Pontiac: Local Warrior or Pan-Indian Leader?

By Middleton, Richard | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Pontiac: Local Warrior or Pan-Indian Leader?


Middleton, Richard, Michigan Historical Review


In 1848 a delegation of Menominee people from the Green Bay area of Wisconsin met a United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs to discuss the tribe's removal west of the Mississippi. One of the chiefs complained to a group of waiting Indians that the white people never gave up their quest for land. This led him to comment that Pontiac had foreseen such an outcome. His listeners asked who was Pontiac? Sho-no-nee, the Menominee chief, responded that he was "a noble minded Indian" who had lived long before. He had once come to Milwaukee to warn the different tribes about the white man and his ways. Pontiac had observed that they invariably came speaking softly, deluding the Indians into allowing them into their community. Once admitted they gained strength by continually encroaching on the Indians' land. Pontiac's message had been clear. It was time to "sweep the white men from our country." Much to their regret, the Menominee had failed to heed his words. (1) Now they were paying the price for not supporting a man who could have been Native America's George Washington.

This incident is indicative of the two enduring views of Pontiac. The first is that he was a great pan-Indian leader whose warnings should have been heeded by all Native Peoples. The other is that Pontiac was a relatively minor figure, forgotten even by his own people, whose deeds merit little more than a footnote in the history of North America.

Interestingly, Euro-American contemporaries of Pontiac veered toward the first view, that he was a pan-Indian leader. General Sir Jeffery Amherst had few doubts about his central role, dubbing Pontiac "the Ringleader of the Mischief" that began in May 1763 and resulted in the capture of every British post west of the Allegheny Mountains, with the exception of Forts Pitt, Detroit, and Niagara with its several outposts. (2) Amherst's successor, General Thomas Gage, agreed. Even two years after the outbreak of fighting, he observed that Pontiac had retained his "influence" and capacity to "do mischief," especially among the western nations. This was confirmed by Colonel John Campbell, who noted Pontiac's "vast influence" during a peace conference at Detroit in the summer of 1765, which signaled an end to the hostilities. The importance of the Ottawa leader was publicized for a short time in London by Robert Rogers in his play, Ponteach, or, the Savages of America: A Tragedy. (3)

Although both Europeans and Native Americans may have subsequently forgotten about Pontiac, as was seemingly the case at the time of the Menominee removal, his prominence as a pan-Indian leader was restated soon afterwards with the publication in 1851 of Francis Parkman's magisterial study, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada. Parkman wrote that Pontiac's authority over the confederated Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi "was almost despotic, and his power extended far beyond the limits of the three united tribes. His influence was great among all the nations of the Illinois country; while from the sources of the Ohio to those of the Mississippi, and, indeed, to the farthest boundaries of the wide-spread Algonquin race, his name was known and respected." (4)

However, not everyone was convinced of Pontiac's role as a pan-Indian leader, especially by the twentieth century. Randolph G. Adams, author of the 1935 entry about Pontiac in the Dictionary of American Biography, asserted that in reality he was little more than "the greatest local menace." (5) A similar view was taken by Howard Peckham in Pontiac and the Indian Uprising, published in 1947: "There was no grand conspiracy or pre-concerted plan on his part embracing all the western tribes.... In the beginning there was only a local conspiracy at Detroit directed by Pontiac." Peckham did acknowledge, though, that the Ottawa leader had "improvised a more general uprising after his initial tactics failed." (6)

This view of Pontiac has subsequently dominated scholarly assessments.

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