Military history

CHAPTER 64

Pontiac’s Progress

1764-1765

ALTHOUGH NO ONE at army headquarters in New York quite grasped the fact, it was less Indian recalcitrance than British policy that sustained the insurrection beyond the end of 1763. Pontiac offered Major Gladwin peace when he suspended the siege of Detroit in October. Gladwin accepted a truce but could not negotiate because he lacked the proper authority; all Indian diplomacy lay in the province of Sir William Johnson, whom Amherst in turn had instructed to make no treaty until the rebellious Indians had been properly “chastised.” When the sieges of 1763 petered out in cease-fires, a commander without Amherst’s visceral need to put the Indians in their place might well have seized the opportunity to make peace. Having not suffered Amherst’s reversals and lacking his thirst for revenge, Major General Thomas Gage should have been able to put a prompt end to the bloodshed. But for reasons both technical and psychological Gage adhered to Amherst’s plans for the campaigns of 1764, and that, together with the predictable array of unpredictable misfortunes, postponed the return of peace for more than a year.

Because Egremont had cloaked Amherst’s dismissal in the pretext that the king needed his opinions on America, Gage became commander in chief ad interim only. Until the ministry decided to make his appointment a permanent one, Gage remained technically Amherst’s subordinate, and bound by his orders. In practice, of course, Gage could alter campaign plans as he needed, and did indeed make a few changes. That he chose to adhere to the bulk of Amherst’s instructions in 1764 had less to do with the requirements of military subordination than with a propensity for indecision. Gage had been in America since 1755 and in that time had shown a variety of admirable personal qualities, but not one of them outweighed a deep innate caution, born above all of a lack of imagination. He had proven his physical courage as the lieutenant colonel of the 44th Regiment at the Monongahela, and his capacities as a disciplinarian when he rebuilt the battalion in the months following the disaster. He had shown ambition in campaigning for a regiment of his own and perseverance in enduring repeated disappointments before receiving his colonelcy in 1758. And he had demonstrated initiative: his superiors finally decided to create his new regiment, the 80th Light Infantry, because he convinced them that it could replace the army’s expensive, ill-disciplined ranger companies. But while soldiers from the 80th entered the abatis at Ticonderoga alongside the rangers and fought as bravely as they in that impossible situation, the regiment never did supplant them. Gage simply lacked the expertise and imagination to train his troops as anything but conventional infantrymen.

In 1759 Amherst took more account of Gage’s seniority than his temperament and assigned him the command of a small expedition against the fort that guarded the upper St. Lawrence, La Galette. But instead of striking downriver from Lake Ontario to divert pressure from Wolfe at Québec, Gage fretted over the lack of intelligence concerning French troop strength, hesitated, and finally sat tight at Oswego. Amherst could not forgive this failure of nerve. Assigning Gage the ignominious station of rear guard commander in the invasion year of 1760, Amherst immured him at Montréal as governor thereafter. At Montréal, however, Gage finally found his forte, administering the region with patience, honesty, good humor, and careful attention to detail. By the time he inherited the office of commander in chief and the major generalship that went with it, he had demonstrated high competency as a bureaucrat and earned a reputation for personal decency. Yet as the pattern of his career suggested, he was always more lucky than insightful, more stolid than bold, more cautious than creative. At forty-three, Thomas Gage was too old to love risk. It probably never occurred to him to depart from the course his angry, confident predecessor had charted.1

Amherst planned to punish the western Indians as he had once punished the Cherokee nation. He had asked New York to raise 1,400 troops and New Jersey 600, while requesting 1,000 from Pennsylvania and 500 from Virginia: in all 3,500 provincials to be divided between two regular colonels and used to support the small number of available redcoats in a matched set of expeditions. In the north, Colonel John Bradstreet was to lead a bateau-borne force from Fort Niagara across Lake Erie to Detroit, chastising whatever Indians remained in arms and sending detachments to reopen posts as far west as Michilimackinac and Green Bay. In the Ohio Country, Colonel Henry Bouquet had orders to march westward from Fort Pitt to the valleys of the Muskingum and the Scioto, subduing the Delaware, Mingo, and Shawnee villages there—the hard core of Indian resistance in the west. Bradstreet and Bouquet were to devastate all resisting settlements, liberate white captives, subject rebellious chiefs to British authority, and dispatch representatives from the defeated tribes to New York, where Sir William Johnson would dictate terms of peace. While all this was taking place, regulars from West Florida were to ascend the Mississippi and occupy Fort de Chartres and the trading posts in the Illinois Country, depriving the western Indians of French aid and encouragement. Gage altered the plan by adding 300 Canadian bateaumen and 1,600 New England provincials but otherwise did not tamper with Amherst’s outline.2

Little worked out as intended. In the first place, Major Arthur Loftus and his detachment from the 22nd Regiment never left West Florida. Hostile Tunicas, not allied to the Illinois tribes but nonetheless unwilling to see the British replace the French upriver, blocked their advance on the lower Mississippi and sent them packing back to Mobile. Second, the colonies proved slow or unwilling to contribute provincials to the expeditions. Arguing that the Currency Act made it impossible to finance the necessary expenditures, the House of Burgesses refused to authorize a new Virginia Regiment. New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts all declined to raise men on the grounds that the Indians’ peace overtures rendered all expeditions unnecessary. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut came up with fewer than half the number asked. After a long dispute over the terms on which the expedition would be financed, Pennsylvania finally met its thousand-man quota, but the troops were slow to muster and quick to desert. Fewer than seven hundred Pennsylvanians, together with a couple hundred mounted Virginia volunteers (whom Bouquet enlisted on his own initiative and whom the Burgesses refused to pay), actually made it to Fort Pitt. They arrived only in mid-September, preventing Bouquet from opening his campaign until October 3. On that day he had just fifteen hundred men under his command—three-quarters of the number he had expected. 3

The northern expedition fell even further shy of its planned strength. Gage had promised Bradstreet more than 4,000 regulars and provincials. By the time Bradstreet left Niagara in August, he had 1,400 men: 300 redcoats drafted from the 17th Regiment, still weak from the Havana campaign; 300 New Yorkers; 250 Connecticut provincials; 240 Jersey Blues; and 300 Canadian bateaumen. Bradstreet, however, started his campaign with one inestimable advantage over Bouquet. About five hundred Indian warriors, representing most of the nations that had been in arms against the British the previous year, accompanied him as auxiliaries.4

That Bradstreet’s expedition included so many Indians resulted from the only significant departure Gage had been willing to make from Amherst’s plans: he had allowed Sir William Johnson to convene a peace congress on July 11 at Fort Niagara. Amherst had instructed Johnson to agree to peace only “when the Indians, who have Committed the Hostilities, are Sufficiently Punished.” Johnson barely waited for the Weasel to clear Paulus Hook before he began pressing the new commander in chief to let him dispatch emissaries announcing Britain’s willingness to treat for peace. Gage hesitated, then assented. By spring, Johnson’s messengers had fanned out across the pays d’en haut, spreading the word that the superintendent would kindle a council fire at Niagara. If the Indians who attended agreed to bury the hatchet, the British would “fill their canoes with presents; with blankets, kettles, guns, gunpowder and shot, and large barrels of rum, such as the stoutest [man] will not be able to lift.”5

The response was enormous beyond expectation. Warriors from nineteen nations attended, numbering more than two thousand: in Johnson’s estimation “the largest Number of Indians perhaps ever Assembled on any occasion,” and a concourse equal to the great gathering at Fort Carillon in 1757. The Indians included representatives from every hostile tribe except the Potawatomies, Delawares, and Shawnees. A few notable warriors, including Pontiac, absented themselves, but this seemed only to suggest the extent to which their nations had repudiated them. The chiefs were eager to resume trade and welcomed the terms that Johnson proposed: returning white captives, severing relations with Indians who remained hostile, compensating traders whose stocks had been lost during the rebellion, guaranteeing the safety of the traders who would soon be coming among them, and submitting whatever disputes might arise to Johnson or to the commandant of Detroit for settlement. To prove that Amherst’s policies were indeed dead, Johnson distributed a phenomenal quantity of presents—worth about £38,000 sterling—and, significantly, ended the prohibition on alcohol sales.6

When Bradstreet left on August 7 in the wake of the great peace congress, he believed that his task would consist not of carrying fire and sword from Niagara to Michilimackinac but rather of accepting the submission of a few remaining hostile bands. At least he hoped so. His force consisted of untrained provincials and sickly regulars, and his own health was hardly robust: an obscure debilitating ailment had felled him in May, and even in late July he could not walk unaided. When ten Indian chiefs approached his camp near Presque Isle on August 12 under a flag of truce, therefore, Bradstreet’s spirits soared. Representing themselves as ambassadors from the Wyandots of Sandusky, Delawares, Shawnees, Mingos, and Munsees—the “Five Nations of Indians inhabiting the Plains in Scioto”—they asked for peace. Bradstreet replied with terms like those Johnson had offered at Niagara. The Indians were to cease all hostile activity immediately; to deliver all white prisoners to him in twenty-five days’ time, at Sandusky Bay on Lake Erie; to send all Indians who subsequently killed or plundered whites to Fort Pitt for trial; and to leave hostages with his force pending fulfillment of the terms, while taking an officer and an Indian interpreter of his army along with them as they carried the peace terms back to their villages. In return the colonel promised to inform his superiors of the agreement and prevent Bouquet’s expedition from devastating the villages in the Ohio Country. 7

Sending Gage word of his negotiations, Bradstreet proceeded on what looked, with every passing day, more like a triumphal progress than a military expedition. As Indian bands met him and offered their submission he told them to meet him at Detroit in early September for a grand treaty conference. Confident that he was witnessing the last collapse of the rebellion, on August 26 he detached Captain Thomas Morris of the 17th Regiment and sent him up the Maumee River with a small escort and orders to proceed to the Illinois Country and assume command there. If he encountered Pontiac along the way, Morris was to tell him to meet Bradstreet at Sandusky, where the colonel would await the delivery of the Delaware, Shawnee, and other prisoners. Bradstreet assumed he was on the threshold of pacifying the entire American interior.8

When, in the last days of August, Bradstreet accomplished the formal relief of Major Gladwin’s weary garrison and sent detachments on to reoccupy Michilimackinac and Fort Edward Augustus, he believed he had completed the mission that Gage had assigned. When he turned to the diplomatic task of confirming the peace with the assembled Indian representatives on September 5, however, he responded less to his orders than to the volatile combination of grandiosity and greed that had always defined his personality. The consequences would prove damaging to peace and deadly to Bradstreet’s blossoming ambition to make himself overlord of the Great Lakes.

Long before leaving Fort Niagara, the colonel had seen his expedition as an opportunity to serve himself as well as his king, and therefore he had stowed a considerable quantity of trade goods belonging to himself and some business partners among the barrels of army stores destined for Detroit. But while in July he probably aspired only to make a tidy fortune in the revived Indian trade, the disintegration of Indian resistance reawakened an older dream. Since 1755, when Bradstreet had first seen Oswego and understood the pays d’en haut as a potential empire with himself at its center, he had promoted schemes to establish a “dominion of the lakes”—quietly at first, publicly after his triumph at Fort Frontenac in 1758. He had been frustrated then, but now it seemed that the dream lay within his grasp. To seize it he inserted an unprecedented article in the treaty he presented to the assembled chiefs of the Ottawas, Chippewas, Hurons, Miamis, Potawatomis, and Mississaugas. Calling the Indians not only the “Children” of George III, but his “Subjects,” the treaty proclaimed His Majesty’s “Sovereignty Over all and every part of this Coun[try, in as] full and as ample a manner as in any part of his Dominions whatever.” The chiefs made their marks, but it is impossible to believe that they fully understood that Bradstreet intended to subordinate them to a degree that no Indian people had ever willingly accepted.9

The colonel’s design at Detroit became unmistakable only later, when he reported to Whitehall on the peace conference and explained that by the terms of the treaty “His Majesty may in Justice and the ordinary Exertion of his Prerogative make what Grants of those Lands he pleases, & erect such Governments as in His Royal Wisdom he sees meet.” That he had both grants and the erection of a government in mind subsequently became clear when he and “Sixty Officers Serving in the upper Lakes this Campaign” petitioned for a hundred thousand acres at Detroit, on which they promised to settle 639 families. This settlement, Bradstreet explained, would become the heart of an inland Crown colony that he himself was the man best suited to govern: a place to which the French from the Illinois Country could be relocated and kept under the vigilant eye of a regiment officered by Bradstreet’s fellow applicants, and where the Indians of the Great Lakes might be taught the arts of husbandry that would give them a “Secure Subsistence.” Detroit’s geographical advantages, Bradstreet argued, conferred present strategic value and foretold future greatness. It was far enough west to dominate the fur trade of the interior, bypassing the scheming, unreliable Six Nations and insuring that the Indians of the lakes and the upper midwest would not take their peltry to the Spanish and French traders beyond the Mississippi. Once “properly settled,” Detroit would be a “strong barrier” against future insurrections and a source of foodstuffs to ease the chronic “want of provisions” among the Indians. It would become the keystone of a stable American interior, a jewel in Britain’s imperial crown.10

The vision that shimmered before his eyes blinded Bradstreet to the more immediate consequences of his actions at the conference—and nearly destroyed him. Mistaking momentary advantage for control, he behaved more like a conqueror than the mediating “father” whom the Indians had come to Detroit to find. While there is every reason to think that they did not understand the clause in the treaty that conferred on them the new status of subjects, they could not have mistaken the import of Bradstreet’s response to the peace belt that Pontiac sent to Detroit in lieu of his own attendance. Professing outrage that the Ottawa had not come to make his submission in person, the colonel seized a hatchet, chopped the belt into pieces, and ordered the wampum cast into the river. Bradstreet intended to destroy Pontiac’s dignity. By failing to understand that what he did was “roughly equivalent to a European ambassador’s urinating on a proposed treaty,” however, he chopped his own credibility to bits, restoring stature to an Indian leader whose own people had largely repudiated him.11

The man who unwittingly drowned the hope of peace in the Detroit River along with the shards of Pontiac’s wampum began to see his dream fall apart soon after the conference ended. On September 12 the first of several letters arrived from Gage, informing him that he had exceeded his authority in concluding a peace treaty at Presque Isle and that he was now to abandon his agreement, move overland against the Shawnee and Delaware villages on the Scioto, and “use every means . . . to destroy them.” Bradstreet, Gage had written, was to accept no offers of peace until the offending Indians had delivered up “Ten of the Chief promoters of the War, to be put to Death.” Only then could he agree to a truce and send their delegates “in a proper manner to Sir William Johnson to sue for peace.”12

Disconcerted as much by the unexpected rebuke as by the impossible orders, Bradstreet responded with a self-justifying letter (the first of a long series), then hastened to Sandusky Bay, where he expected the captives whom the Shawnee, Delaware, and other ambassadors had promised to deliver. The colonel was no stranger to tight spots or, for that matter, to his superiors’ distrust. Always before, he had produced the successes that silenced his critics, transforming official censures into (at least grudging) approval. All he needed to improve Gage’s temper was to return with the prisoners.

But no prisoners came to Sandusky. More letters did instead, and between them and the increasingly obvious fact that the Shawnees and Delawares would never bring in the captives, Bradstreet could see the looming outlines of disaster. The worst news came from Captain Morris, who never made it to Illinois. Before his party had paddled twenty miles up the Maumee River they met Pontiac. Although he had not yet abandoned his faith in the return of the French king, he listened to Morris’s addresses and agreed to send a peace belt up to Bradstreet at Detroit. He also promised Morris safe passage to the Illinois Country, sending an escort with wampum to ease his way. But farther upriver Morris found that Pontiac’s good offices mattered little. A band of Miami warriors that had lately accepted a war belt from the Ohio Indians seized him and tied him to a stake. They were at the point of torturing him to death when their chief, a kinsman of Pontiac’s, dissuaded them and took Morris into his lodge. At the earliest opportunity the shaken captain fled overland to Detroit. There, describing his adventures to Bradstreet, Morris argued that while Pontiac might be useful, it seemed clear that the Indians’ peace overtures at Presque Isle had been a ruse. “A mine is Laid, & the Match Lighted to blow us up. The Senecas, Shawnese, & Delawares, have sent their war belts to all the Nations; who only wait the signal for a General Attack.”13

Bradstreet heard other fuses sizzle and hiss in the letters that arrived at Sandusky. From Gage and Bouquet, he learned that the Ohio Indians had not stopped attacking the Pennsylvania backcountry after the Presque Isle treaty; if anything, the pace of the raids had picked up. Gage, with increasing asperity, was ordering him to move his men up the Sandusky River, to cross to the Scioto Valley, and then descend on the Shawnee villages from the north, while Bouquet marched west from Pittsburgh against the Delawares. But this was not possible. The commander in chief, as heedless of western distances as of the water levels in the late-summer rivers, probably did not understand that he was in effect requiring Bradstreet’s men to march two hundred miles overland, through a roadless forest, without even pack animals to haul supplies. The colonel, trapped between the knowledge of what happened to officers who disobeyed direct orders and the certainty that Gage had ordered a suicide mission, sat tight at Sandusky. He spent the remainder of the campaign ineffectually imploring his Indian allies to attack the Delawares and Shawnees and writing long defensive letters to Gage. Meanwhile his men gobbled up supplies and sickened with fevers, while the provincials among them anticipated the campaign’s end with the usual loss of subordination. On October 18, dismayed and disillusioned, Bradstreet finally ordered a return to Niagara—and found disaster stretched across his path. On the first night out, a sudden storm destroyed half the expedition’s boats. Bradstreet abandoned his artillery, sent a hundred or so Iroquois warriors back on foot, packed the remaining troops into what bateaux could still float, and limped onward. But the weather worsened and progress slowed to a crawl. Food ran short, and boat after leaky boat had to be abandoned; finally, he set hundreds of men ashore to march home “without a morsel of Provisions.” It was November 3 before the surviving bateaux and their battered oarsmen reached Little Niagara. Those who had been forced to return on foot—the ones who did not starve to death or die of exposure—straggled in for weeks thereafter. When the Six Nations warriors whom Bradstreet had initially abandoned returned, they attacked the guards on the Niagara portage, nearly severing communications with Detroit once again.14

By the time Bradstreet’s expedition crawled home, Colonel Henry Bouquet was concluding an altogether more successful campaign in the Ohio Country. After agonizing delays in assembling men, packhorses, supplies, cattle, and drovers, Bouquet finally marched from Fort Pitt on October 3, following the Ohio to the mouth of Big Beaver Creek and then striking cross-country for the Muskingum. Unlike the previous year, when he had blundered into a deadly trap at Bushy Run, Bouquet moved his force with great attention to security, making no mistakes. Mapping the country and clearing roadways as they went, Bouquet’s men marched about eighty miles before word arrived that “the head men of the Delawares and Shawanese were coming as soon as possible to treat of peace.”15

Bouquet ordered trenches dug and stockades thrown up near the Muskingum and awaited the arrival of the chiefs. From October 17 through October 20 he treated with them, offering essentially the same terms Bradstreet had offered and allowing them twelve days to bring in their white captives as a sign of goodwill. That interval gave him enough time to relocate his camp to a strong point in the very heart of the Delaware towns: “so that from this place the army had it in their power to awe all the enemy’s settlements and destroy their towns, if they should not punctually fulfil the engagements they had entered into.” There, a mile above the forks of the Muskingum, Bouquet’s troops built a fortified camp like “a little town in which the greatest order and regularity were observed,” stoutly defended by entrenchments and “four redoubts” with cannon. By November 9, the Mingos and Delawares had brought in over two hundred whites, while the Shawnees, whose main settlement lay on the Scioto eighty miles further west, promised to deliver their prisoners to Fort Pitt the following spring. After informing the chiefs that they would need to travel to Johnson Hall and confirm the peace by official treaty, Bouquet withdrew. By November 28, without firing a shot in anger, his little army was back at Fort Pitt, and peace in the Ohio Valley seemed secure.16

In his report on the year’s campaigns, Gage credited Bouquet’s “firm and steady Conduct . . . in all his Transactions with those Treacherous Savages” with restoring order in the west. He admitted that Bradstreet had suffered more severe problems but nonetheless felt justified in observing that “the Country is restored to it’s former Tranquility; and that a general, and it’s to be hoped, lasting Peace is concluded, with all the Indian Nations, who have lately taken up Arms against His Majesty.” 17 And yet the peace was neither so general nor so secure as Gage suggested, and it had less to do with firm and steady conduct than with the fact that the French commander in the Illinois Country had refused to provide the Indians with ammunition and arms. The French traders who had been supplying powder and shot had exhausted most of their stock and expected to be well paid for what they had left. Under these circumstances, most Indian groups north of the Ohio and east of the Wabash found it difficult to go on believing in the return of Onontio, who seemed so indifferent to their efforts. They simply found it more convenient to exchange their French father for a British one, and to trade their pelts and hides for British goods that were cheaper and more plentiful than those of the French anyway.

This willingness to bury the hatchet was far from universal. From the Scioto Valley to the Mississippi, significant leaders and their supporters remained unsubdued. Bradstreet’s destruction of Pontiac’s peace belt had only solidified the Ottawa chief’s support among western Indians who still believed that the French king could be reawakened. In the Illinois Country, a half-German Catholic Shawnee named Charlot Kaské was rising to prominence as a war chief far more determined to resist the British than Pontiac. Thus the peace agreements of 1764 did not eliminate resistance so much as shift its center of gravity westward. Bringing Pontiac to terms and establishing control in Illinois therefore preoccupied Gage and Johnson in 1765, and neither task proved easy.

The expense of Bouquet’s and Bradstreet’s expeditions made it imperative to assert British authority over the far west by diplomatic means. Bouquet and Bradstreet both advised Gage that no fewer than three thousand men would be needed to pacify Illinois militarily, and that was simply too great a financial burden to bear for the commander in chief, whose budgets were already running 150 percent above authorized levels. The problems Major Loftus had encountered trying to ascend the Mississippi dictated, moreover, that the initial attempts to be made to reach the Illinois Country had best come by way of the Ohio. In January 1765, Gage accordingly sent a message to Pontiac, inviting him to help arrange a peaceful transfer of power from French to British occupation in the west, in effect asking a man who was still his enemy to become his partner. To follow up on this initiative, Gage authorized two separate diplomatic missions to the Illinois Country. The first party to make the attempt, led by Lieutenant John Ross of the 34th Regiment and an interpreter, Hugh Crawford, crossed overland from Mobile to the lower Ohio and reached Fort de Chartres in mid-February. They found the commandant, Captain Louis Groston Saint-Ange de Bellerive, to be most cooperative. The local Indians, by contrast, proved remarkably hostile. Ross and Crawford fled for their lives in April.18

While Ross and Crawford were paddling furiously down the Mississippi, the leader of the second mission, George Croghan, was still a month away from leaving Fort Pitt. Delay and misfortune had plagued him from the start. Upon his return from London, late in 1764, the tireless Irishman had pressed Gage to let him try to open the Illinois Country. Sir William Johnson strongly endorsed the scheme. Gage, of course, had no way of knowing that Croghan intended not only to make peace but to scout the region for his colonizing scheme and corner its fur trade for his business partners in the Philadelphia firm of Baynton, Wharton and Morgan. Gage was, however, well aware of Croghan’s reputation as an Indian diplomat and late in 1764 allowed him two thousand pounds to purchase Indian presents. Croghan, as always, took the bottom line as his starting point. By late winter, when he left Philadelphia, he had spent nearly five thousand pounds on diplomatic gifts for the journey, virtually all of which he had bought either from Baynton, Wharton and Morgan, or from himself (after first setting up a penniless cousin as a merchant, to front the transaction). In addition to these supplies, which would be transported to Fort Pitt at Crown expense, Baynton, Wharton and Morgan shipped out an additional twenty thousand pounds’ worth of goods to accompany the expedition and reprime the pump of the western trade. This occasioned the first disaster of the trip.

Before the firm’s pack train had crossed Cumberland County on the Forbes Road, the local Scotch-Irish settlers learned that its panniers contained large numbers of skinning—in their view, scalping—knives. Following a Paxtonite policy of direct action, the frontiersmen organized themselves into a mob, blacked their faces, and destroyed or stole eighty horse loads of supplies; then they closed the road and besieged Fort Ligonier, to which the packhorse drivers had fled to save their lives. This left Croghan, already at Fort Pitt, in a particularly embarrassing position. Why, Gage angrily inquired, had massive quantities of Indian trade goods, including weapons and ammunition, been labeled as Crown property and directed for delivery to him—at a fort where the Indian trade was still under official embargo? 19

Croghan brazened it out. In the face of massive evidence to the contrary, he denied that he had any private interest in Baynton, Wharton and Morgan’s venture. He had, he maintained, merely permitted them to ship certain items to Fort Pitt to be stored until the embargo was lifted. With Johnson arguing vigorously in his defense, Gage finally let Croghan off with a reprimand, but it took all of March and April to convince him that the Irishman should be allowed to proceed. By then the expedition’s military liaison, Lieutenant Alexander Fraser of the 78th Regiment, had lost patience and left for Illinois on his own. Croghan had advised Fraser to stay at Fort Pitt until he could confer with the Mingos, Delawares, and Shawnees downriver, and arrange safe passage through their country. The Shawnees, he explained, particularly had to be cultivated; as the nation located farthest west in the Ohio Country, they had the strongest ties with the peoples of the Wabash Valley and the Illinois, with whom the British had not yet made contact. Shawnee goodwill was thus crucial, but far from certain: the most incorrigible of the rebellious tribes, they still had not brought in the captives they had promised Bouquet the previous fall. But nothing could dissuade Fraser, who recruited a boatload of volunteers to row him down a thousand miles of dubious water and left Pittsburgh on March 22. Croghan stayed on at Pittsburgh, writing disingenuous letters, making preparations, and waiting for the chiefs of the Ohio nations to appear.

Unlike everything else that spring, George Croghan’s Indian conference went remarkably well, once it finally convened on May 7. The Shawnee delegates not only brought in their prisoners and agreed to dispatch ambassadors to make a formal peace with Sir William Johnson, but assigned ten chiefs to accompany Croghan as a gesture of good faith. But Indian diplomacy remained, as ever, a ticklish and time-consuming business, and it was May 15 before Croghan and his two bateaux, laden with gifts, were afloat on the Ohio. By then Lieutenant Fraser was already in Illinois—with his neck on the chopping block.20

He had reached Fort de Chartres on April 17, not long after Ross and Crawford fled. Chances are good he would have been killed straightaway if Pontiac had not arrived at the fort just ahead of him. The Ottawa chief, notwithstanding the uncertainty Bradstreet had created at Detroit the previous year, was once again ready to make peace. Pontiac was not, in fact, the domineering civil leader that Gage and Johnson and the other British officials imagined him to be, but only one of many war chiefs. He was also a visionary whose views had long since been rejected by most of his own people in favor of peace and open trade. Bradstreet’s rashness had enabled Pontiac to retain a following among western Indians who kept their faith in Onontio’s return, or at least hoped to stall the British advance short of the Illinois Country. But in the months since Bradstreet’s blunder, Pontiac’s own faith in the French had faded. In contrast to the polite refusal of Captain Saint-Ange and other officials to deal with him, Gage’s message of January had offered him the chance to become the most powerful Indian leader in America, for the letter promised him a kind of supreme chieftainship of the western Indians in return for his help in gaining control of the Illinois Country. Thus Pontiac listened closely to Fraser’s unpracticed oratory, with its unmistakable offers of peace and partnership; heard Saint-Ange say, once again, that the French father wanted his Indian children to end their war; and replied that he was willing to bury the hatchet. That was all there was to it. Less than a week after Fraser’s arrival, everything seemed settled. The delighted lieutenant, unaware of the tenuousness of his position, bought brandy and ordered a bullock slaughtered for a feast in Pontiac’s honor. A delegation of chiefs set out to meet Croghan and escort him to the settlement of Kaskaskia, south of Fort de Chartres, where Pontiac and Fraser would await him, while wampum belts were prepared to confirm the peace.

But the politics of Indian resistance were more complex, and the peoples of the Illinois Country more divided, than a lieutenant infatuated with his own success could have dreamed. In early May it was not George Croghan but Charlot Kaské who came to Kaskaskia, and his coming set Alexander Fraser’s scheme on its ear. He had been to New Orleans to seek aid from Charles Philippe Aubry, the French officer deputed to govern Louisiana until its permanent Spanish governor should appear. Aubry had discountenanced further hostilities and refused to make a gift of arms and ammunition, but he did permit a convoy of trade goods, which included a substantial supply of gunpowder, to accompany Charlot Kaské back up the Mississippi. Aubry intended to help the traders of the Illinois dodge the importation duties that the Spanish were sure to impose when Louisiana changed hands. In actuality, however, he helped Charlot Kaské, for the convoy gave the chief an opportunity to misrepresent his true position. Saying that the governor had encouraged resistance to the British, and pointing as evidence to the kegs of powder in the boats, Charlot Kaské instantly undercut Pontiac’s agreement and put the lives of Fraser and his party in extreme peril. Fraser’s—for that matter, Pontiac’s—hopes now rested entirely on Croghan’s arrival. But once more Croghan did not come. The chiefs who had gone to the mouth of the Wabash to await him returned, angry at being sent on a fool’s errand. By the end of May, Pontiac could no longer protect Fraser and confessed that he and his few remaining followers would soon have to return to their villages. Fraser therefore wrote hasty letters to Croghan and the commandant of Fort Detroit, attesting to Pontiac’s cooperation; handed them over to the Ottawa chief; and took to his canoe. He fled down the Mississippi on May 29.21

But Pontiac lingered at Kaskaskia, delayed by the unexpected arrival of yet another British emissary, Pierce Acton Sinnott. Sinnott, representing the southern Indian superintendent, John Stuart, had come from West Florida without any inkling of the state of affairs in Illinois. The ablest Indian diplomat would have found his prospects slim, but the inexperienced and “fractious” Sinnott—who a contemporary described as “a stranger to the art of pleasing”—fared even worse than Lieutenant Fraser. Within a few days he, too, ran for his life; but not before he had a chance to open a letter from George Croghan, which an Indian messenger brought on June 14. That letter, written at a camp near the mouth of the Wabash a week earlier, revealed that Croghan’s party would soon reach Kaskaskia. News of Croghan’s impending arrival could hardly have filled Pontiac with hope, but he decided to remain a few days longer anyway. The next news to arrive explained that Croghan would not be coming, after all. He had, Pontiac learned, encountered unexpected obstacles within a few hours of sending his letter of June 7. Perhaps only Pontiac could have seen that what befell Croghan on June 8 would give him one last chance to readjust the balance that had lately weighed so heavily against him.22

Croghan’s trip down the Ohio had been a leisurely, calm one, lulling the agent and his companions into a false sense of ease. Even if they had been on their guard, however, they could scarcely have stood off a sudden, early morning assault by eighty Kickapoo and Mascouten warriors, followers of Charlot Kaské. The attack left three Shawnee chiefs and two of Croghan’s servants dead. Only three men in the party escaped injury; Croghan himself sustained a dangerous hatchet wound in the head. The survivors expected to be tortured to death after the attack, and almost certainly would have been, had not one wounded Shawnee ambassador spoken up. Playing to the hilt his role as a doomed man, he taunted his captors with threats of his own. They were dead men, he said; his people, who had become friends with the British, would fall with fury on the Kickapoos and Mascoutens to avenge the killing of their chiefs. Unsettled, the warriors decided to spare the lives of their captives long enough to carry them up the Wabash to Vincennes and Ouiatenon, where they could consult with French traders and seek the counsel of their own leaders.

As they traveled, Croghan gradually recovered his strength, and as soon as he was able to talk, he too began playing on his captors’ fears. So, for that matter, did the people in the villages they passed along the way, none of whom wanted a war with the Shawnees, especially when Croghan made it clear that they would come with British backing and illimitable supplies of arms and ammunition. By the time the party reached Ouiatenon, 250 miles upriver from the site of the attack, the warriors themselves were convinced that they had made a terrible mistake, and they did not demur when the civil chiefs of the village set Croghan and the other captives free. On July 1, the leaders of the five Wabash peoples (the Kickapoos, Mascoutens, Miamis, Piankashaws, and Weas) asked the Irishman to mediate a settlement that would avoid further bloodshed. Croghan, happily noting that “a thick Scull is of Service on some Occasions,” agreed to write the necessary letters and sponsor the necessary talks.23

When news of the attack reached Kaskaskia, Charlot Kaské immediately sent word to have Croghan burned, but Pontiac—recognizing a chance to act as a mediator and recover lost influence—gathered up a delegation of Mingos, Delawares, and Shawnees, and set out for Ouiatenon. There, in July, the five nations of the Wabash renounced Charlot Kaské’s leadership and asked Pontiac to represent them in meetings with Croghan. Irishman and Ottawa had no trouble in recognizing their opportunity and quickly made the most of it. In councils held at Ouiatenon in July and at Detroit in August, Pontiac and the chiefs of the Wabash Indians made their peace with the British. Pontiac’s sole condition, which he knew would be necessary if the Illinois nations were to tolerate British garrisons on their lands, was that the British promise to occupy the Illinois posts as the French had, as tenants abjuring all claims to the surrounding territory, and even to the ground on which the forts stood. Croghan—disingenuously, since he had no intention of giving up his own scheme to colonize Illinois—raised no objections. Pontiac still had to travel to New York and formalize the treaty with Sir William Johnson. Croghan knew that the northern superintendent could disallow the article then, once the redcoats were in place, without risk.

As soon as the preliminaries had been completed, Croghan notified Gage that troops could safely be sent to take post in the Illinois Country. The first unit, a hundred Highlanders of the 42nd Regiment from Fort Pitt under Captain Thomas Stirling, reached Fort de Chartres on October 9, 1765. With no small relief Saint-Ange handed over the crumbling post and withdrew his troops to a more promising site across the river, the new village of St. Louis. Most of the habitants and traders went along, preferring life as Spanish subjects to military rule by the British. Charlot Kaské gathered his followers to waylay Stirling’s detachment on the lower Ohio, in one last attempt to stop the invaders. But soon it became clear that the French traders would offer no more aid, while the Wabash tribes would take no action that might invite Shawnee and British retaliation. Thus Charlot Kaské followed the French across the river in the fall of 1765, the last leader of the great rebellion that the British always misunderstood as Pontiac’s: a rebel unable to accept, as Pontiac finally did, a British father in the stead of Onontio, who would never wake again. 24

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!