The Pontiac’s Rebellion: The Prince and The King

  By Hope, 2006; Revised

Chief Pontiac as imagined by an artist, Wikimedia
Chief Pontiac as imagined by an artist, Wikimedia
The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the Seven Years’ War in Europe. At the conference, Britain was given control of most of the French holdings on the North American continent. For the French settlers, this did not mean much. They lived as they had for decades, not experiencing any dramatic changes other than the fact that French was no longer the official language at the offices. It was a completely different matter for the Indians who had been allies of the French. Since the Europeans mainly considered the Native Americans inferior beings, they did not include any benefits for them in the treaty. Soon, the Indians discovered the worst differences between the French and the Brits. While the French often gave gifts like rifles, carpets, tools and so on, the British general, Jeffrey Amherst, did not consider this kind of bribing worthy of the British Empire. Alcohol was now forbidden to be sold to Natives. This was not approved by the Indians, but much worse was the decreasing amount of gunpowder and ammunition. Without this, the Indians had difficulties in hunting enough skin to sell to the Europeans.

Pontiac, prince of the Ottawa tribe, clearly stated very early in the process that he expected to be treated like what he really was: a chief and prince of the Ottawas. He said he would gladly join an alliance with King George III of Great Britain and Ireland, but he demanded to be treated as the King's equal, as was his right by rank. The British officers reported that Pontiac was far from beaten, and that he was a popular leader among his tribesmen. Even though Pontiac had addressed his demand of respect, he and the other Indian leaders strongly believed that British rule meant nothing but slavery.

At the same time, a Lenape Indian called "Neolin" traveled around Ohio Country telling his prophecies. He proclaimed that the Master of Life, the Lenape equivalent to God, had spoken to him, and said that the path to the "Eternal Hunting Grounds" were blocked by the whites, and that the path needed to be cleared. He also mixed some aspects of Christianity into his speeches, and people gladly followed him. Whether they really believed that the Master of Life had spoken to Neolin or not was of no importance. This prophet gave them a reason to fight, which was all the Indians needed.

Pontiac started his war on April 27th, 1763. He held a speech where he convinced the nations of Potawatomi, Huron and Ojibwa to follow him in this crusade. His first attempt on warfare was on May 7th at Fort Detroit. He entered the fort with his men, who all carried sawed-off rifles under their blankets. The attack never started. Warned by his Indian mistress, the commander had placed his 120 soldiers in the open area of the fort. Pontiac was no fool, and left the fort only to reappear with 900 Indian soldiers from about 6 tribes. They laid siege to the Fort and killed numerous British settlers which were camped outside.

On June 22nd, Lenape soldiers besieged Fort Pitt, but couldn’t enter it by force. Shawnees and Lenapes roamed around the Pennsylvania countryside killing white settlers. Two days after the siege, the commander gave two blankets to representatives of the besieging Lenapes. The blankets were infected with  smallpox in an attempt to weaken the Indians by biological warfare. However, it is not known how many died from this incident.

Though the sieges of Fort Pitt and Detroit failed and Ponitac seemed to lose popularity, he managed to summon his men to further attack the British. During 1763, the British lost 200 men, women, and children, and also property worth 10, 000 pounds. Records of the Native losses are unknown. On October 7th , King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which denied settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains.

In the rebellion, every minor fort was attacked, and the coalition of Indian tribes consisted of Ottawas, Ojibwas, Senecas, Potawatomis, Miamis, Shawnees and Lenapes. The royal demand of no settlement west of the Appalachians was largely ignored, which was one of the factors that triggered off the American Revolution in 1775. Hatred grew strong in the frontier land, and, after the war, settlers were as bloodthirsty as ever before. This led to the massacre of the Conestogas in December of that same year. In 1766, Pontiac finally surrendered. By that time, he was no longer able to get enough support for his campaign. Though Pontiac had failed, his rebellion was still the most successful resistance against the whites that the Natives had experienced. Prince Pontiac showed the British that the Natives were masters of their own land, and did not accept being considered as mere subjects to the British throne.