Native American Chiefs & Leaders Series: Pontiac
The great Ottawa leader, Pontiac, is an enigma of sorts. Little is known about his birth, the when and where, and speculation surrounds much of his life up until 1763. But in my view, this much is known: Pontiac cared about his people and got others to care enough to do the right thing. And, Pontiac is generally admired as the mastermind behind the plan for what became known as Pontiac’s War of 1763-1764. It was a war waged by many tribes of the Great Lakes region.
After the French lost the Seven Years War and abandoned their forts to the British, Pontiac had become discouraged. British at the time were feeling very differently about trade with Native Americans. They had begun to eliminate trade visits to the forts and to treat the local tribes with contempt. This destructive relationship became a powder keg for violence as many tribal leaders, Pontiac included, saw the British setting an irreversible course… a course with only more usurping of land and pushing the tribes further West or destroying them altogether.
Pontiac felt a sense of urgency to salvage the way of life that had existed for centuries. Even though it was tribal land on which the British were settling and prospering, the British had begun paying French fur traders instead of Natives and working to push Great Lakes tribes out of the picture completely. In response to his feelings of despair and anger toward less than honorable British intentions, Pontiac stated:
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…. 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.
“Pontiac’s War” was successful in that it created a sense of unprecedented unity among tribes all over the Great Lakes region. It also forced the British to seek the 1766 treaty of peace and nonviolence with Pontiac, as the Ottawa leader’s influence continued to grow even after the war had ended.
Although much mystery surrounds Pontiac (with the exception of his life from 1763 to his death in 1769), I have this unquestionable sense of who he was as a human being. Pontiac was a man, a leader, that cared about what would happen to his people… and not just his people, but all of the tribes in the Great Lakes region. Moreover, he caused those tribes to care enough to join him in what was likely to be a violent and costly endeavor against the British. But, Pontiac did this out of conviction about doing what was right for his people… those Ottawa people who were just as human as the British and deserved just as much respect and humane treatment as the British or anyone else.
So, even in today’s times, I think we can take away something useful from all of this. Each of us can look at the man, Pontiac, and see a little of ourselves in him. We can all relate, I believe, to that sense of doing what is right when something is so wrong, no matter the cost.