THE LAST OF CHIEF PONTIAC
While other Indians were promising to bury the hatchet, Pontiac, the soul of the conspiracy, made no promises and smoked no peace-pipe. Surrounded by hundreds of warriors the chief camped on the Maumee River. His messengers brought him news of what was going on, and until the white men had taken their soldiers from the land he was content to wait and plan.
Captain Morris, who had been sent to Pontiac's camp by Colonel Bradstreet, was coldly received by the great chief. Pontiac, indeed, granted him a hearing, but he bent upon his guest dark looks and refused to shake his hand. He made no flowery speeches, but declared that all the British were liars, and asked what new lies he had come to tell. After some talk Pontiac showed the captain a letter which he supposed to have been written by the King of France. It told the old story of the French army on its way to destroy the English. Captain Morris did his best to persuade him that the report was false. He was much impressed with the influence, knowledge, and sense of Pontiac—an Indian who commanded eighteen nations and was acquainted with the laws that regulated the conduct of civilized states.
Pontiac would make no official promises of peace, but he was so much discouraged by the communications Captain Morris brought, that he said to one of the followers of the latter: "I shall never more lead the nations to war. As for them, let them be at peace with the English if they will; for me, I shall be at war with them forever. I shall be a wanderer in the woods, and if they come to seek me I will fight them single-handed." With much bitterness of soul did Pontiac learn that the forts he had taken with so much effort and loss of Indian blood, had been retaken by the enemy; that the war spirit he had with so much labor aroused had been put to sleep.
But his hopes were not easily dashed. There were the letters from the French. The English said they] were false, but the English were his enemies. The French were his friends. Enemies might deceive each other, but friends must trust each other.
His confidence in the French was encouraged by the fact that several of the forts in the Illinois country were still occupied by French garrisons.
Pontiac resolved to make another effort to rouse his people. He set his squaws to work on a wampum war belt, broad and long, containing symbols of the forty-seven tribes which belonged to his confederacy. When the belt was done he sent a delegation of chiefs to the south with it. These messengers were instructed to show the war belt and offer the hatchet to all the tribes along the Mississippi River as far south as New Orleans. They were then to visit the French Governor at New Orleans and invite him to assist them in war against their common enemy.
Pontiac, in the meantime, went about among his old French friends asking for their help, and among the Illinois Indians urging them with threats and promises to join him in making war against the English. He met with some success, but his dreams were rudely broken by the return of his chiefs with the news that the Governor of New Orleans had indeed yielded to the British, and by the arrival of a company of British from Fort Pitt, offering terms of peace to the Illinois Indians. Daily Pontiac's allies deserted him, and accepted the terms of the English.
Again the day had come when it seemed to Pontiac] wise to let his hatred of the English sleep. He sent his great peace-pipe to Sir William Johnson and promised to go to Oswego in the spring to conclude a treaty with him.
True to his promise, in the spring of 1766, Pontiac, greatest war chief and sachem of the Ottawas, presented himself in the council chamber of Sir William Johnson. There was nothing fawning in his attitude; he conducted himself with the dignity of a fallen monarch. "When you speak to me," he said, "it is as if you addressed all the nations of the west." In making peace he submitted not to the will of the British but to that of the Great Spirit, whose will it was that there should be peace. He made it clear that in allowing the English to take the forts of the French the Indians granted them no right to their lands. When he promised friendship for the future, he called his hearers to witness how true a friend he had been to the French, who had deceived him and given him reason to transfer his friendship.
It would be hard to say how sincere Pontiac was, or how readily he would have let go the chain of friendship he had been forced to take up, had opportunity offered. He went back to his camp on the Maumee River, and there among his own people tried to live the life of his fathers. Little was heard of him for a year or two, but whenever an outbreak occurred among the Indians there were those who said Pontiac was at the bottom of it.
In the spring of 1769, anxious to see his French[ friends once more, he made a visit to St. Louis. He was cordially received and spent several days with his old acquaintances. Then he crossed the river with a few chiefs to visit an assembly of traders and Illinois Indians.
After feasting and drinking with some of the Illinois, Pontiac sought the quiet of the forest. He wandered through its dim aisles, living over again the hopes and ambitions of the past, which his visit with the French and the Illinois had vividly recalled. He had forgotten the present and was again the mighty warrior who had made the hearts of the palefaces quake with fear. Little he dreamed that behind him stood an assassin with up-raised tomahawk.
The murderer of the great chief was an Illinois Indian who had been bribed to do the deed by an English trader.
During his life Pontiac had tried to overcome the tribal feeling of the Indians, and to unite them as one people. Over his grave the old tribal instinct awoke. The Illinois rallied about their kinsman to protect him; the Ottawas flew to arms to avenge their chief—such a sachem, such a chief, could not be forgotten. Wrong to him could not be forgiven. The fury of the Ottawas was not slaked until they had avenged the death of their chief, through the destruction of the powerful tribes of the Illinois.[Pg 115]