Pontiac’s War

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the French and Indian Wars in North America came to an end. The Treaty of Paris redefined British, French, and Spanish colonial territories. France ceded Canada and the French territories east of the Mississippi to Britain and the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi to Spain. Spain relinquished Florida to Great Britain in exchange for guaranteed control over Cuba. In short, France was out and Britain was in.

With the British the dominant power in North America, Native American tribes of the Great Lakes region found their world changing for the worse. The British enacted new laws making it illegal to sell weapons or gunpowder to Native Americans–a change that brought some tribes to the edge of starvation. Worse, British settlers began to expand into the rich lands west of the Appalachian mountains, clearing land for farms rather than simply building military and trading posts.

In the spring of 1763, an Ottawa chief, Pontiac, organized a multi-tribe alliance to drive the British from the Great Lakes. On May 9, following a failed attempt to take Fort Detroit using a variation on the Trojan horse*, Pontiac called for a simultaneous rising against British outposts throughout the region. By late June, Pontiac’s forces had captured eight of the ten British forts west of Niagara. Two posts, Fort Pitt and Fort Detroit, remained under siege.

The commander of Fort Pitt had been warned about the uprising and was able to withstand the siege until relief forces arrived in August. ***

Unlike Fort Pitt, the siege of Detroit turned into a stalemate. The British had plenty of supplies, but were unable to break out. On Pontiac’s side, anticipated French support failed to materialize, winter was approaching, and supplies were running low. On October 20, Pontiac received a letter from the French commander at Fort de Chartres (near modern St. Louis) urging him to end the siege. He withdrew his troops the next day and retreated to the west.

Pontiac continued his resistance against the British through the next year, but with diminishing support. He signed a treaty with the British in 1766.

In the short run, Pontiac’s War**** succeeded. Many Great Lakes tribes formed new ties with the British similar to those they had enjoyed with the French. More importantly, British officials tried to keep colonial settlers out of Native American territories. Unfortunately, the laws the kept the settlers out of the western territories were one more irritant in the growing conflicts between Britain and its North American colonies–proving once again that you can’t make everyone happy.

*Fort Michilimackinac was less vigilant, even though its commander was warned that the local tribes planned trouble. On June 2, as part of the birthday celebrations for King George III, members of the Chippewa tribe played a brisk game of baggatiway** while the 35 members of the fort’s garrison watched. When one of the players threw the ball over the wall, the warriors rushed through the land gate, grabbed weapons that had been hidden under the blankets of their women as they watched the game, and attacked the soldiers. The fort was in Chippewa hands in minutes. Beware Greeks bearing gifts or people playing with balls and sticks.

** A full contact, no-holds-barred ancestor of lacrosse.

***While Captain Eccuyer waited for relief to arrive, he tried to break the siege with low-grade germ warfare. Smallpox had broken out in the fort. Everyone knew Native Americans had no stamina where disease was concern. When two of Pontiac’s chiefs came to the fort to urge the British to surrender,Ecuyer gave them two blankets and a handkerchief that had belonged to smallpox victims, hoping the besiegers would catch the disease. Invasion by lacrosse looks pretty honorable by comparison.

**** It is important to emphasize that this should not be called Pontiac’s Rebellion or Pontiac’s Conspiracy–both of which imply that the tribes were under British rule.

(I wish I could find a less euro-centric image for this post. Any suggestions?)

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