Pontiac's RebellionFort Detroit - Fort Pitt - Bloody Run - Bushy Run - Devil's Hole

Pontiac's Rebellion was a war launched in 1763 by North American Indians who were dissatisfied with British policies in the Great Lakes region after the British victory in the French and Indian War/Seven Years' War (1754-1763). Warriors from numerous tribes joined the uprising in an effort to drive British soldiers and settlers out of the region. The war began in May 1763 when American Indians, alarmed by policies imposed by British General Jeffrey Amherst, attacked a number of British forts and settlements. Eight forts were destroyed, and hundreds of colonists were killed or captured, with many more fleeing the region. Hostilities came to an end after British Army expeditions in 1764 led to peace negotiations over the next two years. The Indians were unable to drive away the British, but the uprising prompted the British government to modify the policies that had provoked the conflict.

Warfare on the North American frontier was brutal, and the killing of prisoners, the targeting of civilians, and other atrocities were widespread. In what is now perhaps the war's best-known incident, British officers at Fort Pitt attempted to infect the besieging Indians with blankets that had been exposed to smallpox. The ruthlessness of the conflict was a reflection of a growing racial divide between British colonists and American Indians. The British government sought to prevent further racial violence by issuing the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which created a boundary between colonists and Indians.

Naming the conflict

The conflict is named after its most famous participant; variations include "Pontiac's War" and "Pontiac's Uprising." An early name for the war was the "Kiyasuta and Pontiac War," "Kiaysuta" being an alternate spelling for Guyasuta, an influential Seneca/Mingo leader.10 The war became widely known as "Pontiac's Conspiracy" after the publication in 1851 of Francis Parkman's The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada.11

In the twentieth century, some historians argued that Parkman exaggerated the extent of Pontiac's influence in the conflict and that it was therefore misleading to name the war after Pontiac. For example, in 1988 Francis Jennings wrote: "In Francis Parkman's murky mind the backwoods plots emanated from one savage genius, the Ottawa chief Pontiac, and thus they became 'The Conspiracy of Pontiac,' but Pontiac was only a local Ottawa war chief in a 'resistance' involving many tribes."12 Alternate titles for the war have been proposed, but historians generally continue to refer to the war by the familiar names, with "Pontiac's War" probably the most commonly used. "Pontiac's Conspiracy" is now infrequently used by scholars.13

Origins of the conflict

You think yourselves Masters of this Country, because you have taken it from the French, who, you know, had no Right to it, as it is the Property of us Indians.
-Nimwha, Shawnee diplomat,
to George Croghan, 176814

In the decades before Pontiac's Rebellion, France and Great Britain participated in a series of wars in Europe that also involved the French and Indian Wars in North America. The largest of these wars was the worldwide Seven Years' War, in which France lost New France in North America to Great Britain. Most fighting in the North American theater of the war, generally called the French and Indian War in the United States, came to an end after British General Jeffrey Amherst captured French Montréal in 1760.15

British troops proceeded to occupy the various forts in the Ohio Country and Great Lakes region previously garrisoned by the French. Even before the war officially ended with the Treaty of Paris (1763), the British Crown began to implement changes in order to administer its vastly expanded North American territory. While the French had long cultivated alliances among the Indians, the British post-war approach was essentially to treat the Indians as a conquered people.16 Before long, American Indians who had been allies of the defeated French found themselves increasingly dissatisfied with the British occupation and the new policies imposed by the victors.

Tribes involved

Indians involved in Pontiac's Rebellion lived in a vaguely defined region of New France known as the pays d'en haut ("the upper country"), which was claimed by France until the Paris peace treaty of 1763. Indians of the pays d'en haut were from many different tribes. At this time and place, a "tribe" was a linguistic or ethnic group rather than a political unit. No chief spoke for an entire tribe, and no tribe acted in unison. For example, Ottawas did not go to war as a tribe: some Ottawa leaders chose to do so, while other Ottawa leaders denounced the war and stayed clear of the conflict.17 The tribes of the pays d'en haut consisted of three basic groups.

The first group was the tribes of the Great Lakes region: Ottawas, Ojibwas, Potawatomis, and Hurons. They had long been allied with French habitants, with whom they lived, traded, and intermarried. Great Lakes Indians were alarmed to learn that they were under British sovereignty after the French loss of North America. When a British garrison took possession of Fort Detroit from the French in 1760, local Indians cautioned them that "this country was given by God to the Indians."18

The main area of action in Pontiac's Rebellion.

The second group was the tribes of the eastern Illinois Country, which included Miamis, Weas, Kickapoos, Mascoutens, and Piankashaws.19 Like the Great Lakes tribes, these people had a long history of close relations with the French. Throughout the war, the British were unable to project military power into the Illinois Country, which was on the remote western edge of the conflict, and so the Illinois tribes were the last to come to terms with the British.20

The third group was the tribes of the Ohio Country: Delawares (Lenape), Shawnees, Wyandots, and Mingos. These people had migrated to the Ohio valley earlier in the century in order to escape British, French, and Iroquois domination elsewhere.21 Unlike the Great Lakes and Illinois Country tribes, Ohio Indians had no great attachment to the French regime, and had fought alongside the French in the 22 They made a separate peace with the British with the understanding that the British Army would withdraw from the Ohio Country. But after the departure of the French, the British strengthened their forts in the region rather than abandon them, and so the Ohioans went to war in 1763 in another attempt to drive out the British.23

Outside the pays d'en haut, the influential Iroquois Confederacy mostly did not participate in Pontiac's War because of their alliance with the British, known as the Covenant Chain. However, the westernmost Iroquois nation, the Seneca tribe, had become disaffected with the alliance. As early as 1761, Senecas began to send out war messages to the Great Lakes and Ohio Country tribes, urging them to unite in an attempt to drive out the British. When the war finally came in 1763, many Senecas were quick to take action.24

Amherst's policies

The policies of General Jeffrey Amherst, a British hero of the Seven Years' War, helped to provoke another war.

General Amherst, the British commander-in-chief in North America, was in overall charge of administering policy towards American Indians, which involved both military matters and regulation of the fur trade. Amherst believed that with France out of the picture, the Indians would have no other choice than to accept British rule. He also believed that they were incapable of offering any serious resistance to the British Army, and therefore, of the 8000 troops under his command in North America, only about 500 were stationed in the region where the war erupted.25 Amherst and officers such as Major Henry Gladwin, commander at Fort Detroit, made little effort to conceal their contempt for the natives. Indians involved in the uprising frequently complained that the British treated them no better than slaves or dogs.26

Additional Indian resentment resulted from Amherst's decision in February 1761 to cut back on the gifts given to the Indians. Gift giving had been an integral part of the relationship between the French and the tribes of the pays d'en haut. Following an American Indian custom which carried important symbolic meaning, the French gave presents (such as guns, knives, tobacco, and clothing) to village chiefs, who in turn redistributed these gifts to their people. By this process, the village chiefs gained stature among their people, and were thus able to maintain the alliance with the French.27 Amherst considered this process to be a form of bribery that was no longer necessary, especially since he was under pressure to cut expenses after the costly war with France. Many Indians regarded this change in policy as an insult and an indication that the British looked upon them as conquered people rather than as allies.28

Amherst also began to restrict the amount of ammunition and gunpowder that traders could sell to Indians. While the French had always made these supplies available, Amherst did not trust the natives, particularly after the "Cherokee Rebellion" of 1761, in which Cherokee warriors took up arms against their former British allies. The Cherokee war effort had collapsed because of a shortage of gunpowder, and so Amherst hoped that future uprisings could be prevented by limiting the distribution of gunpowder. This created resentment and hardship because gunpowder and ammunition were needed by native men to provide food for their families and skins for the fur trade. Many Indians began to believe that the British were disarming them as a prelude to making war upon them. Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of the Indian Department, tried to warn Amherst of the dangers of cutting back on presents and gunpowder, to no avail.29

Land and religion

Land was also an issue in the coming of the war. While the French colonists had always been relatively few, there seemed to be no end of settlers in the British colonies. Shawnees and Delawares in the Ohio Country had been displaced by British colonists in the east, and this motivated their involvement in the war. On the other hand, Indians in the Great Lakes region and the Illinois Country had not been greatly affected by white settlement, although they were aware of the experiences of tribes in the east. Historian Gregory Dowd argues that most American Indians involved in Pontiac's Rebellion were not immediately threatened with displacement by white settlers, and that historians have therefore overemphasized British colonial expansion as a cause of the war. Dowd believes that the presence, attitude, and policies of the British Army, which the Indians found threatening and insulting, were more important factors.30

Also contributing to the outbreak of war was a religious awakening which swept through Indian settlements in the early 1760s. The movement was fed by discontent with the British, as well as food shortages and epidemic disease. The most influential individual in this phenomenon was Neolin, known as the "Delaware Prophet," who called upon Indians to shun the trade goods, alcohol, and weapons of the whites. Merging elements from Christianity into traditional religious beliefs, Neolin told listeners that the Master of Life was displeased with the Indians for taking up the bad habits of the white men, and that the British posed a threat to their very existence. "If you suffer the English among you," said Neolin, "you are dead men. Sickness, smallpox, and their poison alcohol will destroy you entirely."31 It was a powerful message for a people whose world was being changed by forces that seemed beyond their control.32

Outbreak of war, 1763

Pontiac has often been imagined by artists, as in this nineteenth century painting by John Mix Stanley, but no authentic portraits are known to exist.

Planning the war

Although fighting in Pontiac's Rebellion began in 1763, rumors reached British officials as early as 1761 that discontented American Indians were planning an attack. Senecas of the Ohio Country (Mingos) circulated messages ("war belts" made of wampum) which called for the tribes to form a confederacy and drive away the British. The Mingos, led by Guyasuta and Tahaiadoris, were concerned about being surrounded by British forts.33 Similar war belts originated from Detroit and the Illinois Country.34 The Indians were not unified, however, and in June 1761, natives at Detroit informed the British commander of the Seneca plot.35 After William Johnson held a large council with the tribes at Detroit in September 1761 a tenuous peace was maintained, but war belts continued to circulate.36 Violence finally erupted after the Indians learned in early 1763 of the imminent French cession of the pays d'en haut to the British.37

The war began at Fort Detroit under the leadership of Pontiac, and quickly spread throughout the region. Eight British forts were taken; others, including Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt, were unsuccessfully besieged. Francis Parkman's 1851 book The Conspiracy of Pontiac portrayed these attacks as a coordinated operation planned by Pontiac.38 Parkman's interpretation remains well known, but other historians have since argued that there is no clear evidence that the attacks were part of a master plan or overall "conspiracy."39 The prevailing view among scholars today is that, rather than being planned in advance, the uprising spread as word of Pontiac's actions at Detroit traveled throughout the pays d'en haut, inspiring already discontented Indians to join the revolt. The attacks on British forts were not simultaneous: most Ohio Indians did not enter the war until nearly a month after the beginning of Pontiac's siege at Detroit.40

Parkman also believed that Pontiac's War had been secretly instigated by French colonists who were stirring up the Indians in order to make trouble for the British. This belief was widely held by British officials at the time, but subsequent historians have found no evidence of official French involvement in the uprising. (The rumor of French instigation arose in part because French war belts from the Seven Years' War were still in circulation in some Indian villages.) Rather than the French stirring up the Indians, some historians now argue that the Indians were trying to stir up the French. Pontiac and other native leaders frequently spoke of the imminent return of French power and the revival of the Franco-Indian alliance; Pontiac even flew a French flag in his village. All of this was apparently intended to inspire the French to rejoin the struggle against the British. Although some French colonists and traders supported the uprising, the war was initiated and conducted by American Indians who had Indian-not French-objectives.41

Siege of Fort Detroit

On April 27, 1763, Pontiac spoke at a council about ten miles below the settlement of Detroit. Using the teachings of Neolin to inspire his listeners, Pontiac convinced a number of Ottawas, Ojibwas, Potawatomis, and Hurons to join him in an attempt to seize Fort Detroit.42 On May 1, Pontiac visited the fort with 50 Ottawas in order to assess the strength of the garrison.43 According to a French chronicler, in a second council Pontiac proclaimed:

It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation which seeks only to destroy us. You see as well as I that we can no longer supply our needs, as we have done from our brothers, the French… . Therefore, my brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it.44

Hoping to take the stronghold by surprise, on May 7 Pontiac entered Fort Detroit with about 300 men carrying concealed weapons. The British had learned of Pontiac's plan, however, and were armed and ready.45 His strategy foiled, Pontiac withdrew after a brief council and, two days later, laid siege to the fort. Pontiac and his allies killed all of the English soldiers and settlers they could find outside of the fort, including women and children.46 One of the soldiers was ritually cannibalized, as was the custom in some Great Lakes Indian cultures.47 The violence was directed at the British; French colonists were generally left alone. Eventually more than 900 warriors from a half-dozen tribes joined the siege.

Forts and battles of Pontiac's War

After receiving reinforcements, the British attempted to make a surprise attack on Pontiac's encampment. But Pontiac was ready and waiting, and defeated them at the Battle of Bloody Run on July 31, 1763. Nevertheless, the situation at Fort Detroit remained a stalemate, and Pontiac's influence among his followers began to wane. Groups of Indians began to abandon the siege, some of them making peace with the British before departing. On October 31, 1763, finally convinced that the French in Illinois would not come to his aid at Detroit, Pontiac lifted the siege and removed to the Maumee River, where he continued his efforts to rally resistance against the British.48

Small forts taken

Before other British outposts had learned about Pontiac's siege at Detroit, Indians captured five small forts in a series of attacks between May 16 and June 2.49 The first to be taken was Fort Sandusky, a small blockhouse on the shore of Lake Erie. It had been built in 1761 by order of General Amherst, despite the objections of local Wyandots, who in 1762 warned the commander that they would soon burn it down.50 On May 16, 1763, a group of Wyandots gained entry under the pretense of holding a council, the same stratagem that had failed in Detroit nine days earlier. They seized the commander and killed the other 15 soldiers. British traders at the fort were also killed,51 among the first of about 100 traders who were killed in the early stages of the war.49 The dead were scalped and the fort-as the Wyandots had warned a year earlier-was burned to the ground.52

Fort St. Joseph (the site of present-day Niles, Michigan) was captured on May 25, 1763, by the same method as at Sandusky. The commander was seized by Potawatomis, and most of the 15-man garrison was killed outright.53 Fort Miami (on the site of present Fort Wayne, Indiana) was the third fort to fall. On May 27, 1763, the commander was lured out of the fort by his Indian mistress and shot dead by Miami Indians. The nine-man garrison surrendered after the fort was surrounded.54

In the Illinois Country, Fort Ouiatenon (about five miles southwest of present Lafayette, Indiana) was taken by Weas, Kickapoos, and Mascoutens on June 1, 1763. Soldiers were lured outside for a council, and the entire 20-man garrison was taken captive without bloodshed. The Indians around Fort Ouiatenon had good relations with the British garrison, but emissaries from Pontiac at Detroit had convinced them to strike. The warriors apologized to the commander for taking the fort, saying that "they were obliged to do it by the other Nations."55 In contrast with other forts, at Ouiatenon the British captives were not killed.56

The fifth fort to fall, Fort Michilimackinac (present Mackinaw City, Michigan), was the largest fort taken by surprise. On June 2, 1763, local Ojibwas staged a game of stickball (a forerunner of lacrosse) with visiting Sauks. The soldiers watched the game, as they had done on 57

Three forts in the Ohio Country were taken in a second wave of attacks in mid-June. Fort Venango (near the site of the present Franklin, Pennsylvania) was taken around June 16, 1763, by Senecas. The entire 12-man garrison was killed outright, except for the commander, who was made to write down the grievances of the Senecas; he was then burned at the stake.58 Fort Le Boeuf (on the site of Waterford, Pennsylvania) was attacked on June 18, possibly by the same Senecas who had destroyed Fort Venango. Most of the twelve-man garrison escaped to Fort Pitt.59

The eighth and final fort to fall, Fort Presque Isle (on the site of Erie, Pennsylvania), was surrounded by about 250 Ottawas, Ojibwas, Wyandots, and Senecas on the night of June 19, 1763. After holding out for two days, the garrison of about 30 to 60 men surrendered on the condition that they could return to Fort Pitt.60 Most were instead killed after emerging from the fort.61

Siege of Fort Pitt

Colonists in western Pennsylvania fled to the safety of Fort Pitt after the outbreak of the war. Nearly 550 people crowded inside, including more than 200 women and children.62 Simeon Ecuyer, the Swiss-born British officer in command, wrote that "We are so crowded in the fort that I fear disease… ; the smallpox is among us."63 Fort Pitt was attacked on June 22, 1763, primarily by Delawares. Too strong to be taken by force, the fort was kept under siege throughout July. Meanwhile, Delaware and Shawnee war parties raided deep into Pennsylvania, taking captives and killing unknown numbers of settlers. Two smaller strongholds that linked Fort Pitt to the east, Fort Bedford and Fort Ligonier, were sporadically fired upon throughout the conflict, but were never taken.64

For Amherst, who before the war had dismissed the possibility that the Indians would offer any effective resistance to British rule, the military situation over the summer became increasingly grim. He wrote his subordinates, instructing them that captured enemy Indians should "immediately be put to death." To Colonel Henry Bouquet at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who was preparing to lead an expedition to relieve Fort Pitt, Amherst made the following proposal on about June 29, 1763: "Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them."65

Bouquet agreed, replying to Amherst on July 13, 1763: "I will try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself." Amherst responded favorably on July 16, 1763: "You will do well to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race."66

As it turned out, officers at the besieged Fort Pitt had already attempted to do what Amherst and Bouquet were still discussing, apparently without having been ordered to do so by Amherst or Bouquet. During a parley at Fort Pitt on June 24, 1763, Ecuyer gave representatives of the besieging Delawares two blankets and a handkerchief that had been exposed to smallpox, hoping to spread the disease to the Indians in order to end the siege.67

It is uncertain whether the British successfully infected the Indians. Because many American Indians died from smallpox during Pontiac's Rebellion, some historians concluded that the attempt was successful, but many scholars now doubt that conclusion. One reason is that the outbreak of smallpox among the Ohio Indians apparently preceded the blanket incident. Furthermore, the Indians outside Fort Pitt kept up the siege for more than a month after receiving the blankets, apparently unaffected by any outbreak of disease. (The two Delaware chiefs who handled the blankets were in good health a month later as well.) Finally, because the disease was already in the area, it may have reached Indian villages through a number of vectors. Eyewitnesses reported that native warriors contracted the disease after attacking infected white settlements, and they may have spread the disease upon their return home. For these reasons, historian David Dixon concludes that "the Indians may well have received the dreaded disease from a number of sources, but infected blankets from Fort Pitt was not one of them."68

Bushy Run and Devil's Hole

Charge of the Highlanders at the Battle of Bushy Run.

On August 1, 1763, most of the Indians broke off the siege at Fort Pitt in order to intercept 500 British troops marching to the fort under Colonel Bouquet. On August 5, these two forces met at the Battle of Bushy Run. Although his force suffered heavy casualties, Bouquet fought off the attack and relieved Fort Pitt on August 20, bringing the siege to an end. His victory at Bushy Run was celebrated in the British colonies-church bells rang through the night in Philadelphia-and praised by King George.69

This victory was soon followed by a costly defeat. Fort Niagara, one of the most important western forts, was not assaulted, but on September 14, 1763, at least 300 Senecas, Ottawas, and Ojibwas attacked a supply train along the Niagara Falls portage. Two companies sent from Fort Niagara to rescue the supply train were also defeated. More than 70 soldiers and teamsters were killed in these actions, which Anglo-Americans called the "Devil's Hole Massacre," the deadliest engagement for British soldiers during the war.70

Paxton Boys

Massacre of the Indians at Lancaster by the Paxton Boys in 1763, lithograph published in John Wimer's Events in Indian History. (1841).

The violence and terror of Pontiac's War convinced many western Pennsylvanians that their government was not doing enough to protect them. This discontent was manifest most seriously in an uprising led by a vigilante group that came to be known as the Paxton Boys, so-called because they were primarily from the area around the Pennsylvania village of Paxton (or Paxtang). The Paxtonians turned their anger towards American Indians-many of them Christians-who lived peacefully in small enclaves in the midst of white Pennsylvania settlements. Prompted by rumors that an Indian war party had been seen at the Indian village of Conestoga, on December 14, 1763, a group of more than 50 Paxton Boys marched on the village and murdered the six Susquehannocks they found there. Pennsylvania officials placed the remaining 14 Susquehannocks in protective custody in Lancaster, but on December 27 the Paxton Boys broke into the jail and slaughtered them. Governor John Penn issued bounties for the arrest of the murderers, but no one came forward to identify them.71

The Paxton Boys then set their sights on other Indians living within eastern Pennsylvania, many of whom fled to Philadelphia for protection. Several hundred Paxtonians marched on Philadelphia in January 1764, where the presence of British troops and Philadelphia militia prevented them from doing more violence. Benjamin Franklin, who had helped organize the local militia, negotiated with the Paxton leaders and brought an end to the immediate crisis. Afterwards, Franklin published a scathing indictment of the Paxton Boys. "If an Indian injures me," he asked, "does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians?"72

British response, 1764-1766

American Indian raids on frontier settlements escalated in the spring and summer of 1764. The hardest hit colony that year was Virginia, where more than 100 settlers were killed.73 On May 26 in Maryland, 15 colonists working in a field near Fort Cumberland were killed. On June 14, about 13 settlers near Fort Loudoun in Pennsylvania were killed and their homes burned. The most notorious raid occurred on July 26, when four Delaware warriors killed and scalped a school teacher and ten children in what is now Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Incidents such as these prompted the Pennsylvania Assembly, with the approval of Governor Penn, to reintroduce the scalp bounties offered during the French and Indian War, which paid money for every enemy Indian killed above the age of ten, including women.74

General Amherst, held responsible for the uprising by the Board of Trade, was recalled to London in August 1763 and replaced by Major General Thomas Gage. In 1764, Gage sent two expeditions into the west to crush the rebellion, rescue British prisoners, and arrest the Indians responsible for the war. According to historian Fred Anderson, Gage's campaign, which had been designed by Amherst, prolonged the war for more than a year because it focused on punishing the Indians rather than ending the war. Gage's one significant departure from Amherst's plan was to allow William Johnson to conduct a peace treaty at Niagara, giving those Indians who were ready to "bury the hatchet" a chance to do so.75

Fort Niagara treaty

From July to August 1764, Johnson conducted a treaty at Fort Niagara with about 2000 Indians in attendance, primarily Iroquois. Although most Iroquois had stayed out of the war, Senecas from the Genesee River valley had taken up arms against the British, and Johnson worked to bring them back into the Covenant Chain alliance. As restitution for the Devil's Hole ambush, the Senecas were compelled to cede the strategically important Niagara portage to the British. Johnson even convinced the Iroquois to send a war party against the Ohio Indians. This Iroquois expedition captured a number of Delawares and destroyed abandoned Delaware and Shawnee towns in the Susquehanna Valley, but otherwise the Iroquois did not contribute