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“oh Amherst, Brave Amherst…
Lord Jeffery’s name is “known to fame,” but it was the five years he spent in America that rescued him from obscurity
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
The fall of Canada united the mother country and the American colonies in a common enthusiasm in which the soon-to-be-clouded future was scarcely suspected. In England the victory was proclaimed by a Gazette Extraordinary and by impromptu celebrations all over London. Horace Walpole wrote that “Bonfires and squibs are drinking General Amherst’s health.” As Amherst withdrew from Canada to his old winter quarters at New York, his southward march became a triumphal procession. New York, echoing with salutes, was illuminated in his honor the evening of his arrival. He was met by the mayor, aldermen, and a committee of citizens and presented with a gold snuffbox made by Nicholas Roosevelt, on which was engraved in Latin, Conqueror of the Canadian Gauls . The commander in chief was grateful, but what he really wanted was to get back to England—and Pitt had promised he could return at the war’s end.
Unfortunately for Amherst’s private intentions, George II’s death in October altered the political balance, leaving Pitt isolated—and soon to be discarded—among the emerging favorites of the dull, well-intentioned, authoritarian young man who became George III. In his equivocal position, Pitt felt that his most successful general must stay in America until the conclusion of the treaty with France.
Amherst at the war’s end had every right to expect a peerage for his services, but with petty spitefulness the King’s party in the new reign offered him no more than a knighthood. This in a letter to Pitt he declined, but by the time his letter arrived, he had been inducted in absentia and now found he was Sir Jeffery in spite of himself. The rewards of the conqueror of the Canadian Gauls were thin: the governorship of Virginia and the Order of the Knights of the Bath.
Though Pitt had been forced out, the war declared on Spain the following year kept Amherst in America. Finally the peace was signed in December at Paris, but the commander in chief was still awaiting orders to return home when the revolt of the western Indians that began with the Ottawa chief Pontiac’s attack on Detroit broke out in May, 1763. For once an emergency found Amherst both surprised and unprepared. Sir William Johnson, who best knew the Indians and their ways, had warned him of coming trouble if they were not treated more generously, and had tried to explain that it was cheaper to keep them friendly by gifts than to arouse their unpredictable animosity. Amherst did not see it that way. To him the Indians were contemptible auxiliaries “more nearly allied to the Brute than to the Human Creation.” In wartime he had accepted their assistance with reluctance. Now that they could no longer play the English off against the French he saw no further need of conciliating them. “An execrable race,” he wrote. “I am fully resolved whenever they give me an occasion to extirpate them root and branch.”
Under the French regime the Indians had been liberally supplied with guns, ammunition, and clothing. So dependent had they become on white supplies that their old forest self-sufficiency had long been lost. When Amherst cut down on these necessities, the Indians—in many cases lacking powder even for hunting—came close to starvation. The English commander could view this with equanimity. “I cannot think it necessary to give them any presents by way of Bribes ,” he wrote to Colonel Bouquet in Pennsylvania, “for if they do not behave properly they are to be punished.”
Held on a short lead by Amherst, cheated, their hunting grounds cut back by invading settlers, driven from the forts where the French had once made them welcome, the restive tribes nursed their anger, muttering against their English overlords. In the Ohio Valley a mad mystic called the Delaware Prophet was breaking down old antagonisms and uniting the tribes in a vision of a land without white men. The defeated French, working behind the scenes, did their clandestine best to set the Indians on the English. And finally, the Indian gap in leadership was filled by the astute, resourceful, and magnetic Pontiac, who would throw down to the English the most formidable native challenge they had yet faced.
The war that received Pontiac’s name was not of his original making, and might better have been called Amherst’s War (probably the first war belts came from the disaffected Senecas). Pontiac did not, as Parkman glowingly supposed, plan a simultaneous co-ordinated attack on all the English lake forts. His daring was in striking the first blow, and his later successes were those of improvisation. Initially he plotted merely to make a surprise assault on the key bastion of Detroit; his plan was to infiltrate the fort on an ostensibly peaceful mission and then strike down the garrison.
Unfortunately for him, the English commander, Major Gladwyn, had received a secret warning—according to legend, from his Indian mistress. In any case, when Pontiac entered the fort on May 7, accompanied by sixty chiefs with weapons under their blankets, the garrison was on the alert and under arms with beating drums. Pontiac was received formally and allowed to leave, still wearing his mask of friendship. Not until several days later did he reveal himself, laying siege to Detroit until late autumn with a persistence almost unknown to the mercurial Indians. The river fort, however, was to prove too much for haphazard attacks with small-arms fife. Other English outposts were less fortunate.