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. 1714
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 known for his role in the war named for him, from 1763 to 1766 leading American Indians in a struggle against British military occupation of the Great Lakes region. It followed the British victory in the French and Indian War, the North American front of the Seven Years' War. Pontiac's importance has been debated in the war that bears his name. 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 was foiled, so 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. Pontiac's actions contributed to the issuance of the Proclamation of 1763.

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

Early years[edit]

Contemporaneous 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 might have been born a Catawba and taken as prisoner, then 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 Native Americans. He may have taken part in the famous French and Indian victory over the Braddock expedition on July 9, 1755, although there is no direct evidence.[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. Indian allies of the defeated French soon became dissatisfied with the trading practices of the victorious British. General Jeffery Amherst, the architect of British Indian policy, cut back on the provisions that the French had customarily given to the Indians, which he considered to be bribes. He also restricted the distribution of gunpowder and ammunition, supplies that the Indians needed for hunting and which had previously been provided by the French. Some Indian 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, tribal 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 tribes. 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, Pontiac proclaimed in a second council:

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. Indians 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. The British had successfully pacified the uprising in the Ohio Country, but British military dominance was tenuous. They decided to negotiate with the Ottawa leader. The British further increased his stature by making Pontiac the focus of their diplomacy and not understanding the decentralized Indian approach to war.[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. The girl was sick with dysentery, and Pontiac became angry when she 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 he had escaped by the time that 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 traditional rights. "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 relocate 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 his murder in Cahokia, but historian Gregory Dowd wrote that the killing probably happened in a nearby Indian village.[25] The murderer 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. A Peoria band council authorized Pontiac's execution. The Peoria warrior came behind Pontiac, stunned him by clubbing him, and stabbed him to death.[26]

Various rumors quickly spread about the circumstances of Pontiac's death, including one that the British had hired his killer. 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. This legend is still sometimes repeated, but 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] 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 him 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, tribal 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 that Pontiac's birth was "sometime between 1712 and 1725"; Sugden says that 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.