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Detroit Once More

While Fort Pitt was holding out against the Ohio Indians, and Bouquet was forcing his way through the defiles of the Alleghanies to its relief, Fort Detroit was still in a state of siege. The defeat of Dalyell's force at Bloody Run had given the Indians a greater degree of confidence. They had not dared, however, to make a general assault, but had merely kept the garrison aware of their presence by desultory and irritating attacks.

Nothing of importance took place until September 3. On this day the little "Gladwyn", which had gone to the Niagara with dispatches, entered the Detroit River on her return trip. She was in charge of Captain Horst, who was assisted by Jacobs as mate, and a crew of ten men. There were likewise on board six Iroquois Indians. It was a calm morning; and as the vessel lay with idly flapping sails waiting for a wind, the Iroquois asked permission to stretch their limbs on shore. Horst foolishly granted their request, and as soon as they had made a landing they disappeared into the forest, and no doubt hurried to Pontiac's warriors to let them know how weakly manned was the schooner. The weather continued calm, and by nightfall the "Gladwyn" was still nine miles below the fort. As darkness fell on that moonless night, the captain, alarmed at the flight of the Iroquois, posted a careful guard and had his cannon at bow and stern made ready to resist attack. So dark was the night that it was impossible to discern objects at any distance. Along the black shore Indians were gathering, and soon a fleet of canoes containing over three hundred warriors was slowly and silently moving towards the becalmed "Gladwyn". So noiseless was their approach that they were within a few yards of the vessel before a watchful sentry, the boatswain, discerned them. At his warning cry the crew leapt to their quarters. The bow gun thundered out, and its flash gave the little band on the boat a momentary glimpse of a horde of painted enemies. There was no time to reload the gun. The canoes were all about the schooner, and yelling warriors were clambering over the stern and bow and swarming on the deck. The crew discharged their muskets into the savages, and then seized spears and hatchets and rushed madly at them, striking and stabbing --determined at least to sell their lives dearly. For a moment the Indians in the black darkness shrank back from the fierce attack. But already Horst was killed and several of the crew were down with mortal wounds. The vessel seemed lost when Jacobs--a daredevil seaman--now in command, ordered his men to blow up the vessel. A Wyandot brave with some knowledge of English caught the words and shouted a warning to his comrades. In an instant every warrior was over the side of the vessel, paddling or swimming to get to safety. When morning broke, not an Indian was to be seen, and the little "Gladwyn" sailed in triumph to Fort Detroit. So greatly was the gallantry of her crew appreciated that Amherst had a special medal struck and given to each of the survivors.

Meanwhile, at Niagara, supplies were being conveyed over the portage between the lower landing (now Lewiston) and Fort Schlosser, in readiness for transport to the western posts. The Seneca claimed the territory about Niagara, and the invasion of their land had greatly irritated them. They particularly resented the act of certain squatters who, without their consent, had settled along the Niagara portage. Fort Niagara was too strong to be taken by assault; but the Seneca hoped, by biding their time, to strike a deadly blow against parties conveying goods over the portage. The opportunity came on September 14. On this day a sergeant and twenty-eight men were engaged in escorting down to the landing a wagon-train and pack-horses which had gone up to Fort Schlosser the day before loaded with supplies. The journey up the river had been successfully made, and the party were returning, off their guard and without the slightest thought of danger. But their every movement had been watched by Indian scouts; and, at the Devil's Hole, a short distance below the falls, five hundred warriors lay in ambush. Slowly the returning provision-train wound its way along the bank of the Niagara. On the right were high cliffs, thickly wooded; on the left a precipice, whose base was fretted by the furious river. In the ears of the soldiers and drivers sounded the thunderous roar of the mighty cataract. As men and horses threaded their way past the Devil's Hole savage yells burst from the thick wood on their right, and simultaneously a fusillade from a hundred muskets. The terrified horses sprang over the cliffs, dragging wagons and drivers with them. When the smoke cleared and the savages rushed forward, not a living member of the escort nor a driver was to be seen. The leader of the escort, Philip Stedman, had grasped the critical character of the situation at the first outcry, and, putting spurs to his horse, had dashed into the bushes. A warrior had seized his rein; but Stedman had struck him down and galloped free for Fort Schlosser. A drummer-boy, in terror of his life, had leapt over the cliff. By good fortune his drum-strap caught on the branch of a dense tree; here he remained suspended until the Indians left the spot, when he extricated himself. One of the teamsters also escaped. He was wounded, but managed to roll into the bushes, and found concealment in the thick undergrowth. The terrific musketry fire was heard at the lower landing, where a body of troops of the 60th and 80th regiments were encamped. The soldiers hastily armed themselves and in great disorder rushed to the aid of the convoy. But the Indians were not now at the Devil's Hole. The murderous work completed there, they had taken up a position in a thick wood half a mile farther down, where they silently waited. They had chosen well their place of concealment; and the soldiers in their excitement walked into the trap set for them. Suddenly the ominous war-cries broke out, and before the troops could turn to face the foe, a storm of bullets had swept their left flank. Then the warriors dashed from their ambush, tomahawking the living and scalping both dead and dying. In a few minutes five officers and seventy-six of the rank and file were killed and eight wounded, and out of a force of over one hundred men only twenty escaped unhurt. The news of this second disaster brought Major Wilkins up from Fort Niagara, with every available man, to chastise the Indians. But when Wilkins and his men arrived at the gruesome scene of the massacre, not a red man was to be found. The Indians had disappeared into the forest, after having stripped their victims even of clothing. With a heavy heart the troops marched back to Niagara, mourning the loss of many gallant comrades. This was the greatest disaster, in loss of life, of the Pontiac War; but, like the defeat of Dalyell, it had little effect on the progress of the campaign. The Indians did not follow it up; with scalps and plunder they returned to their villages to exult in wild orgies over the victory.

Detroit was still besieged; but the Indians were beginning to weaken, and for the most part had given up hope of forcing the garrison to surrender. They had been depending almost wholly on the settlement for sustenance, and provisions were running low. Ammunition, too, was well-nigh exhausted. They had replenished their supply during the summer by the captures they had made, by the plundering of traders, and by purchase or gift from the French of the Mississippi. Now they had little hope of capturing more supply-boats; the traders were holding aloof; and, since the arrival of definite news of the surrender to Great Britain by France of the region east of the Mississippi, supplies from the French had been stopped. If the Indians were to escape starvation they must scatter to their hunting-grounds. There was another reason why many of the chiefs deemed it wise to leave the vicinity of Detroit. They had learned that Major Wilkins was on his way from Niagara with a strong force and a fleet of bateaux loaded with ammunition and supplies. So, early in October, the Potawatomi, Wyandot, and Chippewa held a council and concluded to bury the hatchet and make peace with Gladwyn. On the 12th of the month, a delegation from these tribes came to the fort bearing a pipe of peace. Gladwyn knew from experience how little they were to be trusted, but he gave them a seemingly cordial welcome. A chief named Wapocomoguth acted as spokesman, and stated that the tribes represented regretted 'their bad conduct' and were ready to enter into a treaty of peace. Gladwyn replied that it was not in his power to grant peace to Indians who without cause had attacked the troops of their father the king of England; only the commander-in-chief could do that; but he consented to a cessation of hostilities. He did this the more willingly as the fort was short of food, and the truce would give him a chance to lay in a fresh stock of provisions.

As the autumn frosts were coloring the maples with brilliant hues, the Potawatomi, Wyandot, and Chippewa set out for fields where game was plentiful; but for a time Pontiac with his Ottawa remained, threatening the garrison, and still strong in his determination to continue the siege. During the summer he had sent ambassadors to Fort Chartres on the Mississippi asking aid in fighting what he asserted to be the battle of the French traders. Towards the end of July the messengers had returned with word from Neyon de Villiers, the commandant of Fort Chartres, saying that he must await more definite news as to whether peace had been concluded between France and England. Pontiac still hoped; and, after his allies had deserted, he waited at his camp above Detroit for further word from Neyon. On the last day of October, Louis Cesair Dequindre arrived at Detroit from Fort Chartres, with the crushing answer that Neyon de Villiers could give him no aid. England and France were at peace, and Neyon advised the Ottawa--no doubt with reluctance, and only because of the demand of Amherst--to bury the hatchet and give up the useless contest. To continue the struggle for the present would be vain. Pontiac, though enraged by the desertion of his allies, and by what seemed to him the cowardly conduct of the French, determined at once to accept the situation, sue for peace, and lay plans for future action. So far he had been fighting ostensibly for the restoration of French rule. In the future, whatever scheme he might devise, his struggle must be solely in the interests of the red man. The next day he sent a letter to Gladwyn begging that the past might be forgotten. His young men, he said, had buried their hatchets, and he declared himself ready not only to make peace, but also to 'send to all the nations concerned in the war' telling them to cease hostilities. No trust could Gladwyn put in Pontiac's words; yet he assumed a friendly bearing towards the treacherous conspirator, who for nearly six months had given him no rest. Gladwyn's views of the situation at this time are well shown in a report he made to Amherst. The Indians, he said, had lost many of their best warriors, and would not be likely again to show a united front. It was in this report that he made the suggestion, unique in warfare, of destroying the Indians by the free sale of rum to them. 'If your Excellency,' he wrote, 'still intends to punish them further for their barbarities, it may easily be done without any expense to the Crown, by permitting a free sale of rum, which will destroy them more effectually than fire and sword.' He thought that the French had been the real plotters of the Indian war: 'I don't imagine there will be any danger of their [the Indians] breaking out again, provided some examples are made of our good friends, the French, who set them on.'

Pontiac and his band of savages paddled southward for the Maumee, and spent the winter among the Indians along its upper waters. Again he broke his plighted word and plotted a new confederacy, greater than the Three Fires, and sent messengers with wampum belts and red hatchets to all the tribes as far south as the mouth of the Mississippi and as far north as the Red River. But his glory had departed. He could call; but the warriors would not come when he summoned them.

Fort Detroit was freed from hostile Indians, and the soldiers could go to rest without expecting to hear the call to arms. But before the year closed it was to be the witness of still another tragedy. Two or three weeks after the massacre at the Devil's Hole, Major Wilkins with some six hundred troops started from Fort Schlosser with a fleet of bateaux for Detroit. No care seems to have been taken to send out scouts to learn if the forest bordering the river above the falls was free from Indians, and, as the bateaux were slowly making their way against the swift stream towards Lake Erie, they were savagely attacked from the western bank by Indians in such force that Wilkins was compelled to retreat to Fort Schlosser. It was not until November that another attempt was made to send troops and provisions to Detroit. Early in this month Wilkins once more set out from Fort Schlosser, this time with forty-six bateaux heavily laden with troops, provisions, and ammunition. While they were in Lake Erie there arose one of the sudden storms so prevalent on the Great Lakes in autumn. Instead of creeping along the shore, the bateaux were in mid-lake, and before a landing could be made the gale was on them in all its fury. There was a wild race for land; but the choppy, turbulent sea beat upon the boats, of which some were swamped and the crews plunged into the chilly waters. They were opposite a forbidding shore, called by Wilkins 'Long Beach', but there was no time to look for a harbor. An attempt was made to land, with disastrous results. In all, sixteen boats were sunk; three officers, four sergeants, and sixty-three privates were drowned. The thirty bateaux brought ashore were in a sinking condition; half the provisions were lost and the remainder water-soaked. The journey to Detroit was out of the question. The few provisions saved would not last the remnant of Wilkins's own soldiers for a month, and the ammunition was almost entirely lost. Even if they succeeded in arriving safely at Detroit, they would only be an added burden to Gladwyn; and so, sick at heart from failure and the loss of comrades, the survivors beat their way back to the Niagara.

A week or two later, a messenger arrived at Fort Detroit bearing news of the disaster. The scarcity of provisions at Detroit was such that Gladwyn decided to reduce his garrison. Keeping about two hundred men in the fort, he sent the rest to Niagara. Then the force remaining at Detroit braced themselves to endure a hard, lonely winter. Theirs was not a pleasant lot. Never was garrison duty enjoyable during winter in the northern parts of North America, but in previous winters at Detroit the friendly intercourse between the soldiers and the settlers had made the season not unbearable. Now, so many of the French had been sympathizers with the besieging Indians, and, indeed, active in aiding them, that the old relations could not be resumed. So, during this winter of 1763-64, the garrison for the most part held aloof from the French settlers, and performed their weary round of military duties, longing for spring and the sight of a relieving force.


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Chronicles of Canada, The War Chief of The Ottawa, A Chronicle of the Pontiac War, 1915

 

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