Pontiac’s Rebellion: Native Americans hit back

Pontiac's Rebellion

Today marks the 250th anniversary of the beginning of Pontiac’s Rebellion, known by a number of other monikers, including Pontiac’s War, Pontiac’s Uprising and Pontiac’s Conspiracy.

Pontiac was a chief of the Ottawa nation, and was one of many Indians dissatisfied with the results of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which left the British in control of much of eastern North America.

Pontiac was born in the early part of the 18th century, most likely along a waterway in what is today the Midwestern US, likely either the Detroit or Maumee river.

He became an Ottawa war leader by the mid-1740s and supported the French in pivotal French and Indian War.

Following the British victory in North America and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British angered Indian tribes who had been allied with the French by cutting back on key supplies previously distributed from forts in the region.

The Indians had come to depend on gunpowder and ammunition distributed by Europeans for hunting game for food and to be able to take skins, which could be used in trade. The British, however, mistrusted their former Indian adversaries and began to restrict distribution of both.

Some Native Americans began to grow wary, believing the British were making preparations to attack them by disarming them. Many also resented being treated like a conquered people.

Pontiac decided it was time to take action. In a council in early May 1763, he pulled no punches, according to David Dixon’s 2005 work, Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac’s Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America:

“It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation which seeks only to destroy us. You see as well as I that we can no longer supply our needs, as we have done from our brothers, the French. … Therefore, my brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it.”

Pontiac and other Ottawas, along with a number of Ojibwas, Potawatomis and Hurons, moved to seize Fort Detroit on May 7.

Professing undying friendship for the British, Pontiac asked for a peace conference with the British. He and 300 followers arrived at Detroit on May 7, and were received into the fort. Pontiac’s followers included a number of squaws who concealed weapons under their blankets, according to the blog Bite Size Canada.

“The custom was that in a conference of this kind, the Indian chief would offer the white leader a belt of wampum. Pontiac had arranged that when he stood up to offer the belt, the Indians would grab their concealed weapons and begin the massacre,” according to Bite Size Canada.

“However, (Major Henry) Gladwyn was ready for the masquerade. He pretended to go along with the peace conference, but took obvious precautions to deal with any trouble that might occur,” the blog added. “When Pontiac looked around he saw that an uprising would have had no chance to succeed. He gave no signal.”

The conference proceeded as though it were genuine, though both sides likely knew the whole thing was a charade, and the Indians walked out with promises of future friendly meetings.

Within a short while, Pontiac laid siege to the fort. He and his allies proceeded to kill all the British soldiers and settlers they could find outside of the fort, including women and children. French colonists were pretty much left alone, however.

Three weeks later a British supply column from Fort Niagara was ambushed and defeated at Point Pelee.

Pontiac’s Rebellion continued into 1764 and spread east, into Virginia and Pennsylvania before finally tapering off by 1766.

About 450 British soldiers were killed and 2,000 settlers killed or captured in all. An estimated 200 Indians died in the action.

Pontiac’s Rebellion forced the British to rethink their trade policy with the Native Americans and also to institute a barrier that forbade colonists from moving past the “Eastern Divide,” lands west of the Allegheny Ridge.

The conflict is noted as the first which did not end in total defeat for Native Americans. It also led to recognition that Indians had at least some right to the lands they lived on.

Colonists, however, were in no mood to be hemmed in, and continued to flood west in the ensuing years, sparking increased strife with Indian nations and resentment with British authorities over efforts to control their movements.

Pontiac’s influence waned as the 1760s continued.

He made peace with the British in 1766 but other Native American leaders resented the fact the British continued to treat him an important leader even as his status diminished. Pontiac was assassinated by a Peoria Indian in 1769.

(Top: During an Indian council in late April 1763, Pontiac urges listeners to rise up against the British. Engraving by Alfred Bobbet. Source: Wikipedia.)

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