1763: Pontiac's War: A Great Lakes Indian Rebellion against the British Changed the Balance Forever between Indian and Colonist

By Taylor, Alan | American Heritage, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

1763: Pontiac's War: A Great Lakes Indian Rebellion against the British Changed the Balance Forever between Indian and Colonist


Taylor, Alan, American Heritage


THE DEAD WOMAN WAS one of the lowly Indian slaves known as Panis. Near Detroit in August 1762, she had helped another Pani to murder their master, a British trader. The outraged British commander in North America, Baron Jeffery Amherst, ordered them executed "with the utmost rigor and in the most publick manner." By putting them publicly to death, Amherst meant to demonstrate that the Indians had become colonial subjects answerable to British law. Earlier in the year, the French provincial authorities had surrendered their forts around the Great Lakes to the British under the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years' War. Emboldened by victory, Amherst vowed to impose a harsh peace on the Indians who had so long and ably supported their French allies. The Pani man broke his leg irons and escaped, leaving the woman to hang in late April 1763.

Amherst had no idea that her execution would set off a bloody and widespread rebellion two weeks later, which would remake the continent and lead to revolution. The nearby Ottawa dreaded the British execution of an Indian as an implicit assertion that they were now subordinate. They already felt insulted by Amherst's cutting off the flood of trade goods customarily paid by the French for permission to occupy the forts. No longer could the Indians play one European nation off the other to maintain their own independence, maximize their presents, and ensure trade competition. Meanwhile British colonists poured across the frontier to take lands from them.

Setting aside old rivalries, the chiefs of many nations developed a new cooperation by exchanging covert messages from Illinois to Niagara and from Pennsylvania to Lake Superior. But someone had to act first; it was to be the Ottawa, led by their chief, Pontiac, who were pressed to the point of violence by the hanging.

During the spring of 1763, the tribes surprised and captured most of the British forts around the Great Lakes and in the Ohio Valley. In June a band of Ojibwa playing lacrosse outside of Fort Michilimackinac pursued the ball into the surprised fort and slaughtered most of the garrison. Through the summer and fall, the rebels raided the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia frontiers, killing or capturing about two thousand colonists, but failing to take the three strongest British forts: Detroit, Niagara, and Fort Pitt. …

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