Born c. 1720 Great Lakes region
Died April 20, 1769 Cahokia, Illinois
Ottawa war chief who led a major Indian uprising against British forces
Achief of the Ottawa tribe, Pontiac is believed to have been one of the driving forces behind a massive Indian (Native American) rebellion waged against British forts and settlements from 1763 to 1765. This uprising—which came to be known as Pontiac's Rebellion—ranks as one of the greatest Indian alliances in North American history. During the course of this rebellion, which swept all along the western frontier, hundreds of white people were killed and several forts were captured. In addition, Pontiac personally led a band of warriors that nearly succeeded in taking Fort Detroit, the most important British outpost in the Great Lakes region. But his six-month siege of the fort ultimately failed, and in 1765, he agreed to lay down arms against the British soldiers and settlers that had moved into the region.
A chief of the powerful Ottawas
Little information on Pontiac's early life is known. Historians believe that he was the son of an Ottawa father and Ojibway mother, but they are not even sure of the year or place in which he was born. It is thought that he was born somewhere between 1718 and 1720, in one of three places within Ottawa territory: Michilimackinac, on the northern tip of Michigan's lower peninsula; along the Maumee River in modern-day Ohio; or along the Ottawa River near the Michigan-Ohio border.
Pontiac was tall and powerfully built, and he was evidently a strong warrior and leader, for Ottawa tribes selected their chiefs based on leadership and fighting skills as well as heredity. He may have had several wives and children, but historians are only aware of one wife—Kantuckeegan—and two sons.
Pontiac became a chief of the Ottawa nation at a time when tribes all around the Great Lakes had become dependent on trade with Frenchmen for their survival. For example, many Indians had become so reliant on rifles to hunt game and defend themselves from attack that they were no longer capable of using bows and arrows effectively. Other Indian traditions were also being lost because of the influence of the French traders. Still, the relationship between the Indian tribes and French traders and settlers was friendly and mutually respectful.
Not surprisingly, the Ottawas and many other Indian nations sided with the French when the French and Indian War (1754-63; known in Europe as the Seven Years' War) erupted. This war began in North America, where both Great Britain and France had established large colonies (permanent settlements of citizens who maintain ties to the mother country) throughout the eastern half of the continent. The British colonies, known as America, stretched along the Atlantic Ocean from present-day Maine to Georgia. The French colonies, known as New France, included eastern Canada, parts of the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi River basin. Both the British and the French hoped to expand their land holdings into the Ohio Country, a vast wilderness that lay between their colonies. This region offered access to valuable natural resources and important river travel routes. But the Ohio Country was controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance of six Indian nations who had lived on the land for generations. When the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy began to decline in the mid-1700s, the British and French began fighting to claim the Ohio Country and take control of North America. Once Great Britain and France officially declared war in 1756, the conflict spread to Europe and around the world.
Pontiac's early encounters with the British
In 1759, British forces captured Quebec from the French. This victory marked the end of the war between French and British forces in North America. With Quebec in hand, British leaders sent Major Robert Rogers (1731-1795; see entry) and two hundred of his fellow American soldiers to accept the surrender of all French forts on the western frontier. As each commander surrendered, Rogers was expected to formally declare that the fort was now a part of the British Empire.
Rogers and his force began their journey in the fall of 1760, paddling across the Great Lakes in big whaleboats. One November evening, however, Rogers and his men were surrounded at their lakeshore camp by Pontiac and a large band of warriors. After talking with Rogers, Pontiac decided that he would attempt to live in peace with the British. Rogers and Pontiac took part in a peace pipe ceremony, and the Indian chief provided Rogers with protection from other Indian tribes as he continued his journey westward.
In the early 1760s, however, relations between the British and the Indian tribes became very tense. British military leaders issued orders prohibiting white men from selling ammunition, food, clothing, or alcohol to the Indians. Tribes-people were also turned away from forts and settlements they had visited for years. In the meantime, English farmers and hunters and tradesmen continued to build new houses and settlements in the region without regard for the feelings of the Indian nations that had long made their homes there. Pontiac reflected the sentiments of many Indians when he complained that the English were swarming into the Great Lakes region like mosquitoes in the swamps.
Pontiac and other Indian leaders recognized that the British were treating the tribes like trespassers on their own land. In addition, Pontiac and other Indians believed that the French, with whom they had coexisted peacefully for years, might yet return. Pontiac thus devised a plan that called for all of the Indian tribes to unite and conquer all the British frontier forts at the same time. Pontiac thought that if the Indians seized the forts, they would be able to take ammunition, clothing, and other supplies they needed. More importantly, victories over the British might convince the French traders to return.
In 1762, Pontiac sent messengers to all of the region's tribal leaders, asking them to come to his village for a major conference. In April 1763, the tribal representatives gathered at Pontiac's camp near the shores of Lake Erie. Pontiac opened the war council by reminding his visitors of all the insults they had suffered at the hands of the British. He also recalled how the French had traded freely and fairly with the Indians. Finally, as noted in Historic World Leaders, Pontiac told them that the supreme god of the Indians wanted them to "lift the hatchet" against the British and renew their friendship with the French. But he added that the tribes should return to the traditions and lifestyles that they had followed before they met the white man. "You have bought guns, knives, kettles and blankets from the white men until you can no longer do without them; and, what is worse, you have drunk the poison firewater [alcohol], which turns you into fools," said Pontiac.
By the time the war council had concluded, sixteen Indian nations—including the Algonquins, the Hurons, the Senecas, and several tribes of the lower Mississippi—had agreed to join Pontiac's rebellion. A few weeks later, tribes across the west attacked forts and settlements that had been built in their midst. Eight of these forts eventually fell to their Indian attackers.
Pontiac attacks Fort Detroit
Pontiac's task in the uprising was to capture Fort Detroit, the biggest British fort in the Great Lakes Region. He settled on a scheme to enter the fort in a peaceful manner, then attack the soldiers within. But the commander of Fort Detroit, Major Henry Gladwin (1729-1791), learned that Pontiac planned to attack the outpost, and he was able to prepare for any trickery.
On May 7, 1763, Pontiac and forty warriors entered Fort Detroit, saying they wanted to meet with Gladwin. They were accompanied by hundreds of squaws (Indian women) and elders who had hidden guns and knives under their clothing. As Pontiac entered the fort, he expected the British soldiers inside to be relaxed and unprepared for any violence. But as he walked through the interior of the fort, he saw that heavily armed soldiers were all over the place, watching the Indians like hawks. As noted in Historic World Leaders, Gladwin later wrote that "they were so much surprised to see [our soldiers armed], that they could hardly sit down to council. However, in about half and hour, after they saw their designs [plans] were discovered, they sat down and Pontiac made a speech which I answered calmly, without intimating [showing] my suspicion of their intentions, and after receiving some trifling [small] presents, they went away to their camp."
Two days later, though, Pontiac returned with hundreds of warriors and laid siege to the fort. By surrounding the fort with his own men, the Ottawa chief hoped to prevent the 125 British soldiers inside from receiving food, ammunition, and other supplies. He believed the fort's defenders would surrender when they ran out of food and gunpowder. As the siege continued, Pontiac's men also attacked isolated white settlements in the region, killing some settlers and taking others captive.
As the weeks passed, Pontiac and his warriors intercepted a number of shipments of supplies that were intended for the fort. They also attacked soldiers sent to help defend the fort. They killed some soldiers on the field of battle, but others were captured and tortured before being put to death. Pontiac ordered many of these mutilated bodies to be thrown into the Detroit River, so they would float past Gladwin and the other British soldiers inside the fort.
In late July, however, nearly two dozen British boats carrying soldiers, cannons, ammunition, and other supplies slipped past Indian sentries in heavy fog and reached the fort. Captain James Dalyell (?-1763), a chief aide to General Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797; see entry), was part of this group. Soon after his arrival, he ordered a surprise nighttime raid on Pontiac's camp, which was about five miles away from the gates of the fort. But Pontiac learned of the plan, and he organized a brutal ambush of Dalyell's forces. A total of fifty-nine British soldiers were killed or wounded in the clash, and the troops were forced to flee back to the safety of the fort.
Throughout the summer of 1763, Pontiac expressed confidence that the French would return. But a trickle of supplies continued to make it to the fort, despite Pontiac's best efforts to cut off the flow. His frustration with the situation grew, and he reportedly subjected white captives to all sorts of torture and brutal treatment during this time. In late summer, Pontiac intercepted a message to Fort Detroit that stated that France and Great Britain had settled their differences with the Treaty of Paris. According to this agreement, the people of France acknowledged that all of the Great Lakes region was now British territory. But Pontiac's desire to see the French return was so great that he refused to believe the message.
Pontiac lifts the siege
In the fall, Pontiac's army began to fall apart. Some warriors drifted away to hunt for food that would sustain their families over the long winter. Others expressed doubt that the French would ever come to the Indians' aid. Around this same time, Pontiac received a letter from a French military commander on the Mississippi River. As noted in Historic World Leaders, the letter urged Pontiac and the other Indians to lay down their war hatchets "and live as brothers with the British.… Let there be peace in the Great Lakes!"
As autumn rolled across the Great Lakes, Pontiac finally admitted to himself that his bid to capture Fort Detroit had been unsuccessful. He also realized the massive Indian rebellion had failed to convince the French to resume hostilities against the British. On October 31, 1763, Pontiac lifted the six-month siege on Fort Detroit. He sent a note to Glad-win saying he wanted to have peaceful relations with the British. He then spent the winter in an Ottawa village on the Maumee River. In the spring of 1764, Pontiac tried to recruit warriors for another uprising. But this time, his words failed to generate any excitement, and an organized uprising never developed.
In August 1765, Pontiac finally agreed to stop fighting the British. In the spring of 1766, he signed a peace treaty in which he was pardoned (officially forgiven) for his role in the 1763 rebellion. He hoped that the agreement would convince the British to give gifts and supplies to the people of his tribe. But when these gifts failed to appear, his people rejected his chieftainship. He spent the next three years wandering the region, where he found that his reputation among the Ottawa and other tribes had declined dramatically. In fact, he became the target of ridicule by some of the younger warriors he encountered. He apparently engaged in no other violent acts against the British during this time.
In April 1769, Pontiac traveled to a trading post in Cahokia, Illinois, where he was killed under mysterious circumstances. Some accounts say that a Peoria Indian named Black Dog murdered him, possibly at the request of British leaders who still distrusted him. But other historians believe that he may have been killed by Indians angry about his decision to lay down arms against the British.
For More Information
Bland, Celia. Pontiac: Ottawa Rebel. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.
Dockstader, Frederick J. Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center .Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Fleischer, Jane. Pontiac: Chief of the Ottawas. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1979.
Historic World Leaders. Detroit: Gale, 1994.
Notable Native Americans. Detroit: Gale, 1995.
Peckham, Howard H. Pontiac and the Indian Uprising. New York: Russell &Russell, 1970. Reprint, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.
Wheeler, Jill. Forest Warrior: The Story of Pontiac. Bloomington, IN: Abdo& Daughters, 1989.
April 20, 1769
Ottawa-Chippewa tribal leader
Pontiac was an Ottawa chief who led the Pontiac Rebellion in 1763, an attack inspired by Native American resentment at European settlers seizing their land. It was the most impressive Native American resistance movement ever encountered by Europeans in North America. Yet the Pontiac Rebellion failed, primarily because the great chief was unable to form an alliance with the French against the British. Pontiac's war was also significant because Native Americans never again had an opportunity to drive back European settlers. Native tribes continued to lose their land as they were pushed westward and their way of life was totally destroyed.
Trained as Ottawa warrior
Although little is known about Pontiac's youth, it is believed he was born around 1714 along the Maumee River in present-day Ohio, to an Ottawa father and a Chippewa mother. The exact meaning of the name Pontiac has never been determined, but in nineteenth-century Ottawa traditional stories he was called Obwandiyag (pronounced Bwondiac). The English spelled his name "Pontiac," probably because it sounded that way to them. At the time of Pontiac's birth the Ottawa nation was located at Michilimackinac, on Saginaw Bay, and along the Detroit River. This area is now known as the Great Lakes region. Even though there are no records of Pontiac's life, it is assumed that during his childhood and young adult years he was trained as an Ottawa warrior. As a boy he was probably taught skills that enabled him to hunt and to survive in the woods.
Pontiac was probably also encouraged to utilize weapons and tools introduced by European settlers. At this time the Ottawas and other tribes enjoyed a beneficial relationship with the French, trading their furs for weapons and other goods. Through these transactions, the Ottawa gradually replaced their bows and arrows with guns, which soon became the primary means of obtaining food and ensuring protection. As Pontiac's influence and prosperity increased, he may have had more than one wife and several children. It is known that he had at least one wife, Kantuckeegan, and two sons, Otussa and Shegenaba.
Decides to expel British
After Pontiac rose to a position of power in the Ottawa nation, he was at first inclined to be as friendly to English settlers as he was to French traders. He changed his attitude, however, when he realized that the English were not interested in maintaining good relations with Native Americans. In particular, Pontiac took exception to policies established by Jeffrey Amherst, the British military commander in America. One particularly damaging order prohibited the British from trading gunpowder and ammunition to Native Americans, who had become highly dependent on European weapons. The British were also increasingly intent on taking over Native American land rather than simply establishing military and trading posts. Moreover, the British discontinued the practice of extending credit to Native Americans. Credit had become particularly important because Native peoples often needed European supplies to survive the winter. When spring arrived, they would repay their debts with furs. Pontiac, as well as other leaders, also resented the fact that the British treated Native Americans as if they were a costly inconvenience.
By 1763 Native Americans in the entire Great Lakes region were ready to rebel against British authority. Pontiac believed that if the tribes presented a united front and gained support from the French, the British could be forced from Native American territory. His objective was to mount a simultaneous surprise attack on all British forts and settlements. In an effort to achieve his goal, Pontiac sent red wampum (beads used by American Indians as money, ceremonial pledges, and ornaments) belts to Native American tribes from Lake Ontario to the Mississippi River, calling them together in a alliance that would wage the massive assault on the British. Among the tribes that joined Pontiac's initial efforts were the Senecas, Delawares, Shawnees, Miamis, Ottawas, Ojibwas, and Missisaugas. Pontiac's principal target was Detroit, the most important fort in the Great Lakes region. In April 1763 Pontiac outlined his strategy in a speech to three Native American villages—Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Wyandot. He called for the eviction of the British and a return to a traditional lifestyle. His speech rallied the warriors to action.
The Delaware Prophet
By 1763 Native Americans in the Great Lakes region were seething with agitation over the encroachment of English settlers onto their land. The great Ottawa chief Pontiac believed that if the tribes formed an alliance and gained support from the French, the British could be forced from Native American territory. Pontiac's plan may have been influenced by a religious leader known as the Delaware Prophet (also called Neolin). The Delaware Prophet advocated rejection of the European way of life and a return to traditional Native American customs. He depicted the hazards of associating with Europeans by creating a series of deerskin paintings. The pictures illustrate the ways in which white men impeded the Native American way of life. They also portrayed the sins Native Americans had acquired as a result of their contact with white men. While these images had a profound effect on the Great Lakes tribes, they were divided over how to resolve the problem. In his teachings, the Delaware Prophet advocated relinquishing dependence on the European guns. Other Native Americans—including Pontiac—viewed armed conflict as the only way to sever the connection with British settlers. Pontiac's view prevailed, but the resulting rebellion of 1763 eventually led to the total loss of Native American lands.
Pontiac's Rebellion begins
On May 7, 1763, Pontiac put his plan into effect. He would approach Detroit under the pretense of holding a council with the British, then gain access to the fort. Once inside the fort he would give the attack signal to his warriors, who had their weapons hidden under blankets. Pontiac's strategy was destined for failure, however. Reports of the rebellion had already reached Amherst who, in turn, had sent reinforcements to Detroit. When Pontiac saw that the commander at Detroit was prepared for the attack, he decided against giving the prearranged signal and instead ordered a retreat. Despite the presence of heavy British reinforcements, however, Pontiac's warriors were eager for battle. To appease his followers, the chief therefore returned to the fort two days later and launched a strike, but the Native American forces easily went down to defeat.
As the massive revolt continued elsewhere in the Great Lakes region, other tribes had greater success. By June 1 warriors had killed or captured all the inhabitants of Fort Sandusky, Fort St. Joseph, Fort Miami, and Fort Quiatenon. An Ojibwa surprise attack at Michilimackinac on June 2 was probably the most effective conflict of Pontiac's war. During a fake game of lacrosse (a field sport played with sticks and a ball) Ojibwa players sent a ball over the wall of the British stockade and then all of them went inside to retrieve it. Once they had gained access to the fort, they began killing settlers and taking prisoners. By the middle of June, the Senecas had also joined in the rebellion. First they attacked Fort Venango and left no survivors. A day or so later they attacked Fort Le Boeuf, but the British were able to escape before the fort was destroyed. The Senecas then joined forces with the Ottawas, Ojibwas, and Wyandots and carried out a successful siege, which led to the British surrender of Fort Presque Isle on June 20.
Warriors undermine cause
In a little more than a month, nine British forts had been seized and one had been deserted. However, the Detroit post and Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania remained intact. During the standoff at Detroit, the British troops managed to repulse Pontiac's combined force of about nine hundred warriors by bringing reinforcements down the Niagara River. Pontiac also fortified his own forces so that the siege gradually turned into a stalemate. In the meantime, at Amherst's suggestion, British soldiers at Fort Pitt used a crude form of biological warfare to hold off a Native American siege. The British secretly circulated smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs among the warriors, producing an epidemic among the Native Americans in the Ohio towns of Delaware, Mingo, and Shawnee.(Smallpox is a contagious, often fatal disease that produces skin sores and high fever. Smallpox was one of numerous diseases brought to North America by Europeans.) The epidemic lasted until the following spring.
In the early weeks of Pontiac's war the Native American allies had gained an advantage over the British, but obstacles to future success became obvious. Many tribal leaders were critical of the acts of torture and cannibalism (eating of human flesh by a human being) committed by warriors during drunken celebration parties at the Ottawa camp near Detroit. Kinochameg, son of the Ojibwa leader Minevavana, traveled from northern Michigan to deliver a speech denouncing the terrible treatment of British prisoners. Representatives of the Delaware and Shawnee tribes also called a council meeting to warn that the war was damaging fur trade with the French. Furthermore, the military confrontations were generating violence and brutality beyond the battlefield. For instance, isolated Native American raids on settlements along the frontier from New York to Maryland had provoked counterattacks from colonists.
Throughout the war Pontiac had remained confident that the French would ultimately come to the aid of the tribal alliance. He was not aware, however, that England and France had already signed a peace treaty in London, England, the previous February. When Pontiac learned the French were no longer a possible ally he lost hope that the Native Americans could win the war. In addition, with the approach of winter, his warriors were becoming increasingly anxious about having adequate food and shelter for their families. Then, on October 20, 1763, Pontiac received a letter from Major de Villiers, commander of the French Fort de Chartres on the Mississippi River, advising him to end his campaign. The next day Pontiac called a halt to the siege of Detroit and retreated to the west. Throughout the next year he sustained his opposition to the British, but he was unable to provide effective leadership or direction. The tribal alliances gradually broke up and, apart from scattered Native American raids and attacks, the hostilities came to an end.
Signs peace treaty
In 1765, at a site along the Wabash River in present-day Indiana, Pontiac finally agreed to a preliminary peace pact with the British. He then earned the admiration and respect of the British by subduing rebellious warriors. Pontiac consequently upset many of his Native American followers not only by failing to win the war but also by appearing to cooperate with the enemy. The next year, when Pontiac signed a formal peace treaty at Oswego, he was pardoned by the British for his involvement in the revolt. Yet the chief remained the target of hostile Native Americans. In April 1769, as Pontiac was en route to a trading post at Cahokia, Illinois, he was stabbed to death by Black Dog, a member of the Illinois tribe. Historians speculate that Black Dog may have been paid by British officers who continued to regard Pontiac as a threat. Other accounts indicate that the assassination was arranged in a Native American council and Black Dog was chosen to carry out the task. Pontiac's exact burial site has never been determined.
For further research
Dockstader, Frederick J. Great North American Indians. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977, pp. 35, 217–19.
Eckert, Allan W. The Conquerors. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.
Waldman, Carl. Who Was Who in Native American History. New York: Facts on File, 1990, pp. 279–80.
Pontiac (ca. 1720-1769), Ottawa chief and leader of the famed uprising that bears his name, was a pawn in the fight between the British and the French for supremacy in the Great Lakes region.
Pontiac was born probably on the Maumee River, of a Chippewa mother and Ottawa father. His youth is obscure, but he grew to become a sachem (chief) of the combined Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi tribes. Possibly he was present at the Chippewa defeat of Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755, when his tribes were under French influence during the French and Indian War.
In 1760, when British and American colonial troops marched to fight the French at Detroit, Pontiac met the force and learned of the British victory at Quebec. He smoked the peace pipe with the British and even helped them take Detroit, but he did not get the recognition for this that he felt he deserved. Thus in 1762, when he heard that the French were going to reinvade, he turned against the British and tried to organize a vast Indian conspiracy against them.
Pontiac rallied tribes in the vicinity of the Great Lakes to a great conference near Detroit in April 1763. Here he made a stirring speech, calling the tribes simultaneously to attack the nearest British posts. He personally led the attack on Detroit on May 7, 1763. However, his plan became known to the British, and all he could do was lay siege to the post, eventually retreating. The Conspiracy of Pontiac, as this uprising was known, did succeed in capturing 8 of the 12 posts attacked, and it inflamed the entire western frontier. And Pontiac did manage one victory, the Battle of Bloody Ridge on July 31, 1763, at which his warriors killed 60 of the 250 British troops.
Yet Pontiac's confederation quickly fell apart. In October 1763 part of the Ottawa made peace with the British, and Pontiac followed in a preliminary peace on October 31. Yet he continued to fight sporadically, not concluding a final peace with the British until July 1766.
In the spring of 1769 Pontiac visited the vicinity of St. Louis, and there on April 20 he was clubbed to death by a Peoria Indian warrior, possibly at British urging. Some contemporary accounts referred to Pontiac as a coward, and others spoke of him as only a local renegade; however, he did achieve a remarkable confederation of dissident Native American tribes, and he caught the popular imagination to become a romantic figure.
The standard, if somewhat romantic, account of Pontiac and his rebellion is Francis Parkman, The History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851). More reliable is Howard H. Peckham, Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (1947). Milo M. Quaife edited some of the contemporary accounts in The Siege of Detroit in 1763: The Journal of Pontiac's Conspiracy, and John Rutherfurd's Narrative of a Captivity (1958). □
Sources first mention Pontiac at Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) in 1757, but definitively he appears in the record only in May 1763. Foiled in his attempt that month to surprise and capture British Fort Detroit, Pontiac and his multitribal allies besieged it until October. Pontiac may have directed, though he certainly did not lead, the successful attacks on the British forts Sandusky (Ohio) and St. Joseph (Michigan). These actions inspired frontier raiding, the elimination of seven other British posts by July 1763, and the Delaware and Shawnee siege of Fort Pitt.
By late 1763 and throughout 1764, Pontiac endeavored to draw support from French garrisons in Illinois. Failing again, he retreated with the British at Detroit in July 1765, confirming peace at Oswego a year later.
By 1768, his reputation among Ottawas had fallen and he became an exile in lower Illinois. There, at Cahokia in April 1769, perhaps in retaliation for his killing of an Illinois Indian in 1766, a Peoria clubbed and stabbed Pontiac to death.
[See also Native American Wars.]
Howard H. Peckham , Pontiac and the Indian Uprising, 1947.
Richard White , The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815, 1991.
Gregory Evans Dowd