About Chief Pontiac's Conspiracy
The fall of Montreal, on September 8, 1760, while the plains about the city were still dotted with the white tents of the victorious English and colonial troops, was indeed an event of the deepest consequence to America and to the world. By the articles of capitulation which were signed by the Marquis de Vaudreuil, Governor of New France, Canada and all its dependencies westward to the Mississippi passed to the British Crown. Virtually ended was the long struggle for the dominion of the New World. Open now for English occupation and settlement was that vast country lying south of the Great Lakes between the Ohio and the Mississippi—which we know as the Old Northwest—today the seat of five great commonwealths of the United States.
With an ingenuity born of necessity, the French pathfinders and colonizers of the Old Northwest had chosen for their settlements sites which would serve at once the purposes of the priest, the trader, and the soldier; and with scarcely an exception these sites are as important today as when they were first selected. Four regions, chiefly, were still occupied by the French at the time of the capitulation of Montreal. The most important, as well as the most distant, of these regions was on the east bank of the Mississippi, opposite and below the present city of St. Louis, where a cluster of missions, forts, and trading-posts held the center of the tenuous line extending from Canada to Louisiana. A second was the Illinois country, centering about the citadel of St. Louis which La Salle had erected in 1682 on the summit of "Starved Rock," near the modern town of Ottawa in Illinois. A third was the valley of the Wabash, where in the early years of the eighteenth century Vincennes had become the seat of a colony commanding both the Wabash and the lower Ohio. And the fourth was the western end of Lake Erie, where Detroit, founded by the doughty Cadillac in 1701, had assumed such strength that for fifty years it had discouraged the ambitions of the English to make the Northwest theirs.
Sir Jeffrey Amherst, to whom Vaudreuil surrendered in 1760, forthwith dispatched to the western country a military force to take possession of the posts still remaining in the hands of the French. The mission was entrusted to a stalwart New Hampshire Scotch-Irishman, Major Robert Rogers, who as leader of a band of intrepid "rangers" had made himself the hero of the northern frontier. Two hundred men were chosen for the undertaking, and on the 13th of September the party, in fifteen whaleboats, started up the St. Lawrence for Detroit.
At the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, near the site of the present city of Cleveland, the travelers were halted by a band of Indian chiefs and warriors who, in the name of their great ruler Pontiac, demanded to know the object of their journeying. Parleys followed, in which Pontiac himself took part, and it was explained that the French had surrendered Canada to the English and that the English merely proposed to assume control of the western posts, with a view to friendly relations between the red men and the white men. The rivers, it was promised, would flow with rum, and presents from the great King would be forthcoming in endless profusion. The explanation seemed to satisfy the savages, and, after smoking the calumet with due ceremony, the chieftain and his followers withdrew.
Late in November, Rogers and his men in their whaleboats appeared before the little palisaded town of Detroit. They found the French commander, Beletre, in surly humor and seeking to stir up the neighboring Wyandots and Potawatomi against them. But the attempt failed, and there was nothing for Beletre to do but yield. The French soldiery marched out of the fort, laid down their arms, and were sent off as prisoners down the river. The fleur-de-lis, which for more than half a century had floated over the village, was hauled down, and, to the accompaniment of cheers, the British ensign was run up. The red men looked on with amazement at this display of English authority and marveled how the conquerors forbore to slay their vanquished enemies on the spot.
Detroit in 1760 was a picturesque, lively, and rapidly growing frontier town. The central portions of the settlement, lying within the bounds of the present city, contained ninety or a hundred small houses, chiefly of wood and roofed with bark or thatch. A well-built range of barracks afforded quarters for the soldiery, and there were two public buildings—a council house and a little church. The whole was surrounded by a square palisade twenty-five feet high, with a wooden bastion at each corner and a blockhouse over each gateway. A broad passageway, the chemin du ronde, lay next to the palisade, and on little narrow streets at the center the houses were grouped closely together.
Above and below the fort the banks of the river were lined on both sides, for a distance of eight or nine miles, with little rectangular farms, so laid out as to give each a water-landing. On each farm was a cottage, with a garden and orchard, surrounded by a fence of rounded pickets; and the countryside rang with the shouts and laughter of a prosperous and happy peasantry. Within the limits of the settlement were villages of Ottawas, Potawatomi, and Wyandots, with whose inhabitants the French lived on free and easy terms. "The joyous sparkling of the bright blue water," writes Parkman; "the green luxuriance of the woods; the white dwellings, looking out from the foliage; and in the distance the Indian wigwams curling their smoke against the sky—all were mingled in one broad scene of wild and rural beauty."
At the coming of the English the French residents were given an opportunity to withdraw. Few, however, did so, and from the gossipy correspondence of the pleasure-loving Colonel Campbell, who for some months was left in command of the fort, it appears that the life of the place lost none of its gayety by the change of masters. Sunday card parties at the quarters of the commandant were festive affairs; and at a ball held in celebration of the King's birthday the ladies presented an appearance so splendid as to call forth from the impressionable officer the most extravagant praises. A visit in the summer of 1761 from Sir William Johnson, general supervisor of Indian affairs on the frontier, became the greatest social event in the history of the settlement, if not of the entire West. Colonel Campbell gave a ball at which the guests danced nine hours. Sir William reciprocated with one at which they danced eleven hours. A round of dinners and calls gave opportunity for much display of frontier magnificence, as well as for the consumption of astonishing quantities of wines and cordials. Hundreds of Indians were interested spectators, and the gifts with which they were generously showered were received with evidences of deep satisfaction.
No amount of fiddling and dancing, however, could quite drown apprehension concerning the safety of the post and the security of the English hold upon the great region over which this fort and its distant neighbors stood sentinel. Thousands of square miles of territory were committed to the keeping of not more than six hundred soldiers. From the French there was little danger. But from the Indians anything might be expected. Apart from the Iroquois, the red men had been bound to the French by many ties of friendship and common interest, and in the late war they had scalped and slaughtered and burned unhesitatingly at the French command. Hardly, indeed, had the transfer of territorial sovereignty been made before murmurs of discontent began to be heard.
Notwithstanding outward expressions of assent to the new order of things, a deep-rooted dislike on the part of the Indians for the English grew after 1760 with great rapidity. They sorely missed the gifts and supplies lavishly provided by the French, and they warmly resented the rapacity and arrogance of the British traders. The open contempt of the soldiery at the posts galled the Indians, and the confiscation of their lands drove them to desperation. In their hearts hope never died that the French would regain their lost dominion; and again and again rumors were set afloat that this was about to happen. The belief in such a reconquest was adroitly encouraged, too, by the surviving French settlers and traders. In 1761 the tension among the Indians was increased by the appearance of a "prophet" among the Delawares, calling on all his race to purge itself of foreign influences and to unite to drive the white man from the land.
Protests against English encroachments were frequent and, though respectful, none the less emphatic. At a conference in Philadelphia in 1761, an Iroquois sachem declared, "We, your Brethren, of the several Nations, are penned up like Hoggs. There are Forts all around us, and therefore we are apprehensive that Death is coming upon us." "We are now left in Peace," ran a petition of some Christian Oneidas addressed to Sir William Johnson, "and have nothing to do but to plant our Corn, Hunt the wild Beasts, smoke our Pipes, and mind Religion. But as these Forts, which are built among us, disturb our Peace, and are a great hurt to Religion, because some of our Warriors are foolish, and some of our Brother Soldiers don't fear God, we therefore desire that these Forts may be pull'd down, and kick'd out of the way."
The leadership of the great revolt that was impending fell naturally upon Pontiac, who, since the coming of the English, had established himself with his squaws and children on a wooded island in Lake St. Clair, barely out of view of the fortifications of Detroit. In all Indian annals no name is more illustrious than Pontiac's; no figure more forcefully displays the good and bad qualities of his race. Principal chief of the Ottawa tribe, he was also by 1763 the head of a powerful confederation of Ottawas, Ojibwas, and Potawatomi, and a leader known and respected among Algonquin peoples from the sources of the Ohio to the Mississippi. While capable of acts of magnanimity, he had an ambition of Napoleonic proportions, and to attain his ends he was prepared to use any means. More clearly than most of his forest contemporaries, he perceived that in the life of the Indian people a crisis had come. He saw that, unless the tide of English invasion was rolled back at once, all would be lost. The colonial farmers would push in after the soldiers; the forests would be cut away; the hunting-grounds would be destroyed; the native population would be driven away or enslaved. In the silence of his wigwam he thought out a plan of action, and by the closing weeks of 1762 he was ready. Never was plot more shrewdly devised and more artfully carried out.
During the winter of 1762-63 his messengers passed stealthily from nation to nation throughout the whole western country, bearing the pictured wampum belts and the reddened tomahawks which symbolized war; and in April, 1763, the Lake tribes were summoned to a great council on the banks of the Ecorces, below Detroit, where Pontiac in person proclaimed the will of the Master of Life as revealed to the Delaware prophet, and then announced the details of his plan. Everywhere the appeal met with approval; and not only the scores of Algonquin peoples, but also the Seneca branch of the Iroquois confederacy and a number of tribes on the lower Mississippi, pledged themselves with all solemnity to fulfill their prophet's injunction "to drive the dogs which wear red clothing into the sea." While keen-eyed warriors sought to keep up appearances by lounging about the forts and begging in their customary manner for tobacco, whiskey, and gunpowder, every wigwam and forest hamlet from Niagara to the Mississippi was astir. Dusky maidens chanted the tribal war-songs, and in the blaze of a hundred camp-fires chiefs and warriors performed the savage pantomime of battle.
A simultaneous attack, timed by a change of the moon, was to be made on the English forts and settlements throughout all the western country. Every tribe was to fall upon the settlement nearest at hand, and afterwards all were to combine—with French aid, it was confidently believed—in an assault on the seats of English power farther east. The honor of destroying the most important of the English strongholds, Detroit, was reserved for Pontiac himself.
The date fixed for the rising was the 7th of May. Six days in advance Pontiac with forty of his warriors appeared at the fort, protested undying friendship for the Great Father across the water, and insisted on performing the calumet dance before the new commandant, Major Gladwyn. This aroused no suspicion. But four days later a French settler reported that his wife, when visiting the Ottawa village to buy venison, had observed the men busily filing off the ends of their gunbarrels; and the blacksmith at the post recalled the fact that the Indians had lately sought to borrow files and saws without being able to give a plausible explanation of the use they intended to make of the implements.
The English traveler Jonathan Carver, who visited the post five years afterwards, relates that an Ottawa girl with whom Major Gladwyn had formed an attachment betrayed the plot. Though this story is of doubtful authenticity, there is no doubt that, in one way or another, the commandant was amply warned that treachery was in the air. The sounds of revelry from the Indian camps, the furtive glances of the redskins lounging about the settlement, the very tension of the atmosphere, would have been enough to put an experienced Indian fighter on his guard.
Accordingly when, on the fated morning, Pontiac and sixty redskins, carrying under long blankets their shortened muskets, appeared before the fort and asked admission, they were taken aback to find the whole garrison under arms. On their way from the gate to the council house they were obliged to march literally between rows of glittering steel. Well might even Pontiac falter. With uneasy glances, the party crowded into the council room, where Gladwyn and his officers sat waiting. "Why," asked the chieftain stolidly, "do I see so many of my father's young men standing in the street with their guns?" "To keep them in training," was the laconic reply.
The scene that was planned was then carried out, except in one vital particular. When, in the course of his speech professing strong attachment to the English, the chieftain came to the point where he was to give the signal for slaughter by holding forth the wampum belt of peace inverted, he presented the emblem—to the accompaniment of a significant clash of arms and roll of drums from the mustered garrison outside—in the normal manner; and after a solemn warning from the commandant that vengeance would follow any act of aggression, the council broke up. To the forest leader's equivocal announcement that he would bring all of his wives and children in a few days to shake hands with their English fathers, Gladwyn deigned no reply.
Balked in his plans, the chief retired, but only to meditate fresh treachery; and when, a few days later, with a multitude of followers, he sought admission to the fort to assure "his fathers" that "evil birds had sung lies in their ears," and was refused, he called all his forces to arms, threw off his disguises, and began hostilities. For six months the settlement was besieged with a persistence rarely displayed in Indian warfare. At first the French inhabitants encouraged the besiegers, but, after it became known that a final peace between England and France had been concluded, they withheld further aid. Throughout the whole period, the English obtained supplies with no great difficulty from the neighboring farms. There was little actual fighting, and the loss of life was insignificant.
By order of General Amherst, the French commander still in charge of Fort Chartres sent a messenger to inform the redskins definitely that no assistance from France would be forthcoming. "Forget then, my dear children,"—so ran the admonition—"all evil talks. Leave off from spilling the blood of your brethren, the English. Our hearts are now but one; you cannot, at present, strike the one without having the other for an enemy also." The effect was, as intended, to break the spirit of the besiegers; and in October Pontiac humbly sued for peace.
Meanwhile a reign of terror spread over the entire frontier. Settlements from Forts Le Boeuf and Venango, south of Lake Eric, to Green Bay, west of Lake Michigan, were attacked, and ruses similar to that attempted at Detroit were generally successful. A few Indians in friendly guise would approach a fort. After these were admitted, others would appear, as if quite by chance. Finally, when numbers were sufficient, the conspirators would draw their concealed weapons, strike down the garrison, and begin a general massacre of the helpless populace. Scores of pioneer families, scattered through the wilderness, were murdered and scalped; traders were waylaid in the forest solitudes; border towns were burned and plantations were devastated. In the Ohio Valley everything was lost except Fort Pitt, formerly Fort Duquesne; in the Northwest, everything was taken except Detroit.
Fort Pitt was repeatedly endangered, and the most important engagement of the war was fought in its defense. The relief of the post was entrusted in midsummer to a force of five hundred regulars lately transferred from the West Indies to Pennsylvania and placed under the command of Colonel Henry Bouquet. The expedition advanced with all possible caution, but early in August, 1763, when it was yet twenty-five miles from its destination, it was set upon by a formidable Indian band at Bushy Run and threatened with a fate not un-like that suffered by Braddock's little army in the same region nine years earlier. Finding the woods full of redskins and all retreat cut off, the troops, drawn up in a circle around their horses and supplies, fired with such effect as they could upon the shadowy forms in the forest. No water was obtainable, and in a few hours thirst began to make the soldiery unmanageable. Realizing that the situation was desperate, Bouquet resorted to a ruse by ordering his men to fall back as if in retreat. The trick succeeded, and with yells of victory the Indians rushed from cover to seize the coveted provisions—only to be met by a deadly fire and put to utter rout. The news of the battle of Bushy Run spread rapidly through the frontier regions and proved very effective in discouraging further hostilities.
It was Bouquet's intention to press forward at once from Fort Pitt into the disturbed Ohio country. His losses, however, compelled the postponement of this part of the undertaking until the following year. Before he started off again he built at Fort Pitt a blockhouse which still stands, and which has been preserved for posterity by becoming, in 1894, the property of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In October, 1764, he set out for the Muskingum valley with a force of fifteen hundred regulars, Pennsylvania and Virginia volunteers, and friendly Indians. By this time the great conspiracy was in collapse, and it was a matter of no great difficulty for Bouquet to enter into friendly relations with the successive tribes, to obtain treaties with them, and to procure the release of such English captives as were still in their hands. By the close of November, 1764, the work was complete, and Bouquet was back at Fort Pitt. Pennsylvania and Virginia honored him with votes of thanks; the King formally expressed his gratitude and tendered him the military governorship of the newly acquired territory of Florida.
The general pacification of the Northwest was accomplished by treaties with the natives in great councils held at Niagara, Presqu'isle (Erie), and Detroit. Pontiac had fled to the Maumee country to the west of Lake Erie, whence he still hurled his ineffectual threats at the "dogs in red." His power, however, was broken. The most he could do was to gather four hundred warriors on the Maumee and Illinois and present himself at Fort Chartres with a demand for weapons and ammunition with which to keep up the war. The French commander, who was now daily awaiting orders to turn the fortress over to the English, refused; and a deputation dispatched to New Orleans in quest of the desired equipment received no reply save that New Orleans itself, with all the country west of the river, had been ceded to Spain. The futility of further resistance on the part of Pontiac was apparent. In 1765 the disappointed chieftain gave pledges of friendship; and in the following year he and other leaders made a formal submission to Sir William Johnson at Oswego, and Pontiac renounced forever the bold design to make himself at a stroke lord of the West and deliverer of his country from English domination.
For three years the movements of this disappointed Indian leader are uncertain. Most of the time, apparently, he dwelt in the Maumee country, leading the existence of an ordinary warrior. Then, in the spring of 1769, he appeared at the settlements on the middle Mississippi. At the newly founded French town of St. Louis, on the Spanish side of the river, he visited an old friend, the commandant Saint Ange de Bellerive. Thence he crossed to Cahokia, where Indian and creole alike welcomed him and made him the central figure in a series of boisterous festivities.
An English trader in the village, observing jealously the honors that were paid the visitor, resolved that an old score should forthwith be evened up. A Kaskaskian redskin was bribed, with a barrel of liquor and with promises of further reward, to put the fallen leader out of the way; and the bargain was hardly sealed before the deed was done. Stealing upon his victim as he walked in the neighboring forest, the assassin buried a tomahawk in his brain, and "thus basely," in the words of Parkman, "perished the champion of a ruined race." Claimed by Saint-Ange, the body was borne across the river and buried with military honors near the new Fort St. Louis. The site of Pontiac's grave was soon forgotten, and today the people of a great city trample over and about it without heed.