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The Gathering Storm

When Montreal capitulated, and the whole of Canada passed into British hands, it was the duty of Sir Jeffery Amherst, the commander-in-chief, to arrange for the defense of the country that had been wrested from France. General Gage was left in command at Montreal, Colonel Burton at Three Rivers, and General Murray at Quebec. Amherst himself departed for New York in October, and never again visited Canada. Meanwhile provision had been made, though quite inadequate, to garrison the long chain of forts1 that had been established by the French in the vaguely defined Indian territory to the west. The fortunes of war had already given the British command of the eastern end of this chain. Fort Levis, on what is now Chimney Island, a few miles east of Ogdensburg, had been captured. Fort Frontenac had been destroyed by Bradstreet, and was left without a garrison. British troops were in charge of Fort Oswego, which had been built in 1759. Niagara, the strongest fort on the Great Lakes, had been taken by Sir William Johnson. Near it were two lesser forts, one at the foot of the rapids, where Lewiston now stands, and the other, Fort Schlosser, on the same side of the river, above the falls. Forts Presqu'isle, Le Boeuf, and Venango, on the trade-route between Lake Erie and Fort Pitt, and Fort Pitt itself, were also occupied. But all west of Fort Pitt was to the British unknown country. Sandusky, at the southwest end of Lake Erie; Detroit, guarding the passage between Lakes Erie and St. Clair; Miami and Ouiatanon, on the trade-route between Lake Erie and the Wabash; Michilimackinac, at the entrance to Lake Michigan; Green Bay (La Baye), at the southern end of Green Bay; St. Joseph, on Lake Michigan; Sault Ste Marie, at the entrance to Lake Superior--all were still commanded by French officers, as they had been under New France.

The task of raising the British flag over these forts was entrusted to Major Robert Rogers of New England, who commanded Rogers's Rangers, a famous body of Indian-fighters. On September 13, 1760, with two hundred Rangers in fifteen whale-boats, Rogers set out from Montreal. On November 7, the contingent, without mishap, reached a river named by Rogers the Chogage, evidently the Cuyahoga, on the south shore of Lake Erie. Here the troops landed, probably on the site of the present city of Cleveland; and Rogers was visited by a party of Ottawa Indians, whom he told of the conquest of Canada and of the retirement of the French armies from the country. He added that his force had been sent by the commander-in-chief to take over for their father, the king of England, the western posts still held by French soldiers. He then offered them a peace-belt, which they accepted, and requested them to go with him to Detroit to take part in the capitulation and 'see the truth' of what he had said. They promised to give him an answer the next morning. The calumet was smoked by the Indians and the officers in turn; but a careful guard was kept, as Rogers was suspicious of the Indians. In the morning, however, they returned with a favorable reply, and the younger warriors of the band agreed to accompany their new friends. Owing to stormy weather nearly a week passed--the Indians keeping the camp supplied with venison and turkey, for which Rogers paid them liberally--before the party, on November 12, moved forward towards Detroit.

Detroit was at this time under the command of the Sieur de Beletre, or Bellestre. This officer had been in charge of the post since 1758 and had heard nothing of the surrender of Montreal. Rogers, to pave the way; sent one of his men in advance with a letter to Beletre notifying him that the western posts now belonged to King George and informing him that he was approaching with a letter from the Marquis de Vaudreuil and a copy of the capitulation. Beletre was irritated; the French armies had been defeated and he was about to lose his post. He at first refused to believe the tidings; and it appears that he endeavored to rouse the inhabitants and Indians about Detroit to resist the approaching British, for on November 20, several Wyandot sachems met the advancing party and told Rogers that four hundred warriors were in ambush at the entrance to the Detroit River to obstruct his advance. The Wyandot wished to know the truth regarding the conquest of Canada, and on being convinced that it was no fabrication, they took their departure 'in good temper.' On the 23rd, Indian messengers, among whom was an Ottawa chief,2 arrived at the British camp, at the western end of Lake Erie, reporting that Beletre intended to fight and that he had arrested the officer who bore Rogers's message. Beletre's chief reason for doubting the truth of Rogers's statement appears to have been that no French officers had accompanied the British contingent from Montreal.

When the troops entered the Detroit river Rogers sent Captain Donald Campbell to the fort with a copy of the capitulation of Montreal and Vaudreuil's letter instructing Beletre to hand over his fort to the British. These documents were convincing, and Beletre3 consented, though with no good grace; and on November 29 Rogers formally took possession of Detroit. It was an impressive ceremony. Some seven hundred Indians were assembled in the vicinity of Fort Detroit, and, ever ready to take sides with the winning party, appeared about the stockade painted and plumed in honor of the occasion. When the lilies of France were lowered and the cross of St George was thrown to the breeze, the barbarous horde uttered wild cries of delight. A new and rich people had come to their hunting-grounds, and they had visions of unlimited presents of clothing, ammunition, and rum. After the fort was taken over, the militia were called together and disarmed and made to take the oath of allegiance to the British king.

Captain Campbell was installed in command of the fort, and Beletre and the other prisoners of war were sent to Philadelphia. Two officers were dispatched with twenty men to bring the French troops from Forts Miami and Ouiatanon. A few soldiers were stationed at Fort Miami to keep the officers at Detroit informed of any interesting events in that neighborhood. Provisions being scarce at Detroit, Rogers sent the majority of his force to Niagara; and on December 10 set out for Michilimackinac with an officer and thirty-seven men. But he was driven back by stormy weather and ice, and forced, for the present year, to give up the attempt to garrison the posts on Lakes Huron and Michigan. Leaving everything in peace at Detroit, Rogers went to Fort Pitt, and for nine months the forts in the country of the Ottawa Confederacy were to be left to their own resources.

Meanwhile the Indians were getting into a state of unrest. The presents, on which they depended so much for existence, were not forthcoming, and rumors of trouble were in the air. Seneca, Shawnees, and Delaware were sending war-belts east and west and north and south. A plot was on foot to seize Pitt, Niagara, and Detroit. Seneca ambassadors had visited the Wyandot in the vicinity of Detroit, urging them to fall on the garrison. After an investigation, Captain Campbell reported to Amherst that an Indian rising was imminent, and revealed a plot, originated by the Seneca, which was identical with that afterwards matured in 1763 and attributed to Pontiac's initiative. Campbell warned the commandants of the other forts of the danger; and the Indians, seeing that their plans were discovered, assumed a peaceful attitude.

Still, the situation was critical; and, to allay the hostility of the natives and gain their confidence, Amherst dispatched Sir William Johnson to Detroit with instructions 'to settle and establish a firm and lasting treaty' between the British and the Ottawa Confederacy and other nations inhabiting the Indian territory, to regulate the fur trade at the posts, and to settle the price of clothes and provisions. He was likewise to collect information as exhaustive as possible regarding the Indians, their manners and customs, and their abodes. He was to find out whether the French had any shipping on Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior, what were the best posts for trade, and the price paid by the French for pelts. He was also to learn, if possible, how far the boundaries of Canada extended towards the Mississippi, and the number of French posts, settlements, and inhabitants along that river.

Sir William left his home at Fort Johnson on the Mohawk River early in July 1761. Scarcely had he begun his journey when he was warned that it was dangerous to proceed, as the nations in the west were unfriendly and would surely fall upon his party. But Johnson was confident that his presence among them would put a stop to 'any such wicked design.' As he advanced up Lake Ontario, the alarming reports continued. The Seneca, who had already stolen horses from the whites and taken prisoners, had been sending ambassadors abroad, endeavoring to induce the other nations to attack the British. Johnson learned, too, that the Indians were being cheated in trade by British traders; that at several posts they had been roughly handled, very often without cause; that their women were taken from them by violence; and that they were hindered from hunting and fishing on their own grounds near the posts, even what they did catch or kill being taken from them. He heard, too, that Seneca and Ottawa warriors had been murdered by whites near Forts Pitt and Venango. At Niagara he was visited by Seneca chiefs, who complained that one of their warriors had been wounded nearby and that four horses had been stolen from them. Johnson evidently believed the story, for he gave them 'two casks of rum, some paint and money to make up their loss,' and they left him well satisfied. On Lake Erie, stories of the hostility of the Indians multiplied. They were ready to revolt; even before leaving Niagara, Johnson had it on good authority that the Indians 'were certainly determined to rise and fall on the English,' and that 'several thousands of the Ottawa and other nations' had agreed to join the dissatisfied member 'of the Six Nations in this scheme or plot.' But Johnson kept on his way, confident that he could allay dissatisfaction and win all the nations to friendship.

When Sir William reached Detroit on September 3, he was welcomed by musketry volleys from the Indians and by cannon from the fort. His reputation as the great superintendent of Indian Affairs, the friend of the red man, had gone before him, and he was joyously received, and at once given quarters in the house of the former commandant of Detroit, Beletre. On the day following his arrival, the Wyandot and other Indians, with their priest, Father Pierre Potier (called Pottie by Johnson), waited on him. He treated them royally, and gave them pipes and tobacco and a barbecue of a large ox roasted whole. He found the French inhabitants most friendly, especially Pierre Chesne, better known as La Butte, the interpreter of the Wyandot, and St Martin, the interpreter of the Ottawa. The ladies of the settlement called on him, and were regaled 'with cakes, wine and cordial.' He was hospitably entertained by the officers and settlers, and in return gave several balls, at which, it appears, he danced with 'Mademoiselle Curie--a fine girl.' This vivacious lady evidently made an impression on the susceptible Irishman; for after the second ball--'there never was so brilliant an affair' at Detroit before--he records in his private diary: 'Promised to write Mademoiselle Curie my sentiments.'

While at Niagara, on his journey westward, Johnson had been joined by Major Henry Gladwyn, to whom Amherst had assigned the duty of garrisoning the western forts and taking over in person the command of Fort Detroit. Gladwyn had left Niagara a day or two in advance of Johnson, but on the way to his new command, he had been seized with severe fever and ague and totally incapacitated for duty. On Johnson fell the task of making arrangements for the still unoccupied posts. He did the work with his customary promptitude and thoroughness, and by September 10 had dispatched men of Gage's Light Infantry and of the Royal Americans from Detroit for Michilimackinac, Green Bay, and St. Joseph.

The chiefs of the various tribes had flocked to Detroit to confer with Sir William. He won them all by his honeyed words and liberal distribution of presents; he was told that his 'presents had made the sun and sky bright and clear, the earth smooth and level, the roads all pleasant'; and they begged that he 'would continue in the same friendly disposition towards them and they would be a happy people.' His work completed, Johnson set out, September 19, on his homeward journey, leaving behind him the promise of peace in the Indian territory.4

For the time being Johnson's visit to Detroit had a salutary effect, and the year 1761 terminated with only slight signs of unrest among the Indians; but in the spring of 1762, the air was again heavy with threatening storm. The Indians of the Ohio Valley were once more sending out their war-belts and bloody hatchets. In several instances Englishmen were murdered and scalped and horses were stolen. The Shawnees and Delaware held British prisoners whom they refused to surrender. By Amherst's orders presents were withheld. Until they surrendered all prisoners and showed a proper spirit towards the British, he would suppress all gifts, in the belief that 'a due observance of this alone will soon produce more than can ever be expected from bribing them.' The reply of the Shawnees and Delaware to his orders was stealing horses and terrorizing traders. Sir William Johnson and his assistant in office, George Croghan, warned Amherst of the danger he was running in rousing the hatred of the savages. Croghan in a letter to Bouquet said: 'I do not approve of General Amherst's plan of distressing them too much, as in my opinion they will not consider consequences if too much distressed, tho' Sir Jeffery thinks they will.' Although warnings were pouring in upon him, Amherst was of the opinion that there was 'no necessity for any more at the several posts than are just enough to keep up the communication, there being nothing to fear from the Indians in our present circumstances.' To Sir William Johnson he wrote that it was 'not in the power of the Indians to effect anything of consequence.'

In the spring of 1763, the war-cloud was about to burst; but in remote New York the commander-in-chief failed to grasp the situation, and turned a deaf ear to those who warned him that an Indian war with all its horrors was inevitable. These vague rumors, as Amherst regarded them, of an imminent general rising of the western tribes, took more definite form as the spring advanced. Towards the end of March, Lieutenant Edward Jenkins, the commandant of Fort Ouiatanon, learned that the French traders had been telling the Indians that the British would 'all be prisoners in a short time.' But what caused most alarm was information from Fort Miami of a plot for the capture of the forts and the slaughter of the garrisons. A war-belt was received by the Indians residing near the fort, and with it came the request that they should hold themselves in readiness to attack the British. Robert Holmes, the commandant of Fort Miami, managed to secure the 'bloody belt' and sent it to Gladwyn,5 who in turn sent it to Amherst.

News had now reached the Ohio tribes of the Treaty of Paris, but the terms of this treaty had only increased their unrest. On April 30, 1763, Croghan wrote to Amherst that the Indians were 'uneasy since so much of North America was ceded to Great Britain,' holding that the British had no right in their country. 'The Peace,' added Croghan, 'and hearing so much of this country being given up has thrown them into confusion and prevented them bringing in their prisoners this spring as they promised.' Amherst's reply was: 'Whatever idle notions they may entertain in regard to the cessions made by the French crown can be of very little consequence.' On April 20, Gladwyn, though slow to see danger, wrote to Amherst: 'They [the Indians] say we mean to make slaves of them by taking so many posts in the country, and that they had better attempt something now to recover their liberty than wait till we are better established.' Even when word that the Indians were actually on the war-path reached Amherst, he still refused to believe it a serious matter, and delayed making preparations to meet the situation. It was, according to him, a 'rash attempt of that turbulent tribe the Seneca'; and, again, he was 'persuaded this alarm will end in nothing more than a rash attempt of what the Seneca have been threatening.' Eight British forts in the west were captured and the frontiers of the colonies bathed in blood before he realized that 'the affair of the Indians was more general than they apprehended.'

The Indians were only waiting for a sudden, bold blow at some one of the British posts, and on the instant they would be on the war-path from the shores of Lake Superior to the borders of the southernmost colonies of Great Britain. The blow was soon to be struck. Pontiac's war-belts had been sent broadcast, and the nations who recognized him as over-chief were ready to follow him to the slaughter. Detroit was the strongest position to the west of Niagara; it contained an abundance of stores, and would be a rich prize. As Pontiac yearly visited this place during the trading season, he knew the locality well and was familiar with the settlers, the majority of whom were far from being friendly to the British. Against Detroit he would lead the warriors, under the pretence of winning back the country for the French.

In the spring of 1763, instead of going direct to his usual camping-place, an island in Lake St. Clair, Pontiac pitched his wigwam on the bank of the river Ecorces, ten miles south of Detroit, and here awaited the tribes whom he had summoned to a council to be held 'on the 15th of the moon'--the 27th of April. And at the appointed time nearly five hundred warriors--Ottawa, Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Wyandot--with their squaws and papooses, had gathered at the meeting-place, petty tribal jealousies and differences being laid aside in their common hatred of 'the dogs dressed in red,' the British soldiers.

When the council assembled, Pontiac addressed them with fiery words. The Ottawa chief was at this time about fifty years old. He was a man of average height, of darker hue than is usual among Indians, lithe as a panther, his muscles hardened by forest life and years of warfare against Indian enemies and the British. Like the rush of a mountain torrent the words fell from his lips. His speech was one stream of denunciation of the British. In trade they had cheated the Indians, robbing them of their furs, overcharging them for the necessaries of life, and heaping insults and blows upon the red men, who from the French had known only kindness. The time had come to strike. As he spoke, he flashed a red and purple wampum belt before the gaze of the excited braves. This, he declared, he had received from their father the king of France, who commanded his red children to fight the British. Holding out the belt, he recounted with wild words and vehement gestures the victories gained in the past by the Indians over the British, and as he spoke, the blood of his listeners pulsed through their veins with battle ardor. To their hatred and sense of being wronged he had appealed, and he saw that every warrior present was with him; but his strongest appeal was to their superstition. In spite of the fact that French missionaries had been among them for a century, they were still pagan, and it was essential to the success of his project that they should believe that the Master of Life favored their cause. He told them the story of a Wolf (Delaware) Indian who had journeyed to heaven and talked with the Master of Life, receiving instructions to tell all the Indians that they were to 'drive out' and 'make war upon' the 'dogs clothed in red who will do you nothing but harm.' When he had finished, such chiefs as Ninevoi of the Chippewa and Takay of the Wyandot--'the bad Huron,' as the writer of the 'Pontiac Manuscript' describes them to distinguish them from Father Potier's flock--spoke in similar terms. Every warrior present shouted his readiness to go to war, and before the council broke up, it was agreed that in four days Pontiac 'should go to the fort with his young men for a peace dance' in order to get information regarding the strength of the place. The blow must be struck before the spring boats arrived from the Niagara with supplies and additional troops. The council at an end, the different tribes scattered to their several summer villages, seemingly peaceful Indians who had gathered together for trade.


1 See the accompanying map. Except for these forts or trading-posts, the entire region west of Montreal was at this time practically an unbroken wilderness. There were on the north shore of the St Lawrence a few scattered settlements, on Ile Perrot and at Vaudreuil, and on the south shore at the Cedars and Chateauguay; but anything like continuity of settlement westward ceased with the island of Montreal.
2 In Rogers's journal of this trip, no mention is made of Pontiac's name. In "A Concise Account of North America", published in 1765, with Rogers's name on the title-page, a detailed account of a meeting with Pontiac at the Cuyahoga is given, but this book seems to be of doubtful authenticity. It was, however, accepted by Parkman.
3 Although Beletre received Rogers and his men in no friendly spirit, he seems soon to have become reconciled to British rule, for, in 1763, he was appointed to the first Legislative Council of Canada, and until the time of his death, in May 1793, he was a highly respected citizen of Quebec.
4 It is remarkable that Johnson in his private diary or in his official correspondence makes no mention of Pontiac. The Ottawa chief apparently played no conspicuous part in the plots of 1761 and 1762.
5 Gladwyn's illness in 1761 proved so severe that he had to take a journey to England to recuperate; but he was back in Detroit as commandant in August 1762.]


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

 

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