Pontiac, Fort Detroit, and "Pontiac's War"

Pontiac gives a speech before the siege of Fort Detroit Pontiac gives a speech before the siege of Fort Detroit

Pontiac was perhaps the most famous Indian leader of the 18th century. His renown came from a rebellion he launched in 1763. The objective of this rebellion was to drive the British out of the Great Lakes region. His actions met with mixed success. The British did issue the Royal Proclamation of 1763, but they also sent troops to combat and crush most of the uprisings. Hundreds were killed on both sides.

Most American tribes had been allied with the French and assisted them in their fur-trapping enterprises. When France lost the French and Indian War, however, it also lost all possessions in North America. Most tribes preferred the French looked upon the British with foreboding. They anticipated a wave of settlement from the east and resolved to quickly strike while they still had the upper hand. Several independent attacks took place. One group struck at Fort Pitt and surrounded it for a time. Several other forts were captured. But the first and largest attack was led by Pontiac against Fort Detroit.

Pontiac was a leader of the Ottawa tribe. Little is known about his life before 1763. His tribe lived in modern-day Michigan and Ontario, on either side of Fort Detroit. On May 7, 1763, the Ottawas attacked the fort and laid siege to it. The British sent a party to relieve the fort, and were defeated at the Battle of Bloody Run. The undoing of the siege was political, rather than military. Various tribal allies began to tire of the siege and to desert Pontiac and the Ottawas. Pontiac himself retreated on October 31.

Both sides perpetrated atrocities. Many British garrisons that surrendered were subsequently massacred. Some British troops and colonial settlers were tortured to death, and several hundred died in total. In western Pennsylvania, a white vigilante group arose called the Paxton Boys. They marauded around the countryside, attacking Indian settlements and killing ally and enemy alike. This group acted illegally and poisoned relations with many tribes that had nothing to do with the initial attacks, but colonial government had little control over the remote western Pennsylvania countryside.

One British reaction to the Indian attacks was the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This forbade any colonial settlements west of the Appalachian mountains and was a clear concession to the Indian tribes. The British had no money or inclination to fight long Indian wars on the interior of the American continent, and they hoped that forestalling settlement would reassure the tribes. However, many settlers continued to go west and occupy the land illegally. This put colonial Americans at odds with both the Indian tribes and the British monarchy.

By 1766, the British had reached treaties and agreements with most of the aggrieved tribes. Unfortunately, these agreements had little staying power. Once the United States won its independence, they became obsolete, and the Americans were less disposed to bargaining with the Indian tribes than the British. Most of the land encompassed by Pontiac's Rebellion would become part of the Northwest Territory and the American Midwest.

Pontiac did not have the importance amongst the Indian tribes that the British imagined. Even the use of "Pontiac's War" is a bit of a misnomer. He led a loose confederation and each group had its own leaders. Many people became jealous of Pontiac and the role he was taking. Once the rebellions were over, his influence declined greatly. In 1769, Pontiac was assassinated by a Peoria member in Illinois. While histories of the 19th century tended to portray Pontiac as a great leader and all-encompassing mastermind, modern research has established him as one of many leaders. It is considered highly doubtful that he directly planned any attack besides the one at Fort Detroit. However, news of his attack on Fort Detroit is believed to have inspired the other incidents.

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