Famed soldier of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, Israel Putnam also served during Pontiac's Rebellion.
Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763-1765) was an armed conflict between the British Empire and Algonquian, Iroquoian, Muskogean, and Siouan-speaking Native Americans following the Seven Years’ War. Also known as “Pontiac’s War” or “Pontiac’s Uprising,” the violence represented an unprecedented pan-Indian resistance to European colonization in North America, in which Indigenous nations – Ottawa, Delaware, Potawatomie, Shawnee, Mingo (Seneca), Wyandot, Ojibwe, Huron, Choctaw, Piankashaw, Kickapoo, Tunica, Peoria, and Mascouten – challenged the attempts by the British Empire to impose its will and abrogate Native sovereignty. Although the war originated in the Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley, the violence spread as fast west to the Illinois Country and as far east to western Virginia. Even though the conflict ended in a stalemate after two years of intense fighting, the British Empire was forced to reconsider its policy toward Native Americans, ultimately recognizing Indigenous autonomy. However, the American colonists resented the empire’s change of heart, given that such conciliatory measures ran counter to their anxieties and hostility toward Native Americans, which contributed to the growing disillusionment that culminated in revolution.
The origins of “Pontiac’s Rebellion” can be traced to the political fallout of the Seven Years’ War. Following the British victory in 1763, the empire sought to integrate former French and Spanish territories – Canada, Florida, and the Great Lakes – into its American dominion. At the same time, the English inherited an elaborate system of alliances with the Indigenous peoples of those regions, which prompted imperial administrators to deliberate on whether or not Native Americans were the subjects of empire or autonomous polities. In the end, the governor general in North America – Jeffrey Amherst – summed up British attitudes toward Native Americans, who were “the Vilest Race of Beings that Ever Infested the Earth,” and he was “fully convinced the only true method of treating those [Indians] is to keep them in a proper subjection.” Most egregiously, Amherst discontinued the political tradition of gift-giving, an unnecessary cost in his eyes. But in most Indigenous societies, gifting was culturally important and cemented the political relationships between two parties. Therefore, Amherst violated Native expectations and, in effect, severed potential alliance between the British Empire and Indigenous nations. Coupled with the post-war encroachments on Native territories by colonists, imperial restrictions on trade, and stationing English troops in the Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley, Native American groups such as the Ottawa and Iroquois complained “These steps appears to them as if the English have a mind to cut them off the face of the earth.”1
Simultaneous to these developments was the spread of a revitalization movement by the Delaware Prophet, Neolin. Burdened with a vision from the “Master of Life” (the “Great Spirit” to others), Neolin expressed that Native Americans had become too dependent on Europeans for their livelihoods, particularly when it came to the tools and weapons they used on a daily basis. In addition, alcohol corrupted Indigenous societies, missionaries threatened Native ways of life, and colonists trespassed on their lands. Neolin’s message also represented a fusion of Delaware and Christian traditions, driven by a millenarian faith that the world was on the brink of disaster unless they acted against the European threat. After which Neolin promised their old ways – and previous lives – would return and flourish. It did not take much to convince leaders like the Ottawa headman, Pontiac, “it is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation [British] which seeks to destroy us.”2
In May 1763, Native American in the Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley went on the offensive and overran Britain’s westernmost fortifications, from Fort Edward Augustus in present-day Wisconsin to Fort Presque Isle in western Pennsylvania. While historians dispute whether “Pontiac’s Rebellion” started as a coordinated or spontaneous assault, the war quickly spread throughout Native America. From the beginning, Indigenous strategy revolved around besieging the western forts, cutting off all communications and reinforcements, and subduing the surrounding settler communities. For the most part, the offensive was successful, and by the end of June 1763, only three forts remained – Niagara, Detroit, and Pitt. British responses proved sluggish, since Amherst believed Indigenous peoples incapable of concerted action. It was not until the following year that the empire launched expeditions to try and relieve the pressure on the surviving garrisons. Even then, British forces scored only minor victories, which were offset by continuous raids in western Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. The war only came to an end in early 1765 when French aid failed to materialize for Native Americans, the prospect of the Iroquois Confederacy’s intervention on behalf of the empire, and – more significantly – promises by imperial administrators to conform to Native understandings of their alliances and recognize Indigenous sovereignty.
The legacies of “Pontiac’s Rebellion” were many. Most important, the conflict enabled Native Americans to endure as major players in the geopolitics of North America during the eighteenth-century by compelling the British to reevaluate its “Indian Affairs” and give in to Native demands for fear of a prolonged war. Similarly, it featured one of the greatest examples of pan-Indian resistance to colonization and provided precedents for future pan-Indian movements like the “Northwest Confederacy” of the 1790s and Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa’s coalition in the early nineteenth-century.
The violence also produced unforeseen consequences. Those who bore the brunt of the violence were Americans settlers; scholars estimate that over five hundred civilians lost their lives. The mortality and resulting trauma incited indiscriminate attacks against Native populations during and after the conflict, including the infamous Paxton Boys massacre of the Conestoga (Susquehannock) Indians. In addition, what emerged in the colonies was a culture of “Indian-hating” – or the “anti-Indian sublime”3 – in which Europeans of different religions, ethnicities, and political affiliations rallied together, despite their dissimilarities, against a Native “Other.” And when the British Empire took measures to defend Native sovereignty, like enforcing the Proclamation Line of 1763, the colonists vented their frustrations upon the empire, all of which contributed to the revolutionary storm brewing in the American colonies between 1763 and 1775.
1. Silverman, David J. Thundersticks: The Violent Transformation of Native America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016) 130, 122, 128.
2. Calloway, Colin G. The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 70.
3. Silver, Peter. Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008)
Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Vintage Books, 2001)
Calloway, Colin G. The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Dowd, Gregory Evans. War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002)
Silver, Peter. Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008)
Silverman, David J. Thundersticks: The Violent Transformation of Native America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016)