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Pontiac's Rebellion: An Overview

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Pontiac's Rebellion: An Overview

Pontiac urges the Native Americans to rise up against the British, April 27, 1863

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Pontiac's Rebellion - Background:

Beginning in 1754, the French & Indian War saw British and French forces clash as both sides worked to expand their empires in North America. While the French initially won several early encounters such as the Battles of the Monongahela (1755) and Carillon (1758), the British ultimately gained the upper hand after triumphs at Louisbourg (1758), Quebec (1759), and Montreal (1760). Though fighting in Europe continued until 1763, forces under General Jeffery Amherst immediately began working to consolidate British control over New France (Canada) and the lands to the west known as the pays d'en haut. Comprising parts of present-day Michigan, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, the tribes of this region had largely been allied with the French during the war. Though the British made peace with the tribes of around the Great Lakes as well as those in the Ohio and Illinois Countries, the relationship remained strained.

These tensions were worsened by policies implemented by Amherst which worked to treat the Native Americans as a conquered people rather than equals and neighbors. Not believing that the Native Americans could mount meaningful resistance against British forces, Amherst reduced the frontier garrisons as well as began to eliminate ritual gifts which he viewed as blackmail. He also began to restrict and block the sale of gunpowder and weapons. This latter act caused particular hardship as it limited the Native American's ability to hunt for food and furs. Though the head of the Indian Department, Sir William Johnson, repeatedly advised against these policies, Amherst persisted in their implementation. While these directives impacted all of the Native Americans in the region, those in the Ohio Country were further angered by colonial encroachment into their lands.

Pontiac's Rebellion - Moving Towards Conflict:

As Amherst's policies began to take effect, Native Americans living in the pays d'en haut began to suffer from disease and starvation. This led to the beginning of a religious revival led by Neolin (The Delaware Prophet). Preaching that the Master of Life (Great Spirit) was angered at the Native Americans for embracing European ways, he urged the tribes to cast out the British. In 1761, British forces learned that the Mingos in the Ohio Country were contemplating war. Racing to Fort Detroit, Johnson convened a large council which was able to maintain an uneasy peace. Though this lasted into 1763, the situation on the frontier continued to deteriorate.

Pontiac's Rebellion - Pontiac Acts:

On April 27, 1763, the Ottawa leader Pontiac called members of several tribes together near Detroit. Addressing them, he was able to convince many of them to join in an attempt to capture Fort Detroit from the British. Scouting the fort on May 1, he returned a week later with 300 men carrying concealed weapons. Though Pontiac had hoped to take the fort by surprise, the British had been alerted to a possible attack and were on alert. Forced to withdraw, he elected to lay siege to the fort on May 9. Killing settlers and soldiers in the area, Pontiac's men defeated a British supply column at Point Pelee on May 28. Maintaining the siege into the summer, the Native Americans were unable to prevent Detroit from being reinforced in July. Attacking Pontiac's camp, the British were turned back at Bloody Run on July 31. As a stalemate ensured, Pontiac elected to abandon the siege in October after concluding that French aid would not be forthcoming (Map).

Pontiac's Rebellion - The Frontier Erupts:

Learning of Pontiac's actions at Fort Detroit, tribes throughout the region began moving against the frontier forts. While the Wyandots captured and burned Fort Sandusky on May 16, Fort St. Joseph fell to the Potawatomis nine days later. On May 27, Fort Miami was taken after its commander was killed. In the Illinois Country, the garrison of Fort Ouiatenon was compelled to surrender to a combined force of Weas, Kickapoos, and Mascoutens. In early June, the Sauks and Ojibwas used a stickball game to distract British forces while they moved against Fort Michilimackinac. By the end of June 1763, Forts Venango, Le Boeuf, and Presque Isle were also lost. In the wake of these victories, Native American forces began moving against Captain Simeon Ecuyer's garrison at Fort Pitt.

Pontiac's Rebellion - Siege of Fort Pitt:

As fighting escalated, many settlers fled to Fort Pitt for safety as Delaware and Shawnee warriors raided deep into Pennsylvania and unsuccessfully struck Forts Bedford and Ligonier. Coming under siege, Fort Pitt was soon cut off. Increasingly concerned about the situation, Amherst directed that Native American prisoners be killed and inquired about the potential of spreading smallpox among the enemy population. This latter idea had already been implemented by Ecuyer who had given the besieging forces infected blankets on June 24. Though smallpox did break out among the Ohio Native Americans, the disease was already present prior Ecuyer's actions. In early August, many of the Native Americans near Fort Pitt departed in an effort to destroy a relief column which was approaching. In the resulting Battle of Bushy Run, Colonel Henry Bouquet's men turned back the attackers. This done, he relieved the fort on August 20.

Pontiac's Rebellion - Troubles Continue:

The success at Fort Pitt was soon offset by a bloody defeat near Fort Niagara. On September 14, two British companies had over 100 killed at the Battle of Devil's Hole when they attempted to escort a supply train to the fort. As settlers along the frontier became increasingly worried about raids, vigilante groups, such as the Paxton Boys, began to emerge. Based in Paxton, PA, this group began attacking local, friendly Native Americans and went so far as to kill fourteen that were in protective custody. Though Governor John Penn issued bounties for the culprits, they were never identified. Support for the group continued to grow in and 1764 they marched on Philadelphia. Arriving, they were prevented from doing additional damage by British troops and militia. The situation was later diffused through negotiations overseen by Benjamin Franklin.

Pontiac's Rebellion - Ending the Uprising:

Angered by Amherst's actions, London recalled him in August 1763 and replaced him with Major General Thomas Gage. Assessing the situation, Gage moved forward with plans that had been developed by Amherst and his staff. These called for two expeditions to push into the frontier led by Bouquet and Colonel John Bradstreet. Unlike his predecessor, Gage first asked Johnson to conduct a peace council at Fort Niagara in an effort to remove some of the tribes from the conflict. Meeting in the summer of 1764, the council saw Johnson return the Senecas to the British fold. As restitution for their part in the Devil's Hole engagement, they ceded the Niagara portage to the British and agreed to send a war party west.

With the conclusion of the council, Bradstreet and his command began moving west across Lake Erie. Stopping at Presque Isle, he exceeded his orders by concluding a peace treaty with several of the Ohio tribes which stated that Bouquet's expedition would not go forward. As Bradstreet continued west, an incensed Gage promptly repudiated the treaty. Reaching Fort Detroit, Bradstreet agreed to a treaty with local Native American leaders through which he believed them to accept British sovereignty. Departing Fort Pitt in October, Bouquet advanced to the Muskingum River. Here he entered into negotiations with several of the Ohio tribes. Isolated due to Bradstreet's earlier efforts, they made peace in mid-October.

Pontiac's Rebellion - Aftermath:

The campaigns of 1764 effectively ended the conflict though some calls for resistance still came from the Illinois Country and Native American leader Charlot Kaské. These issues were dealt with in 1765 when Johnson's deputy, George Croghan, was able to meet with Pontiac. After extensive discussions, Pontiac agreed to come east and he concluded a formal peace treaty with Johnson at Fort Niagara in July 1766. An intense and bitter conflict, Pontiac's Rebellion ended with the British abandoning Amherst's policies and returning to those used earlier. Having recognized the inevitable conflict that would emerge between colonial expansion and the Native Americans, London issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which prohibited settlers from moving over the Appalachian Mountains and created a large Indian Reserve. This action was poorly received by those in the colonies and was the first of many laws issued by Parliament that would lead to the American Revolution.

Selected Sources

  • Ohio History: Pontiac's Rebellion
  • Native American Netroots: Pontiac's War

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