Chief Pontiac :: Was His War the Best Chance?

Column Name: Remembering The Great Chiefs
Byline: Joyce Worley

Subhead: Considering If-Only

There are games we play from childhood to the end of our days, and the most popular are "What If?" and "If Only." They titillate our imaginations; they exercise our brains; and sometimes they punish us for our failures. In childhood they let us imagine how it would be to grow up, to have things we want, to be strong: "What if I had a million dollars?" "What if I were king?" In adulthood, they let us torture ourselves by contemplating roads we've never walked. "What if I'd done better?" and "If only I had known."

Native Americans play these games, too, and in deadly seriousness. We try to imagine how things might have been. We try to pinpoint the exact moment when our world was lost, and find the exact action that could have changed our destinies. Sometimes we try to imagine going back into a Heinleinian past, and finding the specific butterfly to crush to change the way the world turned out.

The favorite seems to be "What if Native Americans had horses 500 years earlier?" Some of the Plains Tribes became incredibly skilled horsemen in the short time they had before the Settlers moved west. We wonder if we all could have done the same with a bit more time, and if we had, would that have changed the way our world was lost?

Of course, there are other "what if's" and "if only's." What if we hadn't been completely susceptible to the germs that came from Europe and Asia and killed almost half our numbers before the Troubles began? What if they had come a little later, and we had time to develop metal tools and weapons? What if we had stopped them on the beaches so they'd never had the chance to come ashore?

Every adult knows that the what-if games are futile. Reality is what it is, and no amount of breast-beating can change it. We didn't have the horse until the Conquistadors brought them; we knew little about ores and metals; we didn't have immunity to the diseases. And, if we'd stopped them on the beaches, they'd have come again but even better equipped for destruction.

Today we're looking at a moment in time that exposes a what-if that many historians believe was the most significant in the history of Native Americans.


Subhead: Pontiac -- Was His War the Best Chance?

Pontiac-chief-artist-impression-414pxIt was all about real estate. Real estate, and the lust for power over it were the primary causes of the subjugation of the Native Americans. We were just pawns in a great chess game where mighty nations struggled to control the playing field. Our pain and sorrows were of no consequence whatsoever in the drama; we were of no more importance than a chair or a table on the set, just backdrop to the main action.

The French and Indian War is a confusing period to most students, and for good reason. To put it into focus, it is necessary to realize that it was just the New World's portion of a much greater conflict between France and England. In fact, the two countries had been slugging it out in a series of wars dating all the way back to King William's War in 1689-97. The two nations would spend a few years pounding on each other, then make uneasy truces that would hold only as long as it took to rebuild their muscle. Then they'd go at each other again.

The dispute was over colonization, and specifically, overseas mastery. In the Great Age of Exploration, both nations were launching ships for distant shores, planting flags and claiming territories. Each felt it had God's Own Right on its side, and the wishes of the indigenous populations had absolutely no bearing on their actions.

The North American portion of the most current conflict, known in Europe as The Seven Years War, was called the French and Indian War, though it more properly might have been called the English and French War With Indians Helping Both Sides. It was over the real estate in the upper Ohio River Valley.

The Iroquois, for the most part, fought with the British, while most of the natives in the Ohio River Valley and around the Great Lakes were aligned with the French. By and large, they preferred the French because they seemed nicer. French explorers had made friendly inroads with the tribes over the years. They dressed more or less like the Am-Americans, sat around the fires and smoked with them, shared meals, and often even married into the tribes. They traded good things for fur pelts -- metal knives and hatchets, woven cloth, cooking pots. And, they were quick to throw in extra, to give gifts. The tribal leaders looked on these gifts as signs of respect and grew accustomed to this kind of courtesy.

The British, on the other hand, were always too proud to "go native." They retained their cool and aloof manner no matter where they went, in Africa, India, the Orient, and in the New World. They also looked at gift-giving as being too close to bribery; it made them uncomfortable.

From the Native American's point of view, the good things they received in trade and as gifts were unimaginably valuable. While they may have lived for thousands of years with nothing except chipped stones and hollowed rocks as knives and cooking pots, the metal tools they got in trade improved life for them. A blanket is better than a piece of hide; a hatchet is better for chopping wood, or dispatching an enemy. Once they used the new tools, there was no going back -- although there were always men who urged the tribes to do just that.

There then are the players, and the Upper Ohio is the stage. Most tribes preferred the Friendly French, and they became weapons in the white man's war over who would steal the Natives' lands.

Pontiac's early life is veiled from view, but he was probably born in the second decade of the 1700s, somewhere between 1714 and 1720. Some historians believe he had a Chippewa father, but he must have grown up somewhere along the Detroit River, in an Ottawa village.

His childhood was undoubtedly similar to other Ottawa youth of the period. He would have lived in a bark-covered Long House, with his immediate family and four or five other families who were near relatives. Typically, these groupings were composed of his mother's sisters and other kin. Although each family was separate and centered around its own hearth, his aunts shared some chores and the entire group watched the children.

It must have been a fairly peaceful existence. The Ottawa were hunter-gatherers who had only recently discovered agriculture. They raised corn, beans, peas and pumpkins, and these plants contributed to their well-being.

But even through his bucolic childhood, change was coming. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain established what was probably the first trading post in 1608, where Quebec is now. From that point on, the traders expanded their routes, first down the St. Lawrence River, and then around the Great Lakes. The Huron and the Ottawa were often middlemen in the trading; acquiring furs from other more skilled hunters.

The English were doing the same thing east of the Appalachians. It started with settlers trading with the Iroquois, but extended all along the Atlantic Coast, as far south as Georgia. In 1670, they founded the Hudson's Bay Company, which would dominate trading in the North and Northwest.

It was a Frenchman, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, who originally built Fort Detroit in 1701, naming it Fort Pontchartrain. It was meant to be an aid to friendly relations with the local tribes, and quickly became a center for the fur trade.

It is natural to believe that Pontiac's first knowledge of the white men was from French traders who passed through his village, and then as an adult, from the rare excursion to trade at the Fort. As he matured, he would certainly have known about the friction between the French and British traders. At first, it must have been confusing to see the white men argue over territory that belonged to none of them. But as Pontiac grew to manhood, he must have realized that both groups shared the same ambition, to take over the land for themselves.

Pontiac stepped into history in 1757. A document dating from that year quotes him as giving a speech protesting England's efforts to convert tribes who were allied with the French. Before that, he had been an Ottawa war leader. After 1757, he devoted much of his time to supporting the French cause, and encouraged other warriors in the Great Lakes Area to do the same.

By that time, the war between France and England had again boiled over. In 1754, the French ousted Colonel George Washington and his British forces out of Ft. Necessity, Pennsylvania, but that victory didn't last forever. In 1760 the British commandant Robert Rogers took Fort Detroit, and the British made a peace pact with the local Indians the following year.

But the Native Americans weren't happy with the new arrangements. Although they began to make treaties and trades with the victorious British, they felt scorned and disrespected. This was especially true when Jeffrey Amherst was named as Commander in Chief in charge of Indian Affairs. Amherst decided that the way to make the tribes more dependent, thus more tractable, was to halt the issue of presents, and especially of guns and ammunition.

There was a great famine among the Lakeside Tribes in 1762. The lack of hunting materials contributed to it, and there was talk that the British had planned this in order to cause them to be weak and unable to contest their rule. They remembered the Friendly French with nostalgia, and began to talk about the Good Ol' Days and wished for the return of their old trading buddies. When they encountered French fur traders, the fireside chatter was about France regaining control of the region.

There is great dispute among the historians about what happened next. Francis Parkman described Pontiac as the chief engineer of the revolt, but Randolph Adams called Pontiac "a local villain" and said his influence beyond Detroit was "insignificant." The great contemporary historians, Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn, said in their book "Indian Wars" that Pontiac had a significant role but was only one leader among many.

It hardly matters whether it was Pontiac, or another brave warrior, or even a group of leaders. However it was engineered, it was a most significant and unique moment in Native American history. Pontiac (or someone) was able to form a coalition with the Ottawa, Delaware, Huron, Illinois, Kickapoo, Miamis and Potawatomis.

Messages, in the form of ornate war belts, flew back and forth between these tribes, and also the Shawnee, Seneca, Chippewa and Wyandot. Early in 1763, key members of each group held a great powwow, and agreed to make simultaneous attacks, each on the British fort in that tribe's area. Thus began hell on earth for the forts and settlers in the Ohio Valley in the Spring and Summer of 1763.

The initial attacks against the British-held forts were successful. The list of targets included Fort Sandusky, Fort Michilimackinac, Fort Wayne, Fort Ouiatenon, Fort Ligonier, Fort Bedford , Fort Venango. Fort Presque Isle and Fort LeBoeuf. Unfortunately, in the eagerness of battle, many settlers and their families were also cruelly massacred. Naturally, this led to reprisals, including shameful massacres of villages of completely peaceful tribes.

Fort Pitt was also attacked, but the Swiss commander Simeon Ecuyer rejected all demands for surrender. He then sent the attacking Delaware force a present: two blankets and a handkerchief. What the Delaware didn't know is that this "gift" was from the fort's smallpox hospital. This piece of classic brutality worked: the Delaware sickened, ended their attack, and the disease decimated their village.

Pontiac himself attacked Fort Detroit, but Major Henry Gladwin received advance notice (possibly from his Native American girlfriend) and his troops successfully defended. Then Pontiac besieged the Fort from May 9 to the end of October, the longest such siege in the history of the Native American wars.

By this time, Jeffrey Amherst realized that the situation was severe. News was sent to England, and the King's ministers decided to take steps. They issued the Proclamation of 1763, announcing a limit on white settlement, forbidding the settlers in the Colonies from venturing west of the Appalachians.

It all fell apart that autumn. At its peak, the siege of Detroit attracted almost a thousand warriors. But it came time to go home; hunting season was beginning, and the Native Americans grew tired of what seemed like a futile gesture. They were already short of ammunition (powder and ball). To top it off, word began to trickle down from Canada that France had surrendered. In a treaty signed in Paris, France ceded all its North American territory to England.

Pontiac tried again. He spent the next couple of years trying to rally forces in Illinois and the Upper Mississippi, including the Wabash, Osage and Quapaws. He attained a position of prestige in the western area, while during the same period his standing with the Lake people was degenerating.

But finally even he had to admit it was over. The French were not going to come back. Even his own tribe had surrendered. In July of 1766 he signed a peace treaty.

And, it was all in vain. Pontiac's most memorable success, getting the tribes to work together, accomplished nothing but bloodshed and disaster. They had all been pawns in a game of kings; nothing they'd done had any impact on the final victory.

Pontiac's end was rather sad and pathetic. He became a braggart, boasting of his importance, and that he ruled "all the nations to the westward." This bad behavior caused jealousies and tensions, and he finally left his own village to go to Illinois. He was accused of stabbing another Indian in 1766. And he kept boasting about his own importance, and threatening to raise a following to punish his enemies. Eventually a band of Peoria became so annoyed with Pontiac that they decided to kill him. Finally, when he was trading in Cahokia, he was struck from behind with a war club, and a Peoria Am-American named Pihi ("Black Dog") stabbed and killed him, on April 20, 1769.

And, what of the Proclamation of 1763 that would have stopped the Settlers from venturing west of the Appalachians? Well, that was an unlikely dream. By that time, there were already pioneers creeping ever further into the Ohio River Valley. Daniel Boone started scouting Kentucky in the '60s, and cut the Wilderness Road in 1775 to establish Boonesborough that same year. Trade had already begun to clog the entire length of the Mississippi River, prompting the settlement of Ste. Geneviève, Missouri in about 1735 and the founding of St. Louis in 1764 by Pierre Laclede and René Auguste Chouteau. And in Mexico, Junipero Serra was already planning to go to California and build missions to "save" the Indians.

Then what was the Proclamation all about? Were the King's ministers ignorant of the inroads the white men had already made west of the Appalachians? Don't you believe it! The Proclamation was designed to keep the already-troublesome Colonies from expanding their westward borders all the way to the end of the continent. The land was being saved for the Crown. There was never one moment's time when the west was being saved for the Native Americans.

So, consider the What-If and If-Only. Could Pontiac's war have succeeded? The sad sad truth is that the answer is clearly "no." Even at their strongest, when there were a thousand warriors holding Fort Detroit at siege, they were unable to prevail. And even then, there were hundreds of reinforcements marching from the east. When the first 400 troops reached the Fort, it was over…and how many thousand more do you think would have been sent, if there had been need?

The truth is, siege warfare was not the Native American way, not their strength. They were suited for guerilla warfare, for swift strikes and manly combat, not for a wait-and-see, starve-them-out cat-and-mouse game. It was a miracle of leadership that Pontiac held the forces together as long as he did, a testament to what must have been a strong charismatic personality. We don't know enough about Pontiac the man to grieve for him; we don't have any way to read his heart nor feel his pain. But we do know that he devoted himself to trying to save his people, to trying to regain a happier fate.

And what he did was remarkable. There are other times when tribes worked together, but never so many and never again for so long. There were other major victories, but none so dramatic as the capture of all those British outposts and forts. So, even though the chance of success was never really present, history recognizes that this was probably the closest that Native Americans ever came to turning the tide that was washing over us.

What do you think about this? I'd be happy to know your opinions, questions, and even your disagreements. Write to me; I'd welcome your letters.

(Joyce Worley is proud of her Cherokee heritage. A well-known journalist and historian from Missouri, Joyce now resides in Nevada.)