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Pontiac's Rebellion Definition & Summary

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn about the events that led to the Native American/colonial conflict known as Pontiac's Rebellion, and gain insight into how the event has influenced over two hundred years of American history.

A Century of Violence on American Soil

Imagine if you woke up tomorrow to find that a group of people were attempting to establish a colony in your city or town. At first it isn't such a big problem, because they mostly keep to themselves and seem to have little regard for you or the other townspeople. Over time, however, you start to notice that this new group wants to take the things that you have, and they seem to be doing so by force. It's an unrealistic scenario, I admit, but it is precisely what happened to the Native peoples in North America, beginning in the early 17th century.

The conflicts between Native peoples and white settlers that occurred throughout the formation of the United States are known as the Indian Wars. The Indian Wars were not a specific set of battles, but rather a general term referring to the series of intermittent conflicts between Native tribes and European settlers. Though the term is broad and includes all conflicts from early 17th century to late 19th century, the majority of these wars took place during the mid-to-late 18th century and lasted throughout the entire 19th century.

One the more significant of these battles was Pontiac's Rebellion, in which a collection of Native tribes attempted to overthrow the British in the North West region in 1763. While this was not the first or last time that Native peoples would work together to combat foreign invasion, Pontiac's Rebellion is significant because it marks the beginning of what became the most violent century in American history.

Understanding the Rebellion

Though it is named after the leader of the Ottawa, Pontiac, the conflict was actually fought by three separate groups of Native peoples. The first group, from tribes living in the Great Lakes region, was made up of people from the Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Huron. The second, from those living in the Illinois territories, included members of the Miami, Wea, Kickapoo, Mascouten, and Piankashaw tribes. The third group, from tribes living in the Ohio area, included members of the Delawares, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Mingo.

Map showing the area covered during the conflict
Pontiac map

Much of the territory inhabited by these tribes during the mid-18th century had been under French rule, until the end of the French and Indian War (1763), at which point the British took control of the entire region. It was this shift in control that prompted Pontiac's Rebellion. Though the tribes were already frustrated and angry about the increasing presence of white settlers, the British Army's victory over the French meant that more soldiers and more settlers would come, and ultimately push the tribes from their land.

Beginning in May of 1763, the first wave of men from the Great Lakes tribes (about 300) attacked Fort Detroit in an attempt to overtake the British. Because this was an attempt to drive out the British, the French were mostly ignored during the raid. Pontiac's attack on Fort Detroit became the signal for others to push back against the British, which initiated a series of brutal raids and ambush attacks on settlers and military troops that lasted for nearly a year and resulted in the capture or killing of a large, yet unknown, number on both sides.

Drawing depicting the attack on Fort Paxton during the Rebellion
Paxton massacre

Given the unprecedented scale of the battle, which spread from the Illinois territory across to Pennsylvania, and the unknown number of casualties, it's hard to identify a clear victor in the Rebellion. But if Pontiac's vision was to drive the British from Native land, they were certainly successful at that. Not only did the British Army mostly withdraw from the area, but the conflict was so violent that it drove a large number of settlers from their homes and back to the east coast.

Resolution and Negotiation

Once they recognized that they did not possess the power or troop numbers to succeed in the conflict with the north western tribes, the British initiated a series of peace treaties that they hoped would bring an end to the conflict.

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