Pontiac’s War for APUSH
About the Author: Melissa Smith has taught A.P. U.S. History for over 20 years. She has been involved in the A.P. U.S. History reading for 18 years as a reader, a table leader, the DBQ question leader, and currently as an exam leader. She also recently served on the Test Development Committee for the SAT U.S. History Subject Test.
Pontiac’s War, or Pontiac’s Rebellion, began in the Great Lakes region of North America in 1763. Pontiac was an Ottawa leader who led a loose confederation of Native Americans from numerous tribes to fight for their land against the presence of British troops at the conclusion of the French and Indian War.
Pontiac’s War was ruthless and bloody and ended a few years later without a clear victory for the Native people or for the British. However, the policy changes that the British introduced due to the violent conflict, such as the Proclamation of 1763, laid the groundwork for what would become the American Revolution.
The policy changes Britain introduced because of Pontiac’s War, such as the Proclamation of 1763, laid the groundwork for what would become the American Revolution.
The Seeds of Pontiac’s War
The French and Indian War had been a clash between the French and British empires for control of North America. At the war’s conclusion with the Treaty of Paris 1763, Britain gained control of French Canada and all land east of the Mississippi River. Britain was now firmly established as the European authority in North America.
Britain was now firmly established as the European authority in North America.
This transfer of power to the British created resentment and concern among the numerous tribes of Native Americans who lived in this territory. Most of the Native people had formed economic and political ties with the French and saw the conclusion of the French and Indian War as disruptive to their way of life and even their very existence.
Most of the Native people had formed economic and political ties with the French and saw the conclusion of the French and Indian War as disruptive to their way of life and even their very existence.
Why the Pontiac Didn’t Like the British
Native American grievances against the British had been building ever since the British took possession of French forts during the war. The French had long followed a Native American practice of presenting gifts (such as gun-powder, kettles, and clothing) to Native American leaders who would then distribute these goods to their people. This allowed for the Native leaders to curry favor with their own people and also to maintain alliances with the French.
The French gave gifts to Native American leaders, which promoted the status of the leader within their group; this created strong alliances between French and Native American tribes.
Once the British took possession from the French, the new commander-in-chief of North America, General Jeffery Amherst, announced an end to the exchange of gifts stating that Native people must learn to live “without our charity.”
Additionally, Native Americans accused British traders of defrauding them in the sales of rum, blankets, and fishing tools while the British soldiers who occupied military forts in the Northwest would overhunt and overfish.
A New Vision from and for Native Americans
In 1761, a Native American prophet named Neolin was inspired by a religious vision to ask Native people to give up alcohol, polygamy, and materialism and return to their traditional ways. Neolin’s teachings impacted around twenty tribes of Native Americans – including the Seneca, Huron, and Shawnee people.
One of Neolin’s most devoted followers became Pontiac, a leader of the Ottawa people. While Neolin did not support Pontiac’s tactics of aggression and warfare, Pontiac was able to join together numerous tribes in resistance to the British partly because of Neolin’s unifying vision.
The War Starts
Pontiac’s War began in 1763 when Pontiac and several hundred followers attempted a surprise attack on Fort Detroit. While Pontiac’s siege on the fort was ultimately not successful, word of Pontiac’s actions spread and the war expanded far beyond Detroit. At least eight British forts were taken while several others were unsuccessfully besieged.
These attacks appear not to have been coordinated by Pontiac; instead angry and frustrated Native people used the news of Pontiac’s attack on Fort Detroit as inspiration for their own uprisings. Therefore, what is commonly called “Pontiac’s War” or “Pontiac’s Rebellion” was not quite a unified act of Native American aggression led by one man against the British, but rather a series of skirmishes across a wide area of the Northwest where Pontiac was just one of many Native leaders.
“Pontiac’s Rebellion” was not quite a unified act of Native American aggression, but rather a series of skirmishes across a wide area of the Northwest against the British.
Many White Settlers Die
These clashes between Native Americans and British may have resulted in the death and capture of over 2000 white settlers in territory west of the Allegheny Mountains while thousands more were forced to flee from their homes. Native American losses in the war were largely unrecorded although deaths from fighting and smallpox infections were unquestionably high. When Delaware people attacked Fort Pitt, General Amherst ordered retaliation in the form of blankets used at Fort Pitt in treating smallpox patients.
Undoubtedly smallpox had a devastating impact on the Native American people, though it is unclear just how deadly these blankets from Fort Pitt really were. Native people had long ago been exposed to smallpox and many tribes had means of treating and quarantining sick patients. However, smallpox continued to ravage through Native American population with devastating effect.
By 1764 the British negotiated a peace treaty with several tribes of Native Americans at Fort Niagara and by 1766 another peace treaty was signed at Fort Ontario with Pontiac himself.
While the Native people agreed to return some British prisoners and acknowledged British control over much of the Northwestern territory, this was not quite a military defeat for the Native Americans. The British had not successfully defeated the Native Americans, and in recalling General Amherst back to Great Britain, admitted that the British needed to abandon their demeaning policies and build relationships with the Native people.
The Paxton Boys
Many British colonists were unhappy with the conclusion of Pontiac’s War. In western Pennsylvania, a vigilante group called the Paxton Boys felt their government was not doing enough to protect them from Native American threats of violence.
In December of 1763 a group of fifty-seven Paxton Boys killed six Susquehanna people, thinking they had been involved in Pontiac’s Rebellion. Violence in Pennsylvania against Native Americans continued for weeks and only ended with promises from Benjamin Franklin to protect and defend frontier land claims.
Preventing Future Wars… Costly Future Wars
With the conclusion of Pontiac’s War, the British government wanted to prevent future conflicts between British colonists and Native Americans. While Parliament had been considering a proclamation line for some time, it was Pontiac’s War that sped up the announcement of this new frontier policy.
The Proclamation of 1763 drew a line from the northernmost tip of Maine to the southernmost parts of Georgia and compelled colonists to remain to the east of this line.
Native American tribes expressed satisfaction with such an arrangement, but colonists bristled. Hadn’t Great Britain won the French and Indian War because of the colonists’ costly sacrifices? Didn’t they deserve western land as reward for a long and hard-fought war?
Impact of the Proclamation of 1763
The British argued that the Proclamation of 1763 would keep both colonists and Native people safe while the British would maintain troops stationed on the frontier as an additional measure of security. North American British colonists did not see it this way.
The cost of maintaining a military presence in North America would have to be paid for by colonists who now found themselves subjected to parliamentary taxes for the first time. Cries of “no taxation without representation” would soon ripple across the colonies. Colonists also flouted the Proclamation line with wild abandon. New Englanders poured into the Green Mountains, New Yorkers moved into Mohawk territory, and hundreds of immigrants began clearing land in what would eventually become Tennessee. Frustrated frontier people created the Regulator movement to fight unfair taxes and unresponsive, elitist governments.
Colonists also flouted the Proclamation line with wild abandon; Frustrated frontier people created the Regulator movement to fight unfair taxes and unresponsive, elitist governments.
By the 1770s, colonial displeasure with the British parliament had escalated to feelings of revolt and eventually cries for independence.
Pontiac’s War is one of many examples of a serious clash of cultures between Native people and European colonists. Pontiac militarily led many different tribes of people in an effort to defend their land from dismissive and demeaning British policies. At the conclusion of the fighting, Britain acknowledged the need to keep colonists off of Native American lands and attempted to maintain peace through the Proclamation of 1763. Peace was not the result. The Proclamation line, along with a string of new taxes, forever changed the relationship of the colonists with their mother country and laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.