Pontiac (ca. 1720-1769), Ottawa chief and leader of the famed uprising that bears his name, was a pawn in the fight between the British and the French for supremacy in the Great Lakes region.

Pontiac was born probably on the Maumee River, of a Chippewa mother and Ottawa father. His youth is obscure, but he grew to become a sachem (chief) of the combined Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi tribes. Possibly he was present at the Chippewa defeat of Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755, when his tribes were under French influence during the French and Indian War.

In 1760, when British and American colonial troops marched to fight the French at Detroit, Pontiac met the force and learned of the British victory at Quebec. He smoked the peace pipe with the British and even helped them take Detroit, but he did not get the recognition for this that he felt he deserved. Thus in 1762, when he heard that the French were going to reinvade, he turned against the British and tried to organize a vast Indian conspiracy against them.

Pontiac rallied tribes in the vicinity of the Great Lakes to a great conference near Detroit in April 1763. Here he made a stirring speech, calling the tribes simultaneously to attack the nearest British posts. He personally led the attack on Detroit on May 7, 1763. However, his plan became known to the British, and all he could do was lay siege to the post, eventually retreating. The Conspiracy of Pontiac, as this uprising was known, did succeed in capturing 8 of the 12 posts attacked, and it inflamed the entire western frontier. And Pontiac did manage one victory, the Battle of Bloody Ridge on July 31, 1763, at which his warriors killed 60 of the 250 British troops.

Yet Pontiac's confederation quickly fell apart. In October 1763 part of the Ottawa made peace with the British, and Pontiac followed in a preliminary peace on October 31. Yet he continued to fight sporadically, not concluding a final peace with the British until July 1766.

In the spring of 1769 Pontiac visited the vicinity of St. Louis, and there on April 20 he was clubbed to death by a Peoria Indian warrior, possibly at British urging. Some contemporary accounts referred to Pontiac as a coward, and others spoke of him as only a local renegade; however, he did achieve a remarkable confederation of dissident Native American tribes, and he caught the popular imagination to become a romantic figure.


Further Reading on Pontiac

The standard, if somewhat romantic, account of Pontiac and his rebellion is Francis Parkman, The History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851). More reliable is Howard H. Peckham, Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (1947). Milo M. Quaife edited some of the contemporary accounts in The Siege of Detroit in 1763: The Journal of Pontiac's Conspiracy, and John Rutherfurd's Narrative of a Captivity (1958).