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A Journal Of An Indian Captivity During Pontiac’s Rebellion In The Year 1763, By Mr John Rutherfurd, Afterward Captain, 42nd Highland Regiment
“Every one of us was seized by his future master…
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
Perhaps the most haunting tear of the American frontiersman was capture by the Indians, an experience of suffering which left a permanent mark on those who were lucky enough to survive it. As long as the Indian threat persisted, captivity accounts appeared constantly. One of the most remarkable examples of this uniquely American literary genre was written by a seventeen-year-old Scot named John Rutherfurd, who was captured near Fort Detroit during the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763. Published obscurely in the nineteenth century, his exciting account is today all but forgotten. It comes to AMERICAN HERITAGE from a New York book dealer, Miss Emily Driscoll, and has been edited by a noted authority on the history of the Great Lakes region, Dr. Milo M. Quaife, of Highland Park, Michigan.
The best-organized and most formidable Indian uprising of the eighteenth century was the rebellion of the tribes of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley in 1763, led by the Ottawa chief, Pontiac. Less than three years after the surrender of the last French army in North America, France’s former Indian allies struck the frontier in a well-planned and co-ordinated series of attacks. In all, ten British forts were captured in little more than a month, and for over a year settlements were ravaged from New York to Virginia. So serious was this outbreak that for a time the region beyond the Appalachian Mountains was closed to settlement by royal edict.
If the ferocity of the Indians seems appalling today—what John Rutherfurd witnessed was not exceptional—it must be remembered that Pontiac’s Rebellion was, in a real sense, a primitive religious crusade. Already resentful of tactless handling by their English masters, and afraid of the encroachment of white settlers on their hunting grounds, the Indians were only too willing to listen to self-styled mystics who preached union of all tribesmen west of the Appalachians and a return to the older pastoral way of life.
Perhaps the most notable event of this rebellion was Pontiac’s unsuccessful siege of Fort Detroit, which John Rutherfurd witnessed as a prisoner in the Indian camp. An orphan, the young Scot had come to Detroit to live with a trader named James Sterling, who was a business partner of his uncle. Early in May, 1763, he joined a survey party on a trip to Lake Huron. Unfortunately, what began as a sporting sojourn in the Michigan wilderness was to end in a protracted nightmare.
Major Gladwin of the 60th Regiment, commanding officer of Detroit, being desirous to know whether the lakes and rivers between that place and Michilimackinac were navigable for vessels of a greater burden than the small bateaux they then made use of—by which discovery Michilimackinac and the little posts thereupon depending might be more conveniently and expeditiously supplied with provisions and military stores—ordered Lieutenant Charles Robertson of the 77th Regiment, who commanded the King’s vessels on Lake Erie, to go with a party consisting of six soldiers and two sailors in a large bateau with the necessary implements to sound the Lakes.∗ Sir Robert Davers, who had passed that winter at Detroit (excepting some little excursions he made among the Indian villages in the neighborhood), having a curiosity to see farther into the country—which in fact was the motive that induced him to come so far as Detroit—accompanied Captain Robertson; and both gentlemen inviting me to go along, I joyfully accepted their invitation as it had then all the appearance of a pleasure jaunt. We promised ourselves excellent sport in shooting water fowl, with which that country abounds, not in the smallest degree dreading any interruption from the savages around us, who but a little before in full council had renewed their profession of friendship for the English and received from them presents to a considerable amount.
∗ Robertson’s mission was to determine whether the St. Clair route to Lake Huron was navigable for sailing ships. Although the British had the beginnings of a naval force on Lake Erie, no ships were as yet maintained on the upper Lakes.
We accordingly set out on May 2, 1763. Captain Robertson, myself, and the military party were in the bateau; Sir Robert Davers with a panee , or Indian slave, was in a little wooden canoe, being better than a bateau for going into shallow water after game, and so easily navigated that he and his boy were sufficient to cross the lakes and go up the creeks, among the Indian villages.∗
∗ One of the first and most unfortunate “dudes” on the western frontier, Sir Robert Davers of Suffolk, England, was touring the Great Lakes “on a voyage of curiosity.”
May 4th. We overtook a canoe with an Indian family in it. We exchanged our bread and tobacco with them for fish newly caught and parted very good friends.
May 5th. We passed several Indian villages, but there appeared to be few Indians at them. We supposed they were out upon their hunting parties, but afterwards found that they were on a party of a very different nature, being collected at the place where we were afterwards attacked by them.