Saturday, April 14, 2012

Chief Pontiac and the Siege of Detroit


The English at Detroit soon became accustomed to the discomforts and alarms of the siege. The women no longer trembled when the Indian war whoop sounded. The men no longer ran to the walls at the popping of muskets. The smell of gunpowder, the whiz of bullets, had lost their power to quicken the pulse.
The days dragged slowly on. A few wan-faced men worked, many lounged in the narrow streets, playing games of chance, betting on the outcome of the war, quarreling, complaining, boasting. Now they talked vauntingly, telling tales of the Englishman's prow]ess and the Indian's cowardice. Again, they told dismal stories of Indian cruelty and massacre, and shook their heads over their own prospects.
But every idler had his firelock close at hand, and all the time the sentinels on the bastions kept a sharp lookout. Every little while rapid firing broke the monotony of the long watch; the rolling drum called the garrison to the ramparts; wounded men groaned under the rough kindness of the fort surgeon; the dead received the soldiers' burial. But over all the old flag with its red cross, stained with rain and smoke, flapped defiantly.
Major Gladwin went about with a cheerful face, but a heavy heart. Provisions were fast melting away. It seemed scarcely possible that the garrison would be able to hold out till the expected supplies arrived. He decided to send one of the schooners to meet the provision boats, to warn them of the hostility of the Indians and urge them to all speed.
They could ill spare any of the garrison, but food must be had. So, on a bright spring morning one of the vessels weighed anchor and started for the East. Before she left the Detroit River the wind died and her sails hung limp.
As the boat lay helplessly drifting with the current a hundred canoes darted out from the shore. In the foremost one the Indians had bound their prisoner, Captain Campbell. The British saw, and were afraid to fire lest they should shoot their countryman. Noticing their hesitation, the brave old man called out: "Don't think of me. Do your duty and fire." The man at the cannon still paused. A breeze stirred, swelled the canvas, and the schooner flew like a great gull over the blue waters far out of reach of the canoes.
After the boat left, a gloom settled upon the little garrison at Detroit. With two boats in the harbor flight had seemed possible. Now that one of them had gone, all felt that the siege meant victory or death. The daily allowance of food grew smaller. The men became exhausted with ceaseless watching. All hope was fixed on the expected reinforcements.
On the thirteenth of May the sentinel announced that the long looked for convoy was in sight. The good news spread rapidly. Soon the entire population of the village was hurrying to the gate that led to the river.
The hungry, haggard-looking men that crowded the wharf sent up cheer after cheer as the boats approached with flags flying. Days of rest and plenty seemed theirs again. Here were comrades to share their vigils. Here was food to satisfy their hunger.
As the boats drew nearer, the cheers died in throats hoarse with horror. No answering shout came from the boats. The English at the oars were not their own masters. The long expected supplies had fallen into the hands of the Indians. The men to whom the garrison had looked for help were the prisoners of the enemy.
Two Englishmen escaped from their guards and succeeded in reaching the fort where they told their story: Ninety men had started with large stores of food and ammunition, early in the spring to reinforce Detroit. Meeting the schooner from the fort and learning the danger and need of the garrison, they had pushed on with all possible speed until they reached the mouth of the Detroit River. That night, as the boats were drawn up on the shore and the men were getting supper, their camp was suddenly surprised by a horde of Wyandot Indians. The British made an attempt to defend themselves. But the Indians were upon them brandishing their tomahawks and yelling like demons. Panic fear seized the white men. They dropped their guns, fled to the boats, jumped in and pushed off. The exultant Indians pressed after them and succeeded in retaking all but two of their overloaded boats. The savages were now taking their prisoners, about sixty in number, to the camp of Pontiac, where they would be tortured and put to death.
The success of this bold venture probably would have ended the siege of Detroit with victory for Pontiac, had the Canadians been as loyal to the Indians as they pretended. But while they were giving the chief assurances of good will and future help, some of them were secretly succoring the English. Under the cover of night they smuggled cattle and sheep and hogs to the famishing garrison.
Even with this aid the prospects of the little garrison were dark enough. Every wind seemed to blow them ill news.
One afternoon the guard at the fort heard a weird chant and saw issuing from the distant forest a file of warriors whose naked bodies were smeared with black paint. Every one of them carried a pole over his shoulder, and the horrified watchers knew well enough that from the end of each pole fluttered the scalp of some Englishman. They learned from the Canadians that night that Fort Sandusky had been burned and its garrison murdered.
A little later the Indians offered to exchange some prisoners with the English. The victims thus released by the Indians proved to be from Fort St. Joseph. They told how that fort had been treacherously taken and burned, and all the inmates but themselves slain.
A traveling priest brought word that the plot which had failed at Detroit had succeeded only too well at Michillimackinac. Next came tidings of the massacres at Fort Ouatanon on the Wabash River and at Fort Miamis, on the Maumee.
Nor was the tale of fire and blood yet ended. A fugitive from the camp of Pontiac reached Detroit one afternoon. It proved to be Ensign Christie, the commanding officer at Presqu' Isle, near the eastern end of Lake Erie. His story was a thrilling one. He told how his little garrison of twenty-seven men had fortified themselves in their block house and made a fierce struggle to keep back the Indians and save their stronghold from the flames; how at last the Indians had undermined their fort and threatened to apply the torch above and below at once. Then to escape death by fire the little band had listened to the promises of the Indians and yielded themselves prisoners.
If these reports terrified the English at Detroit, they also strengthened their determination not to surrender. In spite of fatigue, hunger, and discouragement they fought stoutly on, until, at length, there came a turn in the tide of ill fortune that had surged against them.
On the nineteenth of June news reached them that the schooner which had been sent to meet the provisions had returned and was entering the Detroit River. This cheered all, for they knew that the boat had been to Niagara for more supplies and more men. Still, they remembered the fate of the provision boats, and were worried lest mischance should befall the schooner.
Their anxiety increased when they saw the Indians going in large companies down the river and heard from the Canadians that they were planning to attack the schooner. The British at the fort fired two cannon shots to let their countrymen know that they still held Detroit. But several days passed before they heard anything of the boat. At last they saw her sailing safely toward them.
There were waving caps, shouts of joy, and prayers of thanksgiving among the little company of half-starved men who thronged at the gate to welcome the newcomers.
They had heard that eight hundred more Ojibwa Indians were on their way to increase the forces of Pontiac. But what were eight hundred Ojibwas to sixty hardy sons of England and a schooner loaded with supplies and cannon!