Military history


Amherst’s Reforms and Pontiac’s War


CAPTAIN BULL attacked the New Englanders at Wyoming in October to avenge his father’s death. In that sense his was a local and personal act, a response to Yankee aggression against Delaware lives and lands. In a larger sense, however, Captain Bull and his fellow warriors were being drawn into the backdraft of “Pontiac’s War,” which had ignited more than 350 miles west of Wyoming at almost exactly the same time that Teedyuscung’s assassins set fire to his cabin. The fuel for that larger conflagration lay in the incursions of backcountry settlers onto Indian lands and in Amherst’s postconquest reforms in Indian diplomacy and trade, and the spark that set it off was struck when an obscure Ottawa chief organized an assault on the British garrison at Detroit. But what made this conflict unique among Indian wars of the colonial period—what ultimately combined a number of local attacks into an uprising that stretched from the Susquehanna to the Mississippi and from northern Michigan to the Ohio Valley—was a religious vision, which for the first time in American history enabled many Indian groups to act together. That spiritual message, interestingly enough, had emerged in the Susquehanna Valley as a series of Delaware prophets responded to the crisis that followed their people’s dispossession by the Iroquois and the heirs of William Penn.

The earliest Delaware prophecies were purely nativist denunciations of alcohol as the substance by which Indians had been made dependent upon Europeans. Once the Delawares had been deprived of their lands by the Walking Purchase, however, the message of the prophets began to take on a potentially political and implicitly anti–Six Nations character. In the last years before the Seven Years’ War, a female prophet at Wyoming and two male preachers who lived farther up the Susquehanna’s east branch began to elaborate on the earliest prophecies. They preached that Indians had been created separately from whites and blacks and had displeased the Master of Life by departing from the separate way he had ordained for them. As a result of their sins, which included alcohol abuse and greed for trade goods, the Master of Life had sent epidemics and hard winters, thinning out the game and causing crop failures, in order to turn them back to their earlier ways of life. The teachings of these three prophets were new, and significant, because they carried potentially pan-Indian, as well as nativist, overtones. The even more dramatic afflictions of the Seven Years’ War would amplify these messages, which assumed a particularly potent form in 1759–60 when a fourth prophet, Neolin, emerged among the western Delawares of the upper Ohio Valley.

Like his Susquehanna Valley predecessors, Neolin emphasized the separate creation of whites and Indians and enjoined abstinence from alcohol as a means to regain sacred power and reconcile the Delawares with the Master of Life. But in important ways he went beyond the earlier prophets. If the Indians were to avoid dependence on whites, they would ultimately have to abstain from trade as well as from alcohol, relearn the ancient ways of hunting and manufacture they had forgotten, and abandon all intercourse with Europeans. As a means to this end, Neolin encouraged his followers to practice ritual purgations and to undertake a seven-year process of training young men in the making and use of traditional weapons, so that they could defend their people without having to depend upon European arms. In 1761 Neolin began predicting a new war in the west. The signs he identified with that impending conflict—declining game populations, large numbers of whites encroaching on Indian lands, and Amherst’s prohibition against gifts and supplying gunpowder in quantity—helped persuade the western Delawares of the truth in his message. The resulting religious revival had important political implications. As Neolin’s following grew, accommodationist chiefs like Tamaqua and Shingas, who had led their people in the abandonment of the French and who still counseled patience with the British, lost standing in Delaware councils.1

Although Neolin may have intended his teachings to promote regeneration among his own people, in 1761 and 1762 they spread far beyond the upper Ohio and began to figure strongly in the spiritual lives of Indians from western New York to Minnesota, from the Great Lakes basin to the Kentucky and Illinois Countries. In part the religious awakening of these years stemmed from the dual afflictions of disease and famine that beset the western Indians generally in 1761 and 1762. Epidemics and want, of course, were messages that the Master of Life sent to prompt his children’s renewal. In addition, however, British commanders forbidden by Amherst’s policies from distributing gifts did little to alleviate the suffering and much to fulfill prophecies that relations between whites and Indians would continue to deteriorate until war broke out. Under such stresses, revivals based on Neolin’s purification rituals and nativist message appeared among the Chippewas, Miamis, Ottawas, Potawatomis, Shawnees, and Wyandots, and even occurred within Iroquoia among the Senecas and Onondagas. As they did, the pan-Indian elements implicit in Neolin’s prophecies began to furnish common ground for nativist resistance to the British.2

War belts had in fact never ceased to circulate among the western Indians after the conquest of Canada. Some remained from Vaudreuil’s efforts to reanimate the failed alliances of the pays d’en haut. Others originated in the Geneseo Senecas’ efforts to organize rebellions against the British at Niagara in 1761 and 1762. Some probably came from French traders and others unwilling to accept the surrender of Canada; still others had been issued by French officers who still commanded posts in Louisiana. At least one of them represented Teedyuscung’s eleventh-hour call for help against the Susquehannah Company invaders. But if the wampum symbols were nothing new, Neolin’s revelations gave them a common context of meaning and interpretation. As they did, accommodationist chiefs everywhere began to forfeit control over relations with the British. Among the Delawares, for example, by early 1762 all the chiefs who had made peace with the British in 1758 either withdrew from public life or lost standing. Pisquetomen and Delaware George both vanished, perhaps dying; Tamaqua and Shingas ceased to influence western Delaware policy.3

In the winter of 1762–63 the question was no longer whether, but when and where, the fighting would begin. The western Indians made no secret of their discontentment with Amherst’s trade and settlement policies and could not conceal the ascendancy of nativist leaders. Croghan and the other western traders were deeply apprehensive; the commanders of isolated forts looked nervously to their stocks of food and ammunition. Only the highest-ranking British officers, secure in their headquarters, remained unconcerned. At Philadelphia late in 1762, Colonel Bouquet casually referred to reports of a “pretended new conspiracy” among the western Indians, and in New York the following April, Amherst dismissed warnings of impending war as “Meer Bugbears.” As late as June 6, 1763, the commander in chief could still persuade himself, as he read the first reports of the uprising, that “this alarm will end in nothing.”4

The great Indian rebellion began about ten miles from Detroit on April 27, 1763, when the Ottawa war leader Pontiac invoked Neolin’s teachings at a “council of the three nations, Ottawas, Potawatomies, and the bad Huron [Wyandot] band,” and persuaded them to join him in attacking the local British garrison—although not the French settlement that lay outside its walls. Among the local villagers Pontiac could raise about 460 warriors, more than enough to attack the 125 redcoats and 40 traders whom Major Henry Gladwin commanded at Fort Detroit. Pontiac and his allies resolved to surprise the garrison on May 7. They failed in the attempt because a Wyandot woman—perhaps Gladwin’s mistress—warned the British of the plot. Pontiac and his allies, joined by a Chippewa band, therefore laid siege to the fort on May 9. Within the first week they killed or wounded 20 British soldiers and refugees and took 15 more captive. A week thereafter they captured a convoy of supply bateaux approaching the fort from Niagara, killing or making prisoners of more than 50 soldiers and bateaumen; a few days later they intercepted another party on its way to the fort and made prisoners of 19 more redcoats and civilians. Except for a single sloop carrying provisions that arrived on June 30, no relief convoy would make it safely to the fort’s anchorage until the end of July. By then Pontiac’s besieging force had grown to more than 900 warriors from a half-dozen nations. 5

Throughout May, messengers raced from village to village across the pays d’en haut, carrying the news that war had begun at Detroit. As if by prearrangement other Indian groups took up the hatchet against remote, thinly manned British outposts. On May 16, Wyandot warriors surprised and seized Fort Sandusky near the west end of Lake Erie, 50 miles south of Detroit. Nine days later, Potawatomies captured Fort St. Joseph (modern Niles, Michigan), southeast of Lake Michigan and about 170 miles west of Detroit. A hundred miles up the Maumee River from Lake Erie and 140 miles to Detroit’s southwest, Fort Miami (now Fort Wayne, Indiana) fell to the local Miami Indians on the twenty-seventh. Flushed with victory, the Miamis made a quick portage to the Wabash drainage, persuaded Kickapoo, Mascouten, and Wea warriors to join them, and seized Fort Ouiatenon (near Lafayette, Indiana) on June 1. The next day, 275 miles to the north, Chippewas pretending to play a game of lacrosse gained entry to Fort Michilimackinac, on the strait between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Within minutes they killed or captured its entire complement of soldiers and traders. The commander of the most isolated garrison on Lake Michigan, Fort Edward Augustus (Green Bay, Wisconsin), turned his post over to the local Indians, Anglophile eastern Sioux who remained aloof from the rebellion, on June 21. When he and his men tried to make their way over the lake to safety, however, Ottawa and Chippewa warriors intercepted them near the Straits of Mackinac and eventually carried them to Montréal for ransom, along with the survivors of the Michilimackinac garrison. 6


Detroit under attack, 1763. Lieutenant John Montrésor, an engineering officer sent with a small detachment in August, remained at Detroit until November; on his return to Niagara he sent the original of this map of Detroit and the surrounding countryside to Jeffery Amherst. The “fort” of Detroit—a small walled town intended for trade, rather than a Vauban-style fortification—appears on the north shore of the river, immediately above the compass rose. The farms of the local French habitants, indicated by their rectangular fields, lie on either side of the fort, and opposite it across the river. The settlements of the besieging Indians bracket the farmed areas. At the west end of the fields above the river is the Potawatomi village; on the opposite shore the Huron (Wyandot) village; and at the east end of the south-shore fields, the Ottawa village. Pontiac’s own camp is on the north shore of the river, above the arrow indicating the direction of the current. It lay a little over two miles east of the fort, not far beyond a creek known to the French as Rivière Parent. In memory of Captain James Dalyell’s defeat there on July 31, the British called it Bloody Run. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.


Fort Michilimackinac. Although it was only about one-seventh the size of Detroit, Michilimackinac was similarly situated on a strait between two of the Great Lakes and similarly constructed as a stockaded trading settlement. This finely detailed sketch gives an excellent idea of the interior layout of both posts, where short streets were lined by traders’ houses, each with its own small garden plot. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the Universityof Michigan.

During the last half of June, Seneca war parties, in some cases cooperating with bands of Ottawas and Chippewas, attacked and seized all the blockhouse way stations between Fort Niagara and Fort Pitt. Fort Venango fell, its garrison annihilated, on about June 16. Fort LeBoeuf followed on the eighteenth and Fort Presque Isle on the twenty-first. With the loss of these posts, Fort Pitt could no longer communicate with its supply bases on the Great Lakes and in Canada. At the same time, Delaware and Shawnee warriors severed communications between Pittsburgh and eastern Pennsylvania by destroying the settlements along Forbes Road and attacking Forts Ligonier and Bedford. Fort Pitt’s commandant, Captain Simeon Ecuyer of the Royal American Regiment, had first understood his peril a month earlier, when Tamaqua began warning traders to leave Delaware villages. On May 28, Delaware and Mingo warriors shed the first blood in the upper Ohio Country when they wiped out Colonel William Clapham’s small settlement, twenty-five miles up the Monongahela from the Forks; the next day they killed two redcoats at Fort Pitt’s sawmill. Although Ecuyer remained confident of his strength—with 250 regulars, traders, and settler militiamen on hand, Fort Pitt was not only the most stoutly constructed, but the most strongly manned of all the western posts—he could not disguise his apprehensiveness in the letter he sent to Bouquet, at Philadelphia, describing recent events and transmitting reports that Detroit was besieged and Fort Sandusky had been “cut off.” 7

The Indians, however, would not threaten Fort Pitt itself until late June. On the twenty-fourth, two Delaware leaders approached and asked for a parley. They informed Ecuyer of the destruction of the posts between Fort Niagara and Fort Pitt and advised him to evacuate Pittsburgh or face destruction. Ecuyer, who by the addition of refugees from the surrounding settlements now had 338 men under his command, refused to surrender. Although at least 500 soldiers and refugees crowded his fort and smallpox had lately broken out among them, he had enough provisions on hand to make him confident that he could hold out until Bouquet organized a relief expedition. He therefore thanked the chiefs, warned them that attacks would be severely punished, and advised them to dissuade their young men from violence. Then he concluded the parley by making the emissaries a gift of provisions, liquor, and other small items to ease their journey homeward. Two of the blankets and a handkerchief in the bundle had come directly from the fort’s smallpox hospital.8

By the beginning of July every British post west of Detroit had fallen to the Indians. Detroit, with three months’ provisions, lay under close siege. Fort Pitt waited tensely for a general attack—an assault delayed only by the fact that Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo war parties were raiding Pennsylvania settlements as far east as Carlisle and ranging the Virginia backcountry from the Potomac to North Carolina. Everywhere in this recently reoccupied region confusion reigned. Colonel Bouquet, struggling at Carlisle to organize a relief column for Pittsburgh, reported “a general Panick” in the vicinity, despite the presence of his regulars. At New York, Sir Jeffery Amherst, resisting the notion that anything could have gone so far wrong, was only beginning to understand what was happening. 9

The commander in chief first learned of Indian trouble when dispatches that Ecuyer and Bouquet had sent in late May reached New York on June 6. In response he ordered light infantry companies from the 17th, 42nd, and 77th Regiments—units stationed near his headquarters and still recuperating from the malarial devastation of Havana—to make ready to march for Pennsylvania. For reasons both psychological and practical he could do little more. Preoccupied by the wish to return to England (where, he had lately learned, his wife’s sanity was ebbing away), Amherst did not wish to think that anything could detain him in America; moreover, his forces had been so badly depleted by the Cuban campaign that he simply had no reserves to commit. When in mid-June Amherst received the first verified account of the siege of Detroit, he directed his aide-de-camp, Captain James Dalyell, to travel from Albany to Niagara, collect whatever reinforcements he could along the way, and, if the situation merited, proceed with them as far as Detroit. But no report truly convinced Amherst that his commanders had lost control of the interior until June 21, when a letter arrived that Major Gladwin had written nearly six weeks earlier. Even so, it took the commander in chief another week to inform the Southern secretary of recent developments, probably because he found it so “difficult . . . to account [for] any causes that can have induced these barbarians to this perfidious attempt.” Whether it was the denial of alcohol under his reform policies (“they have pretended to be very dissatisfied at not getting rum”) or some more substantial cause, Amherst could only conclude that the rebellion resulted from a conspiracy—doubtless one the French had started.10

Bewilderment at the Indians’ success in capturing forts and defeating redcoat detachments, delay in understanding what was going on, inability to restore order once the rebellion’s scope became clear—all these factors now helped promote a singular bloody-mindedness among the British commanders. Bouquet, still trying to organize a relief column to lead to Pittsburgh, wrote to Amherst from Lancaster that he hoped “to extirpate that Vermine from a Country they have forfeited, and with it all Claim to the Rights of Humanity.” Amherst, not yet knowing that Ecuyer had already put the theory into practice, replied that when Bouquet reached the valley he should try to spread disease among the Indians by passing smallpox-infected blankets among them. “We must,” he wrote, “Use Every Stratagem in our Power to Reduce them.” To Gladwin and other officers he issued orders that all Indians taken prisoner should “immediately be put to death, their extirpation being the only security for our future safety, and their late treacherous proceedings deserving no better treatment at our hands.” 11

This was not, of course, the first time British officers had ordered extreme measures to be taken against Indian enemies: Amherst had permitted the killing of Indian prisoners at Louisbourg in 1758 and Wolfe extended the policy to include Canadians dressed as Indians during the Québec expedition in 1759. Even thoroughly professional European officers could rationalize such policies as no breach of civilized behavior because Indians routinely killed their captives. Sanctioning the “extirpation” of enemy populations by spreading smallpox among them, however, had no precedent. Amherst’s and his fellow officers’ sense that Indians were less than fully human helps account for their willingness to contemplate such measures; but only the regulars’ overwhelming sense of impotence can fully explain them.

Appalling as they were, Amherst’s orders did not occasion genocide so much as reflect his and his colleagues’ genocidal fantasies; for in fact there was nothing that he or any British officer in America could do to reverse the tide of Indian military success. As Amherst well knew, the measures he could take—appealing to the provinces for militiamen or drafting invalids from the Havana regiments to replace soldiers in garrisons, freeing what healthy men he could find to aid in the relief of Fort Pitt or Detroit—were only stopgaps, and at most they could buy time. Since he knew better than to expect reinforcements from Britain, Amherst realized that he could restore order in the west only with the help of provincial troops. That meant waiting until governors could summon their assemblies, and (worse) waiting for the representatives to slake their thirst for debate; it meant, realistically, that no expeditions could be mounted until the summer of 1764. Thus while Amherst awaited reports from Detroit and Pittsburgh, and even before he wrote to notify the governors of his troop requirements, he began planning the coming year’s campaign. In the process he put the hysteria of June and July behind him. But his recovery of composure did not enable him to comprehend, much less correct, the conditions that had created the war. Indeed, insofar as his plan relied on military means to restore stable Anglo-Indian relations, it would tend only to delay the return of peace.12

Amherst thought it essential that peace be restored by force of arms rather than by negotiation. As he explained to Sir William Johnson, he was determined to go through with [the suppression of the rebellion] in such a manner that the whole race of Indians who have any connection with the English may see the folly and madness, as well as the ingratitude of setting themselves in opposition to a people from whom they have received so many benefits, and whose power is such as can in a very short time, make the Savages feel the utmost extremity of want, and render their pretended importance of very little effect. . . .

. . . Their punishment must [therefore] be previous to the treating with them, and when that shall happen, all they can expect is forgiveness, and a Trade, under proper regulations, opened to them. But as to presents, it would certainly be the highest presumption in them to expect any. Justice they shall have, but no more; for they can never be considered by us as a people to whom we owe rewards; and it would be madness, to the highest degree, ever to bestow favors on a race who have so treacherously, and without any provocation on our side, attacked our Posts, and butchered our Garrisons. Presents should be given only to those who remain our firm friends.13

Amherst believed that, regardless of their losses, his redcoats would inevitably defeat the Indians. From the Cherokee War he had learned that Indian uprisings would peter out once trade goods and gunpowder ran short and warriors lost the ability to protect their families and crops from destruction. While it was true that the Indians had seized the stores of eight forts, the great posts that functioned as central distribution points (Forts Detroit, Pitt, and Niagara) all remained in British hands, and these held the largest supply magazines. Because the Indians had only canoes for transport, they could scarcely move heavy barrels of provisions, powder, and shot from the posts where they had been captured to the forts still under siege. Since the present summer’s warfare and the coming winter’s hunts were sure to deplete the Indians’ stocks of ammunition, the summer of 1764 would offer Amherst his first realistic opportunity to subjugate the Indian rebels militarily.

Amherst’s plan therefore presupposed that the three critical western forts—Niagara, Detroit, and Pittsburgh—could be held until the coming summer, when they would become the bases from which punitive expeditions could be launched. This was an easy enough assumption to make, for Amherst had no doubt that Bouquet would soon relieve Fort Pitt, and that Dalyell’s reinforcement would enable Gladwin to maintain control at Detroit. (In fact Amherst’s instructions to the commanders of the two expeditions assumed that they would be able to undertake limited offensive actions against the Indians even before the end of the summer; Bouquet, for example, was supposed to ascend the Allegheny and French Creek, retaking Forts Venango and LeBoeuf, and if possible Fort Presque Isle as well!) Building on control of these strategic points, Amherst’s plan had three parts. First, as soon as possible, Sir William Johnson would use his influence with the Six Nations to insure that those Senecas who had joined the rebellion would be isolated from the rest of the Confederacy. Thereafter, at the earliest possible moment in 1764, one expedition of regulars and provincials from New York and New Jersey would move westward from Niagara to Detroit, bringing the Great Lakes Indians to heel. At the same time, a second expedition, made up of regulars and provincials from Pennsylvania and Virginia, would strike westward from Fort Pitt and reduce the Ohio Indians to submission. Only Indians who had first been chastised and made to return their captives would be allowed to treat for peace. 14

Amherst’s strategic plan made sense in light of lessons he had extracted from the Cherokee War, but its principal policy aim—the forcible imposition of British sovereignty over the Indians—reflected his stubbornness more clearly than any appreciation of the war’s origins or cultural dynamics. As Johnson, Croghan, and others who had had direct experience with Indian affairs could have explained to him, British sovereignty was the root, not the solution, of the Indian problems. The French, to whom the Indians were accustomed, had acted as trading partners and as paternalist mediators of disputes among Indian groups, but they had rarely tried to intervene forcibly in Indian life. Their comparatively generous attitude toward the giving of gifts, their tolerance of Indian cultures and willingness to adopt Indian social mores, their preference for trade over farming and their accompanying lack of insistence that Indians cede large tracts of land to them: these had sustained stable relations between the Indians of the interior and their French “father,” Onontio. Britain’s conquest of Canada and Amherst’s economizing reforms threatened every one of these elements of stability. Indeed, to an extent that even Johnson and Croghan only dimly understood, the precipitating cause of the Indian attacks on British posts throughout the west had been the arrival of news that Britain and France had, at long last, made peace.

Neither Pontiac nor any other important Indian leader of the pays d’en haut had believed it was possible that Onontio would hand over eastern North America to British control. The Indians knew that they had never been defeated, and to be deprived of their land by white men signing papers across the sea made no sense. Their uprising therefore represented an attempt to “awaken” Onontio, who had somehow fallen asleep: an effort to revive New France, both by ritual means—through ceremonies that employed uniforms, flags, and other symbols of French power—and by military action, to defeat the British and enable the French to return from over the sea.

When British officers heard reports that Pontiac and other Indian leaders referred to the return of the French, they assumed that such talk proved French provocateurs had instigated the conspiracy against British control. How else, Amherst and his colleagues wondered, could so many diverse Indian groups have acted in concert against them? The British, trapped within their understanding of the Indians as childlike, violent creatures, could not explain what had happened to them in the west unless they could stipulate a French conspiracy behind it all. They never understood that the evidently synchronized attacks were loosely coordinated local revolts, all responding to the common stimuli of conquest, white encroachment, and Amherst’s Indian policies, all animated by a religious revival with pan-Indian overtones, and all motivated by the desire to restore to North America a sympathetic European power to act as a counterpoise to the British and their numerous, aggressive colonists.15

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