This Date in Native History: On April 20, 1769, Ottawa war chief Pontiac was murdered in Cahokia, Illinois.
One of the most famous war chiefs, Pontiac united 18 tribes and inspired them to take action against the British invasion in the entire Great Lakes region. Through Pontiac’s leadership, several British forts were overcome and suffered substantial losses.
Pontiac did not have the same aversion to the French, who treated Natives as equals and intermarried and traded fairly, wrote Edward Reilly in Legends of American Indian Resistance.
Fewer in number than the British, the French provided the Natives with protection, just as the Natives offered protection for the French. Pontiac traveled from Kentucky to Canada in the early 1760s calling for the extermination of the British. His first recorded speech, explains the relationships.
“You see as well as I that we can no longer supply our needs, as we have done, from our brothers, the French. The English sell goods twice as dear as the French do, and their goods do not last. Scarcely have we bought a blanket… before we must think of getting another; and when we wish to set out for our winter camps they do not want to give us any credit as our brothers, the French, do.,” reads his speech, according to the Journal of Pontiac’s Conspiracy, 1763.
“When I go see the English commander and say to him that some of our comrades are dead, instead of bewailing their death, as our French brothers do, he laughs at me and at you. If I ask anything for our sick, he refuses with the reply that he has no use for us. From all this you can well see that they are seeking our ruin. Therefore, my brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it.”
The Detroit News reported how Jeffrey Amherst, an arrogant British governor general of the Province of Quebec, did not treat the Natives well or trade fairly. His goal was to humble the Natives with few supplies, and to inspire fear rather than good relations.
Pontiac’s clear vision to remove the British inspired all of the neighboring tribes. He planned clever attacks, including a lacrosse game between the Ojibwa and Sauks. The troops came out of the fort to watch for hours, and meanwhile, the women gathered with weapons hidden in their clothing. When a ball rolled into Fort Miami, and the players went after it, they took the fort, killing and taking captive many of the troops.
According to “History, Tradition and Adventure in the Chippewa Valley” by William W. Bartlett, the northern tribes attacked 12 British forts, and took possession of nine of them on June 4, 1763, the English king’s birthday. While the greatest support came from the Ojibwa, other tribes included the Chippewa, Sauk, Kickapoos, Seneca and Shawnee, all under Pontiac’s leadership.
In 1763, Pontiac lost 80 to 90 warriors, but the British had lost as many as 450 soldiers and civilians. However, the British kept coming, and as the war progressed, Amherst became obsessed with killing Indians, and suggested giving the tribes blankets infected with smallpox.
As the war began to wear on the warriors, they longed to return home to their families. In 1766, Pontiac finally agreed to a peace treaty that allowed the troops to lease land to the British for their forts, but never gave them control of the land. According to Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Volume 7, Pontiac said, “These lakes, these woods, and mountains were left us by our ancestors. They are our inheritance; and we will part with them to none …”
Over the following years, Pontiac’s relationship with the military improved, and some who had been enemies became friendly with Pontiac. Rumors began to circulate that Pontiac was taking money and gifts from the British, causing people to become jealous of his power and suspicious of his motives.
In 1769, during an altercation that took place for unknown reasons, Pontiac killed Peoria Chief Black Dog. Perhaps in retaliation, and perhaps due to his increasingly amicable relationship with the British, Pontiac was killed by one of Black Dog’s nephews. The two had gone into a shop in Cahokia and as they left, Pontiac was clubbed by someone—as he fell, he was stabbed to death by the nephew.
Pontiac was born in 1720 and was 43 when he launched what was known as the Pontiac Conspiracy.
Pontiac has been honored in many ways, for better or worse. In the Journal of Captain Thomas Morris from Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, Pontiac was heralded for his bravery and intelligence, his oratory skills and charismatic persona, which caused him to be held in the highest esteem by the French, British, and his own people.
Towns across the country have been named for him, and he was perhaps the first victim of stereotyping by Englishman Robert Rogers. Rogers, who had fought and made peace with Pontiac, returned to England where he performed as Pontiac in a play he wrote, called, Ponteach, or The Savages of America.
This story was originally published April 20, 2014.