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Indigenous Politics in Pontiac’s War

Summary and Keywords

Although often attributed to the Odawa ogima, or headman, Pontiac, the conflict that bears his name was the work of a large and complicated network of Native people in the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, and Mississippi Valley. Together Native Americans from this wide swath of North America identified their collective dissatisfaction of British Indian policy and, through careful negotiation and discussion, formulated a religious and political ideology that advocated for the Britons’ removal. In 1763, these diverse peoples carried off a successful military campaign that demonstrated Native sovereignty and power in these areas. Although falling short of its original goal of displacing the British, the coalition compelled the British Empire to change its policies and to show, outwardly at least, respect for Native peoples. Many of the peoples involved in the struggle would wage another such pan-Indian campaign against the United States a generation later.

In many ways, the anti-British campaign of 1761–1766 mirrored another anti-imperial campaign that followed a decade later. Like the American Revolution, the anti-British advocates of Pontiac’s War developed an ideology that specifically critiqued not only British policy but often questioned imperialism altogether, built an unstable and delicate coalition of diverse and sometimes antagonistic peoples, and sought to assert the participants’ independence from the British. However, the participants in Pontiac’s War were sovereign and autonomous indigenous nations, only recently and nominally allied to the British Empire, not British colonists, as in the American Revolution. Together these anti-British activists mounted a serious challenge to the British presence in the trans-Appalachian West and forced the British Empire to accede to many of their demands.

Keywords: Pan-Indian Confederacy, settler colonialism, Pontiac (Odawa), Proclamation of 1763, Anglo-Indian War, Paxton Boys, Neolin (Lenape), Sir William Johnson

Pontiac’s War, sometimes referred to as the Anglo-Indian War of 1763–1765, belongs in a series of pan-Indian challenges to settler colonialism in early North America. Drawing on common resentment against the British and emerging ideas about pan-Indian commonality, Native peoples developed an anti-imperial ideology and created a coalition of like-minded peoples in 1761 and 1762. Then, in the late spring and summer of 1763, Native American peoples in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley mounted a massive Native campaign and seriously threatened the British occupation of the trans-Appalachian West. Of the twelve British posts in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region, anti-British forces seized nine outright and subjected another two, Forts Detroit and Pitt, to prolonged sieges. Meanwhile, peoples from the Ohio Valley waged a successful war on the settler colonial encroachments west of the Appalachians and forced these colonies to retreat eastward, at least temporarily. By its conclusion, the war had claimed some three hundred imperial troops, hundreds of captured or killed colonists, and an unknown number of Natives. Warriors had seized some £100,000 worth of merchandise and trade goods. Native Americans had flexed their muscles and seriously threatened the British presence in the trans-Appalachian West.1

The level of coordination among Native peoples—involving peoples from Green Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Michilimackinac, western New York, the Ohio Valley, and the Illinois Country—startled British officials and showed unprecedented cooperation of distinct and sometimes rival peoples in a common cause. Although not completely unprecedented—local intertribal confederations had challenged European rule in Virginia in 1622, in New England during Metacom’s War (1675–1676), and in New Mexico in 1680—the scope and success of Pontiac’s War marked the most successful anti-imperial movement to date. It would be followed by others, such as Tecumseh’s coalition at the beginning of the 19th century and the intertribal alliances during wars for the Great Plains at the end of that century. Yet if the war was remarkable for the level of coordination and cooperation among indigenous people, it was also marked by disagreements and rivalries among indigenous people. While centrifugal forces—a near universal dissatisfaction with British policy and the emerging sense of Native racial unity—pulled Native people together, other centripetal forces—longstanding rivalries among indigenous people and very local concerns—undermined Native people’s cooperation.

The war also revealed, to the shock of British officials, the enduring power of indigenous people to shape their own lives and to leverage the empire. Native people had banded together to challenge the British Empire and succeeded at least in part. In particular, the fact that Pontiac lived as a free man for years after the conflict shows how thin British claims to control over the region remained. Although many of the peoples involved had experienced dislocation and growing dependence upon Europeans and all experienced the effects of disease and political upheaval, they nonetheless remained autonomous and sovereign nations capable not only of surviving the colonial catastrophe but of shaking the grounds of empire.

Questioning Empire, 1760–1761

The context of Pontiac’s War can be found in a long history of French-British rivalry in North America and the consequences of Great Britain’s defeat of New France in 1760. Since the early 17th century, the French and British crowns had been fighting for territory in North America and for access to the fur trade in the Great Lakes region. Eager to trade for European goods, the peoples of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley had generally supported the French in this contest. In the middle and late 17th century, the peoples of this region worked out a mutually acceptable status quo with the French. Native American hunters provided beaver pelts for a hungry European market and willing military aid against the British when required. In return, the French guaranteed access to European firearms, textiles, and other goods, as well as military alliance against the Natives’ own rivals, such as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Mascoutins (Foxes). Acutely aware of their dependence upon the goodwill of their Native allies, the French generally treated Native people with respect, providing yearly outlays of goods to their allies and ritually “covering the deaths” of their esteemed chiefs—a tradition of which they often complained about but with which they always complied. Couching the alliance in familial terms, the peoples of the area referred to the French governor general as a generous “father,” and the governor took care of his Native “children.”2

This delicate status quo came to a halt in 1760, when the British finally defeated the French in the Seven Years’ War and ended a century-long imperial conflict. British garrisons replaced French ones in the St. Lawrence Valley and Great Lakes, while the French continued to occupy the colony of Louisiana, including the Illinois Country. For the next three years, the British and French in North America observed a tentative and uncomfortable ceasefire while the conflict continued to play out around the globe and until France and Great Britain reached a diplomatic conclusion to the war. In the resulting Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French surrendered their claims to mainland North America to Great Britain and Spain, without bothering to consult the actual indigenous inhabitants and owners of that territory. From the beginning of their occupation, the British signaled that they had no intention of treating Native peoples as the French had. Whereas the French had regarded the Natives as indispensable allies and respected friends, the British saw them as racial inferiors and expensive liabilities.3

Gifts and Trade

To reaffirm their alliances and assure Natives of their good intentions, the French had regularly given Native peoples annual gifts of gunpowder, textiles, and other gifts as signs of their alliance. Feeling the fiscal pinch of the Seven Years’ War and believing that Native people had become dependent on what he believed to be handouts, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the British Commander in Chief in North America, immediately curtailed this practice. Writing Sir William Johnson, the Northern Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Amherst contemptuously refused to “purchas[e] the good behavior of the Indians, by presents.”4 Such an abrupt change in policy concerned Native people, who had expected the British to behave as the French had and who found “it very strange that this Custom should be so immediately broke off by the English.”5

The British justified their stinginess by suggesting that Native people could purchase their necessities, but here, too, they failed to meet the Natives’ expectations. Prior to the fall of New France, the British promised that, should they defeat the French, “all sorts of goods were to be in utmost plenty and so cheap as a Blanket for two Beavers.”6 But Native hunters found that the British traders peddled shoddy goods to them for higher prices than the French merchants and that British officials were unwilling to regulate the trade. Nor did British fur traders offer goods on credit the way that the French merchants had, meaning that Native people lacked the powder and provisions needed to conduct their winter hunting. Finally, the British banned the sale of liquor to Natives in early 1761, prompting the same dismay and outrage the French had encountered when they tried to do the same.7

Settler Colonialism

The expansion of Anglo-American colonists also fed into the anti-British campaign, especially among the peoples of the Ohio Valley, such as the Lenapes (Delawares), Shawnees, Miamis, and Mingos. These peoples, many of whom had fled settler colonial expansion in the east and in the Susquehanna Valley, feared Anglo-American expansion would once again displace them, especially as Virginians and Pennsylvanians sought to buy Ohio Valley lands in the 1740s and 1750s. The French defeat had only emboldened Anglo-American colonists and traders to encroach on Native territories. Moreover, the expanding number and size of British forts in the area signaled a qualitative shift in the kind of colonialism the British intended to practice, compared to the French. While the French had generally limited their settlements in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley to small clusters around their forts, the British intended to create an agricultural hinterland in these regions. For the peoples of the Ohio Valley, especially those with long histories with British colonialism, the threat and reality of settler colonialism weighed heavily in their attitudes toward their new British allies and their decision to participate in the anti-British coalition.8

Status and Respect

Not only did the British communicate their disregard for the Natives by failing to satisfy these expectations, they often treated the Natives with visible contempt. Major Henry Gladwin, the British commander of Detroit, for example, openly snubbed Native people. According to later testimony, Gladwin not only failed to distribute gifts to the Natives but also “call’d them hags and [other] Names, telling them to get along & go about their business, & would not hear them.”9 Pontiac himself complained that the British had “endlessly” asked the Natives how they “dared to speak” and reminded them that they, the British, were “the Masters of all these lands, & of all that which was your [French] father’s.”10 Such declarations, combined with the neglect of traditional protocol, alienated the Natives and British. They interpreted these grievances, quite logically, as evidence of British disregard for Native people.11


Yet if there were common reasons for Natives to oppose British policy, the actual decisions made by Native people depended on a larger set of grievances and political calculations. In many cases, local conditions and the particular situation of individual peoples (and sometimes factions within these groups) helped to determine whether they participated and the extent to which they did so. Some Native people elected to remain loyal to the British, or at least to stay neutral until forced to make a decision. For example, the Seven Fires Confederacy, Native polities who had settled at Catholic missions in the St. Lawrence Valley, saw little to gain and much to lose from an anti-British campaign. They lived lives integrated—religiously, economically, and socially—with local French and mixed-race people in this region. These peoples calculated that a resumption of hostilities would cost too much and therefore decided to support the British. Likewise the Mohawks, who had closely allied with Sir William Johnson, the Northern Superintendent of Indian Affairs, had a clear incentive to support the British; they had backed the right horse in the Seven Years’ War and now hoped to cash in.12 Had they not prevented the rest of the Iroquois people, or Haudenosaunee, from joining the anti-British campaign, the outcome of the war would have been profoundly different. Other nations, such as the Wyandots at Detroit, the Odawas of Michilimackinac and the Menominees, Sacs, and Mascoutins of Green Bay likewise intervened on behalf of the British or sat the war out as best they could.

Crafting an Ideology, 1761–1763

These diverse people, with their diverse grievances against the British Empire, hammered out the contours of a loose anti-imperial ideology, or set of ideologies, in the years following the Conquest of Canada. As early as the summer of 1761, the Seneca headman Kayashuta proposed a version of that ideology.13 Although heterogeneous and contested, that ideology consisted of three main components: a rejection of British occupation of the trans-Appalachian West, a reliance on French aid, and the recruitment of spiritual power to accomplish their ends.


The centerpiece of the plan, of course, was to remove the British from the trans-Appalachian West. The French had long warned their allies about the treachery and duplicity of the British, and the Natives had frequently waged war against their imperial foes. Since defeating the French, the British confirmed the worst of these accusations and proved themselves to be unreliable and contemptuous allies. Therefore, the allies’ chief objective was to remove the British, the abominable “dogs clothed in red” as Pontiac put it, from the trans-Appalachian West by capturing British forts, seizing British traders, and chasing Anglo-American colonists out of the region.14 To do so, the anti-British allies would seize the forts lying in their territories, either through surprise or siege, and attack the settler colonial communities in their midst. If the British could not reproduce the status quo of the French period, they must be replaced.

French Support

The second component of the anti-British campaign rested on the promise of French aid and, for most members of the coalition, the hope for restoring the French to the region. If France’s former allies hoped to restore the status quo of the French period, after all, the surest way to do so was to reinstall the French themselves. Departing French officials had promised that their departure was only temporary and that the French Crown would not abandon their Native “children.”15 The peoples of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, many of whom had been allied to the French for over a century and most of whom had bled and died for their French “fathers,” were apt to believe these promises. Even after news of the Treaty of Paris, in which the French surrendered their claims east of the Mississippi River, reached North America in early 1763, Native peoples—and Pontiac in particular—refused to accept that the French had abandoned their Native allies so quickly and easily. As he told a group of assembled French Canadian habitants at Detroit, “I am French, and I want to die French.”16 Rumors of impending aid would persist after news of the treaty had been announced in spring 1763, after the commandant of Illinois bluntly told Pontiac that he could expect no such help, and even after Pontiac went to Illinois in person to confirm the news.17 While some Natives hoped to remove all Europeans, not just the British, from North America, the majority nonetheless seemed willing to temporize with them if they provided aid.

Religious Sanction

The third component of anti-British ideology was religious. In the 1740s and 1750s, a coterie of Native spiritual thinkers, the most famous of whom was the Lenape mystic Neolin, developed an ideology that both explained the hardships that Native people had endured—disease, dislocation, and economic collapse—and promised to end their suffering. They posited that Native people shared a common heritage distinct from Europeans and Africans and that the Master of Life had created North America for their exclusive use. In letting non-Native people settle in North America, incorporating European technology, and neglecting traditional ceremonies, Native people had sown the seeds of their own suffering. Only by avoiding further pollution and rejecting European culture could they reverse their condition.18 As Gregory Dowd has shown, this ideology not only provided the intellectual basis needed for a pan-Indian coalition—the idea that Native people shared an essential unity—but also promised Native people the supernatural help that they would need to defeat the British.

Pontiac explicitly related Neolin’s vision during a speech inviting the peoples of the region to attack the British, and glimpses of this ideology pepper the European correspondence during the campaign.19 In important ways, then, the conflict was also a religious and spiritual effort meant to restore indigenous autonomy and prosperity by supernatural means.20 While these motivations did not appear to be determinative—some Christian Natives supported the movement and some non-Christians opposed it—they certainly were an important component of the anti-British ideology, inextricably interwoven with other economic and political ones.

The architects of the anti-British campaign had a daunting task—to convince scores of Native peoples living in decentralized polities to cooperate with one another. While most peoples of the region shared a general resentment against the British, their general reasons for doing so, and their plans for redressing these grievances, varied considerably. Building and maintaining a coalition among these peoples would be the chief challenge for leaders like Pontiac. The extent to which they succeeded allowed them to wage one of the most impressive anti-imperial campaigns in early America. The extent to which they failed limited the effectiveness of that campaign.

Waging Wars, 1763

While these ideas had been percolating since at least 1761, two events triggered the anti-British campaign in the spring of 1763: news that the French had surrendered their claims in mainland North America and a request from the Lenapes and Shawnees asking the peoples living around Detroit, probably the Wyandots specifically, to help them defend themselves from the British.21 In light of these two developments, Pontiac and other leaders apparently decided that the time had come to launch an anti-British campaign. This pan-Indian coalition acted in concert but without unanimity, and the war unfolded, or failed to unfold, in different ways in different places because of local concerns that are most sensibly understood through a regional, rather than strictly chronological, narrative, while also acknowledging connections between the different places.


The peoples of Detroit, especially the Odawas and their Anishinaabe kin, the Ojibwas and Potawatomis, had good reason to oppose British policy—they depended upon the gifts and trade goods that the British now failed to provide. Yet local concerns also animated the conflict. Although the Odawas had long been the most powerful people in the region, the British decided to promote the Wyandots as the “heads of the Ottawa Confederacy” at the expense of the Odawas.22 This double loss—the loss of Native American status generally in the wake of New France’s fall and the loss of the Odawas’ traditional authority in the alliance specifically—spurred the Odawa leader, or ogima, Pontiac, to oppose British rule.23 Through a mixture of inspiration and intimidation, he and other anti-British leaders, like the Potawatomi Ninivois, managed to build a coalition of some six hundred Odawa, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Wyandot warriors, ready to strike the British garrison. After an abortive attempt to infiltrate the fort and seize the garrison on May 7, Pontiac and his fellow leaders decided to surround the fort instead on May 9. The siege would last for five months and demonstrate the Natives’ resolve and tactical skills to skeptical and bluntly racist British officials.24

Having besieged the post, Pontiac, the Potawatomi headman Ninivois, and the Wyandot leader Také worked to spread the message and expand the war. Runners hurried to places like Sandusky, Fort Miami (current-day Terre Haute, Indiana), Ouiatenon (current-day West Lafayette, Indiana), Fort St. Joseph (Niles, Michigan), and Michilimackinac. Local peoples, such as the Wyandots, Weas, Potawatomis, and Ojibwas seized the British forts at these places in short order, many by surprising the garrison or after short sieges. By the end of May, the main posts in the region had fallen, while another, Green Bay, had been abandoned for fear of attack. In addition to attacking the forts, anti-British Native warriors also seized many colonists, traders, and soldiers unlucky enough to be caught outside the forts.25

Having captured most of the forts in the region and encircled Detroit by June, the momentum of the war then stalled into an uncomfortable stalemate. The anti-British forces effectively cut off communication and supplies into the British fort, but they did not risk a potentially bloody direct frontal assault, especially without cannon to cover such an attack. Pontiac and other strategists preferred to cordon the fort off and force Gladwin to surrender, frequently renewing their offers to allow the garrison to surrender and leave the fort. Although the anti-British coalition won a one-sided victory against British troops during a nighttime raid in August, now called the Battle of Bloody Run, the victory did little to break the deadlock.


Events at Michilimackinac followed a much different trajectory than those at Detroit. Receiving Pontiac’s invitation to attack the British, Ojibwa headmen Minweweh and Macdjeckwiss and their supporters decided to attack the post. Using a game of lacrosse as a distraction, Ojibwa warriors rushed into the fort where they surprised and seized the garrison, traders, and merchandise there. So far the plan had worked according to the script written by Pontiac and other strategists. In this critical moment, however, the Odawas living at Waganawkezee, or L’Arbre Croche, a village some twenty miles south of the British fort, interceded. The French-Odawa trader Charles Langlade and other Odawa leaders publicly reproached the Ojibwas for seizing the British and offered themselves as intermediaries.26

Their reason for doing so remains unclear. The Waganawkezee Odawas had as much reason to oppose the British policy as the Ojibwas did, and their Odawa kin were at the center of the anti-British movement at Detroit. Yet the Odawas of Waganawkezee depended on the fur and provisioning trades that supplied food and goods to the traders and thus could not survive without a European partner at Michilimackinac. As long as that partner observed Native rights and supplied their needs, the Odawas apparently cared little whether those partners spoke French or British. Most importantly, according to Michael A. McDonnell, they hoped to instruct the British on how important Michilimackinac was to the fur trade and politics of the region, a fact that they had heretofore neglected. Perhaps by demonstrating their loyalty to the British, the Odawas could compel them to change their policy and reward their people.27

Whatever their motivations, the Odawas proved themselves to be reliable British allies. Joined by peoples living around Green Bay—the Menominees, Sacs, and Mascoutins—the Odawas convinced the Ojibwas to hand the British officers and soldiers over to them. After weeks of intensive and testy negotiations, the Ojibwas agreed to allow the Odawas and other peoples to take the garrison safely to Montréal, where they handed them over to an appreciative Sir Thomas Gage, then Governor of Montreal. As at Detroit, local conditions—the centrality of the fur and provisioning trades at Michilimackinac—and indigenous politics—the power relations between the Ojibwas, Odawas, and others—had determined the course and outcome of the war.28

Ohio Valley

Unlike the peoples of the Great Lakes, who depended upon the fur trade for their livelihood, the peoples of the Ohio Valley appeared to be most preoccupied with the creeping expansion of Anglo-American settlers. While the threat of European expansion remained abstract to the people of the Upper Great Lakes, the Lenapes, Shawnees, Mingos, and others had seen for themselves the rapacity of British settler colonialism. At the same time, these people also resented the yoke of the Covenant Chain—an alliance through which the British had sought to control smaller nations through the agency of the Haudenosaunee. The anti-British violence therefore provided a chance both to assert their independence from the Haudenosaunee and the Covenant Chain and to push back the Anglo-American settler invasion.29

Not surprisingly, then, the Ohio Valley peoples focused their attention chiefly not on the British military installations but at the settler colonists who encroached on their territory. After abortive and half-hearted attempts to capture Fort Pitt and nearby Fort Ligonier, the Lenapes, Shawnees, Mingos, and others quickly resumed their attacks on the Anglo-American squatters encroaching on their territory and the long-distance Virginia hunters in their midst. They had striking success in doing so. The ferocity of the frontier war both underlined the Ohio Valley peoples’ main objective during the conflict—defending their lands from further encroachment and presaged a conflict which would continue for another half century as Anglo-Americans continued to encroach on their lands. Even after Henry Bouquet and a force of reinforcements defeated them at Bushy Run, near Fort Pitt, these warriors maintained their war on the frontiers.30


Unlike their fellow Haudenosaunee, the Mohawks generally supported the British, while most of the Senecas bitterly resented them, and indeed Seneca leaders had apparently originally suggested the anti-British campaign as early as 1761. While the Mohawks had aligned themselves with British agent Sir William Johnson, the Senecas, the westernmost of the Six Nations, had developed a closer relationship with the French, who maintained a post at nearby Niagara, and especially the French official, Louis-Thomas Chabert de Joncaire and his sons.31 To make matters worse, the British had shouldered the Senecas out of their traditional occupations as porters carrying goods around Niagara Falls and claimed land to build a new road around the falls. Many of the Senecas, therefore, supported the anti-British campaign.

Despite their early opposition, the Senecas did not join the fight until mid-June. They appeared willing to sit out the war until Sir William Johnson alienated them during a late May meeting. Incensed at Johnson and the British, the Senecas attacked the string of forts that connected Fort Pitt to the Great Lakes: Fort Presque Ile, just south of Lake Erie in current-day Pennsylvania, where they fought alongside warriors from Detroit, as well as Forts Le Boeuf (Erie, Pennsylvania) and Venango (Franklin, Pennsylvania). They captured all of these and effectively cordoned Fort Pitt off. They later ambushed a party of British troops at a place called Devil’s Hole, a ravine along the Niagara portage, where they killed seventy of them. Here again, indigenous politics—this time the contentious politics of the Haudenosaunee—determined the course of the conflict.32

Although the military movement was initially successful—at Detroit and the near vicinity, Michilimackinac, the Ohio Valley, and the Pennsylvania borderland—progress stalled as summer waned. Neither side seemed able to break the stalemate, and Native warriors tired of the long inconclusive sieges of Fort Pitt and Detroit. To make matters worse, Pontiac received word from the French commandant in the Illinois Country that the French would not be supporting the war. Deflated, but not defeated, Pontiac reached a ceasefire with Gladwin and left the area. Retreating to the Maumee River and Sandusky, the anti-British combatants remained unapologetic and plotted their next moves. Although the Ohio Valley people continued the raids on the colonial setter communities, the first, most successful phase of the war had ended.

Making Peace, 1764–1766

While the anti-British combatants plotted their next moves, Thomas Gage, who had replaced Jeffrey Amherst as the Commander in Chief of British forces in North America in late 1763, planned his own response. The violence in 1763 had blindsided Amherst and other British officials. Convinced of their own superiority and dismissive of Natives’ martial abilities, those officials had initially discounted the threat posed by the anti-British campaign, then scrambled to defend and reinforce their remaining posts. In late autumn the British official hatched a plan to restore imperial control with an olive branch and a sword. Sir William Johnson would offer the former, seeking to secure Haudenosaunee support for the British. The latter would be wielded by two separate punitive campaigns led by John Bradstreet and Henry Bouquet against the peoples of the Ohio Valley, whom the British especially blamed for their attacks on colonial settlements. Once they had made an example of these peoples, the British could then settle a negotiated peace with Pontiac and the peoples of the Upper Great Lakes.33

Both campaigns were marred by logistical problems and delays from the beginning. Bradstreet had to wait until Johnson had secured support from the Haudenosaunee before leaving. Almost as soon as he did so, the officer met with representatives of the Ohio Valley peoples, who offered to make peace rather than risk open conflict. Although he lacked the authority to do so, Bradstreet offered provisional peace to these people, rather than deal the decisive, exemplary blow his superiors envisioned. Unable to face his rivals at Sandusky or even reach the Scioto River settlements, Bradstreet instead retreated to Detroit. Bouquet had little more success, waiting for months for the colonies to send militiamen to support the campaign before he left Fort Pitt. Although the army managed to reach the Lenape and Shawnee villages, he, too, failed to deal a decisive blow. The Ohio Valley peoples contended that they had already made a preliminary peace with Bradstreet and, now that a British army had arrived in their territory, had little intention of continuing the war. Bouquet therefore negotiated a peace in November.34

The diplomatic and military efforts of 1764 more or less ended the hostilities in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, though rumors of a renewed conflict continued for years afterward. The British negotiated the end of active hostilities, extracted apologies from the participants, and secured the release of many of the soldiers and colonists captured during the war. However, the British had been unable to strike a punitive blow or set an example, nor to arrest or execute any of the ringleaders. Instead they had to settle for peace rather than dominion. The British found themselves compelled to do what Amherst had most feared: to reproduce the French status quo. The failure of the British to clearly demonstrate their authority over Native people ran counter to British notions of imperium and racial superiority while exposing their weakness and the strength of Native people. It was an embarrassing setback to the British and a demonstration of indigenous agency in the face of colonialism. In perhaps the most humbling turn, the British relied on their erstwhile archenemy, Pontiac, to negotiate their occupation of the Illinois Country.35

Unintended Consequences

Between 1763 and 1765, Native people in the trans-Appalachian West had demonstrated their power and dispelled British notions of dominion. They had transformed the British from distant and disrespectful “brothers” into grudging but compliant “fathers” much like the French had been.36 They also compelled the Empire to reconfigure its policy toward Native people. Crown officials had already been considering ways to reduce conflicts between the colonies and Native peoples and the costs involved in doing so. In the wake of Pontiac’s War, they issued the Proclamation of 1763, which forbade individual colonists and colonial governments from purchasing Native lands, a frequent cause of conflict, and thereby limited settler colonial expansion west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Indian Department also drafted new regulations to reduce fraud in the fur trade. By seriously threatening the British presence in the region and waging a war that cost the Crown dearly, Native people compelled the British to hesitantly and half-heartedly recognize indigenous land and sovereignty.

While the war demonstrated the continuing ability of Native people to cope with colonialism, however, its legacy had unintended and unwelcome consequences. The conflict intensified Anglo-American animus toward Native people and helped steer the British Empire toward crisis. Although the war did not start the tradition of Anglo-American “Indian-hating,” it certainly accelerated it. To be sure, Anglo-Americans had long demonized Native people, but the sustained brutality of warfare, particularly the raids on colonial settlements, during the Seven Years’ War and again during Pontiac’s War shifted Anglo-American perceptions of Native people. Their resentment now increasingly crystalized into a racialized hatred that drew no distinction between allied and enemy nations. Anglo-American resentment against Native people lay, not in the Natives’ alliance with or opposition to the British, but in what the British officials and colonists increasingly deemed the Natives’ innate, “bloodthirsty” dispositions. In dramatic demonstration of this hatred, the British commander at Fort Pitt distributed blankets from the smallpox hospital to western Lenapes, apparently oblivious to the fact that Amherst had suggested the same strategy. While the British did not carry out a sustained program of germ warfare against the anti-British Natives and the actual effects of this attempt remains unclear, the event is telling. Contemporary military ethics, after all, permitted such tactics only when used against rebels and those undeserving of military honor. That two British officers thought of the same strategy independently attests to the growing racial hatred spawned by the frontier war, as Elizabeth Fenn has recently shown.37

Anglo-American demonstrations of this “Indian-hating” were even more genocidal than those of the British officials. Anglo-American militias bent on revenging Mingo, Lenape, and Shawnee raids on their communities frequently vented their rage not only on the warriors who had inflicted them but on any Native people they could find. In the most infamous instance, disaffected Pennsylvania colonists, the “Paxton Boys” attacked the Native residents of Conestoga, people who had long been loyal to the British and had done nothing to support the anti-British campaign, in December 1763, and killed six of them. They later marched on Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where local authorities were shielding the surviving Conestogas, and Philadelphia, where they hoped to find and kill peaceful Moravian converts.38

This growing Indian hatred would also play into the unfolding imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s. Unwilling to wage another war against a coalition of Natives, British officials tried to maintain peace and, half-heartedly, to enforce the prohibition of settlement west of the Appalachians as laid out in the Proclamation of 1763. Although those prohibitions seldom prevented settlers from going anywhere, the Empire’s Indian policy nonetheless irked speculators and would-be squatters in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere. To these colonists, imperial policymakers seemed more concerned about protecting Native people, whom they saw as their enemies, than the property rights and prosperity of the King’s own white subjects. When added to other evidence of Parliament’s purported disregard for colonists’ rights, British Indian policy helped push some colonists toward rebellion.39

In the end, Pontiac died, not on the gallows or in a prison, as British officers had fantasized during the conflict, but in 1769 as an ally of the British. The British had not only forgiven the man they blamed for starting a deadly and expensive war but had also rehabilitated him as an ally and agent of imperialism, indicating the limits of imperial power. Rather than punishing the Natives as they had hoped to do in 1763 and 1764, the British had contented themselves with ending hostilities, collecting as many of the captives as possible, and securing some lands in the immediate vicinity of their forts. They then acquiesced to many of the Natives’ original demands to control trade more tightly, stem the tide of Anglo-American invasion through the Proclamation of 1763, reinstate the practice of gift-giving, reduce the amount of posts in the region, and to at least speak in the language of alliance and fatherhood with their Native allies.

In a strict sense, coalition members failed to accomplish their goal of ousting the British. Yet they did achieve their ultimate objective to return the diplomatic and economic status quo that they had enjoyed when the French occupied the region, albeit with new, British partners. In this sense, coalition members succeeded quite well, at least temporarily. With minimal loss of life or land, they had asserted their own power and had forced the British to cooperate with them as partners, rather than dictate to them as subordinates. For another half-century, the Empire would continue to treat its Native allies in the region as trading partners, military allies, and “children” in much the same ways as the French had. The coalition of Native warriors had dictated terms to a global empire and blunted, for a time, an Anglo-American invasion of their territory.40

Discussion of the Literature

Scholars writing about Pontiac’s War have offered different perspectives on three critical points—the centrality of Pontiac and his leadership in the conflict, the ultimate success or failure of the war, and the dispositional and methodological approaches followed by the authors.

The first historians to interpret the conflict operated from a world view not far removed from the British officials who fought Pontiac and his allies. Francis Parkman’s 1851 The Conspiracy of Pontiac is well researched and compellingly written. Yet Parkman, writing in an era of removal and western Indian wars, shoehorned Pontiac into a comforting and useful story of Euro-American “progress” and Native decline. In his narrative, a heroic but tragic Great Man defiantly and quixotically stood against the forces of “progress” and “civilization.” In Parkman’s telling, the anti-British coalition failed because indigenous defeat and white supremacy were foreordained.41

Although he wrote a century after Parkman, Howard Peckham perpetuated Pontiac’s romantic heroism and the ultimate futility of the Natives’ campaign. The “particular momentum of a superior [Euro-American] culture,” he wrote in his 1947 Pontiac and the Indian Uprising, “was irresistible” and Natives would have been “pushed aside or rolled over,” regardless of what Pontiac did. Again, he imagined that the movement failed because it was destined to do so. Unlike Parkman, however, Peckham questioned Pontiac’s centrality to the movement. Pontiac only “lead” those nations in the immediate vicinity of Detroit, although he did help “inspire” those in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. Indeed, Peckham removed Pontiac’s name from the “Indian Uprising” to make room for other Native actors. Although more exhaustively researched than Parkman’s work and slightly more sympathetic to the Natives’ plight, Peckham’s racist evaluation of the “nature of the Indian mind” prevented him from understanding and appreciating Native intentions and strategies during the conflict.42

Beginning in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, a new generation of historians reconsidered Pontiac and the war attributed to him. Practitioners of the “New Indian History” sought to situate Native American actions as much as possible, in an understanding of Native culture and beliefs and to understand Native perspectives on historical events. Doing so opened new avenues to understanding the conflict. Rather than see Pontiac as a tragic figure, Francis Jennings fit the conflict within a longer Native American war for autonomy and therefore challenged Pontiac’s personal influence in a struggle much greater than him. Thus Jennings renamed the conflict to reduce the Odawa headman’s centrality in the “war called Pontiac’s.”43 Richard White likewise challenged Parkman’s and Peckham’s convictions about the movement’s failures. While the coalition failed to oust the British, it did force them to return to a “middle ground” of compromise and accommodation and therefore succeeded in accomplishing their larger objectives.44

No historian has done more than Gregory Dowd to apply an understanding of Native culture and religion to reinterpret the war. Building on his earlier work on later pan-Indian movements, Dowd emphasized the religious dimensions of the war. Without the promise of religious sanction, and the sense of pan-Indian unity, the efforts of Pontiac would have fizzled quickly. His work therefore once again decenters Pontiac: while Pontiac was important, the religious thinkers and dreamers, like the Lenape thinker Neolin, did more to provide the political cohesion and confidence to challenge the British. Dowd also agrees with White that the coalition succeeded in changing the Natives’ “status” within the empire as allies but not as subjects, at least for the time being.45

While ethnohistorians worked to place Native decisions in the context of Native culture and religion, other scholars sought to elaborate the no-less-relevant perspectives of the Europeans involved in the conflict. William Nester for example lays responsibility for the war largely at the feet of Amherst and other “haughty conquerors” who believed Native people to be inherently inferior and sought to subdue them to British authority. Doing so, of course, eclipses Native agency and suggests that they simply reacted to British imperialism, rather than being independent and resourceful actors.46 Focusing largely on the Ohio Valley, David Dixon largely adopts the perspective of British military personnel, especial Henry Bouquet, and settlers in the Ohio Valley, rarely trying to understand the intentions or perceptions of Native people.47

The last decade has produced more scholarship on Pontiac’s War. Richard Middleton’s excellent synthesis provides a narrative history of the event and incorporates the interpretive insights of historians such as White and Dowd. Breaking the trend of recent historiography, Middleton rehabilitates Pontiac as a pan-Indian leader and argues for his indispensability to the conflict. Pontiac’s example in attacking the British helped start the war and his tireless encouragement of others to join the campaign spread and sustained it. Had Pontiac not played this role, someone else might have, but as it actually transpired Pontiac played a central and critical role in the conflict.48 Other scholars have investigated previously understudied regions that lay “beyond Pontiac’s shadow” as Keith Widder’s and Michael McDonnell’s recent work on Michilimackinac puts it.49 This investigation of indigenous politics within a wider imperial war suggests a new avenue for scholarship on the conflict.

Primary Sources

Unfortunately, most of the sources on Pontiac’s War come from the perspectives not of the Natives who began and waged it, but from Europeans who considered Native Americans to be their enemies and racial inferiors. Read against the grain, and with an understanding of Native culture and perspectives, however, these documents can reveal a great deal about the war and those who participated in it. These include two basic categories: a number of diaries and journals that kept daily track of Native Americans’ movements during the siege and correspondence of colonial officials reporting the latest intelligence about Native American movements and speculating on their motivations and goals.

A number of individuals kept track of their experiences during the war, especially during the sieges of Detroit and Fort Pitt. Recorded for personal use rather than a specific audience, these journals give us an unusually detailed and frank portrait of the conflict from British and French perspectives. The most famous of these narratives is a manuscript French diary attributed to Robert Navarre, the royal French notary and leader of the Francophone community in Detroit. The document contains a surprising wealth of detail and information about Native movements outside of the fort, including the only extant version of Pontiac’s speech inviting the peoples of Detroit to strike the British. Navarre likely learned of this information from local French habitants, suggesting that the siege at Detroit remained porous and that information flowed in and out of the fort regularly.50 Others also kept diaries during the siege, including Lieutenant Jehu Hay, George Croghan, and William Trent, among others.51

In addition to these detailed daily records, British officers and traders regularly wrote to one another reporting intelligence, often gathered from Native informants, repeated rumors, and speculation on why Native people acted as they did. These collections also contain councils held between Native people and the British, some of the only documents that reveal a clear Native voice. Jeffrey Amherst and Thomas Gage, the top military officials in North America during the war, corresponded regularly with their subordinates and their metropolitan superiors.52 These letters provide clear insights into the British strategies and reveal the disdain with which they regarded Native people. These men also corresponded regularly with Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies.53 In this capacity, Johnson held unique authority to make treaties with Native Americans and, in concert with Amherst and Gage, to implement Indian policy. Therefore, his correspondence is indispensable for understanding the campaign. British officers, such as Henry Gladwin, Henry Bouquet, and John Bradstreet, also provided important on-the-ground reports about Native people, and much of those letters have been published in primary manuscript collections, such as the Collections of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society and The Papers of Henry Bouquet.

Further Reading

Calloway, Colin G. Scratch of a Pen and the Transformation of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

    Dixon, David. Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac’s Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.Find this resource:

      Dowd, Gregory Evans. War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

        McDonnell, Michael A. Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America. New York: Hill & Wang, 2015.Find this resource:

          Middleton, Richard. Pontiac’s War: Its Causes, Course, and Consequences. New York: Routledge, 2007.Find this resource:

            Nester, William. “Haughty Conquerors”: Amherst and the Great Indian Uprising of 1763. Westport: Praeger, 2000.Find this resource:

              Parkman, Francis. The Conspiracy of Pontiac after the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1851.Find this resource:

                Parmenter, Jon. “Pontiac’s War: Forging New Links in the Anglo-Iroquois Covenant Chain, 1758–1766.” Ethnohistory 44, no. 4 (Fall, 1997): 617–654.Find this resource:

                  Peckham, Howard H. Pontiac and the Indian Uprising. Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1947.Find this resource:

                    Spero, Patrick, ed. “Special Issue: Pontiac and Paxton.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 14, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 199–202.Find this resource:

                      Sturtevant, Andrew K. “Jealous Neighbors: Rivalry and Alliance among the Native Communities of Detroit, 1701–1766.” PhD diss., The College of William and Mary, 2011.Find this resource:

                        White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

                          Widder, Keith R. Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013.Find this resource:


                            (1.) Richard Middleton, Pontiac’s War: Its Causes, Course, and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2007), 201.

                            (2.) Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and Gilles Havard, Empire et métissages: Indiens et Français dans le pays d’e haut, 1660–1715 (Québec: Septentrion and Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2003).

                            (3.) Colin G. Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); William Nester, “Haughty Conquerors”: Amherst and the Great Indian Uprising of 1763 (Westport: Praeger, 2000), ix; and Jon Parmenter, “Pontiac’s War: Forging New Links in the Anglo-Iroquois Covenant Chain, 1758-1766,” Ethnohistory 44, no. 4 (Fall, 1997): 617–654.

                            (4.) Amherst to Johnson, August 9, 1761, in The Papers of Sir William Johnson, ed. Alexander Flick, 14 vols. (Albany: University of New York, 1921–1965), 3, 515. Hereafter WJP.

                            (5.) Lieut. Thomas Hutchins, “Journal,” in The Papers of Col. Henry Bouquet, eds. Sylvester K. Stevens and Donald H. Kent (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1942–1943), series 21655, 173; and Georgia Carley, “Cost, Commodity, and Gift: The Board of Trade’s Conceptualization of British-Native American Gift Giving during Pontiac’s War,” Early American Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 203–224.

                            (6.) “A Court of Inquiry Ordered to Take the Depositions of the Following Persons Taken by the Savages in the Summer,” 1763, Correspondence between Commander-in-Chief and Officers at Detroit, War Office, 34, Amherst Papers, National Archives, London, Microfilm at Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, MG13-WO34., 662. Hereafter CCOD.

                            (7.) Donald Campbell to Sir Jeffrey Amherst, May 22, 1761, CCOD, 71–74.

                            (8.) Michael N. McConnell, A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and Its Peoples (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 89–99, 167–171; and David Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac’s Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), 42–72.

                            (9.) “A Court of Enquiery held by Order of Major Henry Gladwin Commandant at Detroit,” September 8, 1763, CCOD, 513.

                            (10.) “Paroles des Outaȣas appuyés par un grand Colier,” 1763, CCOD, 535.

                            (11.) Gregory Evans Dowd, War under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

                            (12.) Michael J. Mullin, “Sir William Johnson’s Reliance on the Six Nations at the Conclusion of the Anglo-Indian War of 1763–65,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17, no. 4 (1993): 69–90; and Parmenter.

                            (13.) Johnson to Amherst, WJP, 3, 511; Minutes of the Proceedings of Sir William Johnson, 1761, WJP, 2, 440.

                            (14.) [Robert Navarre], “The Journal of Pontiac’s Conspiracy,” in The Siege of Detroit in 1763: The Journal of Pontiac’s Conspiracy and John Rutherford’s Narrative of a Captivity, ed. Milo M. Quaife, trans. R. Clyde Ford (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley & Sons, 1958), 16.

                            (15.) “Conseil tenu à Détroit par les Hurons, Ouiatenons, Poutéouatamis et Sauteux à François-Marie Picoté de Belestre et Réponse de Picoté de Belestre,” 28 Novembre 1760, Centre des archives d’outre mer, Aix-en-Province, France, série C11A, vol. 105, fols. -358v.

                            (16.) [Navarre], “Journal of Pontiac’s Conspiracy,” 100.

                            (17.) Gregory Evans Dowd, “The French King Wakes Up: ‘Pontiac’s War’ in Rumor and History,” Ethnohistory 37, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 254–278.

                            (18.) Charles E. Hunter, “The Delaware Nativist Revival of the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Ethnohistory 18, no. 1 (Winter 1971): 39–49.

                            (19.) [Navarre], “Journal of Pontiac’s Conspiracy,” 8–16.

                            (20.) Dowd, War under Heaven, 30, 109–112; and Gregory Evans Dowd, “Indigenous Catholicism and St. Joseph Potawatomi Resistance in ‘Pontiac’s War,’” Ethnohistory 63, no. 1 (January 2016): 133–166.

                            (21.) Journal of Indian Congress, December 10, 1763, WJP, 10, 964–965; and Middleton, Pontiac’s War, 66.

                            (22.) “Minutes of the Proceedings of Sir William Johnson,” 1761, WJP, 2, 468, 483–487, 494–500.

                            (23.) Andrew K. Sturtevant, “Jealous Neighbors: Rivalry and Alliance among the Native Communities of Detroit, 1701-1766” (PhD diss., The College of William and Mary, 2011), 246–325.

                            (24.) [Navarre], “Journal of Pontiac’s Conspiracy,” 129.

                            (25.) Middleton, Pontiac’s War, 72–82.

                            (26.) Keith R. Widder, Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 141–151.

                            (27.) Widder, Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow, 151–157; and Michael A. McDonnell, “Maintaining a Balance of Power: Michilimackinac, the Anishinaabe Odawas, and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 13, no. 1 (Winter, 2015): 38–79, 52–56.

                            (28.) McDonnell, “Maintaining a Balance of Power,” 62–71.

                            (29.) Francis Jennings, Empire of Fortune: Crown, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), 442–444. For another take on the Shawnees’ participation, see Ian Steele, “Shawnee Origins of Their Seven Years’ War,” Ethnohistory 53, no. 4 (Fall 2006), 657–687.

                            (30.) Matthew Ward, Breaking the Backcountry: Seven Years War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754–1765 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), chap. 8; and Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again, 135–148.

                            (31.) For the Senecas’ Franco-philia, see Jon W. Pamenter, “At the Wood’s Edge: Iroquois Foreign Relations, 1727–1768” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1999), 29–92.

                            (32.) Middleton, Pontiac’s War, 96–99, 117–122.

                            (33.) Dowd, War under Heaven, 153–168.

                            (34.) Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again, 227–243.

                            (35.) Middleton, Pontiac’s War, 183–200.

                            (36.) Jon W. Parmenter, “Pontiac’s War: Forging New Links in the Anglo-Iroquois Covenant Chain, 1758–1766,” Ethnohistory 44, no. 4 (Fall 1997): 617–654.

                            (37.) Jennings, Empire of Fortune, 447–448; Elizabeth A. Fenn, “Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst,” The Journal of American History 86, no. 4 (March 2000): 1552–1580); and Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again, 152–155.

                            (38.) McConnell, A Country Between; Patrick Spero, ed., “Special Issue: Pontiac and Paxton,” Early American Studies 14, no. 2 (Spring 2016).

                            (39.) Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again, 274; Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 3–38; and Colin Calloway, Scratch of a Pen, 76–81.

                            (40.) Dowd, War under Heaven, 173, 257–258.

                            (41.) Francis Parkman, The Conspiracy of Pontiac after the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1851).

                            (42.) Howard H. Peckham, Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1947), vii–viii, 107, 111.

                            (43.) Jennings, Empire of Fortune, 438–454.

                            (44.) White, The Middle Ground, 269–314.

                            (45.) Dowd, War Under Heaven; and Dowd, “Indigenous Catholicism and St. Joseph Potawatomi Resistance in ‘Pontiac’s War.’”

                            (46.) Nester, Haughty Conquerors.

                            (47.) Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again.

                            (48.) Middleton, Pontiac’s War; Middleton, “Pontiac: Local Warrior or Pan-Indian Leader?” Michigan Historical Review 32, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 1–32.

                            (49.) Widder, Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow.

                            (50.) [Navarre], “The Journal of Pontiac’s Conspiracy.”

                            (51.) [Jehu Hay], “Diary of the Siege of Detroit,” in Diary of the Siege of Detroit, ed. Franklin Hough (Albany: J. Munsell, 1865); Nicolas B. Wainwright, ed. “George Croghan’s Journal April 3, 1759 to April [30], 1763,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 71, no. 4 (October 1947); and “William Trent’s Journal at Fort Pitt, 1763,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 11, no. 3 (December, 1924): 390–413.

                            (52.) Amherst: War Office, 34, Amherst Papers, National Archives, London, Microfilm at Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, MG13-WO34; Jeffrey Amherst Papers, 1758–1764; and William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Gage: Thomas Gage Papers, American Series, William L. Clements Library.

                            (53.) William Johnson, The Papers of Sir William Johnson, ed. James Sullivan, 14 vols. (Albany: University of New York, 1921–1965).