Pontiac (Ottawa leader)

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No authentic images of Pontiac are known to exist.[1] This interpretation was painted by John Mix Stanley.
Born c. 1720
Great Lakes region, New France
Died April 20, 1769 (aged 48–49)
near Cahokia, Illinois Country
Cause of death assassination
Nationality Ottawa
Occupation War leader
Known for Pontiac's War

Pontiac, or Obwandiyag (c. 1720 – April 20, 1769), was an Odawa war chief who became noted for his role in Pontiac's War (1763–1766), an American Indian struggle against British military occupation of the Great Lakes region and named for him. It followed the British victory in the French and Indian War, the North American front of the Seven Years' War. Pontiac's importance in the war that bears his name has been debated. Nineteenth-century accounts portrayed him as the mastermind and leader of the revolt, but some subsequent scholars argued that his role had been exaggerated. Historians today generally view him as an important local leader who influenced a wider movement that he did not command.

The war began in May 1763 when Pontiac and 300 followers attempted to take Fort Detroit by surprise. His plan foiled, Pontiac laid siege to the fort, where he was eventually joined by more than 900 warriors from a half-dozen tribes. Meanwhile, messengers spread the word of Pontiac's actions, and the war expanded far beyond Detroit. In July 1763, Pontiac defeated a British detachment at the Battle of Bloody Run, but he was unable to capture the fort. In October he lifted the siege and withdrew to the Illinois Country.

Although Pontiac's influence had declined around Detroit because of the unsuccessful siege, he gained stature as he continued to encourage resistance to the British. Seeking to end the war, British officials made Pontiac the focus of their diplomatic efforts. In July 1766, Pontiac made peace with British Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson. The attention that the British paid to Pontiac resulted in resentment among other Native leaders, as the war effort was decentralized and Pontiac claimed greater authority than he possessed. Increasingly ostracized, in 1769 he was assassinated by a Peoria warrior.

Early years[edit]

Contemporary documents reveal little about Pontiac before 1763. He was probably born between 1712 and 1725, perhaps at an Ottawa village on the Detroit or Maumee rivers.[2] Other sources state that he may have been born in Defiance, Ohio. [3] The tribal affiliation of his parents is uncertain. According to an 18th-century Ottawa tradition, Pontiac's mother was an Ottawa and his father an Ojibwa, although some sources claim that one of his parents was a Miami. Some sources also state that he may of been born a Catawba and was taken as prisoner, and adopted as Ottawa. [4] Pontiac was always identified as an Ottawa by people who knew him.[5] He had also lived in close proximity to Fort Detroit, which he later besieged, since 1732.

By 1747, Pontiac had become an Ottawa war leader, when he allied with New France against a resistance movement led by Nicholas Orontony, a Huron leader.[6] Pontiac continued to support the French during the French and Indian War (1754–1763) against British colonists and their Indian allies. Although there is no direct evidence, he may have taken part in the famous French and Indian victory over the Braddock expedition on July 9, 1755.[7]

In one of the earliest accounts of Pontiac, Robert Rogers, a noted British frontier soldier, claimed to have met with the warrior chief in 1760, although many details in Rogers' story are unreliable.[8][9][6] Rogers wrote a play about Pontiac called Ponteach: or the Savages of America (1765), which helped to make the Ottawa leader famous and began the process of mythologizing about him. According to historian Richard White, the play made Pontiac "the most famous Indian of the eighteenth century".[10]

Pontiac's War[edit]

Pontiac's council

The French and Indian War—the North American theater of the Seven Years' War—effectively ended in 1760 with the British conquest of New France. Native American allies of the defeated French soon became dissatisfied with the trading practices of the victorious British. The architect of British Indian policy, General Jeffrey Amherst, cut back on the provisions customarily given to the Indians, which he considered to be bribes. He also restricted the distribution of gunpowder and ammunition, supplies the Indians needed for hunting and which had previously been provided by the French. Some Native people believed that the British intended to subjugate or destroy them.[6]

Following the war, British colonists started entering areas formerly colonized by the French. By 1761, Native leaders began calling for Indians to join together, drive the British out of the region, and revive the French and Indian alliance. Contributing to the anti-British sentiment was a religious revival inspired by a Lenape prophet named Neolin, who called for Indians to reject European cultural influences and return to traditional ways.[6] Pontiac may have been involved in a 1762 conference on the Detroit River that apparently issued a call to arms to various Indian nations. According to historian John Sugden, Pontiac "probably thought himself part of a resistance movement already under way".[6]

On April 27, 1763, Pontiac held a large council about 10 miles below Fort Detroit (present-day Council Point Park in Lincoln Park, Michigan). Pontiac urged the listeners to join him in a surprise attack on Fort Detroit. On May 1, Pontiac visited the fort with 50 Ottawas in order to assess the strength of the garrison.[11][12] According to a French chronicler, in a second council Pontiac proclaimed:

It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation which seeks only to destroy us. You see as well as I that we can no longer supply our needs, as we have done from our brothers, the French.... Therefore, my brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it.[13][14]

Pontiac's War began on May 7, 1763, when Pontiac and 300 followers attempted to take Fort Detroit by surprise. His plan was foiled because Major Henry Gladwin, the fort's commander, had been warned by an informer and had prepared his defense. Pontiac withdrew and looked for other opportunities to capture the fort, to no avail.[6] On May 9, he laid siege to the fort, and was eventually joined by more than 900 warriors from a half-dozen tribes. While Pontiac was besieging Fort Detroit, messengers spread word of his actions. Native Americans made widespread attacks against British forts and Anglo-American (but not French) settlements, and at one point controlled nine of eleven British forts in the Ohio Valley. In July 1763, Pontiac defeated a British detachment at the Battle of Bloody Run, but he was unable to capture the fort. In October he lifted the siege and withdrew to the Illinois Country, where he had relatives.[10]

Pontiac continued to encourage militant resistance to British occupation among the Illinois and Wabash tribes, and to recruit French colonists as allies.[15] According to historian Richard White, it was during this time that Pontiac exerted his greatest influence, developing from a local war leader into an important regional spokesman.[16] After the failure of the siege of Fort Detroit, the British initially thought that Pontiac was defeated and would trouble them no longer, but his influence continued to grow. Although the British had successfully pacified the uprising in the Ohio Country, British military dominance was tenuous. They decided to negotiate with the Ottawa leader. By making Pontiac the focus of their diplomacy (and not understanding how decentralized the Indian approach to war was), the British further increased his stature.[17] Pontiac met with Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, on July 25, 1766, at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, and formally ended hostilities.[6]

To prevent another similar uprising, the British increased their frontier presence in the years following Pontiac's War. In this way, the rebellion's result was the opposite of Pontiac's original intentions. Perhaps most importantly, these were the final major Indian rebellions against British control in the Ohio Country before the creation of the United States guaranteed a permanent white presence in the North American interior.

Final years[edit]

Pontiac's final years are sparsely documented.[18] He was summoned to Detroit in August 1767 to testify in the investigation of the murder of Elizabeth "Betty" Fisher, a seven-year-old English colonist. In 1763, during the siege of Detroit, an Ottawa war party had attacked the Fisher farm, killing Betty's parents and taking the girl captive.[19][20] The following year, while Betty was still captive at Pontiac's village, she tried to warm herself at Pontiac's fire. Pontiac became angry when the girl, sick with dysentery, soiled some of his clothes. According to court testimony, Pontiac picked up the naked child, threw her into the Maumee River, and called upon a French-speaking ally to wade into the river and drown her. This was done. The French colonist who drowned Fisher was later arrested by the British, but had escaped by the time Pontiac came to testify.[21] Pontiac neither confirmed nor denied his role in the murder, and the investigation was eventually dropped.[22]

The attention paid to Pontiac by the British Crown encouraged him to assert more power among the Indians of the region than he possessed by tradition. "By 1766 he was acting arrogantly and imperiously," wrote historian Richard White, "assuming powers no western Indian leader possessed."[10] In 1768, he was forced to leave his Ottawa village on the Maumee River, and relocated near Ouiatenon on the Wabash River.[23] On May 10, 1768, he dictated a letter to British officials in which he explained that he was no longer recognized as a chief by the people of his village on the Maumee.[24]

Pontiac was murdered on April 20, 1769, near the French town of Cahokia. Most accounts place Pontiac's murder in Cahokia, but historian Gregory Dowd wrote that the killing probably happened in a nearby Indian village.[25] The assassin was a Peoria warrior whose name has not been preserved. He was apparently avenging his uncle, a Peoria chief named Makachinga (Black Dog), whom Pontiac had stabbed and badly wounded in 1766.[26]

Various rumors quickly spread about the circumstances of Pontiac's death, including one that the British had hired his assassin. According to a story recorded by historian Francis Parkman in The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851), a terrible war of retaliation against the Peoria resulted from Pontiac's murder. Although this legend is still sometimes repeated, there is no evidence that there were any Indian reprisals for Pontiac's murder.[27][28][29] Pontiac's burial place is unknown, and may have been at Cahokia. But, evidence and tradition suggest that his body was taken across the river and buried in St. Louis, recently founded by French colonists from New Orleans and the Illinois Country.[30] The area had been occupied by Native American cultures for thousands of years and contained numerous earthwork mounds, some of them for burials, constructed by the Mississippian culture (950 CE-1450 CE). In 1900, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a commemorative plaque in a corridor of the Southern Hotel in St. Louis, which was said to be near Pontiac's burial place.[31][32]

Legacy and honors[edit]

Pontiac Memorial at Livingston County Courthouse in Pontiac, Illinois

Historians have differed in their assessments of Pontiac's importance. Older accounts of the war portrayed Pontiac as a savage but brilliant mastermind behind a massive "conspiracy", which was planned in advance. Historians today generally agree that Pontiac's actions at Detroit were the spark that instigated the widespread uprising, and that he helped to spread the resistance by sending emissaries urging other leaders to join it, but he did not command the various tribal war leaders as a whole. They operated in a highly decentralized way. In addition, Native leaders around Fort Pitt and Fort Niagara, for example, had long been calling for resistance to the British; they were not led by Pontiac. According to historian John Sugden, Pontiac "was neither the originator nor the strategist of the rebellion, but he kindled it by daring to act, and his early successes, ambition, and determination won him a temporary prominence not enjoyed by any of the other Indian leaders."[6]


  1. ^ Dowd 2002, p. 6.
  2. ^ Chevrette says Pontiac's birth was "sometime between 1712 and 1725"; Sugden says Pontiac was "probably" born "about 1714" along the Detroit River ("Pontiac", 659); White ("Pontiac", 496) and Peckham (Indian Uprising, 18) give an estimate of around 1720.
  3. ^ http://historydetroit.com/people/pontiac.php
  4. ^ http://historydetroit.com/people/pontiac.php
  5. ^ Peckham 1947, pp. 15–16.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Sugden 1999.
  7. ^ Peckham 1947, pp. 43–44.
  8. ^ Peckham 1947, p. 59.
  9. ^ Dowd 2002, p. 56.
  10. ^ a b c White 1996.
  11. ^ Dixon 2005, p. 108.
  12. ^ Peckham 1947, p. 116.
  13. ^ Peckham 1947, pp. 119–20.
  14. ^ Dixon 2005, p. 109.
  15. ^ White 1991, p. 296.
  16. ^ White 1991, p. 295–96.
  17. ^ White 1991, p. 295–97.
  18. ^ Dowd 2002, p. 249.
  19. ^ Dowd 2002, p. 255.
  20. ^ Peckham 1947, p. 135.
  21. ^ Peckham 1947, pp. 301–03.
  22. ^ Dowd 2002, pp. 257–58.
  23. ^ Dowd 2002, p. 259.
  24. ^ Dowd 2002, pp. 249, 259.
  25. ^ Dowd 2002, p. 260–61.
  26. ^ Dowd 2002, p. 249, 261.
  27. ^ Peckham 1947, p. 316.
  28. ^ Dixon 2005, p. 269.
  29. ^ Dowd 2002, p. 260.
  30. ^ Peckham 1947, pp. 312–14.
  31. ^ Fausz 2011, p. 118.
  32. ^ The Missouri Historical Review, April 1957, p. 335.