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Conspiracy of Pontiac

The fall of French dominion in Canada and the West left the Algonquin Indians unprotected. Since the days of Marquette and La Salle the many tribes of this great family had lived in harmony with the French, and during the late war had been their faithful allies. But they now found in their new masters a people very different in their attitude toward the red man. The French had treated them as equals and brethren; but the English, while they often made friends among the various tribes, never went far out of their way to conciliate them. And now, at the close of this long war, their feelings toward the allies of their enemy were anything but cordial. The French had lavished presents upon them, but the English doled out blankets, guns, and ammunition with a sparing hand.

The proud-spirited Indians were exasperated at the patronizing air of the English, and the rising flame was secretly fanned by the Frenchmen who were still scattered among them. A conspiracy was soon formed to massacre all the English garrisons and settlers along the frontiers of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the regions of the Great Lakes. The leader of this great movement was Pontiac, probably the ablest Indian warrior ever known to the white race in America. Pontiac belonged to the Ottawa tribe, but it is said that his mother was an Ojibway. He came to be chief of both tribes and of several others, and he was now the soul of the great conspiracy against the English. On a certain day in June, 1763, to be determined by a change of the moon, every English post was to be attacked and the garrison murdered, and all the whites were eventually to be driven eastward beyond the Alleghanies.

Pontiac visited many of the tribes and won them by his extraordinary eloquence. To others he sent messengers, each bearing a wampum belt and a red-stained hatchet. Almost every tribe of the great Algonquin family, and one tribe of the Six Nations, the Senecas, joined in this conspiracy. So adroitly was the plot managed that the attack was made almost simultaneously in all parts, and every English post fell into the hands of the savages except three, -- Detroit, Fort Pitt, and Niagara. Of these three, Detroit, attacked by Pontiac in person, was successfully defended by Major Gladwyn, Fort Pitt was saved by Colonel Bouquet, and Niagara was not attacked.

The war continued at intervals for three years, when the Indians yielded, and agreed to a treaty of peace. Pontiac a few years later went to the Mississippi Valley, where he perished, like his great prototype, King Philip, by the hand of one of his own race. He was buried on the soil where St. Louis afterward rose, and "the race whom he hated with such burning rancor trample with unceasing footsteps over his forgotten grave."1

Map of before and after the French and Indian War


        Duquesne. -- As stated in the text, Colonel Forbes was so ill when he crossed the mountains that he had to he carried on a litter. He died the following spring. The Indian allies threatened to refuse to follow a leader who had to be carried, when the witty interpreter, Conrad Weiser, quieted them by saying, "Brothers, this man is so terrible in war that we are obliged to confine him, ...for if he were let loose upon the world, he would deluge it with blood." (Drake's "Making of the Ohio Valley States," p.76.) After Washington, sent by Forbes, had taken Fort Duquesne, Captain West, brother of the great artist, led a party to Braddock's battlefield to search for the bones of their comrades. Captain Halket, who was with the party, found two skeletons in each other's embrace, and recognized them by the teeth to be his father and brother. He fainted at the sight. (Parkman, Vol. I, p.160.)

        Pitt and Wolfe. -- William Pitt, the "Great Commoner," was an aristocrat and by no means a democrat in the modern sense. His egotism was his greatest defect. "I am sure," said he, "that I can save this country and that nobody else can." Frederick the Great said of him, "England has long been in labor and at last has brought forth a man." Pitt was severely criticised for appointing Wolfe to lead the Quebec expedition. "Pitt's new general is mad," said ex-Premier Newcastle. "Mad, is he?" returned Pitt; "then I hope he will bite some other of my generals." This reminds one of President Lincoln's remark about General Grant. Being informed that Grant sometimes drank, he expressed a desire to know the brand of whisky Grant used, as he wished to give some to his other generals.

        Washington's Modesty. -- The Southern colonies took little part in the war during the last years of its progress. Even Washington, after the capture of Fort Duquesne, retired to his plantation, and was soon afterward elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Being called on to give an account of his military exploits, he rose in his seat, but stood abashed and unable to utter a word, when the speaker relieved him by saying, "Sit down, Mr. Washington, your modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses any power of language I possess."

        Detroit, Pontiac. -- Pontiac's plan for capturing Detroit was very skillful, but it miscarried. It was not unusual for the Indians to come into the fort and amuse the garrison with their rude games and dances. Pontiac's plan was to lead his warriors within the fort on a pretended friendly visit, each to hold a weapon hidden beneath his cloak, and at a given signal to fall upon the English and murder them to the last man. But on the day before this was to occur, an Indian girl, well known to the English, revealed the plot to Major Gladwyn, and when the Indians came they found the white men drawn up in battle line and armed to the teeth. Pontiac did not give the signal, but afterward attacked the fort, and besieged it unsuccessfully for several months, when it was relieved by General Bradstreet. Gladwyn and Pontiac had both fought on opposite sides in Braddock's battle near Fort Duquesne. Pontiac kept two secretaries, one to read his letters and the other to answer them, and he managed to keep each ignorant of what the other did. To carry on the war he secured loans from the Canadians and gave promissory notes written on birch bark, signing his name by making the totem of his tribe, the figure of an otter. Every note was paid in full. On hearing that a trusted friend of his, a Canadian, had been offered a bushel of silver to betray him, Pontiac went to the friend's house and slept there all night to show his perfect confidence. The genius of Pontiac was very remarkable, and had his great powers been devoted to uplifting and civilizing his race, his name would hold a conspicuous and abiding place in history.

        Sir William Johnson was a power among the Indians, and, with all his shortcomings, he did a great service for his countrymen in keeping the Iroquois (except the Senecas) from joining the great conspiracy. It was to him that Pontiac came to arrange a treaty of peace in 1766, making the long journey to Oswego, New York.

        Michilimackinac. -- The plan adopted at Michilimackinac was similar to that at Detroit. Here the Indians arranged to play a game of ball within the fort. The squaws were to stand by with concealed weapons. At a certain signal the players ran to the squaws, seized the weapons, and began the bloody work. The English were unprepared, and few of them escaped alive. At Presque Isle the garrison surrendered after a terrible siege of two days.

Sandusky was captured by treachery, and every man in the fort was put to death except the commander, Ensign Paulli, who was carried to Detroit as a trophy. He was afterward given his choice of two things -- to be put to death, or to marry a squaw. He was not put to death. (Drake, p.85.)


1Parkman (references to Parkman are to the 5th edition), "Conspiracy of Pontiac," Vol.11, p.313. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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