I came across the Pontiac name, as a surname, when working with the Carlisle Indian School student names. One was Samuel Pontiac, a Chippewa and another was James Pontiac, an Ottawa, both from Michigan.
Michigan also sports a rather large city, Pontiac, and I was certainly aware of Pontiac’s Rebellion, which was led by Chief Pontiac, who was certainly the namesake of these two students. But who was Chief Pontiac?
Pontiac or by his native name, Obwandiyag (c. 1720 – April 20, 1769), was an Ottawa leader who became famous for his role in Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763–1766), an American Indian struggle against the British military occupation of the Great Lakes region following the British victory in the French and Indian War.
Little reliable information has been documented about Pontiac before the war of 1763. He was probably born between 1712 and 1725, perhaps at an Odowa village on the Detroit or Maumee Rivers. The tribal affiliation of his parents is uncertain. According to an 18th-century Odowa tradition, Pontiac’s father was an Odowa and his mother an Ojibwa, although other traditions maintained that one of his parents was a Miami. Pontiac was always identified as an Odowa by his contemporaries.
By 1747, Pontiac had become an Odawa (Ottawa) war leader, when he allied with New France against a resistance movement led by Nicholas Orontony, a Huron leader. Pontiac continued to support the French during the French and Indian War (1754–1763) (also known as the Seven Years War). Although there is no direct evidence, he possibly took part in the famous French and Indian victory over the Braddock expedition on July 9, 1755.
By 1755, Pontiac was a Chief of a confederacy which included the Ottawa, the Potawatomi and the Ojibwa tribes.
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 myths about the Ottawa leader.
Historians disagree about Pontiac’s importance in the war that bears his name. Nineteenth-century accounts portrayed him as the mastermind and leader of the revolt, while some subsequent interpretations have depicted him as a local leader with limited overall influence.
Pontiac, like other Indian leaders, was unhappy with the new British policies that were put in to effect after the French and Indian War. Taking advantage of this dissatisfaction, as well as a religious revival inspired by a Lenape prophet named Neolin, Pontiac planned a resistance. He hoped to drive British soldiers and settlers away, and to revive the valued French alliance. On April 27, 1763, he held a large council about 10 miles below Fort Detroit (present-day Council Point Park in Lincoln Park, Michigan). Pontiac urged the listeners to join him in a surprise attack on Fort Detroit. On May 1, Pontiac visited the fort with 50 Ottawa in order to assess the strength of the garrison.
According to a French chronicler, in a council meeting, portrayed below (with some amount of artistic license, as there are no mountains in lower Michigan), Pontiac proclaimed:
“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.”
Although Pontiac’s influence had declined around Detroit because of the unsuccessful siege, he gained stature in the Illinois and Wabash country as he continued to encourage resistance to the British who wanted to take the land of the Indians and displace them. Seeking to end the war, British officials made Pontiac the focus of their diplomatic efforts. In July 1766, Pontiac made peace with British Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson.
By the British Crown’s attention to Pontiac, he asserted more power among the Indians of the region than he possessed by tradition. This created resentment and 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. Various rumors quickly spread about the circumstances of Pontiac’s death, including one that the British had hired his assassin. According to a story recorded by historian Francis Parkman in “The Conspiracy of Pontiac” (1851), a terrible war of retaliation against the Peoria resulted from Pontiac’s murder. Although this legend is still sometimes repeated, there is no evidence that there were any reprisals for Pontiac’s murder.
Pontiac is buried in St Louis, Mo., across the Mississippi River from Cahokia. His gravesite, although disputed, is thought to be at the location of Broadway and Walnut in the city of St. Louis today, although at the time, it was on the outskirts of the small village of St. Louis. A plaque commemorates Pontiac and his life and serves as a tombstone and is today affixed to the side of a parking garage. If Chief Pontiac was interred in that location, he is either under the garage or other structures nearby, or his grave was inadvertently disturbed during construction. A second memorial to Pontiac exists at the Livingston County courthouse in Pontiac, Illinois.
Current historians generally agree that Pontiac’s actions at Detroit were the spark that instigated the widespread uprising, and that he helped to spread the resistance by sending emissaries urging others to join it, but he did not command it as a whole. Native leaders around Fort Pitt and Fort Niagara, for example, had long been calling for resistance to the British and were not led by Pontiac. According to the historian John Sugden, Pontiac “was neither the originator nor the strategist of the rebellion, but he kindled it by daring to act, and his early successes, ambition, and determination won him a temporary prominence not enjoyed by any of the other Indian leaders.”
No authentic paintings or likenesses of Pontiac are known to exist.