Thursday, October 13, 2011

Chief Pontiac Meets with the English





Though the French were still fighting stubbornly at sea, the French war was over in America. Canada had been surrendered to the British, and England's banners waved over Quebec. Yet the tidings of defeat had not reached the French garrisons on the Great Lakes.
In the fall of 1760 Major Robert Rogers, with two hundred British rangers, set out in fifteen whale boats, to carry to the interior the news of the surrender and to take possession of the French forts on the lakes.
This was a somewhat dangerous task. For, although no resistance was to be feared from the French, the savages who were in league with them could not be counted on to understand or believe the changed state of affairs. Indeed, it was doubtful if they would even allow the British a hearing before attacking them.
Rogers and his men, however, coasted along the shores of Lake Erie without adventure until early in November. Then the weather became so stormy and the lake so rough that the commander decided to go ashore and camp in the forest until the tempest had passed.
The rangers were glad to feel the solid earth under their feet and to find shelter from the driving wind and[Pg 54] rain. Nevertheless, they soon realized that the forest was not without its dangers.
They had not been long ashore when a large band of Indians entered the camp. These Indians said that Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas, had sent them before him to demand of the Englishmen how they dared to come into his country without his permission.
Before nightfall the famous warrior himself stood in the presence of the English commander and his officers and spoke in this fashion: "Englishmen, I am Pontiac, greatest councilor and warrior of the Ottawas. This land belongs to my people. You are the enemies of my people. You are the enemies of our brothers, the French. Why do you bring armed warriors into my country without asking my consent? You can not go farther until Pontiac leaves your path."
[Pg 55]
To this haughty speech Rogers answered: "Brother, we come to tell you that the war is over. Our mighty English warriors have made your French brothers shake with fear. We have slain their war chiefs; we have taken their strong villages. They have begged us for mercy. They have promised to be the dutiful and obedient children of the English king if we will lay down the hatchet and fight against them no more. They have given us their guns, their forts, and all the land of Canada. I have come into your country to take Detroit. I shall not fight with your brothers, the French; I shall not shoot them. I shall show their commander a paper and he will pull down his flag and he and his men will come out of the fort and give me their guns. Then I shall go in with my men and put up my flag.
"The English king is terrible in war. He could punish the Indians and make them cry for mercy, as he has the French. But he is kind and offers to his red children the chain of friendship. If you accept it he is ready to shut his eyes to the mischief the French have put you up to in the past, and to protect you with his strong arm."
Pontiac listened gravely to every word the white man spoke. But his dark face gave no token of what was passing in his mind. Now, Indians despise rashness, and it is their custom to deliberate over night before answering any important question. So, with the dignity of one who knows no fear and craves no favor, the greatest councilor of the Ottawas replied simply: "Englishmen, I shall stand in your path till morning. In the[Pg 56] meantime if your warriors are cold or hungry the hands of my people are open to you." Then he and his chiefs withdrew, and slipped silently back through the dripping forest to their camp.
The English rangers slept with their guns at hand that night. They knew the pride and might and treachery of Pontiac, and they feared him. They felt as if they were in a trap, with the raging sea before them and the forest alive with pitiless savages behind.
But they need have had no fear, for the great chief thought not of massacre that night. He thought of the English who stood ready to avenge any harm done to their brothers; of his own race dependent on the white men for rum, for wampum, for guns and powder and bullets. Clearly the Indians must have friends among the palefaces. The French were their "brothers." They had given them presents, had married their maidens, had traded, hunted, and gone to battle with them. The English were their foes. But they were many and strong. They had beaten the French and taken their guns. The red men must let their hatred sleep for awhile. They would smoke the pipe of peace with the English, and the English would give them presents: tobacco and rum, guns and powder.
Having reached this conclusion, Pontiac and his chiefs returned to Rogers's camp on the following morn[Pg 57]ing. There they smoked the calumet with the English and exchanged presents and promises of kindness and friendship. The men who had met as enemies parted as friends.
Years later, when British armies were marching against Indians whose tomahawks were red with English blood, Pontiac's faith in the friendship of Rogers remained unshaken. The latter sent to the chief a bottle of rum. When advised not to drink it lest it should contain poison, Pontiac replied: "I did not save from death on the shores of Lake Erie a man who would to-day poison me," and he drained the bottle without hesitation.
Though a single Indian and a single Englishman could thus overcome their distrust for each other, the feelings of the two races could not be so easily altered. The Indians looked upon the English as cruel robbers, whose object was to drive them from their homes and possess their lands. They thought of them as enemies too powerful to be withstood by open force and therefore to be met only with cunning and deception. Many of the English looked upon the savages as ignorant, filthy, and treacherous beings, little better than wild beasts, and thought that the world would be better off without them. Yet for the present both were glad to be at peace.[Pg 58]
The Indians found that Major Rogers had spoken truly about Detroit. When they saw the large French garrison yield without resistance they were filled with wonder, and said to one another: "These English are a terrible people. It is well we have made friends with them."
By "making friends" with the English, the Indians had no notion of accepting them as masters. The French had seemed pleasant neighbors and valuable friends. When they occupied the fort the Indians had always found a warm welcome there. Their chiefs had been treated with great pomp and ceremony. They had received rich presents and great promises. They expected the English to show them the same consideration. But they were disappointed. The new masters of the fort had little patience with the Indian idlers, who loafed about at the most inconvenient times in the most inconvenient places, always begging, and often sullen and insolent. They frequently ordered them in no mild terms to be off. The chiefs received cold looks and short answers where they had looked for flattery and presents.
The Indians resented the conduct of the English bitterly, and when Pontiac learned that they claimed the lands of his tribe, he said within himself: "The hatred of the Ottawas has slept long enough. It is time for it to wake and destroy these British who treat the red man as if he had no right to the land where he was born.[Pg 59]