Saturday, April 14, 2012

Chief Pontiac's Plot Against Fort Detroit


The time was ripe for rebellion and Pontiac was ready. All over the land should council fires be lighted. All over the land should the hatchet be raised. By wile and treachery the forts should fall. By fire and bloodshed the settlements should be laid waste and the Englishmen driven into the sea. Thus spoke Pontiac, and thus spoke his messengers, who with war belts of black and red wampum and hatchets smeared with blood sought out the villages of the Algonquins. Far and wide this dark company went its way through forests, across prairies, in spite of storm or flooded stream, or mountain barrier. No camp was so secret, no village so remote, that the messengers of war did not find it out. Wherever they went the bloody plan found favor; the tokens of war were accepted and pledges of warlike purpose sent to Pontiac.[Pg 71]
Not far from the summering place where clustered the lodges of Pontiac and his kinsmen rose the walls of Fort Detroit. There Pontiac had suffered humiliation at the hands of the English, and upon it he planned to visit his vengeance.
The little French military station planted on the west bank of the Detroit River had reached half a century's growth. It had become a place of some importance. Both banks of the river were studded with farmhouses for miles above and below the "fort," as the walled village where the soldiers lived was called.
The fort consisted of about one hundred small houses surrounded by a palisade, or wall of heavy stakes, twenty-five feet high. Since gates are easily broken down, over every gate a block house had been built, from which soldiers could fire upon the approaching enemy. At the four corners of the palisade were bastions, or fortified projections, from which the inmates could see the whole length of the wall and shoot any one attempting to climb it, set fire to it, or do it any harm.
The small log houses within were crowded together with only narrow passage-ways between. They were roofed with bark or thatched with straw. To lessen the danger of fire a wide road was left between the wall and the houses. Besides dwelling houses, there were in the fort the barracks where the soldiers stayed, the church, shops, and the council house, where meetings with the Indians were held.
At this time the garrison consisted of about one[ hundred and twenty men. But counting the other inmates of the fort and the Canadians who lived along the river, there were about two thousand five hundred white people in the Detroit settlement. On the outskirts of the settlement hung the Indian villages, much as the Indian villages crowd around the white settlements of Alaska to-day.
In the midst of the wilderness this little band of English lived protected by their log walls. No friends were near. Their nearest neighbors were the conquered French, who regarded them with jealousy and dislike. Not far away were their Indian enemies. Yet they thought little of danger.
Occasionally some story of Indian treachery, some rumor of Indian hostility, or some omen of evil filled the garrison with vague alarm. In October, 1762, dense clouds gathered over the fort, and soon rain black as ink fell from them. This strange occurrence stirred up the fears of the settlers. Some said that it was a sign that the end of the world was at hand; others, that it was a sign of war. But by the spring of the next year the settlers of Detroit had ceased to think of the black rain and war.
If a few had suffered unrest because of the Indians, their fears were put to flight by a visit which Pontiac made to Detroit late in April. With forty of his chiefs he came to the fort asking to be allowed to perform the peace dance before the commander. The request was granted, and a good-natured crowd gathered near Major Gladwin's house to see the Indian dance.[Pg 73]
No one thought anything of the fact that ten of the party took no part in the dance, but strolled around the fort prying into everything. Those who noticed them at all, thought their conduct showed nothing more than childish curiosity.
No one dreamed that these men were spies, and that the sole purpose of the visit was to discover the strength of the garrison. The Indians left with promises to come again to smoke the calumet with the English when all their chiefs should assemble after the winter's hunt.
After visiting Detroit, Pontiac sent swift-footed runners to all the tribes in the neighboring country, calling the chiefs to a council to be held in the village of the Pottawottomies.
When the day for the great council arrived, all the women were sent away from the village so that they could not overhear the plans of the chiefs. At the door of the great bark lodge where the chiefs met, sentinels were posted to prevent interruption.
When all had taken their places in the council room Pontiac rose and laid before his trusted chiefs his crafty plans. On the seventh of May the young warriors should gather on the green near Detroit to play ball, while the older men lay on the ground looking on, or loitered in and about the fort. The squaws should go about the streets with guns and tomahawks hidden under their blankets, offering mats and baskets for sale, or begging. Later Pontiac, with the principal chiefs would arrive, and ask to hold a council with the commander and his officers. While speaking in the council he would suddenly turn the wampum belt that he held in his hand. At that signal the chiefs should throw off the blankets that hid their weapons and war paint, and butcher the English before they could offer resistance. When the Indians outside heard the clamor within the council house they should snatch the guns and knives that the squaws carried, fall upon the surprised and half-armed soldiers, kill them and plunder and burn the fort, sparing only the French.
From the Indians' point of view this seemed a brave plot. No one objected to the treachery. All the guttural sounds that broke from the throng of listeners were made for approval and applause.