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Pontiac and the Tribes of Hinterland

Foremost among the Indian leaders was Pontiac, the over-chief of the Ottawa Confederacy. It has been customary to speak of this chief as possessed of 'princely grandeur' and as one 'honored and revered by his subjects.' But it was not by a display of princely dignity or by inspiring awe and reverence that he influenced his bloodthirsty followers. His chief traits were treachery and cruelty, and his pre-eminence in these qualities commanded their respect. His conduct of the siege of Detroit, as we shall see, was marked by duplicity and diabolic savagery. He has often been extolled for his skill as a military leader, and there is a good deal in his siege of Detroit and in the murderous ingenuity of some of his raids to support this view. But his principal claim to distinction is due to his position as the head of a confederacy --whereas the other chiefs in the conflict were merely leaders of single tribes--and to the fact that he was situated at the very centre of the theatre of war. News from Detroit could be quickly heralded along the canoe routes and forest trails to the other tribes, and it thus happened that when Pontiac struck, the whole Indian country rose in arms. But the evidence clearly shows that, except against Detroit and the neighboring blockhouses, he had no part in planning the attacks. The war as a whole was a leaderless war.

Let us now look for a moment at the Indians who took part in the war. Immediately under the influence of Pontiac were three tribes--the Ottawa, the Chippewa, and the Potawatomi. These had their hunting-grounds chiefly in the Michigan peninsula, and formed what was known as the Ottawa Confederacy, or the Confederacy of the Three Fires. It was at the best a loose confederacy, with nothing of the organized strength of the Six Nations. The Indians in it were of a low type--sunk in savagery and superstition. A leader such as Pontiac naturally appealed to them. They existed by hunting and fishing--feasting today and famishing tomorrow--and were easily roused by the hope of plunder. The weakly manned forts containing the white man's provisions, ammunition, and traders' supplies were an attractive lure to such savages. Within the confederacy, however, there were some who did not rally round Pontiac. The Ottawa of the northern part of Michigan, under the influence of their priest, remained friendly to the British. Including the Ottawa and Chippewa of the Ottawa and Lake Superior, the confederates numbered many thousands; yet at no time was Pontiac able to command from among them more than one thousand warriors.

In close alliance with the Confederacy of the Three Fires were the tribes dwelling to the west of Lake Michigan--the Menominee, the Winnebago, and the Sacs and Foxes. These tribes could put into the field about twelve hundred warriors; but none of them took part in the war save in one instance, when the Sacs, moved by the hope of plunder, assisted the Chippewa in the capture of Fort Michilimackinac.

The Wyandot living on the Detroit River were a remnant of the ancient Huron of the famous mission near Lake Simcoe. For more than a century they had been bound to the French by ties of amity. They were courageous, intelligent, and in every way on a higher plane of life than the tribes of the Ottawa Confederacy. Their two hundred and fifty braves were to be Pontiac's most important allies in the siege of Detroit.

South of the Michigan peninsula, about the headwaters of the rivers Maumee and Wabash, dwelt the Miami, numbering probably about fifteen hundred. Influenced by French traders and by Pontiac's emissaries, they took to the war-path, and the British were thus cut off from the trade-route between Lake Erie and the Ohio.

The tribes just mentioned were all that came under the direct influence of Pontiac. Farther south were other nations who were to figure in the impending struggle. The Wyandot of Sandusky Bay, at the southwest corner of Lake Erie, had about two hundred warriors, and were in alliance with the Seneca and Delaware. Living near Detroit, they were able to assist in Pontiac's siege. Directly south of these, along the Scioto, dwelt the Shawnees--the tribe which later gave birth to the great Tecumseh--with three hundred warriors. East of the Shawnees, between the Muskingum and the Ohio, were the Delaware. At one time this tribe had lived on both sides of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New York, and also in parts of New Jersey and Delaware. They called themselves "Leni-Lenape", real men; but were, nevertheless, conquered by the Iroquois, who 'made women' of them, depriving them of the right to declare war or sell land without permission. Later, through an alliance with the French, they won back their old independence. But they lay in the path of white settlement, and were ousted from one hunting-ground after another, until finally they had to seek homes beyond the Alleghanie. The British had robbed the Delaware of their ancient lands, and the Delaware hated with an undying hatred the race that had injured them. They mustered six hundred warriors.

Almost directly south of Fort Niagara, by the upper waters of the Genesee and Alleghany rivers, lay the homes of the Seneca, one of the Six Nations. This tribe looked upon the British settlers in the Niagara region as squatters on their territory. It was the Seneca, not Pontiac, who began the plot for the destruction of the British in the hinterland, and in the war which followed more than a thousand Seneca warriors took part. Happily, as has been mentioned, Sir William Johnson was able to keep the other tribes of the Six Nations loyal to the British; but the 'Door-keepers of the Long House,' as the Seneca were called, stood aloof and hostile.

The motives of the Indians in the rising of 1763 may, therefore, be summarized as follows: amity with the French, hostility towards the British, hope of plunder, and fear of aggression. The first three were the controlling motives of Pontiac's Indians about Detroit. They called it the 'Beaver War.' To them it was a war on behalf of the French traders, who loaded them with gifts, and against the British, who drove them away empty-handed. But the Seneca and the Delaware, with their allies of the Ohio Valley, regarded it as a war for their lands. Already the Indians had been forced out of their hunting-grounds in the valleys of the Juniata and the Susquehanna. The Ohio Valley would be the next to go, unless the Indians went on the war-path. The chiefs there had good reason for alarm. Not so Pontiac at Detroit, because no settlers were invading his hunting-grounds. And it was for this lack of a strong motive that Pontiac's campaign, as will hereafter appear, broke down before the end of the war; that even his own confederates deserted him; and that, while the Seneca and Delaware were still holding out, he was wandering through the Indian country in a vain endeavor to rally his scattered warriors.

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


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