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?)



I have a soft spot for historical characters who push society’s boundaries and make them bend.* People who sit where they aren’t supposed to sit, speak up when the world wants them to be quiet, and study things people tell them they can’t study. ** People who find their voice or kick open doors. People who challenge empires and win. People who rise up from poverty to found empires. (I’m looking at you Genghis Khan.) Women who disguise themselves as men and join the army. In short, shin-kickers.

But in looking over the last two years of posts here on History in the Margins, I see that stories about people who kick their way out of society’s margins and onto the page are in short supply. That’s going to change. In the coming months, I’m going to introduce you to some of my favorite shin-kicker. But I’d also like to introduce some of yours.

Who are your favorite Shin-Kickers From History? Give me a name, a link, a sentence, a story. I’ll take it from there.

*This will not come as a surprise to those of you who know me in real life.

**Sometimes the pursuit of knowledge is rebellion in its purest form.

Image credit: iamsania / 123RF Stock Photo

Erasmus Darwin Is Tracking Me Down

One of the weird facts about historical research (or maybe just about life in general) is that once a person or idea has come to your attention you find references to him/it/them everywhere. In a footnote. As a tangential character is a study of something else. The subject of a new book sitting on the front table at your local bookstore.

The upside is that there is always a new subject clamoring for my attention. The downside is that sometimes it feels like I'm being stalked. Right now, Erasmus Darwin is tracking me down.

I've been vaguely aware  for a long time that Erasmus Darwin was Charles Darwin's grandfather and wrote some funky poetry about botany,  but I never gave him much thought. Then a friend of mine raved about a study of Erasmus with the engaging subtitle of Sex, Science and Serendipity.* I wrote it down on the ever expanding To-Be-Read-Someday list and went on my merry way. A few days later, Mr. Darwin appeared in a book I was reading on a totally different subject. Then it happened again. Soon it felt like I couldn't even think about eighteenth century England without tripping over at least one reference to Erasmus Darwin--physician, poet, botanist, and proponent of progress.

It turns out that Erasmus Darwin was an Enlightenment figure of some importance--if an idea was going around he was sure to catch it. He was a founding member of the Lunar Society, an informal group of influential scientific entrepreneurs that included, among others, James Watt (who harnessed the power of steam), Joseph Priestly (who discovered oxygen), and Josiah Wedgwood (innovative potter, social reformer, and, incidentally, Charles Darwin's other grandfather). He promoted new technologies not only with his wallet but with his words--writing heroic couplets celebrating the scientific accomplishments of others.** He invented a speaking machine, a copying machine and a steering mechanism for his carriage that was adopted for automobiles 130 years later. He supported the French Revolution, campaigned for education for women and the abolition of slavery, and developed an early theory of evolution.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself no slouch in the polymath department, credited Erasmus with "perhaps a greater range of knowledge than any other man in Europe."

Mr. Darwin, I look forward to getting to know you better..

* Patricia Fara. Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity . Available in a bookstore near you, or at least by special order, depending on the bookstore.

** He also wrote The Loves of the Plants, a long poem about Linnaean classifications. It was later republished as part of a two-part work titled The Botanic Garden, illustrated by William Blake and Henry Fuseli.  I have not read it, but I assume that it is weird. Because really, how could it not be?