Chief Pontiac

Missing image
No authentic images of Pontiac are known to exist. This is an artist's interpretation.

Pontiac or Obwandiyag (between 1712 and 1725April 20, 1769), was a Native American Ottawa war leader, remembered for his participation in a struggle against British occupation of the Great Lakes region that bears his name: Pontiac's Rebellion. Pontiac rose to great fame and importance during that war, and yet the documentary evidence of Pontiac's life is scanty. Much of what has been written about Pontiac had been based on tradition and speculation, and so depictions of him have varied greatly over the years.1

Pontiac was labeled the "chief" of the Ottawas by his white contemporaries and subsequent historians; modern historians believe that the Ottawas did not have an overall chief in Pontiac's time, and that Native American leaders did not issue commands with the authority that Pontiac was traditionally portrayed as having. However, Pontiac's rise to prominence led British officials to negotiate with Pontiac as if he had such authority. Pontiac embraced this expansive role, causing tensions with other Indian leaders, which ultimately helped lead to his downfall.2


Early years

There is little reliable information about Pontiac before the rebellion of 1763. Pontiac was probably born between 1712 and 1725, perhaps at an Ottawa village on the Detroit or Maumee Rivers. According to tradition, his father was an Ottawa and his mother an Ojibwa, and so both were of the Anishinaabe people. By 1755 he had become a prominent war leader among the loose confederacy of Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ojibwa people — the Council of Three Fires. He was an ally of France and possibly took part in the victory (9 July 1755) over the Braddock Expedition at the outset of the French and Indian War. In one of the earliest accounts of Pontiac, the famous British frontier soldier Robert Rogers claimed to have met with Pontiac in 1760; historians now consider Rogers's story to be unreliable. Rogers wrote a play about Pontiac in 1765 called Ponteach: or the Savages of America, which helped to make Pontiac famous and began the process of mythologizing the Ottawa leader.

Siege of Detroit

After the French and Indian War, Native American ("Indian") allies of the defeated French found themselves increasingly dissatisfied with the trading practices of the victorious British. The architect of British Indian policy, General Jeffrey Amherst, decided to cut back on the provisions customarily distributed to the Indians from the various forts, which he considered to be bribes. Additionally, the French had made gunpowder and ammunition readily available, which were needed by the Indians to hunt food for their families and skins for trade. However, Amherst did not trust his former Indian adversaries, and restricted the distribution of gunpowder and ammunition.

Pontiac, like other Indian leaders, was unhappy with the new British policies. Taking advantage of this dissatisfaction, as well as a religious revival inspired by a Delaware (Lenape) prophet named Neolin, Pontiac planned a resistance. On April 27, 1763, he held a large council about 10 miles below Fort Detroit. His words, as reported by a French chronicler, were a call to arms:

"It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation which seeks only to destroy us. You see as well as I that we can no longer supply our needs, as we have done from our brothers, the French. [...] From all this you can see well that they are seeking our ruin. Therefore, my brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it."3

Widespread attacks against British forts in the Ohio Country soon followed (see Pontiac’s Rebellion). It is difficult to ascertain the degree to which Pontiac himself organized the resistance. Older accounts of the war portrayed Pontiac as a savage but brilliant mastermind behind a massive "conspiracy"; historians today generally agree that Pontiac may have inspired the uprising, but he neither commanded nor coordinated it. Pontiac was a primarily a local leader during the rebellion that bears his name, and although he sent emissaries to other Indian nations encouraging them to resist, his efforts were mostly concentrated on the (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to capture Fort Detroit.

Later years

After the failure to capture Fort Detroit in 1763, Pontiac withdrew to the Illinois Country, where he continued to encourage militant resistance to British occupation. Although the British had successfully pacified the uprising in the Ohio Country, British military dominance was tenuous, and they decided to negotiate with the troublesome Ottawa leader. Thus, it was after the "rebellion" was essentially over that Pontiac emerged as a genuinely important regional leader. Pontiac met with the British superintendant of Indian affairs Sir William Johnson on 25 July 1766 at Oswego, New York, and formally ended hostilities.

This attention paid to Pontiac by the British Crown encouraged him to assert more power among the Indians of the region than he actually possessed. Local rivalries flared up, and in 1768 he was forced to leave his Ottawa village on the Maumee River. Returning to the Illinois Country, Pontiac was murdered on April 20, 1769 at the French village of Cahokia (nearly opposite St. Louis, Missouri) by a Peoria Indian, perhaps in retaliation for an earlier attack by Pontiac.


Note 1: Dowd, pp. 5-8. Note 2: Dowd, pp. 9-11, discusses how Pontiac was envisioned as the Ottawa "chief"; White, pp. 299-300 (and throughout), discusses how Europeans created "alliance chiefs" by investing Indian leaders with authority not granted them by the Indian people themselves. Note 3: Peckham, pp. 119-20.


  • Dowd, Gregory Evans. War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, & the British Empire. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
  • Parkman, Francis. The Conspiracy of Pontiac, 2 volumes. Boston, 1851. Parkman's landmark work on Pontiac has been considered historically unreliable by academic historians for several decades, but Parkman's prose is still much admired.
  • Peckham, Howard H. Pontiac and the Indian Uprising. University of Chicago Press, 1947.
  • Sugden, John. "Pontiac" in American National Biography. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge Universtiy Press, 1991.

External links

fr:Pontiac (outaouais) sv:Pontiac (indianhövding)


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