Wednesday, April 8, 2015

May 7, 1763 – Pontiac Seizes Fort Detroit

Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War allowed it to strip France of its colonial claims. The huge swath of North America known as New France was broken up with Canada going to Britain while Spain received control of Louisiana in exchange for losing Florida. The local theater of conflict had been dubbed the “French and Indian War” by the British colonists who eagerly moved west from the Eastern seaboard. While the French colonization had largely been economic with trading posts and working alongside natives, British colonists were more interested in building permanent settlements that exploited the land, already pushing tribes like the Delaware across the Appalachians. Many Native Americans preferred an alliance with France but now found themselves under British authority as French troops left fortifications at Detroit and Niagara to their former enemies.

Relations between the British and the Native Americans quickly soured. The French had followed Native American customs by bearing gifts of firearms, tools, and tobacco in goodwill. Commander-in-Chief in North America General Jeffrey Amherst opposed the custom as a form of bribery. Beyond his ethical sense, Amherst was in a budget crunch following a very expensive war. Discontinuing gifts saved a few pounds, and he determined that he could prevent a Native American uprising by suppressing the trade of gunpowder and putting quotas that checked the amount of ammunition traders could disperse. Native Americans took his actions as an insult and a display of distrust. Already scathed by British encroachment, tribes began to consider war. Even the mighty Iroquois Confederacy was beginning to break down with the Senecas in the west calling for uprising while the other tribes respected the Covenant Chain treaties with Britain. Amherst remained confident and, out of the 8,000 men under his command, sent only 500 to the western forts.

Chief Obwandiyag of the Ottawa, known to the British as Pontiac, was the first to act. Pontiac had held numerous councils through the years to form a federation of tribes that would counter any colonial aspirations. At the beginning of May, Pontiac and fifty warriors called on the nearby Fort Detroit, appearing friendly but in fact testing the defenses. Major Henry Gladwin, who had about 120 men under his command, welcomed them. Upon seeing the fort undermanned, Pontiac held a council of tribes including the Potawatomi and Ojibwas, telling them, “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.”

As the warriors assembled, a young woman who had fallen in love with Gladwin stole away to warn him. She arrived at the fort as Gladwin was having dinner, reading aloud a letter from his wife, Frances Beridge Gladwin, whom he had married the year before. Seeing a love unrequited and impossible, the young woman told him that she wished he would be happy the rest of his life, knowing how short it would be.

Pontiac led a force of three hundred men to Fort Detroit, hiding their weapons under blankets. Gladwin again welcomed the visitors, who erupted at Pontiac’s call and massacred the unprepared soldiers. The arsenal was captured nearly intact, giving Pontiac’s army ample weapons. A few British escaped, warning settlers to flee. Those that stayed were massacred, except for children, who were adopted into native tribes. Following local ritual, one the fallen soldiers was cannibalized.

Word spread of the uprising in the Great Lakes more quickly to the tribes than the British military. Through May and into June, other tribes seized Fort St. Joseph, Fort Sandusky, and more through the Ohio. By the end of June, Delawares attacked Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania. While they did not have the numbers to take the fort, which had been packed with more than five hundred people fleeing the onslaught, the Delawares laid a siege that opened up the whole countryside to extensive raids by the Shawnee and themselves. In early July, Pontiac arrived with an army of over 1,000 warriors and assisted the Delaware in destroying the fort. Taking upon a mantle as chief of chiefs, Pontiac continued to march eastward on Fort Ligonier and Fort Bedford.

Amherst panicked, hoping to use biological warfare through smallpox-infected blankets, but he was recalled that August. Major General Thomas Gage, Governor of Montreal, replaced him that October. By then the tribes were beginning to retreat and consolidate in the west for winter. Settlers had all retreated east, well past the line set forth by the unrelated Royal Proclamation of 1763, which determined to restrict settlement to the Appalachians to prevent encroachment that London feared would cause such altercations with the Native Americans. It seemed to be a suitable line now as all settlers had been chased out of the area, but Gage refused to leave Pontiac and his confederation as victors.

That winter, Gage had no problem raising up volunteers from local militias. Groups of men formed up gangs, such as the Paxton Boys that were ready to fight any Indian, including those who had been Christianized and lived as British citizens. The Paxtonians had marched on Philadelphia in pursuit of eastern Native Americans who fled there seeking asylum from their scourge. Benjamin Franklin, leader of one of the local militias, was able to stop them from completing their raid. Gage absorbed the Paxtonians into his own forces and promoted Franklin to a general of militia.

In the spring, Gage launched two expeditions: one in the north to quell the Seneca besieging Fort Niagara and one in the south marching from Pennsylvania to alleviate the assaults there and in Virginia. Western New York was soon settled with the Treaty of Fort Niagara, which turned the rest of the Iroquois against the warring Seneca and made them fast allies with the British. The Ohio Campaign dragged on for another five years. By the end, Pontiac had grown despotic, leading increasingly desperate raids from Illinois where he scrounged munitions from French settlers. Gage and Franklin were able to use Pontiac’s extremism against the federation, breaking off tribes willing to sign independent treaties. After Pontiac’s assassination in 1769, the broken warriors fled across the Mississippi rather than accede to British authority.

The war had been a costly one, but North American colonials seemed willing to accept taxes on stamps and tea to pay for their safety. With the Ohio Valley seized by military action and largely depopulated except for narrow reserves for defeated tribes, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was overturned. Instead, colonists were encouraged to head west, and land sales helped pay much of the massive war debt. Speculation led to the Panic of 1776 and an uprising of disenfranchised, which was settled by Gage's harsh crackdown. Upon his recall and extensions of dominion status for peaceful colonies like Virginia, North Americans quietly returned to the Empire.


In reality, although the story of the Indian woman may be legend, Major Gladwin did receive word of Pontiac’s sneak attack and had his men prepped and armed. Pontiac retreated and soon returned to besiege the fort. Other forts fell to Native Americans, but their progress was stopped at the Battle of Bushy Run. After the war, Gage turned his unsympathetic policies on the colonists, who were outraged by the Proclamation of 1769 and increased taxes, leading to the Declaration of Independence.

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