During the mid to late 1700s, colonial powers and Indigenous North Americans experienced great conflict as settlers, French and British fought for land and rights to the continent’s bounties. Exhausted by white encroachment, Native leaders like Chief Pontiac gained recognition for their efforts to return Turtle Island — North America — to its Indigenous roots. He led a resistance known today as Pontiac’s War or Pontiac’s Rebellion against the British in the 1760s.
One of the conflict’s major battles was the Siege of Fort Detroit that began May 1763 and ended Oct. 31 that same year.
“Pontiac was an Odawa warrior and leader who fought during the French and Indian War, gaining recognition as a member of an intertribal confederacy to repel British control and settlement in the Great Lakes,” said Blake Norton, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center curator.
Roots of the rebellion
After the end of the French and Indian War, many tribes realized that colonial powers threatened their culture and lifeways regardless of promises and treaty language. As a result, a rise of numerous prophets and spiritual leaders helped motivate Natives to organize against further encroachments. One of the most popular during this time, Neolin, a Lenape prophet, urged Native Americans to reject all European influence. His words inspired many tribal leaders, including Pontiac, to fight against colonialism as whole.
“Neolin’s message was interpreted from a vision he had of heaven where he saw no Anglos and only Native people,” Norton said. “Rejecting the ‘evil ways’ of the British and ‘driving them out’ of the Great Lakes were the only ways Native people could regain entry into heaven. Understanding and rejecting British Indian policy, Neolin’s teachings inspired many … and influenced an early Nativist movement.”
Chief Pontiac held a reputation as a gifted warrior and leader and used Neolin’s teachings as guideposts.
Pontiac “spoke about the mutual experiences all had faced under oppressive colonials and the need to preserve a traditional way of life. … In council, he would profess how the Creator had ‘put arms in our hands’ to overthrow the British. However, this was not exclusive to Pontiac. He was among several confederated leaders, many unknown to or overshadowed in history, who embraced the same traditional ideals and played major roles during this time period,” Norton said.
Fort Detroit served as a regional stronghold and trading center controlled by the French, who were allies of many Great Lakes tribes. Great Britain seized the fort during the French and Indian War. The change of powers negatively impacted trade and the livelihood of neighboring Native communities who once sided with the French.
To decrease tensions, the British officers attempted to build rapport with local tribes and their leaders.
“This was the colonial norm, and Pontiac knew how to exploit it,” Norton said. “In the spring of 1763, Pontiac met with the fort’s commanding officer, Major Henry Gladwin, and arranged a dance exhibition to honor and entertain the garrison. In reality, they were scouting the fort to determine its strength and the goods within.”
While the dancing commenced, a group of Pontiac’s men gained key insight into the fort. However, reports of intensifying hostilities against the British caused Major Gladwin to reinforce the garrison.
“On May 7, Pontiac, along with several Odawa men and women, entered the fort with knives and guns hidden under their blankets, and asked to meet with those in command,” Norton said.
Chief Pontiac planned on giving a hidden attack signal to the hundreds of Native Americans inside and outside Ft. Detroit, including some Potawatomi warriors, in order to seize it from the British.
“It was easy to see that the fort was on full guard, and the signal was never given,” he said. “The following day, Pontiac staged a stickball game outside of the fort in hopes of creating an illusion of peace and asked to enter the fort again. Now knowing the plot, Major Gladwin denied.”
Hundreds of Native warriors traveled to take part in gaining control of the fort, and Chief Pontiac did not back down.
“Even if he had called off the attack, more than likely it would have been executed as planned, with someone else in control and his authority tainted,” Norton said.
Before the planned strike on Ft. Detroit, Chief Pontiac established an encampment a few miles north of the garrison. After the siege began, British forces attacked the camp, trying to weaken the Native American efforts.
“Aware of this through a spy network, Native forces stationed at the encampment ambushed the British instead,” Norton said. “Pontiac also ordered additional forces to cut off retreat routes back to Detroit. While most were able to escape, several British soldiers died and more were wounded, hence the name Battle of Bloody Run.”
Although the British experienced large losses during the Battle of Bloody Run on July 31, they succeeded in providing key reinforcements to Ft. Detroit.
“During the nearly six-month siege of Detroit, forts Sandusky, St. Joseph, Ouiatenon, Miami, Michilimackinac, Venango, Le Boeuf and Presque Isle were attacked and captured or burned. Those that were attacked and not captured were Ligonier, Pitt and of course, Detroit,” Norton said.
Great Britain attempted and failed to establish peace negotiations and instead began using biological warfare against the Native Americans.
“In July 1763, Fort Pitt’s commanding officer, Colonel Henry Bouquet, ordered that small pox infected sundries from the fort’s hospital be given to Lenape peace delegates. Devised by British Commander in Chief Jeffrey Amherst, the gifts were biological weapons intended to infect and weaken nonconforming tribespeople,” Norton said.
After six months passed without gaining support from the French, Native warriors began to withdraw from Ft. Detroit and Pontiac’s War.
“Seeing the writing on the wall, Pontiac sent word to Major Gladwin in late October wanting to negotiate for peace,” Norton said.
As a way to end the violence between French, Native Americans and the British, King George III established boundaries for the territories Great Britain won from France through the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The proclamation forbid settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains.
“Following the proclamation was a series of expeditions designed to end the war and acquire tribal lands peacefully,” he said. “Signed on July 25, 1766, the Treaty of Fort Ontario ended Pontiac’s War. The Royal Proclamation angered colonists who knew that the British Crown simply wanted to control tribal land sales and demanded that territories be opened for settlement. Leading the opposition was Virginia speculator George Washington, who with numerous other veterans of the French and Indian War had been awarded land grants for their service.”
Pontiac’s War influenced British Indian Policy by limiting colonial expansion and began the process of establishing Native reserve lands. This ultimately laid the groundwork for the American Revolutionary War by creating a greater divide between Great Britain and settlers, and for the next 50 years, more violence and land loss ensued across Indian Country.
To learn more about this important era in Potawatomi history, visit the Cultural Heritage Center’s gallery Defenders of the Northwest: Ndobani.