Thursday, July 4, 2013

250 Years Ago -- Pontiac Was not a Car

By the early 1760's the British occupied the French posts at Green Bay, Mackinac, St. Joseph (Niles Michichigan), Ouiatenon, Detroit, Fort Miami, Sandusky and Niagara. But an occupation is not a permanent situation and in all previous wars control of the land had, for the most part, reverted to the powers that originally held the land.  So, at first the occupation was peaceful. 

"Except in Illinois country, the British occupied the old French posts without Algonquian resistance.  And despite the belts urging rebellion, most of Onontio's children apparently expected the British to act, if not as fathers, then as brothers. They did not anticipate conquerors ... British policy in 1762, however, dashed Algonquian hopes for accommodation on the middle ground.  Crop failures, epidemics, and famine, particularly severe along the Ohio River and in the Wabash country, swept the [midwest], and the Algonquians begged for assistance from their British brothers. Events had now put both their lives and their conceptions of the British at risk, and the British by and large failed them. The local commanders either lacked the capacity to give aid or gave it grudgingly. " White, The Middle Ground, pp. 274-275.
In 1763 reports that France was officially ceding Canada to Britain reached Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) and began to spread to the western posts.  The French inhabitants and the resident Indians were astonished and could not believe it.  The divide of the continent between the French and the British was so long standing it was probably hard to imagine the French authority leaving out.  British commanders began to receive reports from the Illinois that, although French troops were reconciled to the cession to Britain, the French traders were not and were urging the Indians to kill the British.  There appears to be no evidence the French were officially assisting the Indians in a rebellion, but the Indians certainly seemed to expect that French aid would be coming.  This may have been due to empty promises made by French traders and habitants who, themselves, couldn't imagine the continent becoming solely British.

The British had an experienced and intelligent expert on Indians and the Indian trade in a man named George Croghan.  Croghan warned the British that their victory was not complete over the Indians, who had not "surrendered".  He reported that the Algonquians were desperate enough to begin a rebellion and their past success against the British gave them confidence that they would prevail.  And, at first, they did prevail.

 In April, 1763 Pontiac called a council of war to plan an attack on the Fort at Detroit.  The British were not acting like Fathers or Brothers.  Pontiac was convinced that the British intended to open up widespread settlement in the Ohio Valley.  The threat of settlement combined with a ban on the sale of gunpowder to the tribes, which harmed their ability to hunt, seemed designed to drive the tribes eventually out of the Ohio Valley.  Attacking and driving out the British interlopers seemed the only solution.

The attack on Detroit failed, but this was only the most famous of the attacks that occurred in the spring of 1763.   All of the British occupied forts were attacked and all of them were taken except for Niagara, Detroit and Fort Pitt.  British reinforcements eventually arrived and the rebellion was quashed.  But Richard White posits the theory that this was a wake up call for the British in which they realized that, outnumbered as they were in the western country and (maybe as importantly) wanting the fur markets for themselves, they needed to work with the Indians and occupy a "middle ground" with them rather than acting like conquerors.  George Croghan said that the British needed to emulate the French when it came to Indians - they were "bred up together" and understood each other.

"There is no need to romanticize this relationship, Indians and French abused and killed each other; they cheated each other as well as supplying each other's wants. But their knowledge of each other's customs, and their ability to live together - what Croghan described as their having been bred up together - had no equivalent among the British." White

Pontiac continued, through 1763 and 1764, to move among the Indian villages of the Wabash country, fomenting resistance there and among the French habitants at Vincennes and in the Illinois country.  By the summer of 1763, France had ordered the officers commanding in the now British territory to evacuate their posts as soon as the British arrived.  The British had not, however,  reached Fort de Chartres, mostly due to resistance from the surrounding Indian tribes. So the people in the Illinois country continued under the administration of the French military officers at Fort de Chartres who were now acting for a foreign power.

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.