Pontiac's War

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Pontiac's War

PONTIAC'S WAR. 1763–1766. The surrender of Canada to General Jeffrey Amherst (8 September 1760) gave the British title to the French posts in the territory known as the Old Northwest. Major Robert Rogers led a party to take possession of Detroit on 29 November 1760, and other scattered forts were subsequently garrisoned by small detachments of regulars, most of them from the Sixtieth ("Royal American") Regiment. In addition to these forts, thousands of Native Americans now fell under British claims to jurisdiction.


Unlike the French, the British demonstrated a notable lack of sensitivity to their new subjects. Most importantly, the British government did nothing to halt the migration of their white subjects onto Indian lands in the Ohio River Valley. The Ottawa war leader Pontiac (c. 1720–1769) found many Indian nations receptive to his charge that the English intended to conquer their territories, as evidenced by the large number of British forts in these areas. Further exacerbating the sitution, Amherst put a halt to the traditional annual distribution of gifts (clothing, arms and ammunition, food, and iron goods) to the Indians.

Captain Donald Campbell, commandant at Detroit, and Indian Superintendent Sir William Johnson initially managed to keep the peace, but Pontiac found a valuable ally in a visionary called the Delaware Prophet, who preached that the Indians should seek regeneration by eliminating the corrupting influence of the white man and his accompanying vices. Combining the Prophet's millennial teachings with the very real threat of English encroachments on their hereditary lands, Pontiac succeeded by early 1763 in forging a broad coalition of Indian nations that included the Ojibwa, Huron, Potawatomi, Seneca, and his own Ottawa.

From his base in three towns near Detroit, Pontiac launched the initial attack against the 120-man garrison at Fort Detroit, now commanded by Major Henry Gladwin. Gladwin correctly anticipated an assault, frustrating several attempts by Pontiac to take the fort by stealth in early May 1973. On 9 May the Ottawa attacked isolated settlers outside Fort Detroit and laid siege to the garrison. Within a few weeks other war parties took every fort west of Niagara except Detroit and Pitt. Sandusky (Ohio) fell on 16 May, followed by Fort St. Joseph on 25 May, Fort Miami on 27 May; Fort Ouiatenon on 1 June, and Fort Michilimackinac on the next day. Seeing British defenses collapsing, the commander of Fort Edward Augustus abandoned his post in mid June. Between 16 and 20 May, Forts Venango, Le Boeuf, and Presque Isle (Erie) also fell, with only the garrison at Le Boeuf successfully escaping to Fort Pitt.

The garrisons of most of these posts were slaughtered. Forts Ligonier and Bedford, along the Forbes Road east of Fort Pitt, repelled Indian attacks in June. The largest and most well coordinated Indian victory came at Devil's Hole near Niagara on 14 September, when a force of 300 Seneca ambushed a convoy of twenty-five wagons bound for Detroit, killing all but two of the thirty-one soldiers in its escort. The sounds of battle drew eighty regulars from Fort Niagara into a second ambush, which left fifty-one dead. By the time the rest of the fort's garrison arrived, the Seneca had departed with all the supplies, and the British had suffered their greatest defeat of the war.

The year 1763 is commonly taken as the start of the Revolutionary era, and many scholars hold that the weakness of Amherst's response to Pontiac's uprising may have misled many colonists into believing that there was little reality behind the boasts of British military might. Amherst saw matters very differently. He expected the colonists to play an active role in resisting this war on their frontier. But the settlers whose presence in the west had precipitated this conflict fled to the safety of the east, leaving Amherst with only a few absurdly weak garrisons—Fort Ligonier, for instance, was held by just twelve soldiers. Further limiting Amherst's options was the refusal of most of the colonies to offer any assistance. Then Amherst made the mistake of turning first for help to Pennsylvania, a province which did not have a militia. With time, Amherst was able to find just enough troops to battle Pontiac to a draw. British success hinged on their holding on to Forts Detroit and Pitt. Lacking artillery, Pontiac's only hope for capturing these outposts lay in breaking their lines of supply and starving their garrisons.


Lieutenant Abraham Cuyler of the Queen's Rangers had left Niagara on 13 May with ninety-six men and 139 barrels of provisions in ten bateaux, bound for Detroit. Unaware that hostilities had broken out, he landed at Point Pelee, about twenty-five miles from Detroit, after dark on 28 May, being immediately attacked by Pontiac's forces. Cuyler escaped back to Niagara with only forty of his men. Cuyler returned on 30 June aboard the sloop Michigan with a reinforcement of fifty-five men and a quantity of supplies. Amherst sent his aide-de-camp, Captain James Dalyell, from headquarters in New York City via Albany and Niagara to collect reinforcements for Gladwin's garrison. Robert Rogers and twenty-one New York militia joined him at Albany, and he reached Niagara on 6 July with 200 men from the Fifty-fifth and Sixtieth Regiments. Picking up forty men of the eightieth Regiment at Niagara, Dalyell loaded his force in twenty-two bateaux and made the hazardous voyage to Detroit, arriving on 29 July with 260 men.

Against his better judgment, Gladwin acceded to the ambitious young aide's insistent demand that he be permitted to lead a sortie. Pontiac expected such action, and was waiting in ambush at the point where a narrow timber bridge crossed a creek two miles from the fort. At 2:30 on the morning of 31 July, 247 officers and men moved out from the fort. By 8 o'clock the survivors got back, owing largely to the rearguard action of Rogers and the sound leadership of Captain James Grant. Dalyell and 19 of his men were killed, and another thirty-seven were wounded at what became known as Bloody Run.

Pontiac's situation had been impossible from the start. Without supplies and matériel for siege operations, Pontiac was unable to properly besiege Detroit, which kept open its line of communications by water to Niagara. By September, Pontiac's allies began to melt away, frustrated by the stalemate which left them hungrier than the troops inside the fort. On 29 October Pontiac received official word from the French commander at Fort de Chatres of the Peace of Paris, in which France officially handed over the northwest to the British. On 31 October 1763 Pontiac wrote Gladwin a note of farewell and left the area with his remaining followers.


Fort Pitt was commanded by the Swiss Captain Simeon Ecuyer, who bears the dubious distinction of carrying out General Amherst's grotesque suggestion that he employ biological warfare against the Indians. To indicate that his position was well supplied, Ecuyer provided the besieging Indians not only with food and alcohol, but also with blankets contaminated with small pox. With a garrison of 250 regulars and militia, sixteen cannon, and a well-fortified position, Ecuyer was not alarmed about the security of his post. By the end of June Colonel Henry Bouquet, who called Indians "vermin," had assembled a relief column of 460 regulars at Carlisle—214 men of the Forty-second ("Black Watch"), 133 of the Seventy-seventh Highlanders, a battalion of the Sixtieth ("Royal Americans"), and a party of rangers. His departure was delayed until 18 July because of difficulty finding wagoners willing to ride into the middle of a war zone.

By 2 August Bouquet had reached Fort Ligonier, having been forced to drop off regulars along the way to protect the panic-stricken settlers. He then pushed forward without his wagons but with 340 horses loaded with flour toward the fort from which no news had been heard for over a month. A parley with Delaware and Shawnee chiefs was held on 26 July, for which Ecuyer refused to leave Fort Pitt. The Indians launched an attack on the following day, but then abruptly lifted their siege on 1 August. Ecuyer, who had been wounded by an arrow, knew that they were going to attack Bouquet.

At 1 p.m. on 5 August 1763, Bouquet's advance guard was suddenly attacked at Edge Hill, twenty-six miles east of Fort Pitt, in what is known as the battle of Bushy Run. The regulars, who had already marched seventeen miles that day, attacked with bayonets to relieve the advance guard, but the Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo, and Wyandot worked their way around Bouquet and kept up a galling fire until dark (around 8 p.m.). Bouquet formed his forces onto a little hill behind stacked bags of flour for the night. Several officers and about 60 men had already been killed or wounded, the troops were tired from the long march and the seven-hour battle, and they suffered severely from lack of water.

The Indians renewed their attack at first light, but since victory was almost inevitable they confined their efforts to sniping. The regulars held their position, but time was against them. At 10 a.m. the British began to weaken from sheer exhaustion, the Indians saw men with-drawing from a portion of the perimeter, and they rushed toward this gap. Bouquet had resorted to a desperate stratagem, having pulled two companies from the west side of the line and sent them around to a point from which they could counterattack the south flank of the expected penetration. The Indians met this surprise fire bravely, but retreated when the regulars charged with bayonets. Then the Indians were again surprised, as Bouquet had advanced two more companies to the area of the expected Indian retreat, and their bayonet charge shattered the Indian forces, who fled in disorder.

Bushy Run proved a bloody battle, as Bouquet lost fifty killed and sixty wounded, with Indian losses estimated at sixty killed, including the able Delaware war chief, Wolf. With a fourth of his force killed or wounded, Bouquet limped into Fort Pitt on 10 August, unable to press the attack against the demoralized Indians, but having nonetheless won a significant victory.


Before he was recalled to England, Amherst had planned two expeditions against Pontiac's coalition: one from Niagara to Detroit and then south from Lake Erie against the Delaware and Shawnee in what now is central Ohio; the other to penetrate into this same area from Pittsburgh. Amherst's successor, General Thomas Gage, carried out these plans. The first of these operations, John Bradstreet's expedition of 1764, was badly mismanaged, but the other, Bouquet's expedition of 1764, was a complete success. Pontiac finally submitted to Sir William Johnson at Oswego on 24 July 1766, and was thereafter loyal to the British. On 20 April 1769 he was assassinated by a Peoria in Cahokia, Illinois.

As Ian Steele summarized, it produced "an unprecedented balance of power." The war "had become a stalemate, and the peace was an accommodation" (Steele, p. 246). The Indians had learned that they could not take the major British outposts, and that their lack of materials crippled any sustained military effort. The British, for their part, felt that allowing unhindered access to the northwest by their colonists at this time was not worth the high cost of defeating the Indians. They therefore returned to the practice of giving annual gifts to the those Indian nations that remained on friendly terms and promised to uphold the Proclamation of 1763, which sought to halt this west-ward migration. Although the war ended as a major success for the Native Americans, it was a victory that stood only until the creation of the United States, ten years later.

SEE ALSO Biological Warfare; Bushy Run, Pennsylvania; Indians in the Colonial Wars and in the American Revolution; Proclamation of 1763.


Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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