Chief Pontiac

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Chief Pontiac
Pontiac-chief-artist-impression-414px.jpg
No authentic images of Pontiac are known to exist.[1] This artistic interpretation was painted by John Mix Stanley.
Born1720
near Ottawa village on the Detroit or Maumee Rivers, New France
DiedApril 20, 1769 (approx. 49)
Cahokia, Province of Quebec (Indian Territory)
OccupationOttawa leader
Known forPontiac's Rebellion
 
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Chief Pontiac
Pontiac-chief-artist-impression-414px.jpg
No authentic images of Pontiac are known to exist.[1] This artistic interpretation was painted by John Mix Stanley.
Born1720
near Ottawa village on the Detroit or Maumee Rivers, New France
DiedApril 20, 1769 (approx. 49)
Cahokia, Province of Quebec (Indian Territory)
OccupationOttawa leader
Known forPontiac's Rebellion

Pontiac or Obwandiyag (c. 1720 – April 20, 1769) was a chief of the Ottawa tribe who became famous for his role in Pontiac's Rebellion (1763–1766), an American Indian struggle against the British military occupation of the Great Lakes region following the British victory in the French and Indian War. Historians disagree about Pontiac's importance in the war that bears his name. Nineteenth-century accounts portrayed him as the mastermind and leader of the revolt, while some subsequent interpretations have depicted him as a local leader with limited overall influence.

The war began in May 1763 when Pontiac and 300 followers ravaged the area west of Niagara and attempted to take Fort Detroit by surprise. His plan foiled, Pontiac laid siege to the fort, and was eventually joined by more than 900 warriors from a half-dozen tribes. Meanwhile, messengers spread the word of Pontiac's actions, and the war expanded far beyond Detroit. In July 1763, Pontiac defeated a British detachment at the Battle of Bloody Run, but he was unable to capture the fort. In October he lifted the siege and withdrew to the Illinois country.

Although Pontiac's influence had declined around Detroit because of the unsuccessful siege, he gained stature in the Illinois and Wabash country as he continued to encourage resistance to the British. Seeking to end the war, British officials made Pontiac the focus of their diplomatic efforts. In July 1766, Pontiac made peace with British Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson. The attention which the British paid to Pontiac created resentment among other Indian leaders, particularly because Pontiac claimed far greater authority than he possessed. Increasingly ostracized, in 1769 he was assassinated by a Peoria Indian.

Early years[edit source | edit]

Little reliable information has been documented about Pontiac before the war of 1763. He was probably born between 1712 and 1725, perhaps at an Ottawa village on the Detroit or Maumee Rivers.[2] The tribal affiliation of his parents is uncertain. According to an 18th-century Ottawa tradition, Pontiac's father was an Ottawa and his mother an Ojibwa, although other traditions maintained that one of his parents was a Miami. Pontiac was always identified as an Ottawa by his contemporaries.[3]

By 1747, Pontiac had become an Ottawa war leader, when he allied with New France against a resistance movement led by Nicholas Orontony, a Huron leader.[4] Pontiac continued to support the French during the French and Indian War (1754–1763) (also known as the Seven Years' War). Although there is no direct evidence, he possibly took part in the famous French and Indian victory over the Braddock expedition on July 9, 1755.[5]

In one of the earliest accounts of Pontiac, the famous British frontier soldier Robert Rogers claimed to have met with Pontiac in 1760. Historians now consider Rogers's story to be unreliable.[6] Rogers wrote a play about Pontiac in 1765 called Ponteach: or the Savages of America, which helped to make Pontiac famous and began the myths about the Ottawa leader.[7]

Siege of Detroit[edit source | edit]

Pontiac's council along Ecorse River in New France (at present day Council Point Park in Lincoln Park, Michigan)

After the French and Indian War, Native American allies of the defeated French became increasingly dissatisfied with the trading practices of the victorious British. General Jeffrey Amherst, decided to cut back on the provisions customarily distributed to the Indians from the various forts, which he considered to be bribes. Normand Macleod, a fur trader, heard Pontiac was accepting ten shillings a day from the British, a perquisite resented by Indian leaders who were not receiving it.[8] The French had made readily traded gunpowder and ammunition, which the Indians came to depend on for hunting game for food and for skins for trade. As Amherst mistrusted his former Indian adversaries, he restricted the distribution of gunpowder and ammunition.

Pontiac, like other Indian leaders, was unhappy with the new British policies. Taking advantage of this dissatisfaction, as well as a religious revival inspired by a Lenape prophet named Neolin, Pontiac planned a resistance. He hoped to drive British soldiers and settlers away, and to revive the valued French alliance. On April 27, 1763, Pontiac spoke at a council at present-day Council Point Park on the shores of the Ecorse River, in what is now Lincoln Park, Michigan, about 10 miles (15 km) southwest of Detroit. Pontiac urged the listeners to join him in a surprise attack on Fort Detroit. On May 1, Pontiac visited the fort with 50 Ottawa in order to assess the strength of the garrison.[9] 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.[10]

Native Americans made widespread attacks against British forts and Anglo-American (but not French) settlements in the Ohio Country. Historians have differed in their assessments of Pontiac's influence in events beyond the Detroit region. Older accounts of the war portrayed Pontiac as a savage but brilliant mastermind behind a massive "conspiracy," which was planned in advance. Current historians generally agree that Pontiac's actions at Detroit were the spark that instigated the widespread uprising, and that he helped to spread the resistance by sending emissaries urging others to join it, but he did not command it as a whole. Native leaders around Fort Pitt and Fort Niagara, for example, had long been calling for resistance to the British and were not led by Pontiac. According to the historian John Sugden, Pontiac "was neither the originator nor the strategist of the rebellion, but he kindled it by daring to act, and his early successes, ambition, and determination won him a temporary prominence not enjoyed by any of the other Indian leaders."[11]

Later years[edit source | edit]

After the failure to capture Fort Detroit in 1763, Pontiac withdrew to the Illinois Country, where he continued to encourage militant resistance to British occupation. Although the British had successfully pacified the uprising in the Ohio Country, British military dominance was tenuous, and they decided to negotiate with the Ottawa leader. Pontiac met with Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, on July 25, 1766, at Oswego, New York, and formally ended hostilities.

By the British Crown's attention to Pontiac, he asserted more power among the Indians of the region than he possessed by tradition. Local rivalries flared up, and in 1768 he was forced to leave his Ottawa village on the Maumee River. Returning to the Illinois Country, Pontiac was murdered on April 20, 1769, at the French village of Cahokia (nearly opposite St. Louis, Missouri) by a Peoria Indian, perhaps in retaliation for an earlier attack by Pontiac. Various rumors quickly spread about the circumstances of Pontiac's death, including one that the British had hired his assassin. According to a story recorded by historian Francis Parkman in The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851), a terrible war of retaliation against the Peoria resulted from Pontiac's murder. Although this legend is still sometimes repeated, there is no evidence that there were any reprisals for Pontiac's murder.[12]

Legacy and honors[edit source | edit]

Pontiac's burial place is unknown, and may have been at Cahokia, Illinois, but evidence and tradition suggest that he was buried in St. Louis. In 1900, a plaque was mounted in a hallway of the Southern Hotel, which had been built over the reputed gravesite in 1890.[13]

See also[edit source | edit]

Notes[edit source | edit]

  1. ^ Dowd, War under Heaven, 6.
  2. ^ Chevrette says Pontiac's birth was "sometime between 1712 and 1725"; Sugden says Pontiac was "probably" born "about 1714" along the Detroit River ("Pontiac", 659); White ("Pontiac", 496) and Peckham (Indian Uprising, 18) give an estimate of around 1720.
  3. ^ Peckham, Indian Uprising, 15–16.
  4. ^ Sugden, "Pontiac", 659.
  5. ^ Peckham, Indian Uprising, 43–44.
  6. ^ Dowd, War under Heaven, 56.
  7. ^ According to White, Rogers's play made Pontiac "the most famous Indian of the eighteenth century." White, "Pontiac", 496.
  8. ^ O'Toole, Fintan. White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 266
  9. ^ Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again, 108; Peckham, Indian Uprising, 116.
  10. ^ Peckham, Indian Uprising, 119–20; Dixon,Never Come to Peace Again, 109.
  11. ^ Sugden, "Pontiac", 660.
  12. ^ Peckham, Indian Uprising, 316; Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again, 269; Dowd, War under Heaven, 260.
  13. ^ Kansas CIty Daily Journal, May 19, 1890; cited in The Missouri Historical Review, April 1957, p. 334.

References[edit source | edit]

Further reading[edit source | edit]

External links[edit source | edit]