Chief Pontiac (About 1720 – April 20, 1769)
Pontiac , also known as Obwandiyag, became chief of his band of Ottawa Indians in 1755. He was influential in the Council of Three Tribes, an intertribal group consisting of the Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwa people. Pontiac organized his and other tribes in the Great Lakes area to fight the British, in what is now known as Pontiac’s War in 1763-64.
Pontiac’s Birth and Ancestry
Not much is known about Pontiac’s life prior to 1763. According to Chevrette, he was probably born between 1722 and 1725, at an Ottawa village on the Detroit or Maumee rivers. Sugden says Pontiac was probably born about 1714 along the Detroit River, and Peckham gives an estimate of around 1720.
The tribal affiliation of his parents is uncertain. According to an 18th-century Ottawa tradition, Pontiac’s mother was an Ottawa and his father an Ojibwa, although some sources claim one of his parents was a Miami. Pontiac was always identified as an Ottawa by people who knew him.
Other sources say his father was Ottawa, and his mother was Chippewa (Ojibwa), and he was raised with the Ottawa. Since the Ottawa are a patrilineal society, this makes more sense. In a patrilineal society, young married couples would usually go to live with the father’s side of the family.
French and Indian War
During the final French-Indian War, Pontiac was an ally of the French. However, the French lost the war, losing their property and holdings to the British. Unlike the agreements Pontiac and the tribe had with the French, the British did not trade supplies and goods with the Indians or ask for permission before building forts. In particular, they would not give them guns or ammunition, which they had come to rely on for hunting.
Neolin, the Lenape Prophet
Pontiac subscribed to the religious beliefs of Neolin, a prophet among the Lenape during the 1760s. Neolin encouraged his fellow American Indians in the Ohio Country and parts west to forsake all British goods and customs. He felt that American Indians’ dependence on these items had infuriated their gods. The reason why the American Indians in the Ohio Country currently suffered at the hands of the British was because they had forgotten the true ways of their people.
European ways would condemn the American Indians to eternal suffering. Neolin encouraged American Indians to separate themselves from European ways and not become dependent on them. Although Neolin urged American Indians in the region to reject all European customs, missionaries from the Moravian Church also influenced his views of what he called the Great Spirit.
Pontiac’s War, also known as Pontiac’s Rebellion
During the period known as Pontiac’s War, the Ottawas and other tribes in the area attacked all of the British forts in their territory, and sank some of their ships.
Contrary to many reports on the internet that Pontiac defeated all these forts, he was not successful in taking control of any of the forts where he was personally present. Pontiac’s strategy was to have each of the 18 local Indian tribes attack the fort nearest to them, while his own men were attacking Fort Detroit.
Along the way, they would destroy all the British settlements surrounding the forts. Tribes from Lake Superior to the lower Mississippi participated in these attacks. The tribes did capture eight of the 12 forts that they attacked, and the settlements were left in ruins. Fort Sandusky, Fort St. Joseph, Fort Miami, Fort Ouatanon, Mackinaw, Presque Isle, Fort LeBueuf, and Fort Venango were taken and their garrisons were massacred.
In April 1763, Chief Pontiac met with more than 60 tribal chiefs to discuss how to defeat the British.
Pontiac’s War began on May 7, 1763, when Pontiac and about 300 warriors attempted to take Fort Detroit by surprise. However, Major Henry Gladwin, the fort’s commander, had received a warning of his plans and was ready for them, and they were unable to break into the fort, although they greatly hampered the ability of anyone to enter or leave the fort. Some Canadian settlers did manage to smuggle in some food and water for the British solders.
On May 9, 900 warriors from half a dozen tribes joined Pontiac’s men and surrounded the fort. While Pontiac was besieging Fort Detroit, other tribes made widespread attacks against British forts and Anglo-American (but not French) settlements.
In July 1763, Pontiac defeated a British detachment at the Battle of Bloody Run, but he was unable to capture the fort. In October, the British received reinforcements, and Pontiac lifted the siege at Fort Detroit and withdrew to the Illinois Country, where he had relatives. He continued to encourage resistance to the British among the Illinois and Wabash tribes, and to recruit French colonists as allies. According to historian Richard White, it was during this time that Pontiac exerted his greatest influence, developing from a local war leader into an important regional spokesman.
In all, about 400 British soldiers were killed during Pontiac’s Rebellion. The conflict ended because the Ottawas needed to hunt to replenish their food suppies and the British had to wait for reinforcements from England. Despite numerous attempts to renew the battle after the hunt, Pontiac was unable to reorganize the tribes again to continue the fight with the British.
In the spring of 1764, two British armies were sent out, one into Pennsylvania and Ohio under Colonel Bouquet, and the other to the Great Lakes under Colonel John Bradstreet. Bouquet’s campaign met with success, and the Delawares and the Shawnees were forced to sue for peace, breaking Pontiac’s alliance. Failing to persuade tribes in the West to join his rebellion, and lacking the hoped-for support from the French, Pontiac finally signed a treaty with the British in 1766.
Chief Pontiac’s Fame
While Pontiac was referred to as Chief of all the Ottawa by white men, he was actually only considered a chief in his own band and did not have authority to speak for the other Ottawa bands. The Ottawa did not have a central government and each band had their own leaders. A chief’s role was mostly advisory in nature, and not a role of absolute power, as a political position was in white culture. A man held the role of chief only so long as his people respected him and had faith in his advice.
As the British considered Pontiac to be the principal chief of all the Ottawa Indians, he began speaking for tribes over which he had no authority, and this angered his own tribe, as well as the other Ottawa tribes. “By 1766 he was acting arrogantly and imperiously,” wrote historian Richard White, “assuming powers no western Indian leader possessed.”
The attention paid to Pontiac by the British Crown encouraged him to assert more power than he possessed by tradition, and he began speaking for and making decisions for other Ottawa tribes that he did not have the right or authority to make.
Eventually, his enraged tribesmen decided he could no longer be a chief. In 1768, he was forced to leave his Ottawa village on the Maumee River, and relocated near Ouiatenon on the Wabash River in Illinois Country. On May 10, 1768, he dictated a letter to British officials in which he explained that he was no longer recognized as a chief by the people of his village on the Maumee.
Robert Rogers, a British soldier, wrote a play, called Ponteach: or the Savages of America. This play immortalized Chief Pontiac and led to his widespread fame among the whites of the era.
Murder of Elizabeth “Betty” Fisher
In 1763, during the siege of Detroit, an Ottawa war party had attacked the Fisher farm, killing Betty’s parents and taking the seven year old girl captive. The following year, when Betty was a captive at Pontiac’s village, she tried to warm herself at Pontiac’s fire, or so the story goes. Pontiac became angry when the girl, sick with dysentery, soiled some of his clothes.
According to court testimony, Pontiac picked up the naked child, threw her into the Maumee River, and called upon a French-speaking ally to wade into the river and drown her. This was done.
The French colonist who drowned Betty Fisher was later arrested by the British, but had escaped by the time Pontiac came to testify. Pontiac neither confirmed nor denied his role in the murder, and the investigation was eventually dropped.
Pontiac was murdered on April 20, 1769, near the French town of Cahokia. Most accounts place Pontiac’s murder in Cahokia, but historian Gregory Dowd wrote that the killing probably happened in a nearby Indian village. Other accounts say he was visiting an Illinois village when it happened.
In 1766, he had stabbed and seriously wounded a Peoria chief named Makachinga (Black Dog). His murderer was that chief’s nephew. He was stabbed to death. The death of Pontiac led to bitter warfare among the Ottawa and Peoria tribes, and the Peorias were nearly wiped out as a result. Rumors at the time circulated that his murder was orchestrated by the British, but most historians believe that is untrue.
He is thought to be buried somewhere in St. Louis, Missouri, but the exact location is unknown.