Chief Pontiac's siege of Detroit

La Riviere du Detroit: The Bellin Atlas map of the Detroit River with inset “Plan du Fort du Detroit.”

On  June 14,  1671, the Sieur de St. Lusson (in the presence of three Jesuits, 16 lay Frenchmen and several hundred Indians) took possession for France of “Lake Superior, Lake Huron and all contiguous countries, streams, lakes and rivers in all their length and breadth bounded by the North and South (Pacific) seas.”

This sweeping territorial grab was the inevitable outcome of the westward movement of French settlers who followed in the footsteps of early French traders. They were intent on preventing the land from falling to the English, who were moving west from New England.

The tribes who inhabited the area saw little threat from the ensuing forts, which were seen as a sort of lease arrangement, built on Indian sufferance on Indian land for the convenience of all. In turn, the French protected the Indians and supplied them with guns, gunpowder and provisions.

Pontiac, warrior chief of the Ottawas

The French first met the Great Lakes Ottawa in 1615, finding them armed with bows and arrows and war clubs, wearing furs, fiercely painted and tattooed, with pierced noses and ears. Members of the Algonquin language family, the Ottawa, along with the Chippewa and Potowatomi, formed the Council of Three Tribes. The Ottawa were known to other Algonquins as intertribal traders and barterers who bought corn meal, furs, skins, tobacco, roots and herbs and exchanged them with other tribes. The name Ottawa in the Algonquin language means “to trade.”

Pontiac was probably born in an Ottawa village near Detroit around 1720. His name is a corruption of Obwandiyag, pronounced in the Ottawa language as Bwon-diac.

A typical Ottawa village of that time consisted of cabins constructed of long poles tied together at the top and covered with sewn strips of bark and fur. An opening at the top would be left for smoke to escape. The dwelling could be up to 100 feet long and occupied by several families. Ottawa villages had two chiefs, one a civil chief and the other a warrior chief. The former was usually a hereditary post, the latter depended on military prowess. The men traveled for hundreds of miles to trade or make war. While traveling, the Ottawas used teepees-poles cut from trees at their resting place and covered with rush matting they carried with them.

By the time of Pontiac’s boyhood, European influence had radically changed the lives of the Great Lakes tribes. Guns and powder, steel axes and hunting knives, traps and fishing nets had replaced stone and bone implements and spears. The tribes had become dependent on the newer weapons.

Fort Detroit, in the middle of the 18th century.

  In all four of the major wars during the period known as the French and Indian Wars, from 1689-1763, Ottawa warriors fought on the side of the French. By 1740, there were about 100 French families inside and outside the fort at Detroit, which was garrisoned by 17 soldiers. At the same time, there were 2,000 Ottawas, 200 Hurons, and 100 Potowatomi in the areas around the fort.

In the 1740s, commercial competition between France and Great Britain had intensified, and war broke out in 1744. It raged mostly in the Northeast, not in the Great Lakes region, which at that time was heavily French. But by 1755, the French and Indian Wars were in full swing in the western reaches. English commander-in-chief Sir Jeffrey Amherst was defeating the French and had won most of the Great Lakes forts by 1760. He had come to the North American continent in 1758 and had pushed British troops from one victory to another. The French governor of Canada capitulated to him in Montreal on Sept. 8, 1760, and Detroit was surrendered on Nov. 28, 1760.

In capturing Detroit, Amherst had enlisted the help of Maj. Robert Rogers, a 29-year-old colonial born in New Hampshire, who had trained a troop of provincials as expert riflemen and woodsmen. Rogers and his Rangers carried out several dangerous and successful raiding expeditions against the French and Indians. His men wore green buckskins and green Scottish caps.

Deed to Detroit: Bernice Sprenger, chief of the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library in 1971, examines an Ottawa chief’s pictograph on a 1784 deed to the Detroit area.

      Amherst was well known to be arrogant and contemptuous of the Indians, unwilling to take the advice of his own scouts and Indian agents. When George Croghan, Rogers’ Indian agent, and Sir William Johnson, British agent in charge of Indian affairs in New York, advised Amherst that he should continue the practices of the French in supplying the Indians with food, tobacco, guns and powder, Amherst dismissed the idea. He saw it as bribery and insisted that the good behavior of the Indians should be bought with fear of the consequences of misbehavior.

      Amherst went so far as to instruct the forts to keep the Indians short of ammunition. French commanders had always supplied the Indians with ammunition for hunting and with provisions during harsh winters. Amherst also directed that any trading with the Indians be done inside the forts so that the British could control the trade and restrict the traders from providing the Indians with weapons, ammunition or rum.

Fur traders dealing with the Indians was a common sight along the river outside Fort Detroit during the 1700s.

      Unrest grew among the tribes. Amherst sent Croghan and Johnson to a grand council with the Indians at Detroit on Sept. 9, 1761. Though the men did not reveal the extent of Amherst’s prohibitions, they could not make any assurances to the chiefs that the old French ways would be restored. Dissatisfaction spread and was fed by French traders unfriendly to the English. Meanwhile, Pontiac the warrior was working to unite the tribes against the English. He called a meeting of Ottawas, Chippewas, Hurons, Potawatomi, and other Lake tribes.

      Pontiac was a powerful orator as well as warrior, and possessed a keen intelligence and skill as a strategist. He believed that the French would back up an Indian revolt to reclaim the forts and restore the former relationship with the tribes. Croghan, the Indian agent, heard of the meeting and reported it to Amherst, who ignored it and continued his policies. Throughout the winter, Pontiac gathered support. On April 27, 1762, he called a council of more than 400 Ottawa, Huron, and Potawatomi chiefs and warriors.

      Echoing a prophet of the Delaware Nation, he talked of the wrongs they had suffered under the British and spoke of the Master of Life and his urging for the Indians to turn back to their old ways. Unlike the Delaware prophet, Pontiac did not advocate a return to the primitive ways before guns or powder, but to the days of French control of the region. The warriors embraced the idea, and Pontiac announced his plans to take the fort at Detroit. After the capture of Detroit, others would follow. Spain had entered the war between France and England on the side of France, and the new world French who still controlled the Louisiana and Mississippi River region were rumored to be hoping to reclaim the Great Lakes forts that Canada had capitulated. It was hoped the French troops would rise up and join the Indian rebellion to oust the British.

An Ottawa warrior at the turn of the 18th century drawn from life by a French artist.

      Four days later, under the ruse of performing a ceremonial dance, Pontiac and 50 of his braves entered the fort and sized up the opposition. The stage was set for the attack. He informed the post commander, Maj. Henry Gladwin, that he and his men would be back in a few days for a good-will council, the plan being that he would enter the fort officially with his braves and the rest of the adults of the tribes would walk into the fort after him, carrying concealed knives, tomahawks and sawed-off muskets under their blankets. At his signal, they would cast off their blankets and attack the soldiers of the fort. The Hurons and Potawatomi would seize the English outside the fort and ambush any English ships on the river.

      Somehow, Gladwin caught wind of the plan. One romantic theory holds that a woman of the tribe, in love with Gladwin, passed on Pontiac’s plan in order to save Gladwin’s life. The fort, largest and strongest in the western reaches of European influence, was home to 130 soldiers and almost half that many English traders. There were two 6-pound and one 3-pound cannons, and three mortars. The schooner Huron was anchored in the river, with six guns, as was the Michigan.

      On May 7, 1763, Pontiac led his warriors to the fort. That the soldiers were prepared and expecting an attack was obvious. Pontiac knew his men would be overpowered and did not give the attack sign. He left with his warriors, withdrawing to the Ottawa village. On May 9, Pontiac returned with 65 canoes. Told by Gladwin that only a few of his chiefs could enter the fort with him, Pontiac regrouped across the river. Furious with Gladwin, he ordered his men to attack and kill any English outside the fort but to spare the French, who he believed would side with him against the English. Pontiac’s war had begun.

This painting by John Mix Stanley depicts an Indian maiden informing Maj. Gladwin of Pontiac’s conspiracy to take Fort Detroit.

      He ordered the Hurons and Potawatomi to intercept any Englishmen coming toward the fort, and he sent out war belts to tribes throughout the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region, hoping to enlist other tribes in his uprising. After the initial attacks in which they killed nine and captured many prisoners, the Indians encircled the fort, kept at some distance by the English guns.

      The French “habitants” had been solicited to provide the tribes with food and supplies, with the promise that they would not be harmed and that French soldiers would come to help the Indians retake the forts. Pontiac won their support, paying them with promissory notes written on birchbark and signed with his totem, the otter. He sent three of them to appeal to Gladwin for a council with the Ottawa chief. When Gladwin agreed and sent two officers to Pontiac, they were seized as hostages, and Gladwin resolved to defend the fort to the last man. Pontiac resolved to force him to do just that.

      Indians were successful in minor skirmishes in Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. But soon news arrived that gladdened Pontiac’s heart: Great Lakes forts were falling to his allies. Fort Sandusky, Fort St. Joseph, Fort Miamis (at what is now Fort Wayne, Ind.) all fell to tribes allied with Pontiac — the Hurons, Miamis, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Delaware and Mingo. Farther east, Fort Pitt came under siege. Ships and boats were captured and 20 of the 35-member garrison at Fort Michilimackinac were killed. Fort Ouiatenon, Fort Venango and Fort LeBoeuf were overcome. When Green Bay’s Fort Edward Augustus was taken, the British in under two months had lost every Great Lakes and Ohio Valley bastion except Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt, both of which were under siege. Chippewa, Sauk, Kickapoos, Seneca and Shawnee had joined the other tribes in Pontiac’s war against the English.

      Amherst could not believe what was happening. He accused commanders of exaggerating the strength of the Indians and giving up too easily. Finally, in June, he sent Capt. James Dalyell with 260 men, including Roger’s Rangers, west to Detroit. Pontiac, against all expectations, had been keeping up the siege of Fort Detroit since May.

A forewarned Maj. Gladwin greets Pontiac and his warriors with his troops on alert. Seeing that the English were prepared, Pontiac did not give the attack signal.

      On July 28, Dalyell’s men arrived, and, aided by heavy fog, were able to enter the fort unhampered. But when he marched out at 2:30 a.m. the morning of July 31, the Indians were waiting for him. As he marched his 247 men northward towards Pontiac’s main camp, he reached a creek two miles north of the fort. As his men crossed the narrow bridge, they were surrounded by Ottawas, who had been informed of the sortie by French settlers. Dalyell led a charge into the Ottawa position, but was killed, as were 19 of his men. Thirty-four were wounded and many captured. The creek ran red with the blood of the English soldiers and was christened Bloody Run.

      Throughout the summer, Indians fought settlers and British soldiers across the settled parts of the country. Each won battles, but inexorably, the soldiers were gaining ground. When word arrived that the French and English in Europe had signed a treaty ending the war, the French habitants and some of Pontiac’s Indian allies began to falter in their dedication to Pontiac’s cause.

      Amherst became obsessed with destroying the Indians. He went so far as to suggest somehow infecting them with smallpox, perhaps with contaminated blankets.

      Pontiac’s influence was dwindling. The endless siege at Detroit seemed pointless to his warriors. The French switched allegiance back to the English. As English troops gained the upper hand and the French denounced the Indian war against the English, tribes that had once been Pontiac’s fierce allies made their peace and headed home. In desperation, Pontiac sent a raiding party out against an English supply schooner in an effort to reassert his authority with a victory. The raid was unsuccessful with many Indians casualties, and the schooner was able to deliver its supplies to the fort. The Potawatomi, Chippewa, Mississauga, and Miami tribes dropped out of the war. They wanted to return to trading with the English and French. By October, many of the Ottawa themselves were of a mind to defect.

Fort Detroit in 1763, from Bellin’s Atlas of 1764.

      On Oct. 20, Pontiac received word from a French emissary that the commander of French forces wanted Pontiac to give up his siege. Pontiac dictated a letter to Gladwin offering to bury the hatchet and give up the siege, but Gladwin refused to meet with him until he had word from Amherst. But Amherst was going home. He had defeated the civilized French, but not the savage Pontiac.

      In mid-November, Pontiac withdrew what remained of his forces, lifting the siege of Detroit. By spring, he had made his way to the Mississippi, still urging the tribes he met to join with him against the English. But his prestige had waned. The tribes wanted to resume their trade with the English. As Pontiac tried to muster support, the British would quickly show up with promises of trade and a show of force.

      By the spring of 1765, Pontiac realized his movement had crumbled. On April 18, almost two years after his attack against Fort Detroit, Pontiac met in Illinois at Fort de Chartres with Lt. Alexander Fraser, with whom he had become friends, and the French Commandant. In front of the assembled Indians who had been called to a council, he accepted the English as his brothers. He accompanied the Indian agent Croghan back to Fort Detroit, which he reached Aug. 17. Here Pontiac made peace with the English, with the understanding that the English did not own the land, but were merely leasing it. The land would remain in the possession of the Ottawa. The English went along with this provision, but with no intention of keeping to it. Proof of Indian ownership of the land survives in deeds to land south of the River (in Essex County, Ontario) made out to a few settlers in September 1765 by Pontiac in the presence of Croghan.

Lt. John Montressor’s manuscript map of the Detroit River, drawn in 1763 during Pontiac’s siege of Detroit.

      Pontiac, who had once led eighteen tribes from across the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, now had only a small band of followers, mostly relatives and close friends, and lived a nomadic life following the hunting and trading routes through Illinois country. In 1769, Pontiac traveled to Cahokia (now a suburb of St. Louis, on the east bank of the Mississippi) to trade. Rumors preceded him that he was coming with 150 canoes of warriors. Though the rumors proved untrue, the Peoria tribe had a council and planned the assassination of the onetime great warrior. Whether it was jealousy of his favor with the English, anger at an old quarrel with a fellow Illinois tribe or just a desire to destroy the power of a legendary warrior, an assassin was chosen. On April 20, 1769, Pontiac left a store in the company of a seemingly friendly Peoria brave and was clubbed from behind by his companion, who then fell upon him and stabbed him to death.

      The Peoria tribe tried to shift the blame to the English and sought protection from Pontiac’s tribe with the French. When the French commander refused to shelter them, they went to the British commander at Fort de Chartres, John Wilkins. Wilkins, to show English respect for the great warrior Pontiac, ordered him buried. It is likely that Pontiac was buried in Cahokia under those orders, but a legend also persists that his remains were taken across the river and buried in St. Louis by the French commander Louis St. Ange de Bellrive.

      Although most historians agree that one of these two places hold Pontiac’s resting place, there is no hard evidence. The mystery has given rise to mythical reports of Pontiac’s burial ground. Even in Michigan, far from the site of his death, there is a legendary grave. On Apple Island (Me-nah-sa-gor-ning, Ottawa for “apple place”) on Orchard Lake in Oakland County, an Indian burial mound on the island’s south side is rumored to belong to Pontiac.

The death of Pontiac at the hands of Peoria tribesman at Cahokia.

      Pontiac, a heroic warrior who united previously feuding tribes in an unprecedented resistance to the men who would change their way of life and the face of their land forever, left a legacy of courage and honor.

      Howard Peckham, in his Pontiac and the Indian Uprising summed up:

      Pontiac, dared to draw his bow against the British lion. It was no wanton gesture. He had a cause to defend, a dream of life as it should be, and gambling on the possibility of success, he struck in the manner he knew best. When he made his peace, he kept it and resigned himself to living with the invaders he could not eject. He typified the Indian attitude and empowered it with dignity, force and direction. The advancing frontier produced many worse examples of manhood, both red and white. He stood in our path for a moment and thrust us back, revealing the tragedy of his people and the cost of human progress.

Most historians agree that Pontiac was buried somewhere along the banks of the Mississippi, but local legend holds that an Indian burial mound on Apple Island in Oakland County’s Orchard Lake holds Pontiac’s remains.

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News