Siege of Fort Pitt

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For the 1885 action in the Canadian North-West Rebellion, see the Battle of Fort Pitt
Siege of Fort Pitt
Part of Pontiac's Rebellion
Plan of Fort Pitt, 1759.jpg
"A Plan of the New Fort at Pitts-Burgh", drawn by cartographer John Rocque and published in 1765.
Date June 22, 1763 – August 20, 1763
Location Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Result British victory
Ohio Country natives Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Guyasuta Simeon Ecuyer
William Trent

The Siege of Fort Pitt took place during June and July of 1763 in what is now the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. The siege was a part of Pontiac's War, an effort by Native Americans to remove the British from the Ohio Country and Allegheny Plateau after they refused to honor their promises and treaties to leave voluntarily after the defeat of the French. The Native American efforts of diplomacy, and by siege, to remove the British from Fort Pitt ultimately failed. This event is best known for the use of biological warfare, where the British gave items from a smallpox infirmary as gifts to Native American emissaries with the hope of spreading the deadly disease to nearby tribes.


Fort Pitt was built in 1758 during the French and Indian War, on the site of what was previously Fort Duquesne in what is now the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. The French abandoned and destroyed Fort Duquesne in November 1758 with the approach of General John Forbes's expedition. The Forbes expedition was successful in part because of the Treaty of Easton, in which area American Indians agreed to end their alliance with the French. American Indians—primarily the Six Nations, Delawares and Shawnees—made this agreement with the understanding that the British would leave the area after their war with the French. The hostilities between the French and English declined significantly after 1760, followed by a final cessation of hostilities and the formal surrender of the French at the Treaty of Paris in February 1763. Instead of leaving the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains as they had agreed, the British remained on Native lands and reinforced their forts while settlers continued to push westward.[1]

The attacks led by Pontiac against the British in early May 1763, near Fort Detroit, mark what is generally considered to be the beginning of Pontiac's War. The siege of Fort Pitt and numerous other British forts during the spring and summer of 1763 were part of an effort by American Indians to reclaim their territory by driving the British out of the Ohio Country and back across the Appalachian Mountains. While many of the forts and outposts in the region were destroyed, the Indian effort to remove the British from Fort Pitt ultimately failed.

Diplomacy and siege[edit]

By May 27, the uprising reached the tribes near Fort Pitt, and there were many signs of impending hostilities. The captain of the Fort Pitt militia learned that the Delaware tribe just north of the fort had abandoned their dwellings and cornfields overnight. The Mingo had also abandoned their villages further up the river. The proprietor of the Pennsylvania provincial store reported that numerous Delaware warriors had arrived "in fear and haste" to exchange their skins for gunpowder and lead. The western Delaware warrior leaders Wolf and Kickyuscung had fewer than 100 warriors, so did not immediately attack the well-fortified Fort Pitt. Instead, on May 29, they attacked the supporting farms, plantations and villages in the vicinity of the fort. Panicked settlers crowded into the already overcrowded fort. Captain Simeon Ecuyer tried to ready his fort after this news of expanding hostilities, putting his 230 men, half regulars and half quickly organized militia, on alert. The fort's exceptional structural defenses, made of stone with bastions covering all angles of attack, were supported by 16 cannons which he had permanently loaded. Ecuyer demolished the nearby village houses and structures to deny cover for attackers. He had trenches dug outside the fort, and set out beaver traps. Smallpox had been discovered within the fort, prompting Ecuyer to build a makeshift hospital in which to quarantine those infected.[2]

On the 16th of June, four Shawnee visited Fort Pitt and warned Alexander McKee and Captain Simeon Ecuyer that several Indian nations had accepted Pontiac's war belt and bloody hatchet and were going on the offensive against the British, but that the Delaware were still divided, with the older Delaware chiefs advising against war. The following day, however, the Shawnee returned and reported a more threatening situation, saying that all the nations "had taken up the hatchet" against the British, and were going to attack Fort Pitt. Even the local Shawnee themselves "were afraid to refuse" to join the uprising, a subtle hint that the occupants of Fort Pitt should leave. Ecuyer dismissed the warnings and ignored the requests to leave. On June 22, Fort Pitt was attacked on three sides by Shawnee, western Delaware, Mingo and Seneca, which prompted return fire from Ecuyer's artillery.[2] This initial attack on the fort was repelled. Since the Indians were unfamiliar with siege warfare, they opted to try diplomacy yet again. On June 24th, Turtleheart spoke with McKee and Trent outside the fort, informing them that all of the other forts had fallen, and that Fort Pitt "is the only one you have left in our country." He warned McKee that "six different nations of Indians" were ready to attack if the garrison at the fort did not retreat immediately. They thanked Turtleheart and assured him that Fort Pitt could withstand "all nations of Indians", and they presented the Indian dignitaries with two small blankets and a handkerchief from the smallpox hospital.[3] For the next several days it remained relatively quiet, although reports were coming in about fort after fort falling before large bands of attacking warriors.[2]

Thomas Hutchins Map of Henry Bouquet's 1764 Expedition

July 3rd, four Ottawa newcomers requested a parley and tried to trick the occupants of Fort Pitt into surrender, but the ruse failed. This was followed by several weeks of relative quiet, through July 18th when a large group of warriors arrived, likely from the Fort Ligonier area. McKee was informed by the Shawnee that the Indians were still hopeful of an amicable outcome, similar to agreements just made at Detroit. On July 26, a large conference headed by Ecuyer was convened with several leaders of the Ohioan tribes outside the walls of Fort Pitt. The Indian delegation, Shingess, Wingenum and Grey Eyes among them, came to the fort under a flag of truce to parley, and again requested that the British leave this place. They explained that by taking the Indian's country the British caused this war, and Tessecumme of the Delaware noted that the British were the cause of the trouble since they had broken their promises and treaties. They had come onto Indian land and built forts, despite being asked not to, so now the tribes in the area have amassed to take back their lands. He informed Ecuyer that there was still a short time remaining to leave peacefully.[2][3] The Delaware and Shawnee chiefs made sure Captain Ecuyer at Fort Pitt understood the cause of the conflict. Turtleheart told him, "You marched your armies into our country, and built forts here, though we told you, again and again, that we wished you to move, this land is ours, and not yours."[4] The Deleware also let it be known, "that all the country was theirs; that they had been cheated out of it, and that they would carry on the war till they burnt Philadelphia".[2] The British refused to leave, claiming that this was their home now. They bluffed that they could hold out for three years, and bragged that several large armies were coming to their aid. This "very much enraged" the Indian delegation, Trent wrote, "White Eyes and Wingenum seemed to be very much irritated and would not shake hands with our people at parting." On July 28, the siege began in earnest and continued for several days. Seven of the fort garrison were wounded, at least one mortally; Ecuyer was wounded in the leg by an arrow.[5][1]

For Commander-in-Chief, North America Jeffrey Amherst, who before the war had dismissed the possibility that the Indians would offer any effective resistance to British rule, the military situation over the summer had become increasingly grim. The frustration was so great, he wrote his subordinates and instructed them not to take any Indian prisoners. He schemed with his commanders on ways to eliminate "the vermin", proposing they should be intentionally exposed to smallpox, hunted down with dogs, and "Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race." Amherst had directed Colonel Henry Bouquet to take his troops to relieve Fort Pitt, a march that would take several weeks. At Fort Pitt, the siege didn't let up until August 1, 1763, when most of the Indians broke off their attack in order to intercept the body of almost 500 British troops marching to the fort under Colonel Bouquet. On August 5, these two forces met at Edge Hill in the Battle of Bushy Run. Bouquet survived the attack and the Indians were unable to prevent his command from relieving Fort Pitt on August 10.[5][1]

Biological warfare involving smallpox[edit]

"Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect."

William Trent, William Trent's Journal at Fort Pitt

This event is well known for the documented instances of biological warfare. British officers, including the top British commanding generals, ordered, sanctioned, paid for and conducted the use of smallpox against the Native Americans. As described by one historian, "there is no doubt that British military authorities approved of attempts to spread smallpox among the enemy", and "it was deliberate British policy to infect the indians with smallpox".[6]

In one instance, as recorded in his journal by sundries trader and militia Captain, William Trent, on June 24, 1763, dignitaries from the Delaware tribe met with Fort Pitt officials, warned them of "great numbers of Indians" coming to attack the fort, and pleaded with them to leave the fort while there was still time. The commander of the fort refused to abandon the fort. Instead, the British gave as gifts two blankets, one silk handkerchief and one linen from the smallpox hospital,[7] to two Delaware delegates after the parley, a principal warrior named Turtleheart, and Maumaultee, a Chief. The tainted gifts were, according to their inventory accounts, given to the Indian dignitaries "to Convey the Smallpox to the Indians".[8][9]

INVOICE for 1763 June
Levy, Trent and Company: Account against the Crown, Aug. 13, 1763[7]

"To Sundries got to Replace in kind those which were taken from people in the Hospital to Convey the Smallpox to the Indians Vizt:
2 Blankets @ 20/ £299 099 0
1 Silk Handkerchef 10/
& 1 linnen do: 3/6 099 1399 6

Captain Ecuyer later certified that the items "were had for the uses above mentioned," in the inventory reimbursement request, and General Thomas Gage would later approve that invoice for payment, endorsing it with a comment and his signature.[7]

While Ecuyer, Trent and McKee were conducting their early form of biological warfare upon the Indian dignitaries at Fort Pitt, their superiors were discussing similar plans. General Amherst, having learned that smallpox had broken out among the garrison at Fort Pitt, and after learning on July 7th of the loss of his forts at Venango, Le Boeuf and Presqu'Isle, wrote to Colonel Bouquet, "Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them." In addition, Amherst wrote, "Captain Ecuyer Seems to Act with great Prudence, & I approve of everything he mentions to have done." Bouquet, who was already marching to relieve Fort Pitt and Fort Detroit, responded on the 13th, "I will try to inoculate the Indians with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself. I wish we could make use of the Spanish method to hunt them with English dogs, supported by rangers and some light horse, who would, I think, effectually extirpate or remove that vermin." On July 16th, Amherst replied, "You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race. I should be very glad your scheme for hunting them down by dogs could take effect, but England is at too great a distance to think of that at present."[10]

General Amherst, July 8: "Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them."
Colonel Bouquet, July 13: "I will try to inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself."
Amherst, July 16: "You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execreble Race."
Bouquet, July 19: "all your Directions will be observed."

Papers of Col. Henry Bouquet, ed. Stevens and Kent, ser. 21634, p. 161.

The correspondence between Amherst and Bouquet reflected how pervasive Indian hating had become by 1763 and how far British officers were willing to go in ignoring their own soldiers' code of warfare.[10] A devastating smallpox epidemic plagued Native American tribes in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes area through 1763 and 1764, but the effectiveness of individual instances of biological warfare remains unknown. After extensive review of surviving documentary evidence, historian Francis Jennings concluded the attempt at biological warfare was "unquestionably effective at Fort Pitt";[11] Barbara Mann deduced "it is important to note that the smallpox distribution worked";[12] Howard Peckham noted the resulting fatal epidemic "certainly affected their vigorous prosecution of the war."[8]

Nineteenth century historian Francis Parkman, the first to research these events, described "the shameful plan of infecting the Indians" as "detestable."[13] It is likely such incidents have occurred more frequently than scholars have acknowledged, but with such actions considered beyond the pale of civilized behavior, incriminating documentation would of course be scarce. Efforts have ever since been made to reduce the stigma associated with being the perpetrators of such acts.[14][7] Captain Ecuyer's official report, written at the time of the incident and in great detail, notably did not mention the tainted gifts. According to biological warfare expert Mark Wheelis, Ecuyer considered concealing the event and acknowledged the deed in his ledgers only after learning that his superiors were ordering the same course of action.[15] The most widely cited expert on the subject, Elizabeth Fenn, has observed, "It is also possible that documents relating to such a plan were deliberately destroyed."[7] Peckham noted that, "oddly enough", the incriminating pages from Amherst and Bouquet were missing from the Canadian Archives transcripts as well as the collection published by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission.[8] Likewise, Mann has described documents which have gone missing after "later sanitation", and has documented efforts by "Amherst apologists" and others who conjecture about, minimize and even dispute the instances of European perfidy. Dixon has suggested that the attempt to infect the Indians near Fort Pitt "may well have been a failure",[6] and Ranlet has speculated that "either the smallpox virus was already dead on the unpleasant gifts or that the presents simply failed to fulfill Trent's ardent desire to infect the Indians."[16] Mann has called such assumptions "demonstrably false", and Wheelis has concluded that while there may have been several simultaneous routes of transmission for the epidemic, and the effect of each attempt is impossible to determine, "the act of biological aggression at Fort Pitt is indisputable".[15]


More than 500 British troupes and perhaps a couple thousand settlers had died in the Ohio Valley, and of more than a dozen British forts, only Detroit, Niagra and Pitt remained standing at the height of this uprising.[4] On October 7, 1763, the Crown issued Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbade all settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains - a proclamation ignored by British settlers, and unenforced by the British military. Fort Pitt would remain in British hands, and would become a central hub for migrant settlers as they pushed west in ever larger numbers over the next decade.

The smallpox epidemic that had occurred during Pontiac's War spread through the territories of the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee villages, killing many Native Americans during and years after Pontiac's War.[17] After visiting Pittsburgh a few years later, David McClure would write in his journal, "I was informed at Pittsburgh, that when the Delawares, Shawanese & others, laid seige suddenly and most traitorously to Fort Pitt, in 1764, in a time of peace, the people within, found means of conveying the small pox to them, which was far more destructive than the guns from the walls, or all the artillery of Col? Boquet's army, which obliged them to abandon the enterprise."[18]


  1. ^ a b c The Indian wars of Pennsylvania; C.H. Sipe; ; 1931; Pgs. 407-24
  2. ^ a b c d e Pontiac's War: Its Causes, Course and Consequences; Richard Middleton; Routledge; 2007; Pgs. 83-91
  3. ^ a b Pen Pictures of Early Western Pennsylvania; John W. Harpster, ed. (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1938), pp. 99, 103-11. Excerpt: "The Turtles Heart a principal Warrior of the Delawares and Mamaltee a Chief came within a small distance of the Fort. Mr. McKee went out to them and they made a Speech letting us know that all our [POSTS] as Ligonier was destroyed, that great numbers of Indians [were coming and] that out of regard to us, they had prevailed on 6 Nations [not to] attack us but give us time to go down the Country and they desired we would set of immediately. The Commanding Officer thanked them, let them know that we had everything we wanted, that we could defend it against all the Indians in the Woods, that we had three large Armys marching to Chastise those Indians that had struck us, told them to take care of their Women and Children, but not to tell any other Natives, they said they would go and speak to their Chiefs and come and tell us what they said, they returned and said they would hold fast of the Chain of friendship. Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect. They then told us that Ligonier had been attacked, but that the Enemy were beat of".
  4. ^ a b The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America; Colin G. Calloway; Oxford University Press; 2006; Pgs. 66-75
  5. ^ a b Dowd, Gregory Evans. War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, & the British Empire. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002; Pg. 144-7, 190; ISBN 0-8018-7079-8
  6. ^ a b Dixon, David; Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac's Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America; (pg. 152-155); University of Oklahoma Press; 2005; ISBN 0-8061-3656-1
  7. ^ a b c d e Fenn, Elizabeth A. Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst; The Journal of American History, Vol. 86, No. 4, March, 2000
  8. ^ a b c Pontiac and the Indian Uprising; Peckham, Howard H.; University of Chicago Press; 1947; Pgs. 170, 226-7
  9. ^ Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766; Anderson, Fred; New York: Knopf; 2000; Pgs. 541-2, 809n11; ISBN 0-375-40642-5
  10. ^ a b A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and Its Peoples, 1724-1774; Michael N. McConnell; University of Nebraska Press; 1992; Pgs. 190-6
  11. ^ Empire of Fortune; Francis Jennings; W. W. Norton & Company; 1988; Pgs. 447-8
  12. ^ The Tainted Gift; Barbara Alice Mann; ABC-CLIO; 2009; Pgs. 1-18
  13. ^ The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada; Francis Parkman; Little, Brown & Company; Ninth Edition - 1898; Pgs. 38-42
  14. ^ Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation's Fight Against Smallpox, 1518–1824; Paul Kelton; University of Oklahoma Press; 2015; Pgs. 102-105
  15. ^ a b Biological and Toxin Weapons: Research, Development and Use from the Middle Ages to 1945; Mark Wheelis; Oxford University Press; 1999; Pgs. 17-26
  16. ^ Philip Ranlet; "The British, the Indians, and smallpox: what actually happened at Fort Pitt in 1763?" Pennsylvania history (2000): 427-441. in JSTOR
  17. ^ Phillip M. White (June 2, 2011). American Indian Chronology: Chronologies of the American Mosaic. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 44. 
  18. ^ Diary of David McClure, Doctor of Divinity, 1748-1820; Franklin B. Dexter, M.A.; Pgs. 92-3

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