Pontiac Takes Up the War Hatchet, Illustration

Pontiac’s Rebellion is named after the Ottowa chief, Pontiac, who led warriors from Native American Indian Tribes in the Detroit area in a raid on Fort Detroit. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Pontiac's Rebellion Summary

1763–1766

Pontiac's Rebellion was an uprising of Native American Indian tribes against British forts in the Ohio Country and Great Lakes region after the French and Indian War.

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Summary of Pontiac’s Rebellion

At the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, left Great Britain in control of a vast new empire in North America. The Treaty of Paris was agreed to on February 10, 1763. As part of the agreement, France turned most of its territory in North America over to Britain. This included lands in the Ohio Country, Illinois Country, and the Great Lakes Region.

Although the French laid claim to the land, very few French colonists lived in the region. The primary inhabitants were from the Native American Indian tribes, like the Ottowa, who also utilized it for their hunting grounds.

Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Engraving

This engraving by Hervey Smyth depicts British troops attacking the French outside of Quebec City at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The fighting between the French and English in North America ended in 1759 when the British captured Montreal. Over the next four years, the British asserted their authority over the Indian tribes. At first, when the Indians found out the French were leaving and they would be expected to be loyal to the British, they were upset and skeptical. The colonists had a history of encroaching on their lands and the Indians were intent on maintaining control of the territory. The British insisted they were not going to encroach on the land — unless absolutely necessary — and the two sides agreed to peace.

Unfortunately, as soon as the Treaty of Paris was signed, the Indians realized the British did not intend to keep their promises. Colonists living on the Eastern Seaboard also had other ideas. For them, the land on the other side of the mountains represented new opportunities for westward expansion.

Sensing colonial ambitions, an Ottawa chief, Pontiac, and a Seneca chief, Kyashuta, urged Indian tribes in the Ohio Country and the Great Lakes region to resume warfare with the British to push them off their lands. Pontiac worked with the tribes in the west, toward Detroit, and Kyashuta worked with tribes in the east, toward western New York.

Pontiac, Illustration

Illustration of Chief Pontiac by John Mix Stanley. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Pontiac had supported the French during the war, and he was a skilled speaker. He also spoke Algonquin, Iroquois, French, and some English. His message resonated with various tribes throughout the Ohio Country, including the Delaware and Huron. Other tribes that were involved in the loose alliance that supported Pontiac were the Ojibwas, Potawatomis, Miami, Weas, Kickapoo, Mascouten, Piankashaw, Shawnee, Wyandot, Seneca, and Seneca-Cayuga.

The ensuing uprising is commonly known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, Pontiac’s Conspiracy, or Pontiac’s War. It is also referred to as the “Kiyasuta and Pontiac War.” Kiyasuta refers to the Seneca chief Kyashuta.

The fighting began with an attack against Fort Detroit in May of 1763. Pontiac’s Rebellion was initially successful and the Indian forces captured most of the British forts the targeted. However, they were never able to capture Fort Pitt or Fort Detroit, and the rebellion against British rule gradually collapsed by the end of 1764. At first, Pontiac refused to surrender but finally did in 1766.

Origins of Pontiac’s Rebellion

The beginning of unrest that led to Pontiac’s Rebellion started well before the French and Indian War. However, British treatment of the Indians from the time Fort Niagara was captured in 1759 until the Spring of 1763 led directly to the uprising.

British Capture Fort Niagara

In 1759, British forces had captured several forts in the Ohio Country that were critical French positions. On July 7, 1759, British forces began a siege of Fort Niagara, near present-day Youngstown, Ohio.

The British were joined by around 900 Iroquois warriors, under the command of Sir William Johnson. On July 20, the commander of the British forces was killed in an accident and Johnson assumed command of the entire force.

On July 23, Johnson learned a French force was on its way to reinforce Fort Niagara. The next day, the British and their Iroquois allies ambushed the French, who were soundly defeated and surrendered. With no hope for reinforcements, the French commander, Captain Pierre Pouchot, surrendered to Johnson on July 26.

The fall of Fort Niagara to the British caught the attention of the tribes allied with the French. They began to think the French could not win the war and started to look for ways to put themselves on good terms with the British. The British also looked to gain the favor of the Indians they had been fighting against.

Croghan Cultivates the Relationship with Tribal Leaders

In August, George Croghan held conferences with leaders of the tribes in order to create an alliance. Following Native American Indian tradition, Croghan smoked the peace pipe with leaders from the Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Miami, and other tribes. One of the chiefs, Oulamy, of the Ottawa, went so far as to promise the Ottawa would never again make war against the British.

Croghan spent a significant amount of time cultivating the relationship with the tribal leaders, and also preparing them for what seemed inevitable — the British were going to be in control of New France.

Croghan held another conference at Fort Pitt and roughly 1,000 people from the western tribes made the journey. They were told the British were not going to take their land and they intended to resume trading with them. The promises came in the form of a letter that was read to them. The letter was from General Jeffrey Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America.

Jeffrey Amherst, Portrait

Portrait of Jeffrey Amherst by Thomas Gainsborough. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Montreal Falls to Amherst and the British Take Control

While the letter was read at Fort Pitt, Amherst and his forces were pushing the French forces in Canada back to Montreal. On September 8, 1760, the Governor of New France, Pierre-Rigaud de Vaudreuil, surrendered Montreal to the British. With the city under their control, the British had successfully completed their conquest of New France and significantly expanded their territory in North America.

On September 12, 1760, Amherst ordered Major Robert Rogers and two companies of his Rangers to go to the French forts throughout the frontier, receive their surrender, and raise the British flag.

Croghan was also sent out to meet with the Indians to let them know the British had won the territory and they were considered British subjects. He also spread the message from Amherst, which promised the British would resume trade with them and not take their land. The British created additional goodwill with the Indians by supplying them with ammunition for their weapons.

Frustration with the British

In Spring 1761, the Indians started to grow frustrated with the British. When the trading season opened, the Indians had plenty of furs to trade, but the British brought products the Indians were not interested in, and also limited the amount of rum they could trade for. The Indians also felt the prices the British were charging were too high and unfair. Johnson tried to alleviate the situation by providing Amherst with a list of items the Indians wanted to trade for and he tried to negotiate better prices, especially for the Indians that lived with the tribes in the vicinity of Fort Detroit.

Amherst assured Johnson that he would do what he could to keep the peace with the Indians. However, Amherst felt the British were giving too much and were essentially bribing them.

“…as to purchasing the good behavior either of Indians or any others, is what I do not understand. When men of whatsoever race behave ill, they must be punished but not bribed.”

What Amherst did not understand was the system of trade and gifts as part of the tradition of the Indians. The French had understood it, and so did men like Johnson and Croghan. It was not, as Amherst called it, a system of bribery, but a system of hospitality, friendship, and respect.

Rum was a significant issue for the Indians as well. When the French were still involved in the fur trade, the British had used rum to their advantage. They made it easy for the Indians to buy it, and let them buy as much as they could until the inventory ran out. This helped give the English an advantage over the French. After the French were subdued, the British started to limit where the Indians could purchase rum and the quantity they could purchase.

In order to enforce the new policies regarding rum, the British required all trading to be done at the forts, which upset the Indians. In the past, British traders had taken their products and rum to the tribal camps and villages. Now, the Indians had to travel to the British forts to conduct trade.

The Seneca Call for War

Amherst continued to make the situation worse when he gave some land near Niagara to some of his officers as a reward for their service in the fighting against the French. This upset the Seneca tribe and resulted in them carrying a red wampum belt – a war belt – to other tribes in the east. The Seneca asked the others to join them in declaring war on the British and they proposed simultaneous attacks on British forts at Detroit, Pittsburgh, Presque Isle, Venango, and Niagara.

The Seneca traveled to Detroit, where they invited the western tribes to a council, so they could present their plan to them. Soon after the Seneca reached Detroit, the commander of Fort Detroit, Captain Daniel Campbell, found out about the plot and immediately sent letters to the commanders of the other forts to warn them. Campbell also sent a French trader to spy on the Seneca. The trader infiltrated the council the Seneca held, where they presented their plan. The council took place on July 3 and was led by two Seneca chiefs, Kyatshuta and Tahaiadoris.

The local tribes were not ready to turn their backs on the British, despite their grievances. When the council was over, they told the Seneca they would respond the next day, but they would give their reply at the fort, out in the open, in front of Captain Campbell.

The next day, the local tribes gave the Seneca war belt to Campbell. The Seneca were embarrassed but responded by stating their grievances against the British. Campbell told them to stop their scheming and return to their home in western New York, which they did. However, the seeds had been planted for the coming conflict.

Croghan Brokers Peace

In May 1761, Croghan and Johnson met to discuss the situation with the western tribes. They understood the tribes were not pleased with the new British policies, and they wanted to do what they could to resolve the situation. This was followed by Amherst traveling to Albany to meet with Johnson.

Between the two meetings, it was decided Johnson and Croghan would go to Detroit and hold a council with the leaders of the western tribes. After Amherst left Albany, he sent a letter to Johson, dated August 9. Amherst told him to stop the practice of “purchasing the good behavior of the Indians” and to limit their access to ammunition. Amherst was concerned the Indians — all of them, not just the western tribes — would turn on the British and use the ammunition against them.

Amherst also decided while Johnson was meeting with the western tribes, an expedition would be sent to occupy the posts at Michilimackinac, Green Bay, St. Joseph, Sandusky, Miamis, and Ouiatenon. The expedition to the forts would be led by Major Henry Gladwin. Amherst instructed him to review each post and leave as many troops as he felt were necessary. He also told Gladwin to follow any recommendations he received from Johnson in terms of dealing with the Indians.

On September 9, Johnson’s council with the western tribes started. Johnson spoke and said he was there to strengthen the “chain of friendship” between them and the British. He assured them they would not be deprived of more land than was necessary for the purpose of doing business with them, or the British held a “lawful claim” to.

Per the custom of the Native American Indians, they waited until the next day to respond to Johnson. On September 10, the tribal leaders told Johnson they supported him and Amherst, and they would be loyal to the British.

William Johnson Negotiating, Illustration

Illustration of William Johnson negotiating with a Mohawk chief. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Johnson responded the next day by presenting the tribal leaders with gifts and a feast that featured a roasted ox. After the council, Johnson prepared a long list of the terms of trade and sent it to the commanders of each post with instructions “to keep up a good understanding with all Indians.” He also encouraged the commanders to keep in touch with each other and to use an interpreter, so they would be sure to comply with the terms of trade.

Johnson returned to his home in New York in October and wrote to Amherst. He told him he was confident he had been able to broker a long-lasting peace and alliance with the western tribes.

Pontiac Speaks Out

It was around this time that Pontiac started to speak out against the British. He accused them of altering the terms of trade and criticized them for their restrictions on access to rum.

When Captain Campbell, still in command at Detroit, found out that Amherst had put a stop to the tradition of giving gifts and limiting access to ammunition, he was concerned. He wrote to Bouquet at Fort Pitt and asked him if he could send ammunition. Campbell intended to provide the Indians with ammunition if it would prevent hostilities. Johnson and Croghan agreed with Campbell, but Amherst continued to hold to his policy of denying gifts and ammunition.

The western tribes had left the area for their winter hunt, so there was peace. However, Campbell, Johnson, and Croghan were concerned about what would happen when they returned in the spring. In the meantime, the British garrisoned the posts and forts throughout the frontier and increased their military strength.

The French Stir the Rebellion

The western tribes returned in the spring of 1762 and quickly realized their understanding of British policy was significantly different than Amherst’s. They wanted rum and ammunition, and both were in short supply.

There was another concern among all the Indians, and that was that Spain had joined France in the Seven Years’ War against Britain, which led to Britain declaring war on Spain on January 2, 1762. There were rumors that the French and Spanish would send a combined force to retake Quebec and drive the British out.

At Detroit, Campbell tried to smooth things over by providing more rum and gunpowder than he was supposed to. On July 3, he wrote a letter to Bouquet and said if Amherst continued to refuse to give gifts, including ammunition, to the Indians, it would only be a matter of time until there was an uprising.

The French took advantage of the situation and started to spread rumors among the Indians in the west and east. The French told them the British intended to eliminate them, and the proof was in the fact that Amherst had limited their access to ammunition.

Amherst sent expeditions out to explore the new British territory to the south. He also put Major Gladwin in command at Fort Detroit and transferred Captain Campbell to the fort at Sault Saint Marie. Gladwin arrived at Fort Detroit on August 23, 1762.

Soon after, rumors began to spread the Indians were plotting against the British. On September 28, an Indian from the Detroit area visited George Croghan in Pennsylvania and said he had heard a secret council had taken place at an Ottowa village. At the council, two Frenchmen addressed leaders from the Ottawa, Chippewa, Huron, Potawatomi, and other tribes. He told Croghan he did not know what the French said, but messengers had been sent to other tribes. Croghan heard similar rumors from some Iroquois men he knew. He sent letters to Amherst and Johnson and told them what he had heard.

In December, Croghan found out that earlier in the spring the Shawnee had received a war belt and hatchet from the Wea tribe. It had been given to the Wea by the French. Croghan sent a letter to Johson and told him it was likely war was coming with the Indians.

Fortunately for the British, the Indians did not excel at working together and were usually distracted by hard feelings and jealousies that lingered from earlier conflicts. It was difficult for them to put aside their differences for the sake of a larger vision.

The Delaware Prophet

However, that started to change when a Delaware by the name of Neolin had a dream and began traveling between villages telling people about it. He explained that he met a being called the Master of Life in his dream. The Master of Life told Neolin that land in the Ohio Valley where the Delaware tribe and others lived was meant for his people — Indians — and no others.

Neolin, who was also referred to as the Prophet, or the Imposter, even caught the attention of British and French settlers and traders, who would travel to see him preach his message to the villages. The Prophet was similar to the evangelists that traveled throughout the colonies during the Great Awakening. He spread a message of hope and salvation that could be achieved by giving up vices. The message spread through the Ohio Valley and to the western tribes, including the Ottawa.

Land Becomes an Issue

The overall disappointment with British policies, the lack of respect the British gave the Indians, and the Prophet’s message provided a platform the Indians could unite upon. However, there was another issue that came up that affected them, and the issue was land.

As with so many other situations related to the Indians, the British failed to comprehend how they utilized the land. The Indians were migratory, and often trailed the animals that provided their food. Even if they did not occupy a certain region at a specific time, they still considered it to be their territory or hunting grounds. This was completely opposite to the British concept that ownership of land was tied directly to occupancy.

In the east, the situation with the land was further complicated by the idea that the Iroquois believed the Britsh would push the French out and then return to the east side of the Allegheny Mountains. Not only did the British stay, but more colonists crossed the mountains and settled on the frontier.

War Belts Circulate in the East and West

In the Spring of 1763, war belts started to circulate throughout the region referred to as the pays d’en haut — the upper country. The region was located from the west of Lake Michigan to the east of Lake Ontario, near the Appalachian Mountains. It started as far north as the tip of Michigan and stretched south past Fort Pitt into the Illinois Country and the Ohio Country.

In the west, Pontiac said he received war belts from the French. In the east, the Seneca sent a belt, which was probably done by their chief, Kyashuta.

Pontiac approved of taking action and started to speak out in favor of war against the British. His popularity grew, especially in the local villages of the Ottowas, Ojibwes, and Potowatomis. Pontiac’s prominence grew and he would command warriors from the villages in the Detroit area and was an important leader in the western portion of the war. The Hurons also joined with Pontiac. All of these tribes lived in the Great Lakes region.

Tribes from the Illinois Country also joined with Pontiac’s cause. They were the Miamis, Weas, Kickapoos, Mascoutens, and Piankashaws. Out of the Ohio Country came the Delawares, Shawnees, Wyandots, and Mingos.

The idea that Pontiac was able to coordinate attacks throughout the entire region, from east to west – or that Kyashuta could do the same – is possible, but unlikely. It is much more likely the French encouraged the Indians from New York to Michigan to rise up in a way that made it seem like they were united in carrying out coordinated attacks.

Further, the only Iroquois tribe – and the only tribe from outside the pays d’en haut — that was involved in the uprising was the Seneca.

Pontiac’s Rebellion Begins

The attacks started with a surprise attack on Fort Detroit on May 9, 1763. Pontiac led roughly 300 warriors against the British. However, the plot was exposed, which helped the British prepare for the attack. Pontiac laid siege to the fort, which lasted until November. Similar attacks took place throughout the Ohio Country and western Pennsylvania during the spring and summer of 1763.

British Forts Captured

In May, Indian forces captured Fort Sandusky in the Ohio Country. Then they captured Fort Saint Joseph and Fort Miami. In June a raiding party made of Ottawa and Ojibwe warriors took Fort Michilimackinac.

Battle of Bloody Run

In July, a British expedition escaped from the siege at Fort Detroit and tried to attack Pontiac’s village. The Battle of Bloody Run took place on July 31, 1763, and resulted in heavy losses and a defeat for the British.

Battle of Bushy Run

In August, the Battle of Bushy Run took place when British forces under the command of Colonel Henry Bouquet clashed with Indian forces laying siege to Fort Pitt. The British were able to fight off the Indians and break the siege on August 20.

Battle of Bushy Run, Watercolor

This watercolor by C.W. Jeffreys depicts British troops attacking Indian warriors at the Battle of Bushy Run. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Devil’s Hole Massacre

In September, the Indian forces attacked a British supply train near Niagara Falls. The British sent reinforcements from Fort Niagara to aid the supply train. However, the British were badly beaten.

By the end of the fighting in 1763, the British had lost eight key forts along the frontier, including important positions at Presque Isle, Sandusky, and Michilimackinac.

Proclamation of 1763

In October 1763, the British government decided to take political action in an effort to put an end to the conflict. King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. The lands to the west of the mountains, which the Indians were fighting to keep control of, were reserved for them as hunting grounds.

The Proclamation was largely aimed at putting restrictions on the colonists and helping keep the cost of defending the frontier to a minimum. Britain left roughly 5,000 troops west of the Appalachians to garrison the forts and defend the western frontier from potential attacks from the French, Spanish — and Indians.

It was logical for the British to assume if there were more settlers west of the mountains the threat of attacks would increase. If that happened, there would be more people expecting forts and troops to help defend them from those threats. It was as much about economics as it was about creating a peaceful resolution to the situation with the Indians.

The Proclamation also established four new British colonies. They were East Florida, West Florida, Grenada, and finally, one in the north, the Province of Quebec.

Conestoga Massacre

In December 1763, colonists living in the village of Paxton on the Pennsylvania frontier conducted a raid on a settlement of the Conestoga Tribe in Lancaster County. Six Natives were killed and 14 were taken as prisoners and held in jail, only to be murdered about two weeks later by the so-called Paxton Boys.

The Paxton Boys planned to attack a Moravian settlement, but the Natives living there fled into Philadelphia for protection. In January 1764, the Paxton Boys marched on Philadephia where they were met by Benjamin Franklin and other city leaders. They were able to convince the mob to disperse.

British Launch Military Expeditions

Despite the Proclamation of 1763, the Indians continued to raid colonial settlements on the frontier and spread outside of the pays d’en haut when settlers were attacked in Virginia and Maryland.

Amherst was recalled to London in August 1763 and replaced by General Thomas Gage. Gage allowed William Johnson to negotiate a peace treaty with the tribes around Fort Niagara, which included the Seneca.

In the fall of 1764, the British launched two military expeditions against the Indians. One was led by Colonel John Bradstreet, the other by Colonel Bouquet. The Indians were at a disadvantage. Without their French allies supplying them with ammunition — which would have been a violation of the armistice between the French and the British — they would eventually be forced to surrender.

Bradstreet traveled to Fort Presque Isle and negotiated a treaty with the Indians from the region, which he was not supposed to do. He was only authorized to negotiate a truce with them. The terms of the treaty actually promised Bouquet’s expedition would not take place. Gage and other British leaders were outraged and had no intention of complying with the treaty. However, Bradstreet had no idea he had overstepped. He continued to Fort Detroit and negotiated a second treaty, but offended the tribal leaders with how he treated them.

Bouquet left Fort Pitt on October 3 and marched into the Ohio Country. He worked out an agreement with the tribes that ended the fighting and returned captives to their families. The tribes from the Ohio Country met with William Johnson in July 1765 and worked out a formal peace treaty.

Although Pontiac refused to surrender and continued to fight, his influence fell off. He tried to recruit tribes from further West and South, but the effort failed. The rebellion was essentially over in the fall of 1764.

Pontiac’s Rebellion Ends

In July 1766, Pontiac met with William Johnson at Fort Ontario and settled for peace Pontiac. The signing of the Treaty of Oswego brought an official end to the conflict. Pontiac received a pardon for his role in the affair.

Pontiac’s Rebellion was initially successful and American Indians captured most of the British forts in the area. However, they were never able to capture Fort Pitt or Fort Detroit, and the rebellion against British rule gradually collapsed by the end of 1764.

With the collapse of the Indian alliance, colonists responded by crossing the mountains and settling in the Ohio Country. They completely ignored the Proclamation Line that had been decreed by King George III and encroached on Indian lands, which continued to add to the friction between settlers and the tribes in the Ohio Country.

Significance of Pontiac’s Rebellion

Pontiac’s Rebellion was significant because had several impacts on American history.

It underscored Britain’s weak hold on her new possessions, exposing a need for more troops in the West. Faced with massive debts incurred fighting the Seven Years’ War and the French and Indian War, British leaders responded by financing increased garrisons in North America with a new policy of directly taxing the colonies.

Fearful of becoming embroiled in a prolonged war with Native Americans to protect colonists eager to settle the Ohio Country, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763. The King’s proclamation reserved the lands west of the crest of the Appalachians for the native inhabitants and prohibited colonists from settling in the area. Resentment over the Proclamation of 1763 contributed to a growing division between British and American interests that ultimately led to the American Revolution.

Primary Sources Related to Pontiac’s War

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Pontiac's Rebellion Summary
  • Coverage 1763–1766
  • Author
  • Keywords Pontiac's Rebellion
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 26, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 6, 2022
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