be few Savages yet on these frontiers, but every Tree is become an Indian for the terrified inhabitants.
Amherst was stunned and disbelieving, accusing commanders of cowardice and exaggerating Indian strength. At the end of June, he sent a force west to Detroit. Surprisingly, Pontiac had kept the fort and settlement under siege for two months with the help of its French inhabitants, with whom he had signed promissory notes written on birchbark bearing his emblem, the otter. While the British were able to gain access inside the fort under cover of heavy fog, on July 31 the Indians ambushed them as they ventured out again.
During the rest of the summer and into the early fall, the fighting continued with marginal British gains. Amherst was a man possessed. His correspondence from and to Bouquet shows, and Capt. William Trent’s journal (written during the months of bloodshed from Fort Pitt) corroborates, that Amherst considered biological warfare in a series of letters written that summer (click dates to see actual images in their handwriting):
June 23 from Bouquet to Amherst confirming smallpox at Fort Pitt
July 13 from Bouquet to Amherst referencing blankets “to innoculate the Indians”
July 16 from Amherst to Bouquet approves and suggests no alternative method be left untried
On June 24, 1763, Trent’s diary entry reveals, “Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” Other contemporary letters to Crown bureaucrats assigned to Indian Affairs and Departments confirm a genocidal intent on the part of Amherst, and are cited by 19th and 20th century historians. Amherst eventually returned to England, disappointed that he was forced to defend his ineffectual handling of the rebellion, after which he was demoted from the position of Governor General of North America, though he continued to serve as Governor General of Virginia in name.
Meanwhile, ammunition shortages manipulated by Amherst’s trading policy were making the sieges at Detroit and Fort Pitt untenable. One by one, as fall hunting season approached, tribes dropped out of the coalition. When confirmation came via Fort de Chartres that France had ceded defeat to Britain, the coalition dissolved. By the end of October or mid-November, Pontiac discontinued the siege and withdrew with his remaining followers to the banks of the Maumee.
The following spring, Pontiac attempted another coalition which included French traders, with a plan to beat back the English beyond the Alleghenies. However, the British countermanded his movements with more extensive force throughout 1764. The French, it seemed as well, had lessening interest in such re-engagements.
By 1765, Pontiac was resigned to make peace, with one major stipulation: surrendering the forts to the British did not convey them the right to own or colonize the country, nor did the treaty recognize British sovereignty over native lands. In April, he participated in a peace mission with British representatives at Fort de Chartres, and then in August, traveled to Fort Detroit. On August 17, 1765, at the council of tribes, he declared his peace. By the following July, a formal conclusion was reached in Oswego, NY.
Between 1765 and 1769, Pontiac was a nomad, following traditional hunting and trading routes with a diminished band of mostly relatives and close friends. During this time, Native factions attempted to obtain his support for hostile outbreaks, but he kept his word and the peace, continuing in his declarations of loyalty to the British.
What are we to make of Pontiac’s influence on our history? Here was a prescient warrior chief who fought bravely against the nascent problems of assimilation, land appropriation, disenfranchisement, genocide, and forced relocation that continue to have lasting effects even today. As European culture continued to expand and dislocate indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere, Pontiac’s fierce combination of militancy and diplomacy appears simultaneously courageous and tragic. While historians may revise their opinions on his significance and influence, the overall effect of his movement was unprecedented. By catalyzing resistance to expanded settlements, British and American political policymakers – beginning with King George III, through President Washington, and continuing even today – were induced toward accommodating and maintaining Native sovereignty against an inevitable advance.
Even though Pontiac’s political influence ultimately waned, the former warrior’s peaceful ways rankled certain Native elements and former allies. On April 20, 1769, he was assassinated with club and knife near Cahokia, Illinois by a Peoria warrior. The exact location of his burial remains a mystery, giving rise to the legend that a burial mound on Apple Island in Orchard Lake, Oakland County, Michigan (northwest of Detroit) is that of Pontiac. This location is just south of the city that today bears his name, and close to several General Motors facilities that formerly produced his namesake brand, which was retired in 2009.
Suggested Reading (affiliate links)
- Tecumseh – Courageous Warrior and Statesman (passingthru.com)
- Chief Pontiac’s Siege of Detroit (Detroit News – June 14, 2000)
- Window on the Collection: William Trent’s Fort Pitt Journals (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)