Military history


The Lessons of Pontiac’s War


SO WHAT HAD IT proven, this seemingly endless protraction of the war? What did it portend? As usual, Indians and Britons and Anglo-Americans all found different lessons to learn, lessons that were by no means complementary or even mutually compatible. Pontiac himself drew a fatal conclusion. He thought that the war had earned him his enemy’s respect, and that Gage’s promise of support would establish him as a chief over all the peoples of the old pays d’en haut. He was right about the high opinion Gage and Johnson had of him, but wrong about its rewards. Seduced by the illusion that British support would enable him to lead many nations, he became only the focus of other leaders’ resentments. When the British did not follow through with the stream of gifts that were necessary to affirm his status, by which he might maintain others as his supporters, the Ottawas themselves rejected his pretensions to chieftainship. By the spring of 1768 the young men of his own village were making such sport of him that to save himself from their casual beatings he withdrew to live among his wife’s relatives in the Illinois Country. There, more isolated than ever, he lost even the ability to defend himself. On April 20, 1769, a Peoria warrior clubbed him senseless, then stabbed him to death in front of Baynton, Wharton and Morgan’s trading post at Cahokia, on the Mississippi shore opposite St. Louis. No one—not even his own sons—felt obliged to avenge Pontiac’s murder.1

Other Indian leaders learned the more reliable but equally dangerous lesson that the British could be coerced. Even if the rebel leaders had not been able to awaken and restore their French father, they could scarcely have failed to note that at the end of the war the British repealed every policy to which the Indians had objected. With the treaties of peace, diplomatic gift-giving resumed; limitations on the trade in powder, shot, and arms ended; the trade in alcohol opened once again. The Indians had forcibly instructed the newcomers in what residence in the pays d’en haut required of them and assumed that the British king and his representatives would take up the role of mediator that Onontio had abandoned.

Time would show that their faith in British goodwill was as mistaken, and ultimately as dangerous, as Pontiac’s belief in British power. The British would never mediate disputes among the Indian nations as faithfully as the French had done, nor would they control the actions of their colonists so well as the French; but in 1765 and 1766, those uncomfortable truths lay shrouded in the future. In the meantime, the Indians who had participated in the rebellion knew only that their appeal to arms had earned them substantial dividends at the cost of very few lives.2

British imperial officials derived other lessons and applied them accordingly. The illusion of military success, fostered by the supposed relief of Detroit and Pittsburgh in 1763 and the lack of effective resistance to Bradstreet’s and Bouquet’s expeditions in 1764, prevented Gage and even Johnson from understanding the war’s outcome as, in effect, a victory for the Indians. Yet neither of them was naive enough to mistake the formal acts of submission that ended the conflict for unconditional surrender. No responsible official, in America or at Whitehall, believed it possible to assert direct sovereignty as Bradstreet had tried to do, or even to reform trading practices to render the Indians docile and industrious, as Amherst had intended. Instead, despite the expenses it entailed, the British acquiesced in the resumption of diplomatic gift-giving because the Indians left them no alternative. They reopened the liquor trade both because the Indians demanded it and because alcohol seemingly offered the only means of making the Indians militarily manageable.

But most of all the war made the British authorities wonder, even before the final treaties had been concluded, whether in the future they could afford to maintain any significant military presence whatever in the west. The secretary at war, Lord Barrington, was the first to raise the question. On October 10, 1765, he wrote to Gage that, in his view, “if [the Proclamation of 1763] be right, the maintenance of forts to the westward of the line must be wrong. Why keep garrisons in a country professedly intended to be a desert?” Barrington hoped that “so old & good a friend” as Gage would advise him on what seemed to him the commonsense proposition that “difficulty of subsistance, expence of provisions, cost of fortifications etc . . . would no longer exist, if the forts were demolish’d, and the troops [withdrawn from] the west side of the line.”3

On December 18 Gage penned a long and thoughtful reply that not only foretold British policy but explained its rationale. He agreed, for reasons that had as much to do with events in Boston and New York as conditions in Detroit or Kaskaskia, that forts erected “with immense labor, and at a most amazing expence” during the Seven Years’ War, had become encumbrances in the postwar era.

The forts were maintained at the peace for the purposes of keeping the Indians in awe and subjection, and protecting the trade. The Indian insurrection, shows the first purpose was not answered. The only use they may be said now to be really of, is that they are a protection to the traders, and prevent them from defrauding the Indians, making them drunk, and setting them one against another in the manner they used to do, which brought on quarrells with the provinces, and gave the Indians the worst opinion of all the English in general.

But if “the purposes of trade, gaining the Indians to our interest and preventing them, thro’ French intrigues, from falling upon the provinces,” were sufficient to justify “maintaining forts in the Indian country; [then] it may be asked, whether these ends . . . are equivalent to the expence of keeping up the forts? This is a difficult and nice point to be decided,” and the decision depended entirely on the value of the Indian trade.

Questions of colonial defense, Gage thought, should not cloud the issue. In view of “the present temper of almost all the provinces, their scandalous behavior and ingratitude, their insolence to the whole Legislature of Great Britain, and unwillingness to contribute their quota towards the exigencies of the State,” only direct benefits to the metropolis ought to be considered: “was it not that Great Britain is a gainer by the furr trade . . . there wou’d be no difficulty in deciding at once that the forts shou’d be abandoned, and the provinces left to manage their trade, counteract the French, and defend their frontiers as well as they could . . . at their own risque and expence.” The colonists had shown themselves manifestly untrustworthy in such matters. Colonial traders had cheated the Indians, colonial speculators had chivied them out of their lands, colonial squatters had encroached on their hunting grounds. Indeed, it was to “avoid running into the same errors, [that] the present plan of forts, treating the Indians, and of circumscribing the limits of the provinces”—the Proclamation of 1763—had been adopted. So what, specifically, should be done?

Because the forts had been heavily stocked with cannon, small arms, ammunition, and other supplies, some military presence would have to be kept up, but Gage argued that it could be very modest. “If all is quiet” by spring, he believed, it would be possible to reduce the garrisons at the major forts to bare-bones levels: “Missilimakinak might be safely trusted with a garrison of 40 men, Detroit 70, Fort Erie 25, Niagara 40, Oswego 30.” At Fort Pitt, 40 men would suffice, and some troops would have to be maintained in the Illinois Country to keep French traders from ascending the Ohio to interlope among the Indians there. All the “small posts of communication,” way stations en route to these half-dozen “forts of trade,” could be abandoned. Of the half-dozen posts on the Lake George–Lake Champlain–Richelieu River corridor, only one would need to be maintained, as an arsenal to store the cannon and munitions brought from the rest. In sum, no more than 350 regulars could support the commissaries of the Indian department and maintain royal authority in the forts where the traders would do business. The region north of the Ohio would truly become the Indian country that the Proclamation of 1763 intended.4 The ceded lands south of the Ohio could be even more lightly garrisoned. Indeed they would have to be, for many of the old forts in the southwest were “tumbling down,” while Governor Johnstone of West Florida had sited his new posts on the lower Mississippi so foolishly that they “may be said, in case of a quarrell, to be caught in a trap,” and would have to be abandoned.5

To keep up a symbolic presence in the trans-Appalachian interior was all that Thomas Gage could hope to do after 1765. He was not so great a fool as to think that any of the big posts could actually be kept in repair by detachments as tiny as the ones he intended to station there. Nor was he such a naïf as to believe (as he officially maintained) that military officers and Indian department commissaries would be able to arrest or expel traders who carried their goods directly to Indian villages, as the Indians preferred, or who evaded trade regulations in other ways. Gage could only afford to keep up appearances and hope for the best. To avoid antagonizing Indian peoples whom he knew he could never subdue, he put his faith in the Proclamation of 1763 and its prohibition of white settlement beyond the Appalachian ridge. Yet he also knew that thousands of colonists already lived west of the Proclamation Line—five hundred families, as he would soon be informed, were squatting in the vicinity of Fort Pitt alone—and that his minuscule troop contingents could neither evict them nor keep the Indians from taking matters into their own hands.6

If anything was certain in the aftermath of the great insurrection, it was that the renewed surge of white settlers into Indian country would once more destabilize the west. For the lessons that backwoods settlers had extracted from the recent conflict and its predecessor, which they knew as the French and Indian War, were the clearest of all. Frontier farmers had suffered by far the heaviest casualties in both conflicts, losing two thousand or more men, women, and children killed or taken captive during the first year of the Indian war alone, and literally uncounted thousands in the greater war that had preceded it. The message of all these losses, for the colonists, could be reduced to the syllogism that lay behind the Paxton Boys’ plan to exterminate every native person in Pennsylvania: if good Indians did not harm white people, then the best Indians must be those who could do no harm, for all eternity.

THUS A VAST, successful rebellion convinced the Indians that the British could be coerced into amiable relations and left the British army with neither the ability to control the west nor the disposition to try. These circumstances in turn married the ministry and its North American army to a proclamation unenforceable against white settlers who had no intention of honoring it, and convinced the backwoodsmen that the most prudent approach to Indian relations was with charges rammed home and hammers at the half cock. Gage, who hated uncertainty almost as much as he dreaded decisions, could do no more than take note of these impending tragedies because he was preoccupied with disorders that had erupted unexpectedly, literally outside his own front door. For in fact the most pressing problems that the commander in chief faced by late 1765 were no longer in the potentially explosive west, where so many of his troops were stationed. They were in actually exploding settlements up and down the whole Atlantic seaboard, where riots threatened to collapse the structure of imperial governance, and where Thomas Gage had scarcely any troops at all.

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