Frank Waters characterized Pontiac (Ponteach, Ottawa, ca. 1720–1769) as "a man of steel pounded between a British hammer and a French anvil" (Waters, 1992, 35). Pontiac, after whom General Motors named an automobile model, tried to erect a Native confederacy to block Euro-American immigration into the Old Northwest.
Pontiac was a man of medium build and dark complexion who highly valued personal fidelity. If Pontiac owed a debt, he would scratch a promissory note on birch bark with his sign, the otter. The notes were always redeemed. He was an early ally of the French in 1755 at Fort Duquesne, now the site of Pittsburgh, along with an alliance of Ottawas, Ojibwas, Hurons, and Delawares. Pontiac played a major role in the French defeat of English General Edward Braddock in 1755, during the opening battles of what came to be known as the French and Indian War in America.
Pontiac was probably born along the Maumee River in present-day northern Ohio of an Ottawa father and a Chippewa mother. He married Kantuckeegan and had two sons, Otussa and Shegenaba. Pontiac held no hereditary chieftainship among the Ottawas, but by about 1760 his oratorical skills and reputed courage as a warrior had raised him to leadership. By 1763, Pontiac also had formed military alliances with eighteen other Native peoples from the Mississippi River to Lake Ontario.
After the British defeat of the French in 1763, Pontiac found himself faced on the southern shore of Lake Erie with an English force that included Robert Rogers' legendary Rangers, who were self-trained as forest warriors. Rogers told Pontiac that the land he occupied was now British, having been ceded by France, and that his force was talking possession of French forts. Pontiac said that, while the French might have surrendered, his people had not. After four days of negotiations, Rogers agreed with Pontiac's point of view. Rogers was allowed to continue to the former French fort on the present-day site of Detroit, and power was transferred as hundreds of Indians watched. Rogers and Pontiac became friends.
Pontiac now looked forward to peaceful trading with the British, but, when Rogers left the area, fur traders began swindling the Indians, getting them addicted to cheap liquor. Pontiac sent a belt of red wampum, signifying the taking up of arms, as far east as the Iroquois Confederacy, then southward along the Mississippi. He appealed for allies, telling the assembled chiefs of each nation he visited that if they did not unify and resist colonization, the English would flood them, like waves of an endless sea.
By the spring of 1763, a general uprising was being planned by combined forces of the Ottawas, Hurons, Delawares, Senecas, and Shawnees. On May 9, each group was to attack the nearest English fort. Pontiac's plan was betrayed to the commander of the British fort at Detroit by an Ojibwa woman, known as Catherine among the English, with whom he had made love. Pontiac laid siege to the fort at Detroit, and other members of the alliance carried out their respective roles, but an appeal for the support of the French fell on deaf ears. After a siege that lasted through the winter and into the spring of 1764, the fort received outside reinforcements, tipping the balance against Pontiac after fifteen months.
After the rebellion, European-American immigrants moved into the Ohio Valley in increasing numbers, and the prestige of the aging Pontiac leader began to decline among his former allies. Pontiac now counseled peace. The younger warriors were said to have "shamed" him and possibly beat him in their frustration. With a small band of family and friends, Pontiac was forced to leave his home village and move to Illinois.
On April 20, 1769, Pontiac was murdered in Cahokia, Illinois. According to one account, he was stabbed by a Peoria Indian who may have been bribed with a barrel of whiskey by an English trader named Williamson.
Bruce E. Johansen
Blackbird, Andrew J. 1897. History of the Ottawa and the Chippewa Indians of Michigan. Ypsilanti, MI. Harbor Springs, MI: Babcock and Darling.; Hays, Wilma P. 1965. Pontiac: Lion in the Forest. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.; Parkman, Francis. 1868. History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac. Boston: Little, Brown & Company..; Peckham, Howard H. 1947. Pontiac and the Indian Uprising. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.; Rogers, Robert. 1765. A Concise Account of North America. London.; Waters, Frank. 1992. Brave Are My People. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.