Pontiac’s War

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The dead woman was one of the lowly Indian slaves known as Panis. Near Detroit in August 1762, she had helped another Pani to murder their master, a British trader. The outraged British commander in North America, Baron Jeffery Amherst, ordered them executed “with the utmost rigor and in the most publick manner.” By putting them publicly to death, Amherst meant to demonstrate that the Indians had become colonial subjects answerable to British law. Earlier in the year, the French provincial authorities had surrendered their forts around the Great Lakes to the British under the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War. Emboldened by victory, Amherst vowed to impose a harsh peace on the Indians who had so long and ably supported their French allies. The Pani man broke his leg irons and escaped, leaving the woman to hang in late April 1763.

Amherst had no idea that her execution would set off a bloody and widespread rebellion two weeks later, which would remake the continent and lead to revolution. The nearby Ottawa dreaded the British execution of an Indian as an implicit assertion that they were now subordinate. They already felt insulted by Amherst’s cutting off the flood of trade goods customarily paid by the French for permission to occupy the forts. No longer could the Indians play one European nation off the other to maintain their own independence, maximize their presents, and ensure trade competition. Meanwhile British colonists poured across the frontier to take lands from them.

Setting aside old rivalries, the chiefs of many nations developed a new cooperation by exchanging covert messages from Illinois to Niagara and from Pennsylvania to Lake Superior. But someone had to act first; it was to be the Ottawa, led by their chief, Pontiac, who were pressed to the point of violence by the hanging.

During the spring of 1763, the tribes surprised and captured most of the British forts around the Great Lakes and in the Ohio Valley. In June a band of Ojibwa playing lacrosse outside of Fort Michilimackinac pursued the ball into the surprised fort and slaughtered most of the garrison. Through the summer and fall, the rebels raided the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia frontiers, killing or capturing about two thousand colonists, but failing to take the three strongest British forts: Detroit, Niagara, and Fort Pitt.

Embarrassed by the expensive war, the British sought peace by making concessions. Blaming Amherst for the crisis, the crown recalled him in disgrace. The new commander, Thomas Gage, followed the conciliatory advice of the crown’s northern superintendent for Indian affairs, Sir William Johnson, who understood that diplomacy was cheaper than war. By lavishing presents and deference upon the Indians, Johnson enticed them to sign several peace treaties between 1764 and 1766.

The British rebuilt their forts but had to adopt a new, more generous policy, treating the Indians as allies rather than foes. In 1766 Pontiac assured Johnson that “if you expect to keep these Posts, we will expect to have proper returns from you.” Johnson and Gage covertly agreed to exempt the Great Lakes Indians from British law. During the next decade, an Indian who murdered a colonist could settle the matter by customary tribal procedure—by giving presents to the victim’s kin. And the British crown laid out comparable goods to cover the Indians whom the settlers had killed.

To further mollify the Indians, the crown mandated a new boundary line along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains, in the hope that holding settlers to the east would avert conflict. The policy failed. It proved unenforceable because the British lacked the troops to patrol thousands of square miles of forest; it also angered the colonists, already less bound to the empire by the elimination of the French threat. While drawing the British and the Indians closer together, the resolution of Pontiac’s Rebellion deepened the clash between the Indians and the colonists. In 1775–76, when the colonists launched their own rebellion, most of the tribes defended the British forts that they had tried to destroy under Pontiac’s leadership a mere half-generation before.