The Plot of Pontiac by Francis S. Drake

How Detroit was Saved in 1763


The long contest between England and France for the right to rule over North America, which lasted seventy years, and inflicted untold misery upon the hapless settlers on the English frontier, was at last brought to an end. England was victorious, and in 1763 a treaty was made by which France gave up Canada and all her Western posts.

With the exception of the Six Nations, the Indian tribes had fought on the side of the French, whose kind and generous course had won their affection. But the claims to the country which they and their forefathers had always possessed were utterly disregarded by both parties. Said an old chief on one occasion:

“The French claim all the land on one side of the Ohio, and the English claim all the land on the other side. Where, then, are the lands of the Indian?”

The final overthrow of the French left the Indians to contend alone with the English, who were steadily pushing them towards the setting sun. Seeing this, and wishing to rid his country of the hated pale-faces, who had driven the red men from their homes, Pontiac, the great leader of the Ottawas, determined—to use his own words—“to drive the dogs in red clothing” (the English soldiers) “into the sea.”

This renowned warrior, who had led the Ottawas at the defeat of General Braddock, was courageous, intelligent, and eloquent, and was unmatched for craftiness. Besides the kindred tribes of Ojibways, or Chippewas, and Pottawattomies, whose villages were with his own in the immediate vicinity of Detroit, a number of other warlike tribes agreed to join in the plot to overthrow the English. Pontiac refused to believe that the French had given up the contest, and relied upon their assistance also for the success of his plan.

All the English forts and garrisons beyond the Alleghanies were to be destroyed on a given day, and the defenceless frontier settlements were also to be swept away.

The capture of Detroit was to be the task of Pontiac himself. This terrible plot came very near succeeding. Nine of the twelve military posts on the exposed frontier were taken, and most of their defenders slaughtered, and the outlying settlements of Pennsylvania and Virginia were mercilessly destroyed.

On the evening of May 6, 1763, Major Gladwin, the commander at Detroit, received secret information that an attempt would be made next day to capture the fort by treachery. The garrison was weak, the defences feeble. Fearing an immediate attack, the sentinels were doubled, and an anxious watch was kept by Gladwin all that night.

 The next morning Pontiac entered the fort with sixty chosen warriors, each of whom had concealed beneath his blanket a gun, the barrel of which had been cut short. His plan was to demand that a council be held, and after delivering his speech to offer a peace belt of wampum. This belt was worked on one side with white and on the other side with green beads. The reversal of the belt from the white to the green side was to be the signal of attack. The plot was well laid, and would probably have succeeded had it not been revealed to Gladwin.

The savage throng, plumed and feathered and besmeared with paint to make themselves appear as hideous as possible, as their custom is in time of war, had no sooner passed the gateway than they saw that their plan had failed. Soldiers and employés were all armed and ready for action. Pontiac and his warriors, however, moved on, betraying no surprise, and entered the council-room, where Gladwin and his officers, all well armed, awaited them.

“Why,” asked Pontiac, “do I see so many of my father’s young men standing in the street with their guns?”

“To keep the young men to their duty, and prevent idleness,” was the reply.

The business of the council then began. Pontiac’s speech was bold and threatening. As the critical moment approached, and just as he was on the point of presenting the belt, and all was breathless expectation, Gladwin gave a signal. The drums at the door of the council suddenly rolled the charge, the clash of arms was heard, and the officers present drew their swords from their scabbards. Pontiac was brave, but this decisive proof that his plot was discovered completely disconcerted him. He delivered the belt in the usual manner, and without giving the expected signal.

Stepping forward, Gladwin then drew the chief’s blanket aside, and disclosed the proof of his treachery. The council then broke up. The gates of the fort were again thrown open, and the baffled savages were permitted to depart.

Stratagem having failed, an open attack soon followed, but with no better success. For months Pontiac tried every method in his power to capture the fort, but as the hunting-season approached, the disheartened Indians gradually went away, and he was compelled to give up the attempt.

In the campaign that followed, two armies were marched from different points into the heart of the Indian country. Colonel Bradstreet, on the north, passed up the lakes, and penetrated the region beyond Detroit, while on the south Colonel Bouquet advanced from Fort Pitt into the Delaware and Shawnee settlements of the Ohio Valley. The Indians were completely overawed. Bouquet compelled them to sue for peace, and to restore all the captives that had been taken from time to time during their wars with the whites.

The return of these captives, many of whom were supposed to be dead, and the reunion of husbands and wives, parents and children, and brothers and sisters, presented a scene of thrilling interest. Some were overjoyed at regaining their lost ones; others were heartbroken on learning the sad fate of those dear to them. What a pang pierced that mother’s breast who recognized her child only to find it clinging the more closely to its Indian mother, her own claims wholly forgotten!

Some of the children had lost all recollection of their former home, and screamed and resisted when handed over to their relatives. Some of the young women had married Indian husbands, and, with their children, were unwilling to return to the settlements. Indeed, several of them had become so strongly attached to their Indian homes and mode of life that after returning to their homes they made their escape and returned to their husbands’ wigwams.

Even the Indians, who are educated to repress all outward signs of emotion, could not wholly conceal their sorrow at parting with their adopted relatives and friends. Cruel as the Indian is in his warfare, to his captives who have been adopted into his tribe he is uniformly kind, making no distinction between them and those of his own race. To those now restored they offered furs and choice articles of food, and even begged leave to follow the army home, that they might hunt for the captives, and supply them with better food than that furnished to the soldiers. Indian women filled the camp with their wailing and lamentation both night and day.

One old woman sought her daughter, who had been carried off nine years before. She discovered her, but the girl, who had almost forgotten her native tongue, did not recognize her, and the mother bitterly complained that the child she had so often sung to sleep had forgotten her in her old age. Bouquet, whose humane instincts had been deeply touched by this scene, suggested an experiment. “Sing the song you used to sing to her when a child,” said he. The mother sang. The girl’s attention was instantly fixed. A flood of tears proclaimed the awakened memories, and the long-lost child was restored to the mother’s arms.