July 24, 1766 – Pontiac’s War officially ended with the signing of a peace treaty at Fort Ontario, Canada.
In the 1530s French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed around the eastern seaboard of Canada and up the Saint Lawrence River, claiming the area for France (while also providing the name “Canada”). With the settlement of Quebec in 1608 and Montreal in 1643, the French began to establish extensive fur-trading networks with the Great Lakes Indians.
From the outset, French/native relations in Canada and the Great Lakes region were noticeably better than the English and Indian relations in the English colonies. One reason was the lack of conflict over land: as there were few French colonists, there was no pressure put on Indians to cede land. Similarly, local Indians vastly outnumbered the French, making them impossible to push around. Conversely, the French desperately needed their Indian allies for protection against the English, who outnumbered them in the New World 20 to 1.
As a result, the French freely traded guns, ammunition and other European goods with Algonquian chiefs to keep them as allies. For the Great Lakes area Indians, such as the Huron and Ottawa, this gave them the weapons they needed to fight their traditional enemies, the Iroquois. The French also continuously lavished the Chiefs with gifts, a cultural necessity in Indian tradition between allies. As a Potawatomi Chief noted, “Why not love the French, since you, my father, provide for all our needs and without the French we would lack knives and all the rest?”
Between 1689 and 1763 England and France fought four wars against each other both in Europe and in the Americas. In the first three, French allies were critical in helping the French stave off British victory in North America. The French and Indian War (known as the Seven Year’s War in Europe), however, would prove to be a different story.
In the first years of the War, the French racked up several victories against the English and their colonial forces. Critical to their success was the support of most of the Indian tribes in Canada and the Ohio Valley, such as the Huron, Ottowa, Shawnee and Delaware. While the French enjoyed widespread native assistance, the English did not. Even the Iroquois, former English allies, remained neutral throughout most of the war.
By 1758, however, as the English poured more money and men into the fray, the tide began to turn. In that year British forces were finally able to capture Fort Duquense (modern day Pittsburgh) as well as the coastal fortress of Louisbourg. In 1759 they defeated the French at Quebec, and by 1761 nearly all of Canada, the Ohio Valley, and the Great Lakes region were under English control.
As the tide of war turned in England’s favor, many of France’s Indian allies abandoned her, looking instead to establish relations with the English as new trading partners. Always practical, these tribes realized that with the French out of the picture, the only way to obtain valuable European metal tools, guns and gunpowder, was to deal with the hated English. This change in alliance, however, inevitably brought new problems for the Ohio Valley Indians.
By 1760, with the French defeated in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region, English traders and settlers flooded in. Like always, they treated the Indians with disdain. English settlers encroached onto Indian land, attacked Indian settlements, and cheated Indian fur suppliers. Making matters worse, the local British commander, Lord Jeffery Amherst, turned the relationship the Indians had experienced with the French on its head. Whereas the French had always treated the Indians as valued allies, the English considered them a conquered people to be treated with contempt. Not only did he refuse to provide traditional gifts to the Chiefs – a grave insult – but he also ordered limitations on the amount of gunpowder and shot that the Indians could trade for. Amherst even refused to provide aid to English Indian allies, who were starving as a result of the destruction of their villages and corn fields during the war. Not surprisingly, even before the Treaty of Paris ending the War was signed in 1763, fighting had broken out between these new settlers and the Indians up and down the Ohio Valley and around the Great Lakes.
Into this growing conflict entered an Indian religious prophet, a Delaware Indian named Neolin. In 1761, Neolin claimed to have had a vision in which the “Master of Life” told him that the Native Americans had brought disaster upon themselves by abandoning their traditional lifestyle and adopting the ways of the Europeans. “Wherefore do you suffer the whites to dwell upon your lands?” the Master of Life told him in his vision. “Drive from your lands those dogs in red clothing; they are only an injury to you.” Their only salvation, according to the Master of Life, was to return to their original way of life and force the Europeans from Indian lands.
In 1763, many of the northern Ohio Valley tribes, including the Delaware, Huron, Miami, Shawnee and Ottawa, united behind Neolin’s message to resist the English settlers. Although this alliance had many leaders, the English considered the Indian forces to be led by an Ottawa chief named Pontiac. Consequently, the conflict came to be called Pontiac’s War.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1763, Pontiac’s forces launched a series of attacks, capturing nine English forts around the Great Lakes and the northern Ohio Valley. They raided English settlements in western Pennsylvania and Virginia, killing or capturing about 2,000 colonists. English authorities responded with a policy, as described by Jeffrey Amherst, of “entire destruction.”
As part of their plan, the English initiated a primitive method of germ warfare. When the British Fort Pitt (the newly renamed Fort Duquesne) was being besieged by a force of Delaware Indians, the English commander invited some of the natives to enter the fort to discuss a truce. As a token of goodwill, the Indians were given several blankets to take with them. Unbeknownst to the Indians, the blankets had been purposefully infected with smallpox. An epidemic soon raged among the natives, weakening their ability to fight.
Further hindering Pontiac’s effort was the signing of the Treaty of Paris. When the fighting had begun, the Indians had hoped that their early victories would lure the French back into the Ohio Valley as their allies. However, when news of the treaty arrived in the fall of 1763, the Indians realized that the French had given up, and Pontiac’s alliance slowly disintegrated. Although fighting continued until 1764, by then the Indians had nearly run out of ammunition. Most tribes wished to resume peaceful trading rather than fight for a losing cause. By 1766, all of the warring tribes, including the Ottawa, had made peace once again with the English.
As a direct result of the conflict, the British government decided that a policy segregating colonists and Indians was prudent and cheaper than fighting endless wars. The result was the Proclamation of 1763, which purported to use the Appalachian Mountains as a boundary between whites and natives. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.