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Pontiac’s War

Pontiac’s War began in the summer of 1763 with the siege of Fort Detroit and ended three years later with a treaty at Fort Niagara. From this war came an important step was taken towards opening the western lands for settlement. The close of Pontiac’s War forced a treaty of peace upon the Indians of the Ohio Valley, whose most important result was to aid in withdrawing the Indians from the territory south of the Ohio, thus preparing the way for the future settlement of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Although fraught with racism and bias against the Indians, Parkman’s seminal work, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and The Indian War after the Conquest of Canada, gave responsibility of the uprising to Pontiac, along with with heavy influence from the French. The conflict has borne Pontiac’s name since. Howard Peckham titled his work Pontiac and the Indian Uprising, and tried to focus on telling the story from Pontiac’s point of view, yet does not fully release the biases introduced by Parkman.

Several modern writers have taken a new approach to the conflict, attempting to shed the biases, and writing with new lenses following the Civil Rights and American Indian movements. Gregory Evans Dowd in War under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire, gives greater detail to the events surrounding Pontiac’s War from a more culturally sensitive perspective. Dowd’s account is valuable to this study by providing a better understanding of the social interdependences of the belligerents.

David Dixon’s "Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac’s Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America" gets to the heart of the conflict by providing the context of the war and its causes and consequences, and frames Pontiac’s War as a leading factor of the American Revolution.

The Susquehanna Valley was home to native Americans, to the early pioneers like the French trapper named Letort, and later, to an expanding population of English, Scots and Germans. The Indians retreated into the mountains, waiting for an opportunity to recover their lost valley. The French, in competition for the new land's resources, allied with the natives and encouraged them in their grievances against the English.

Pennsylvania was originally a colony of Quakers who attempted to avoid bloodshed, but political pressure from the newer, more combative, more endangered Scots convinced the colonial government of the need to secure the frontier. In 1753 and 1754, the Quaker officials sent delegates to negotiate. Benjamin Franklin was one of the negotiators. The agreements did not hold, crumbling beneath the weight of white land hunger.

With the defeat of British Gen. Braddock along the Monongahela in July 1755, the embodied Indians had conducted raids into the Cumberland (also known as Great) Valley. Gen. John Forbes commanded the force mobilized for action against the French and Indians. Included in Forbes' army were the Royal Americans, a regiment of regulars raised within the American colonies.

Braddock’s defeat highlighted the need for new tactics and equipment. Col. Henri Bouquet, a Swiss mercenary, trained the Royal Americans in counter-guerrilla tactics. Their preparations for warfare against the Indians included lighter firearms with "browned" barrels, snipped-off coattails, short hair, and frontier footgear.

The loss of French power in the Great Lakes region was an unsatisfactory end for allied Indians following the French and Indian War in 1763. Most tribes in the area had developed long-term relationships with the French settlers and crown through trade, social, political, and military interactions. The settlement that ended the war, the 1763 Peace of Paris, had turned Canada, the Ohio Country, and the existing French forts over to British possession. The British policy towards the Indians resulted in increased tensions with the tribes in the region. Many Indian nations began to see the British presence as a direct threat to Indian sovereignty, which resulted in a tenuous relationship with British rule.

PontiacIn the early 1760's, the Ottawa chief, Pontiac, was spokesman for the frustrations Indians were experiencing as the French and English took turns laying claim to his peoples' land. The Delaware prophet Neolin saw that the growing Indians dependence on European goods had undermined traditional Indian ways. Pontiac learned of Neolin and his message, and on 27 April 1763, Pontiac gathered the “council of the three nations” in his village near Fort Detroit. He formed an alliance of Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Wyandot Indians tribes, determined to drive the English into the sea.

The official British position following the Treaty of Easton in 1758, was that colonists were to refrain from settling on Indian lands west of the Appalachians. The Proclamation of 1763 outlined several ways to pacify the American west, return stability to the region, and reinvigorate the fur trade. Signed on 7 October 1763, the proclamation attempted to divide the land in North America to isolate the Indian problem. The proclamation forbade settlement or purchase of land from the Indians west of the Appalachian Mountains. The land west of the Proclamation Line of 1763 was reserved as Indian Territory and to the east, land for the colonies. Travel into Indian country was only allowed for licensed traders. The Proclamation of 1763 was the first document attempting to regulate the land gained through the Treaty of Paris signed eight months earlier. The royal proclamation arrived too late, and only served to instigate more discontent, not only on the part of the Indians, but also on the part of the colonists who saw the American West as a prize for their efforts in the war.

Pontiac's coalition was able to overtake, in an impressive manner, several British forts through decentralized tactical actions that surprised the British regulars. Forts at Detroit, Niagara and Pitt soon fell. At Fort Venango, the Seneca war party captured the fort so swiftly that the commander was unaware of the attack. Lieutenant Francis Gordon only found out when the Seneca leader knocked on the commander’s quarters asking to enter on friendly terms. When Lieutenant Gordon exited, he saw his detachment of regulars lying about hacked to pieces. The Seneca leader forced the commander to pen a note of the Indian grievances before they too then killed him.

In panic, white settlers took revenge on local Indians, only serving to focus Pontiac's attention on Central Pennsylvania. His warriors moved as far east as Sherman's Valley, which was separated by only one mountain ridge from Bouquet's encampment.

Shawnee warrior Cornstalk’s raids on the western Virginia Euro-American settlements in the Trans-Allegheny region was a military campaign thatwas arguably one of the most successful campaigns of Pontiac’s War. There is little question that Cornstalk’s leadership of the Shawnee led to the most successful campaign of all American Indian operations in western Virginia. In terms of the number of enemy settlements abandoned, the number of captives taken, and the number of enemy killed, no other field commanders’ campaigns in the region came close to Cornstalk’s success in 1763. This campaign honed Cornstalk’s skills at war and alliance-building. His experiences in 1763 made him a formidable foe during Dunmore’s War eleven years later, an effective peace-maker after that war, as well as an astute ally of the American cause during the beginning yearsof the American Revolution.

Though a flood of refugees complicated his efforts, Bouquet energetically trained his force for an expedition to relieve Ft. Pitt. On July 18, 1763 a force of 460 headed west. A common characteristic of many Indian campaigns was the Indians’ superior knowledge of the terrain. A great example of this was the attack on the forces of Colonel Henry Bouquet during his march to relieve Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania. On 02 August 1763, Bouquet’s lead element came under fire from warriors of the Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, Wyandot, Ottawa, and Miami tribes. The Indians attacked in an area of old growth forest, offering limited fields of fire, around Bushy Run. They forced Bouquet’s forces back into a defensive position on a hilltop, attacking the position repeatedly but without waiting for a counterattack. Their detailed knowledge of the area allowed them to simply fade into the forest, suffering few casualties.

Pontiac’s WarThe Battle of Bushy Run not only showed the efficacy of Indian raids until defeated by Bouquet’s brilliant feigned retreat and flanking maneuvers; it also showed how to use deception effectively. Bouquet devised a plan to deceive the Indian attackers. Bouquet purposely collapsed his western flank withdrawing a company into the center of the perimeter to draw the Indians into the open. The Indian warriors thought the British formation was collapsing and charged from the wood line. Bouquet then ordered a second company of light infantry to flank the approaching warriors with bayonets fixed following a devastating volley into the exposed Indians. This action broke the Indian resolve to fight and the warriors withdrew into the backcountry.

The official history of Bushy Run says Bouquet’s forces were engaged and surrounded by Indian forces at least equal in size to his own. Some who have studied the battle extensively from the Indian point of view maintain that the Indians numbered no more than 90 and that the tactics they used in the forest made their numbers seem larger.

Bouquet had hoped to move farther west from Ft. Pitt, so as to break Pontiac's resistance once and for all, but he lacked reinforcements and so returned to Carlisle. Regarded as a great Indian fighter, Armstrong, in an act of irony, came to the aid of the enemy when settlers in Central Pennsylvania committed outrages against peaceful Indians.

By the fall of 1764, Bouquet's troops were able to move into the wilderness beyond Ft. Pitt. The chiefs then sued for peace. Bouquet continued negotiations with the Delaware and Mingo and now the Shawnee. Bouquet insisted on an immediate end to hostilities against the settlements and frontier forts in the Pennsylvania backcountry, all individuals taken prisoner returned, and hostages given until received by Bouquet’s men. Additionally, Bouquet demanded representatives travel to Niagara to finalize formal terms of peace with Sir William Johnson. The Indians complied and handed over 200 prisoners to Bouquet. The Shawnee were hesitant to comply at first, but reluctantly gave in to Bouquet’s terms.

Bouquet returned to Carlisle, bringing back with him a long column of rescued whites who had been captured during Pontiac's War. On 28 November 1764, Bouquet reached Fort Pitt following a successful campaign against the hostile Indians in the Ohio backcountry. General Gage congratulated Bouquet on a successful mission and commented that talks with Pontiac and other western tribes might produce a more general and lasting peace.

At the close of Pontiac’s war in 1764, Bouquet forced a treaty of peace upon the Indians of the Ohio Valley, whose most important result was to aid in withdrawing the Indians from the territory south of the Ohio, thus preparing the way for the future settlement of Kentucky and Tennessee. Very soon after Bouquet’s conference, the last of the Shawnees who lingered in that country crossed the Ohio.

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Page last modified: 16-10-2017 12:41:14 ZULU