Chief Pontiac

By Jesse Frawley

In 1763, a loose confederation of Native American Tribes in Northern America launched a rebellion against the British occupying forces in the Great Lakes Region after the French and Indian War’s conclusion. This three year war would eventually go by a number of names, all of which started with the name of the man who is largely believed to have been the most instrumental figure in the effort: Chief Pontiac.

Pontiac was a member of the Ottawa tribe, one of the Anishinabek peoples. The date of his birth is not confirmed, though the ‘Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica’ state that he was born in 1720, along the Maumee River in what is now Defiance, Ohio. His parents’ origin is also unclear. It is possible that one of his parents was a Miami, as the Miami people were another Great Lakes Tribe that lived along Southwest Michigan, though according to 18th century Odawa tradition, his mother would be Ottawa, and his father Ojibwa. He was known by those who knew him as an Odawa, and lived close to Fort Detroit since 1732. By 1755, he had become a tribal Chief of a loose confederacy among the Ottawa, the Potawatomi, and the Ojibwa.

Pontiac was a follower of the religious beliefs held by Neolin, a prophet of the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware, from the area of Muskingum County, Ohio during the 1760’s.[1] Neolin preached to his fellow Native Americans in the Ohio country and parts of the West that they should separate themselves from the British customs and forsake their goods. He told them that their dependence on the British goods had infuriated their gods, and that their suffering at European hands was a result of their forgetting the true ways of their people. Though he encouraged Native Americans to dispel all European customs, his views of ‘The Great Spirit’ were partly influenced by German Missionaries of the Moravian Church.

Pontiac was deeply influenced by Neolin’s revivalism, however, he still believed in remaining militarily strong through an alliance with the French before they could drive anyone out of the Ohio country. For this reason, Chief Pontiac maintained his alliance with the French in the French and Indian War, and found that they benefited in more ways than one in their compromise.

While the French occupied Native American land in the Great Lakes Region, they would trade with the Ottawa, the Ojibwa, and the Potawatomi, and allow them inside their forts, including the famous Fort Detroit which Pontiac took residence by. When the war was over, the Treaty of Paris signed over all Native American lands held by the French over to the English, causing Pontiac and his people to fear the loss of their traditional ally and the flooding of British settlers into the Great Lakes Region.

Pontiac and his entourage meeting with Maj. Robert Rogers and his troops; lithograph from James Wimer, Events in Indian History (1841).

In 1763, just after the war’s end, Pontiac met with a British Major by the name of Robert Rogers; a veteran of the French and Indian War who formed the infamous Roger’s Rangers, who were meant for raiding and close combat behind enemy lines. Rogers was on his way to occupy Fort Michilimackinac and several other outposts and forts in the region that had been surrendered by the French. Though dissatisfied with the presence of those he had been fighting against, Pontiac agreed to allow the British troops through his land unmolested, provided that he and his people are treated with respect.[2]

Rogers described his meeting with Pontiac in his journal. He wrote, “Ponteack is the current King or Emperor…He puts on an air of majesty and princely grandeur and is greatly revered by his subjects…He assured me, that he was inclined to live peaceably with the English while they used him as he deserved…but intimated, that, if they treated him with neglect, he should shut up the way, and exclude them from it.”

It was not long after their meeting that Chief Pontiac came to realize that the British would ignore his warning. American Indians were not allowed inside their forts, as the French had allowed before. British General Jeffrey Amherst, who was the architect of the British-Indian policy, cut back on the provisions that the French had supplied Indians with, considering them to be bribes. They no longer supplied them with arms, rationed food, and required all trading to take place at faraway designated trading posts.

Pontiac feared that soon his people would lose their hunting grounds due to aggressive encroaching settlers on their ancestral lands, and believed it was time to retaliate. On April 27, 1763, Pontiac held a large council roughly 10 miles below Fort Detroit, where he enlisted the support of practically every tribe from Lake Superior to the lower Mississippi for a joint campaign to expel the British. 500 warriors from the Ojibwas, Potawatomi, Seneca, and Huron came from as far as upstate New York to hear what their new leader and master orator had to say. He planned to have every tribe attack the nearest Fort and then combine all their forces to go after the undefended English settlements. The British named this ‘Pontiac’s Conspiracy.’

Determined to take the British by surprise, Pontiac brought 50 Ottawa’s to Fort Detroit on May 1st to assess the strength of the Fort’s garrison. He claimed they had come to perform a ceremonial dance, and the boisterous whooping and hollering of their dance allowed 10 warriors to slip away undetected and scout the fort. 120 men garrisoned, led by British Major General Henry Gladwin. After retrieving the information they required, Pontiac and his men politely left, promising to return with more soon for an even bigger display of their talents.[3]

According to a French chronicler, Pontiac held a second council where he 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.”

Pontiac gathered a force made up of 300 Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Hurons, and entered the fort, each carrying weapons under blankets, and planned to take the fort by surprise. However, the fort’s commander, Henry Gladwin was informed of the attack by an unidentified traitor among the tribes. It is theorized that a young Potawatomi woman who had fallen in love with Major Gladwin was the scheming informant. She was never identified as in a drunken stupor; she lost her life by falling into a vat of boiling maple syrup. When Pontiac and his men arrived, the British were ready, armed and alert if there was to be an attack. Pontiac sensed that his plan had been revealed to the enemy, and rather than risk attacking the Fort without the element of surprise to his advantage, Pontiac retreated and returned two days later to lay siege to Fort Detroit instead.

Chief Pontiac is particularly remembered for this military action, and it is generally recognized that this was the official start of Pontiac’s rebellion. While laying siege, messengers would carry word of Pontiac’s actions. The Shawnee, the Munsee, the Wyandot, the Seneca-Cayuga, and the Lenape raided in the Ohio country and Western Pennsylvania. In the days following the start of the siege, Pontiac’s men waged all-out war on the English around the fort, killing and scalping nearly a dozen English settlers and soldiers, and capturing others. One of the soldiers was ritually cannibalized, as was the custom for some Great Lakes Tribes. It is estimated that some 900 American Indians joined Pontiac’s forces during the siege. The violence demonstrated was only ever directed towards the British, with the French settlers who remained in the area being left in peace.

In the outlying regions, far more successful attacks were carried out by Pontiac’s allies, who had easily conquered Fort Sandusky, Fort St. Joseph in Niles, Fort Miami in Ohio, and Fort LeBoeuf in Waterford, Pennsylvania. They had fired on 13 forts and gained victory in nine of these attacks.

On May 28th, a supply convoy commanded by British Lieutenant Abraham Cuyler stopped at Point Pelee on its way to Detroit. They were unaware of the ongoing siege, and so Cuyler and his men made camp without taking the proper security precautions. This allowed somewhere around 200 of Pontiac’s warriors to attack, killing or capturing 61 of the 96 men of Cuyler’s expedition. Those who escaped fled to Fort Sandusky, which had already been destroyed, and so they returned to Fort Niagara. Pontiac’s men then took their captives to Detroit, where they were tortured and mutilated in plain sight of the garrison. The bodies were then tossed into the river to float by Fort Detroit, further diminishing the morale of the men inside.

Agitated and humiliated, the British knew they had to strike back. Late in July, a group of 260 British reinforcements under the command of Captain James Dalyell arrived at Fort Detroit. On July 31, 1763, James Dalyell and Major Robert Rogers led 250 men in an attempt to ambush Chief Pontiac and his men. However, much like the initial intended attack on the fort by Pontiac, the aggressor’s plans to take the enemy by surprise failed due to the likely role of an informant. It is possible a French settler tipped off Chief Pontiac of the impending attack, but whatever the case, Pontiac was waiting with four hundred warriors, just two miles east of the fort.

The British were heard marching over the wooden bridge at Parent’s Creek, with a full moon overhead, providing Pontiac and his men with an advantage. When Pontiac’s men ambushed the British, Twenty soldiers were killed, and thirty-four injured. Among the dead was the attack’s commander, Captain James Dalyell himself. The bodies of the soldiers fell into the creek, and bled so profusely that the water is said to have turned bright red, earning the name “The Battle of Bloody Run.” After learning of Pontiac’s decisive victory, and the death of James Dalyell, General Jeffrey Amherst put a bounty of 200 British pounds on Pontiac’s head.

Though this was a brilliant victory for Chief Pontiac and his allies, he still did not manage to destroy the British force, nor did he take Fort Detroit, leaving the siege at a stalemate. Pontiac’s influence began to wane with his supporters, as their success did not seem to have the impact it was meant to. At this point, groups of American Indians began to abandon the siege, with some even making peace with the British before leaving. With no sign of the French coming to his aid from Illinois, losing allies, the likelihood of more British reinforcements on their way, and the added need to return to hunting, Pontiac had no choice but to lift the siege on October 31st, 1763. He issued a letter of surrender to Major Gladwin, and retreated to the Maumee River, where he stayed with relatives and continued his efforts to rally support against the British.

According to Historian Richard White, Pontiac was at the most influential stage of his life during this time. He went from a local war leader to a regional spokesman. After the siege of Fort Detroit was lifted, the British assumed Pontiac was defeated, and the threat had passed. When they learned of his continued efforts to encourage militant activity against them, they decided to make him the focus of their diplomatic efforts. This only increased Pontiac’s influence and stature in the region.

The Prophet Neolin, who had served as a useful ally to Pontiac before, had suddenly done harm to the cause by encouraging American Indians to lay down their arms, telling them that the ‘Master of life’ had instructed them to do so. This made the already difficult task of raising another armed rebellion even less likely. On July 25, 1766 at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, Pontiac met with the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson. The negotiations managed to avoid any kind of bloodshed, and Pontiac and Johnson reached an agreement to end the hostilities. To prevent further resistance, the British increased their presence in the frontier, and the rebellion’s result ended up having the opposite effect of Pontiac’s original intentions.

The following years were not any kinder to Pontiac. In 1767 he was summoned to Fort Detroit in order to testify in the investigations toward the murder of a seven year old English colonist named Elizabeth Fisher. In 1763, during the siege, an Ottawa war party raided the Fisher farm and killed the girl’s parents, taking her as a captive. A French colonist arrested by the British claimed that he was ordered by Pontiac to drown the girl after she had dirtied some of his clothes. She had reportedly been suffering from dysentery.

It was not hard to believe the easily angered Pontiac would have this done, but by the time Pontiac arrived at the fort, the colonist had escaped, and Pontiac neither confirmed nor denied his role in the murder. The investigation was eventually dropped, and Pontiac returned home.

Richard White claims that the attention paid to Pontiac by the British Crown encouraged him to assert his authority over neighboring tribes, attempting to use more power than he was granted by traditional rights. White says, “By 1766 he was acting arrogantly and imperiously, assuming powers no western Indian leader possessed.” Strangely enough, Pontiac ended up making peace with many of his old enemies, including Robert Rogers.[4]

The mostly friendly relationship Pontiac developed with the British military led some of the tribes to grow suspicious of his motives. 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 River, and that he was forced to leave the Ottawa village, and relocate along the Wabash River.

In 1769, Pontiac was involved in an altercation with Black Dog, Chief of the Peoria tribe. The reasons for this altercation are unknown; though Pontiac’s growing arrogance and his amicable relationship with the British could have been involved. Whatever the reason for the altercation, Pontiac killed Black Dog, and became further estranged from many American Indians. In retaliation, a Peoria band council authorized the killing of Pontiac, and during a trade in Cahokia, a French town in Illinois, one of Black Dog’s nephews approached Pontiac from behind, attacking him with a war club, and proceeded to stab him to death.[5]

Historian Francis Parkman penned “The Conspiracy of Pontiac” in 1851, stating that Pontiac’s supporters waged a bloody war of retaliation against the Peoria, nearly wiping out the tribe, though this is the only account that suggests there were any reprisals for the Ottawa Chief’s death. His place of burial, like much of his early life, remains a mystery. It is possible he was buried in Cahokia, or perhaps returned to Michigan.

Pontiac’s influence on American Indians did not waver with his death. Decades later his legacy served as an inspiration to Tribal leaders like Little Turtle and Tecumseh, as they too tried to form a united Indian front to fight the westward expansion of white settlers.

Pontiac is honored in many ways across the nation, with cities in Michigan and Illinois named after him, as well as Quebec in Canada. The once popular General Motors brand took its name after Pontiac, and was based in the city of Detroit, until its discontinuation in 2010. He was heralded for his bravery and intelligence, his oratory skills and charismatic persona, in the Journal of Captain Thomas Morris, in 1764. The Daughters of the American Revolution placed a commemorative plaque in a corridor of the Southern Hotel in St. Louis in 1900, which may very well be near his grave.

No authentic images of Pontiac are known to exist. This artistic interpretation was painted by John Mix Stanley.


[1] Ohio History Central

[2] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica

[3] It happened in Michigan, Colleen Burcar.

[4] The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Richard White.

[5] Native History: Chief Pontiac Murdered in Cahokia