May 9th, 1763 – The Siege of Fort Detroit

239001087_orig.jpgIt had been just over three years after General James Wolfe met the Marquis de Saint-Veran, General Louis-Joseph Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Though it would cost both commanders their lives, it would be the turning point in the war that would lead to the inevitable British victory in North America. Not even the French successes at the Battle of Quebec could turn that tide anymore. Now, with the Treaty of Paris signed by France, England and Spain, that vast Northern territory that once belonged to Louis XV now rested in the hands of his nation’s ancient enemy. Soon it would fall upon the shoulders of the newly appointed Governor-General, Jeffery Amherst, the chief architect of the British victory, to secure the peace as, as Francis Parkman, author of France and England in North America, would observe, “Half of the continent had changed hands at the scratch of a pen.”

Perhaps had the Court of St. James chosen any other man some level of conciliation with NPG 150,Jeffrey Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst,by Thomas Gainsboroughthe Native tribes could have been reached. Yet, for as much disdain as General Amherst felt towards the French he now was charged with the governance of, it was nothing compared to the contempt he had for the Native American people. The idea that he might have to somehow placate them and keep the peace with them through the giving of gifts did nothing to change that opinion. Even as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern District, General William Johnson, a man respected by the tribes he was charged with keeping the peace with, pleaded with him to maintain those ties with Native Nations, he would make his position abundantly clear, “When Men of What race soever, behave ill they must be punished but not bribed.”

In that arrogant dismal it would soon become apparent that the days of friendlier relations with the French were over as Amherst demonstrated his lack of patience with them. Not only would he stop the gifts, trade would be restricted and guns and gun powder to the tribes would be limited, fueling the animosity between the two peoples. The fact that the British would refuse to pull from the Allegheny Valley at the forks of the Ohio would nothing to ease this tensions. It would be Amherst hard-line policies that would lead Chief Pontiac to unite the Great Lake tribes, the Ottawa, Ojibwa, Huron, and Potawatomi, to rise up, and throw off the European advances, embracing the traditional way of life preached by “The Delaware Prophet” Neolin.

s500.5167Just two days prior Pontiac had passed the gates of Fort Detroit with 300 men, their guns hidden in their blankets. He had hoped to launch a surprise attack and chase the British from its walls, but word had already reached Major Henry Gladwin of the plans. Even as they entered Pontiac and his men came to the realization that they were outgunned as they saw the British troops stationed around them with bayonets loaded and ready. The attack would be halted. The next day Pontiac, accompanied by three other Chief’s of the Ottawa, made every indication they had wanted peace. They had appeared before the gates of Fort Detroit to parlay with Gladwin, presenting him with a Calumet, a ceremonial pipe, with the assurances that they would return the next day to smoke it with him in the name of peace.

Then, on May 9th, 1763, at about 11 am, Pontiac would return with approximately 400 men that rowed 56 canoes across the river to the gates of the fort. Captain Donald Campbell, who would later be taken under a flag of truce, bludgeoned to death, scalped and dismembered by the Objibwa, before their Chief Wasson cut out and ate his heart, would come forward from the gate to greet them. Gladwin, acutely aware of the danger that Pontiac presented, and distrustful of all Natives even before this, would allow only a small number through the gate. Pontiac would explain that all his people would want to smell the smoke of the pipe. Gladwin would respond that then all would be allowed to enter, but only in small groups, one leaving before another would be allowed in.

The embarrassment and humiliation felt by Pontiac would be almost too much to bear, but worse yet, he knew the element of surprise was lost. Even as they turned from the gates they knew what had to be done and they would not be satisfied until the British were either dead or chased from Detroit.

As the war dance died down from the Native Camps, the war cry would go up as the Siege of Fort Detroit had begun, setting in motion a series of events that would send ripples and waves through the colonies for over a decade.

A brutal engagement, of which Pontiac himself was only responsible for a small part of fort_pontchartrain_du_detroit (1)the planning of, Pontiac’s Rebellion would spread as far west as present day Indiana and into the east as they laid siege on Fort Pitt, bringing out the darker nature of both sides as no mercy was shown. Amherst himself would propose the use of smallpox laden blankets to subdue the Native population as his sights would turn to biological warfare. The native tribes, in many instances, made no distinction between settler and soldier, torturing and slaughter both, as they had done with surrendering soldiers. In Western Pennsylvania British Colonists would form their own vigilante groups, and, making no distinction between friend or foe, murdered Native’s indiscriminately, while, in at least one case, that of Captain Campbell, a British soldier was cannibalized by the enemy. In the end the there would be no certainty as to the number of the losses from either side as, as one historian would describe it, “Both sides seemed intoxicated with genocidal fanaticism.”

Aware now of the dangers and the struggles now faced with the conclusion of the French and Indian Wars, George III would, by October of that year, sign the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which would forbid British settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains and void land grants offered by the Crown for service to it. Though having been planned before the Siege of Fort Detroit, Pontiac’s actions pushed it through hastily and pre-maturely. Even now one need not examine too hard the effects that it would ultimately have on the British subjects across the Atlantic. Having looked Westward for the abundance of land, and the potential that it brought, the Proclamation would enrage Colonists, who believed expansion into that territory was their right and destiny, bringing latent resentment towards the Court of Saint James and that far distant, far removed government in London to the forefront, resentments that would rear their head during the course of the next decade and beyond as America marched itself towards Revolution.

Eventually peace would be struck but, by that time, the damage had already been done. In the end the measures taken by the Crown to prevent future rebellion would, in turn, offer kindling to a different sort.

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