A Brief History
On May 7, 1763, the Indian versus Colonist conflict known as Pontiac’s War began, so called in a nod to the Native American chief that had put together a confederation of Native people in an attempt to oust British colonists from the Great Lakes region, including Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. Pontiac must rank among the greatest of American statesmen for his accomplishment of uniting 15 tribes in his war against the British/American colonists. After 3 years of bloody warfare, the war ended in a sort of stalemate, although the Native Americans did win certain concessions from the British and the British were not thrown out of the territory.
Since Europeans started exploring and settling in North America, in the Northern portions of what is now Canada, New England and Virginia, the Native people had been pushed out of their traditional ancestral homelands, both directly by White European encroachment and indirectly by other Native tribes that were squeezed out by Europeans and in turn displaced their Native American neighbors. Many of the formerly Eastern Native people were relocated to the areas West of the Appalachian Mountains (Allegheny Mountains specifically) in the Great Lakes region. When White settlements began appearing in the Great Lakes region, the Native people realized they had to make a stand or face further displacement. The French were tolerated somewhat better by the Native people than the British, and it was against the British that Pontiac rallied the Native tribes. Pontiac was of the Ottawa people, and among the other tribes represented in the War were Ojibwas, Potawatomis, Hurons, Miamis, Weas, Kickapoos, Mascoutens, Piankashaws, Delawares, Shawnees, Wyandots, Mingos and Iroquois. Also known as “Pontiac’s Rebellion” and “Kiyasuta and Pontiac War,” giving a nod to another of the Chiefs involved, another appellation for this conflict is “The Conspiracy of Pontiac” (which happens to be the title of a book by Francis Parkman, which I remember reading as a lad in the form of a Classics Illustrated comic book).
Another notable part of the background of Pontiac’s War was the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, which was a defeat for France and a virtual take over of New France by the British, leaving the British as the sole European power in the regions of Canada and the northern part of what is now the United States. Thus, the many myriad Native tribes were facing more or less a unified single European enemy, and as such the need for Indian unity became paramount. No single tribe could hope to compete with the White British. Age old animosity, differences in language and culture, and mutual distrust all conspired to prevent such collective cooperation among Native American people, and the fact that Pontiac brokered such an arrangement is remarkable.
The British forces, led by Field Marshal (promoted to that rank later) Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst, were under the command of a man expressly of the opinion that all Native Americans needed to be wiped out in a genocidal war of the races. He is reputed to have espoused the idea of germ warfare by using blankets contaminated with smallpox as “gifts” for the Native people to help wipe them out. Whether or not such action was intentional or unintentional, the introduction of European diseases that Native Americans had no immunity for certainly wiped out more of them than all the wars combined. (The legacy of Amherst has been challenged in recent years because of his genocidal tendencies and willingness to engage in germ warfare, resulting in the removal of his name from some street and place names.) Another British commander was Thomas Gage, a name familiar to those who study the American Revolutionary War as he commanded the British military in North America during the early stages of that war. Gage served as the main commander in the field during Pontiac’s War. Another British military commander was Swiss mercenary Henry Louis Bouquet, a field commander that had more than the usual success during the war. (Bouquet died in Florida in 1765, probably of Yellow Fever.)
These British commanders had about 3000 soldiers at their disposal, facing perhaps 3500 Native American warriors. Both sides had numbers of civilians that of course would fight in their own defense when necessary.
While the British colonists had achieved peace (with the Shawnee primarily) by promising not to settle West of the Allegheny Mountains, a considerable number of colonists chose to move West into Indian territory anyway, angering and alarming the Native people. Even the British government, by Royal proclamation, had made the Allegheny Mountains the border between British colonies and Native American lands. As the French were expelled from their forts and settlements in the area, British troops took over those locations in seeming violation of the agreement between the British and the Native people. Where the French had treated many of the Native tribes as allies and friends, the British chose to treat Native people as conquered enemies, as many had sided with the French during the Seven Years War, also known as “The French and Indian War.”
The contempt Amherst felt for the Native people was obvious to all, and he thought so little of the threat they posed he stationed only 500 troops in the disputed region although he had about 8000 soldiers under his command. British under his command reflected that contempt and treated the Native people they came into contact with in a most contemptuous manner, likened by the Native people to the treatment of “dogs or slaves.” Some historians have concluded that this ill-treatment of the Native people and lack of respect had as much or more to do with generating the hate and enthusiasm needed for the “rebellion” as the encroachment. Another factor that may have influenced the Native people was a religious fervor that swept many of the Indian settlements, spurred on by a man, Neolin, known as “The Delaware Prophet,” who combined traditional religion with some Christian influence to drum up racial pride and unity among Native people. Neolin preached that their gods were displeased with Native acceptance of European (White) ways and that the British colonists posed a grave threat to the continued existence and liberty of the Native people. He made a particularly astute observation about alcohol, “If you suffer the English among you,” and “…you are dead men. Sickness, smallpox, and their poison [alcohol]will destroy you entirely.” Rumblings of a coming conflict between the Native people and the British started well in advance of actual fighting, as much as 2 years prior to the onset of hostilities.
Some Native people were leery of waging war and warned the British of the gathering storm. The warnings and lack of Native consensus went by the wayside as the British began to displace the French and assert command and control over the unwilling “conquered” Native people, people that had grown alarmed by the increased British presence in forts throughout the region. Pontiac led the start of the war at Fort Detroit, and other forts became the main target of Native American attacks. In short order 8 British forts had been overrun, though some continued to hold out, notably Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt, 2 of the main British outposts. The Native uprising seemed to be a coordinated attack, though lately some have interpreted the war as being one of a general feeling of discontent that resulted in violence as word of mouth spread about successful attacks on the British. (As the Native leaders did not create a well-documented account of their motivations and planning, the truth is open to interpretation.) Others, including the author Francis Parkman, alleged that the French had instigated the uprising as a form of retribution for their defeat during the French and Indian War. Blaming the French was a popular British position.
A notable event of the siege of Fort Detroit was the ploy by Pontiac of entering the fort with 300 of his warriors under the pretense of engaging in peace negotiations. The warriors were carrying hidden weapons, but the British had a warning about the ploy and were well armed and ready, causing Pontiac to abort the plan and quickly leave the fort. The siege of Fort Detroit was a pivotal point in the war, with the Native people terrorizing British colonists not inside the fort, massacring civilians and even eating a captured British soldier! Attempts to reinforce and resupply the fort were met with Indian attacks, though eventually some reinforcements and supplies got through. Native warriors grew impatient and by October 31, 1763, Pontiac gave up the siege, realizing the French would not be sending assistance to the Native people.
As the situation became more dire for the British colonists and troops at the garrisons, Amherst finally began to understand the threat posed to his command and the people he was entrusted to protect. He ordered fierce reprisals against Native people, including the immediate murder of any captives that were taken. It was then that Amherst directed Bouquet to use smallpox as a weapon, and Bouquet readily agreed. That Bouquet shared Amherst’s contempt for Native people is evidenced by his communication, “I will try to inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself. As it is pity to oppose good men against them, I wish we could make use of the Spaniard’s Method, and hunt them with English Dogs. Supported by Rangers, and some Light Horse, who would I think effectively extirpate or remove that Vermine.” (Note the use of “vermine” to describe Native Americans!) Amherst encouraged Bouquet to, “Extirpate this Execrable Race” clearly showing the racism involved in British thinking.
Battles outside of the forts, including those interceptions of British supply and relief columns, resulted in mixed results, sometimes with British victories and sometimes with Native triumphs. As the war progressed, by 1764 the Western portion of the Virginia colony became a battleground that went badly for the British. Both sides started the practice of scalping dead enemy soldiers and civilians, and the British put a bounty on scalps, even those of women and children over 10 years old. (No, we do not know how anyone would know a scalp came from an 11 year old vs. a 10 year old. Do you?)
The British mounted expeditions in force to “pacify” the Native uprising in 1764, and by 1765 some Native leaders had traveled far from the contested area, all the way to Louisiana, in a desperate attempt to enlist the assistance of the French and other Native people. The war had become more or less a stalemate, a situation intolerable to either side. Individual local treaties ending the conflict with various tribes and leaders began to take place, and on July 25, 1766, Pontiac himself met with British authorities in Ontario to sign a peace treaty that made neither side a victor. The Native people had not ceded land to the British, and the British did not agree to leave. Pontiac himself had suffered a loss of prestige, and no longer spoke for the majority of the Native people. Some of the prominent Native leaders took their people and moved even further West to get farther away from the British.
Exact numbers of participants in Pontiac’s war and casualties suffered by both sides are hard to come by. Estimates that 400 British soldiers were killed and another 50 or so taken captive and in turn killed, after being tortured, are combined with 2000 colonists killed, or perhaps killed and captured. (Captured White civilians could be enslaved, tortured and killed, or released.) Another 4000 White settlers were forced to flee the contested area to go back East. Numbers of killed Native people, both warriors and civilians, are not available.
The British played up the war as a victory, but the truth of the matter is that it was more of a holding action in that it did not result in a defeat but did not really gain any new ground. As with all the so called “Indian Wars” fought between the Europeans and later the Americans and the Native people of North America, the real war was one of attrition, a war the Native people could not win, that ultimately resulted in White European conquest of the continent and the near extirpation of Native people. (See our other articles concerning Native Americans and the conflict with European settlement of North America.)
Question for students (and subscribers): Did the Europeans and later Americans have a “right” to displace Native American tribes? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Parkman, Francis. The Conspiracy of Pontiac and The Indian War After The Conquest of Canada. University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Schulte, Brent. The American Indian Wars: Explore the Conflict and Tragedy from Beginning to End. Independently published, 2019.
Seelye, James, Jr. and Shawn Shelby (editors). Shaping North America [3 volumes]: From Exploration to the American Revolution. ABC-CLIO, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a map drawn by Kevin Myers using Inkscape of forts and battles of Pontiac’s War, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.