Ohio History Journal




WAS THE PONTIAC UPRISING A CONSPIRACY

WAS THE PONTIAC UPRISING A CONSPIRACY?

by WILBUR R. JACOBS

Instructor in American History, Santa Barbara College,

University of California

Ever since Francis Parkman wrote his classic account of

the Indian war of 1763, historians have questioned the exact

nature of the origin of Parkman's so-called "conspiracy" of

Pontiac. Contemporary manuscripts reveal that there were enough

abuses suffered by the Indians at the hands of the whites to justify

in the minds of the natives a rebellion. Was the indignation of

the tribesmen the cause of a concerted attack upon the British

outposts in the summer of 1763? Or were the secret machinations

of the great "Pondiac" behind this furious native outbreak?

By the very title of his work, The Conspiracy of Pontiac,

Francis Parkman indicated that he believed the Ottawa leader to

have been the organizer of the Indian attackers. Verification of

this view can again be seen when Parkman writes that near the

end of the year 1762 Pontiac

 

sent ambassadors to the different nations. They visited the country of

the Ohio and its tributaries, passed northward to the region of the upper

lakes, and the borders of the river Ottawa; and far southward towards

the mouth of the Mississippi. Bearing with them the war-belt of wampum,

broad and long, as the importance of the message demanded, and the

tomahawk stained red, in token of war, they went from camp to camp

and village to village.1

1 Francis Parkman, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the

Conquest of Canada (3 vols., Boston, 1898), I, 194-195. Parkman's incomplete

citation for this statement is as follows: "MS. Letter-M. D'Abbadie to M. Neyon,

1764." Professor Albert T. Volwiler supports Parkman's thesis that the Indian

war followed the pattern of a carefully designed conspiracy against the British. In

his scholarly biography of George Croghan he states: "So well planned and wide-

spread was Pontiac's conspiracy that by midsummer in 1763 the English remained

in possession of but three of the French posts which they had just occupied. Nine

forts were surprised and captured, two thousand English soldiers, traders, and

settlers captured or killed, often with the foulest barbarity, some thousands of

English settlers driven to beggary, and traders and troops plundered of goods valued

at nearly 100,000. Albert T. Volwiler, George Croghan and the Westward Move-

ment, 1741-1782 (Cleveland, 1926), 164.

26



The Pontiac Uprising 27

The Pontiac Uprising                    27

Parkman's authority for this statement is a letter which he

cites but which has not been located since his time. The letter

is by one Sieur d'Abbadie, the newly appointed Ordonnateur of

Louisiana, and the date is loosely given merely as "1764." No

place is cited. D'Abbadie arrived in Louisiana from France on

June 29, 1763, and was hardly in a position to give accurate

information relative to Pontiac's actions in the year 1762.2 The

fact that war-belts were being circulated by the northern and

western Indians is, however, substantiated by other sources.3 It

does seem odd, nevertheless, that Parkman would rely chiefly

upon a letter written in 1764, two years after Pontiac had sent

his wampum ambassadors "from camp to camp and village to

village." Since this source confirms his whole thesis of the "con-

spiracy" of Pontiac, Parkman might well have given a complete

description of the letter.

In his new book concerning Pontiac's war, Howard H.

Peckham takes a different view and maintains that "there was no

grand conspiracy or preconcerted plan on his [Pontiac's] part

embracing all the western tribes."4 Peckham contends further

that the whole uprising was a war for Indian independence with

a local conspiracy at Detroit. The interpretation follows that

Pontiac did attempt a more general uprising but only after his

first attempts were foiled. It was these second attempts which

almost forced the British to give up their major frontier posts.

For an evaluation of these opposing points of view, the source

materials are meager. Despite Parkman's lifelike picture of the

character and personality of Pontiac and the manner in which the

conspiracy was planned, it is apparent that the great writer on the

French and Indian War was occasionally treading upon soft

ground.5 When he uncovered the Pontiac manuscript which he

 

2 See Kerlerec to Minister, July 4, 1763, Archives Nationales, Colonies, C 13,

43:206. Also see sketch in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., "The French Regime in

Wisconsin--III," Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, XVIII

(1908), 221n.

3 See footnotes 22 and 23.

4 Howard H. Peckham, Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (Princeton, 1947),

111.

5 Peckham questions Parkman's use of the writings of Robert Rogers as an

authority. See ibid., 59-62.



28 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

28     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

used so skillfully in his narrative, Parkman was relying upon

the work of an unknown author, presumably a French priest. In

justifying the use of this document Parkman declared that the

details closely paralleled events described in other sources. He

further wrote that "this very minuteness affords strong internal

evidence of its authenticity." This unidentified author was sup-

posed to have secured his knowledge concerning Pontiac, the

speeches of the Ottawa leader, and the secret negotiations pre-

ceding the attack on Detroit from French Canadians who were

present at certain Indian council meetings.6

Howard H. Peckham also used this manuscript, which has

since been attributed to one Robert Navarre, a Canadian, and

secured much material from        the collections of the William L.

Clements Library.7 Parkman, of course, had no opportunity to

use the collections.

Aside from this Pontiac manuscript, or the Navarre journal,

the source materials contain relatively little regarding Pontiac

as an individual. The Bouquet papers at the Canada Archives,

the Amherst correspondence at the Library of Congress, and the

Gage papers at the William       L. Clements Library include much

general material relative to the Indian war of 1763 but almost

nothing concerning the exact nature of the origin of the war.

Much must be left to a close examination of the letters of the

frontiersmen and soldiers who were involved in the conflict.8

 

6 Parkman, op. cit., I, 215n.

7 Peckham has relied upon Robert Navarre's Journal of the Conspiracy of

Pontiac, 1763, translated by R. Clyde Ford (Detroit, 1910), for most of the material

in his book relating to the origin of the war. R. Clyde Ford states that Robert

Navarre, the scrivener, was probably the author. C. M. Burton, who wrote the

preface to the translation, states that the writing proves that no priest was the

author of the manuscript. For a description of the General Thomas Gage Papers

in the William L. Clements Library, see Guide to the Manuscript Collections in the

William L. Clements Library, compiled by Howard H. Peckham (Ann Arbor, 1942).

Selections from these papers were published by Clarence E. Carter in The Corre-

spondence of General Thomas Gage with the Secretaries of State, 1763-1775 (2 vols.,

New Haven, 1931-33). Peckham also used the Sir Jeffery Amherst Papers, Public

Record Office, War Office 34. A summarized index covering volumes 1-250 and a

detailed index covering part of the papers are available in the division of manu-

scripts of the Library of Congress. The University of Michigan General Library

has a microfilm copy of the Amherst Papers.

8 See manuscript and printed works relating to Robert Rogers, George

Croghan, Sir William Johnson, Sir Jeffery Amherst, General Thomas Gage, General

Robert Monckton, Colonel Henry Bouquet, Major Henry Gladwin, and Captain



The Pontiac Uprising 29

The Pontiac Uprising                        29

Whether the war broke out as a result of Pontiac's intrigues

or whether the Indians merely followed his example, it is clear

that the tribesmen along the whole northwestern frontier were

ripe for vengeance against the whites. By the spring of 1763

only a spark was needed to start the conflagration.

One of the chief causes for anger among the warriors was

the parsimonious attitude of the British government in the matter

of giving supplies to the Indians. After the long war they were

in great need of food and had little ammunition. French officers

had long since recognized that the day of the bow and arrow had

passed.9 For hunting purposes the Indians now needed powder

and lead. Yet it was these very items which were withheld from

the tribesmen by the British because of a fear of rebellion. Fur-

thermore, there was ordered a drastic cut in food, clothing,

jewelry, and hardware hitherto given rather freely to the Indians.

If any man could be held responsible for the new British policy

of making the natives hunt for their livelihood instead of giving

them free presents, it was the commander-in-chief of the British

forces, Sir Jeffery Amherst.

Sir Jeffery's correspondence shows that he misunderstood the

Indians and underestimated their military strength.10 He signed

warrants authorizing supplies for the warriors while they were

still fighting the French; but after the war the Indian fighting

men were treated as mere pawns of the British military. Begging

Indians were turned away, and those who had furs to trade were

told to leave after they had finished their business. The credit

system was largely abandoned, and the warrior had to pay a high

price for a cheap stroud to warm his body.l1

 

Donald Campbell. A great deal of the source material relating to the Indian war

is found in the Bouquet Papers in the British Museum. The Bouquet correspondence

has in part been published in a mimeographed form by the Pennsylvania Historical

Commission. See also the transcripts of the Bouquet Papers, Series A., in the

Canadian Archives. A calendar, which was originally begun by Douglas Brymer,

archivist, in the Reports of the Canada Archives, is very useful.

9 See D'Abbadie to Accaron, April 10, 1764, Archives Nationales, Colonies,

C 13, 44:52.

10 For a summary of Amherst's policy toward the Indians, see Jeffery Amherst

to George Croghan, May 11, 1763, Bouquet Papers, A 4, pp. 223-235, Canadian

Archives photostat.

11 See Indian Trade Regulations at Fort Pitt, in James Sullivan and others,

eds., The Papers of Sir William Johnson (9 vols., Albany, 1921-39), III, 530-532.



30 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

30    Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

Personally Amherst thought that the Indians were a nuisance

and should be exterminated. These sentiments were revealed when

it became apparent that the Indian war of 1763 was more than a

scattered outbreak of howling savages. Aroused and frustrated

because of the Indian victories, Sir Jeffery urged Colonel Henry

Bouquet to spread the scourge of smallpox among the attacking

tribes!12 If this strategem did not prove successful, Amherst was

in favor of hunting the savages down with ferocious dogs. It was

unthinkable to the general that these men of the Stone Age would

have the effrontery to launch an assault upon his Royal American

troops.

With such a man in a position to control the management of

Indian affairs it is no wonder that there was an Indian outbreak.

Sir William Johnson and George Croghan saw the handwriting on

the wall. They tried to restrain Amherst in his tight-fisted policy

toward the natives, but the general would not be swayed from

his course.

Although the discontinuance of presents to the Indians was

a factor which irritated all the tribes, the Delaware were espe-

cially aroused against the whites by a prophet called the Dela-

ware Prophet or the Impostor, who rose among them. This re-

ligious leader, who claimed to have had contact with the "Great

Spirit," advocated that the Indians return to their primitive way

of life and abandon the influences of the white man's civilization.

He also emphasized the evils of polygamy, but apparently he had

no military program.l3

It remained for Pontiac to revise this prophecy from the

"Master of Life." In his speech before the representatives of the

Ottawa, the Fox, and the Huron it was asserted by Pontiac that

 

12 Parkman, op. cit., II, 173-174. Colonel Henry Bouquet's answer to Amherst's

request is found in a letter from Bouquet to Amherst dated July 13, 1763. Bouquet

wrote: "I will try to inoculate the .............. with Some Blankets that may fall

in their Hands, and take Care not to get the Disease myself." Pennsylvania His-

torical Survey, The Papers of Col. Henry Bouquet (19 vols., Harrisburg, 1940-43),

Series 21634, pp. 214-215. Captain Simeon Ecuyer, commander at Fort Pitt during

the seige, did give the Indians some blankets from the smallpox hospital. See A.

T. Volwiler, ed., "William Trent's Journal at Fort Pitt, 1763," Mississippi Valley

Historical Review, XI (1924), 400.

13 Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, XVIII (1908),

259-260.



The Pontiac Uprising 31

The Pontiac Uprising                   31

the "Master of Life" desired that the Indians drive the whites

out of their country and make war upon them.l4     Apparently

Pontiac did a thorough job in arousing the Indians to a fighting

frenzy. Even the Illinois warriors attacked the British because of

the message from the "Master of Life." Certainly the teachings

of the Delaware Prophet were well known among the Indians

who participated in the war. Much of their tenacity and fury in

battle may be attributed to a religious zeal. Pontiac used the

teachings of the Prophet to "spirit up"15 his warriors and con-

federates.

Another factor which greatly stirred up the wrath of the

tribesmen was the encroachment of the British upon native lands.

The Seneca in particular were conscious of the numerous forts

in the Iroquois country. They, like the Delaware, resented in-

trusions upon their best lands and viewed the numerous forts as

the latest encroachment upon their territories. Even the Christian

members of the Oneida asked that these forts be "pull'd down, &

kick'd out of the way."16

With some 1,050 fighting men the Seneca were one of the

strongest military powers of the Iroquoian confederacy. Living

in what is now the western part of the state of New York, they

had been in close contact with the French for many years. Sir

William Johnson found that these people were the most difficult

to control of all his Indian wards, but he always treated them

with the consideration to which their military power entitled them.

After the conquest of Canada in 1760, however, the Seneca, like

all the other Indian "nations," found themselves reduced to a

subservient people at the mercy of the arrogant officers who com-

manded the British forts.

If Pontiac had never been able to unite the Indians against

the British, the Seneca probably would have. According to the

 

14 Pioneer Collections of the Pioneer and Historical Society of the State of

Michigan, VIII (1886), 271. This citation is from the Pontiac manuscript.

15 Thomas Gage used this term when referring to the machinations of Pontiac.

16 Parkman, op. cit., I, 184.



32 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

32     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

recently discovered George Croghan diary17 covering this period,

the Seneca in 1761 planned a grand assault against the British.

They conspired to have the tribes living in the vicinity of Detroit

begin the attack by capturing the fort, murdering the traders,18

and seizing the booty. In cooperation with this move, the Miami,

the Delaware, and the Shawnee, and all other tribes living between

the Ohio River and Lake Erie were simultaneously to fall upon

all the forts between the frontier of Pennsylvania and the strong-

hold at Fort Pitt. All the scattered villages of the Iroquois in

the Ohio region were suddenly to overwhelm Presqu'Isle, Le

Boeuf, and Venango. The line of communication between German

Flats in the Mohawk Valley and Fort Niagara was to be severed

by fighting men from the Six Nations and the Susquehanna tribes.

Meantime the formidable Cherokee towns were to be visited by

a delegation of a hundred Iroquois warriors.19 The Cherokee

tribesmen were to be told that the northern Indians would be

joined by an invading French army (a belief held by Pontiac,

according to Parkman), while the western and southern Indians

would envelop the frontiers.

Unhappily for the Indians, this ambitious plan was discov-

ered by Captain Donald Campbell, who commanded Fort Detroit,

and George Croghan, Sir William Johnson's deputy superintend-

ent. The Seneca had been informing Indians far and near that

the main reason they wished to attack the British was because

they had been refused ammunition!20 It is quite possible that the

French intrigues with the Seneca were at the bottom of the plot

and that the Indians wished to conceal their advisors.

 

17 See Nicholas B. Wainwright, ed., "George Croghan's Journal, 1759-1763,"

Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, LXXI (1947), 411. The Seneca

conspiracy is mentioned in other places, but Croghan gives the details of the plan

of attack.

18 The warriors had a special grievance against the traders who committed

the most vile crimes against their families. For a discussion of the abuses suffered

by the Indians, see Allan Nevins, ed., Ponteach: or the Savages of America, A

Tragedy by Robert Rogers (Chicago, 1914).

19 The Cherokee had no great desire to become involved in another conflict

with the British after the Cherokee War of 1759-1761. For an account of this war

see John Richard Alden, John Stuart and the Southern Colonial Frontier (Ann

Arbor, 1944), 101-136.

20 Many other tribes were angry with the British for this reason.



The Pontiac Uprising 33

The Pontiac Uprising                     33

In support of Parkman's thesis, that an extensive conspiracy

under the leadership of Pontiac did take place, it is quite possible

that the Ottawa leader used the plans of the Seneca as a pattern

for his grand assault upon the British forts. Parkman maintained

that the genius of Pontiac gave direction and order to the Seneca

machinations. The Seneca had a very able chief in Kaiaghshota

(sometimes known as Cuyashusta or Kiasola), who had a deep

hatred of the British. This secret plan was attributed to him by

the late Lyman C. Draper, who interviewed the son and nephew

of the great Seneca chief. Draper apparently came to the con-

clusion that Kaiaghshota was "an arch-plotter with Pontiac, and

that uprising is occasionally known as Guyashusta's War."21

Parkman hinted that the Seneca chief fanned to a flame the

smoldering anger of the Indians and that Pontiac, a more able

leader, directed what might have been a wild outburst into a long

and bitterly fought war. There is positive evidence of war-belts

being secretly passed from tribe to tribe just before Pontiac

threw off his disguise of friendship and hurled his warriors at

Fort Detroit. On January 22, 1763, George Croghan reported

that a war-belt was being carried "throw [sic] all the Western

Nations of Indians Desiering [sic] they might Strike ye English

this Spring."22 Confirming Parkman's judgment, the Pennsylvania

trader reported that this wampum belt was borne by a Seneca

warrior. Aaron, a Mohawk tribesman who sent intelligence to

Sir William   Johnson, declared that the Seneca began the war

against the British. Despite this evidence of the prominent part

played by the Seneca, it is known that Pontiac sent messages to

all of the western tribes before his initial attack upon Detroit.23

Captain Daniel Claus, Sir William Johnson's son-in-law, intimated

that the Ottawa chief sent ambassadors even to the Sioux. Be-

 

21 Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, XVIII (1908).

240-241n. In a speech before Colonel Bouquet on October 17, 1764, Kaiaghshota

(spelled Keyashuta in the document) wisely denied the responsibility of the war

and declared that it was the fault of the western nations and "our foolish Young

Men." See Speeches of Seneca and Delaware Indian Chiefs, October 17, 1764, in

The Papers of Colonel Henry Bouquet, Series 21655, pp. 235-236.

22 Wainwright, loc. cit., 435.

23 Daniel Claus to William Johnson, August 6, 1763, in Collections of the

State Historical Society of Wisconsin, XVIII (1908), 256-258.



34 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

34    Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

cause not all Pontiac's invitations to attack the British were ac-

cepted, it does not necessarily follow that he did not plot to

destroy the British.

Once the hostilities began, Sir William Johnson did all in his

power to prevent the conflagration from spreading to the friendly

tribes. The Seneca tried to induce the other members of the Six

Nations to join the conspiracy, but when the war-hatchet was

thrown upon the ground it was not acknowledged by the remainder

of the Iroquois tribes. Johnson, ever alert to the actions of the

unfriendly Seneca, anticipated this move and sent a message

imploring the other Indians to remain loyal to the British. So

potent was the influence of the superintendent that the Mohawks

declared their intention of "living and dying with the English."

Sir William, however, was not able to prevent nine strong-

holds from falling into the hands of the Indians. Forts Le Boeuf,

Presqu'Isle, Venango, and Michilimackinac were among these

outposts which fell into savage hands. But there remained the

bulwarks of the British defense system, Fort Pitt and Fort Detroit.

Throughout the whole campaign, the tribesmen fought with deter-

mination and persistence. It was not likely that they were without

Pontiac's leadership. As the reports drifted in concerning the

progress of the war, the Annual Register commented on this

point:

Upon the whole of this war, so far as it has hitherto proceeded we

cannot help observing, that the Indians seem to be animated with a

more dark and daring spirit than at any former time. They seem to

have concerted their measures with ability, and to have chosen the times

and places of their several attacks with skill; to have behaved them-

selves in those attacks with firmness and resolution; to have succeeded

on some occasions, and to have no decisive loss in any.24

Because all the attacks did not begin on the same day does

not mean that the Indians were without a scheme of operations.

Communication in this vast wilderness, interspersed with lakes

and mountains, was very difficult. Each force of attacking war-

riors had to secure ammunition, and this was, as has been noted

 

24 The Annual Register or a View of History, Politics, and Literature For the

Year 1763 (London, 1796), 31.



The Pontiac Uprising 35

The Pontiac Uprising                         35

previously, a very scarce item. The inferior ability of local chiefs

was another factor which added to the problem of launching a

simultaneous assault.25

It is likely that Pontiac was certainly behind the conspiracy

because of his great influence over the Indians of the entire Old

Northwest. When it came to making the peace, the British knew

that he was the one chief, above all others, who had the most

prestige. It is true that he had at times the brutality of a savage.

Yet his thirst for knowledge and his ability to keep his word in

protecting messengers and restoring property were not the marks

of an ordinary Indian. His authority over the Indians was de-

clared to be absolute. This was almost unheard of among the

tribesmen of the North American wilderness.26 The very fact that

he was able through his tremendous influence to "spirit up" the

Arkansas warriors against the English indicates the extent of his

ascendency over the natives. As Parkman wrote, "The American

forest had never produced a man more shrewd, politic, and am-

bitious."27 It is not impossible that such a man could have plotted

a carefully devised and secret plan for the annihilation of the

British.

In his new book on Pontiac Howard H. Peckham has not

included manuscripts to indicate that there was not a conspiracy.

Besides, he has not been able to locate Parkman's source for the

statement that Pontiac sent ambassadors to the western and north-

ern towns previous to the attack on Detroit. It is true that this

 

25 The Indians attacking Fort Pitt had no such leader as Pontiac to help

them. William Trent's journal shows, nevertheless, that they tried to use every bluff

possible to secure the peaceful evacuation of the fort, and they did fight with

tenacity and courage. See note 12 for the smallpox incident.

26 Teedyuscung, the great Delaware sachem, told the governor of Pennsylvania

in 1756 that "all the Indian Nations from the Sunrise . . . beyond the Lakes, as

far as the Sun setts" had appointed him their speaker. Papers of Sir William

Johnson, II, 826; Pennsylvania Colonial Records (16 vols., Philadelphia, 1852-53),

VIII, 33. Concerning this claim of Teedyuscung, Sir William Johnson declared:

"The Indian manner of speaking is indeed somewhat figurative, but this is a Rant

beyond what I have ever met with." Papers of Sir William Johnson, II, 826. There

is no evidence that Pontiac's authority was ever questioned. On the contrary,

Pontiac was blamed for the "spiriting up" of the Indians from the Illinois tribes

to the Arkansas warriors. Thomas Gage to Henry Bouquet, December 20, 1764,

Bouquet Papers, A 8, pp. 491-497, Canadian Archives photostat. General Thomas

Gage thought that the best and only way to make peace with the Indians was to

"win over Pondiac." Ibid.

27 Parkman, op. cit., I, 174.



36 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

36   Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

particular citation may be questioned, but Parkman's whole thesis

is not proved wrong. Croghan's account of the great war-belt

being sent among all the western tribes, even as far west as the

Illinois country, shows that a conspiracy was afoot. The testi-

mony of Daniel Claus regarding Pontiac's belts of wampum being

sent to the western nations buttresses Parkman's interpretation

that Pontiac took the leadership away from the Seneca.28

Because Pontiac led a small force against Detroit, it does

not follow that this was only a local encounter and not connected

with a conspiracy on the part of the Indians. The other tribesmen

did not all begin to fight by following Pontiac's example. Granted

that the whole native population had grievances against the

whites, it was this very factor which Pontiac used to his advantage.

When the British antagonized the warriors to the explosion point,

Pontiac made the most of the opportunity which presented itself.

This action of Pontiac, however, did not constitute a "conspiracy"

in the full sense of the word.

Much depends upon the definition of conspiracy. Usually it

connotes plotting by a small group to achieve evil or unlawful

ends. From the point of view of the British, the ends were evil.

From the point of view of the Indians, they were legitimate

aspirations.

If Pontiac and a few of his confederates had incited the

Indians into a carefully planned uprising without the tribesmen

having had grievances, the word "conspiracy" might have more

justification. Instead, Pontiac canalized existing grievances and

provided leadership for the rebellion, in which case we have not

a "conspiracy" but a war for native independence. Our American

revolution, which we regard as a glorious revolution, was looked

upon by many British leaders as a criminal conspiracy. When

he used the word "conspiracy," which is a somewhat ugly and

catchy word for a title, Parkman did not do justice to the Indian

aspirations for self-determination. The "conspiracy of Pontiac"

was actually a war for Indian independence.

 

28 See footnote 23.



The Pontiac Uprising 37

The Pontiac Uprising                37

This viewpoint is more in accord with the conclusions of

Howard H. Peckham. It appears, nevertheless, that more credit

should be given to Pontiac for organizing the Indian attackers in

the initial stages of the war. Pontiac should be recognized, above

all other chiefs, as the one Indian who took the leadership in

planning the attack and inciting the Indians against the British.

He was the guiding spirit behind the Indian war for independence.