Gateway to the Classics: Boy's Book of Indian Warriors by Edwin L. Sabin
Boy's Book of Indian Warriors by  Edwin L. Sabin

The Bloody Belt of Pontiac (1763–1769}

How an Indian Girl Saved Fort Detroit

Old Fort Detroit was a stockade twenty feet high, in the form of a square about two-thirds of a mile around. It enclosed a church and eighty or one hundred houses, mainly of French settlers with a sprinkling of English traders.

In the block-houses at the corners and protecting the gates, light cannon were mounted. The garrison consisted of only one hundred and twenty men of the Eightieth Foot. In the village there were perhaps forty other men.

On both sides of the river lay the fertile farms of the French settlers. Back of the farms on the east or Canadian side, and about five miles from Detroit, was the teeming village of Pontiac's Ottawas. Potawatomis and Wyandots also lived near. At Pontiac's call there waited more than a thousand warriors.

The set time approached. On May 1 Pontiac and forty chiefs and warriors entered the fort, and danced the calumet, a peace dance, for the pleasure of the officers. Pontiac said to Major Gladwyn that he would return, at the change of the moon, May 7, or in one week, to hold a council with him, and "brighten the chain of peace with the English."

The major agreed. He was a very foolish man, for a chief. Having returned to his village, Pontiac called a different kind of a council, there—a war council of one hundred chiefs. They were to have their people cut off the ends of muskets that should be carried concealed under the blankets. Sixty chiefs and warriors should go with him into the council chamber at the fort; the others should linger in the streets of the town and at the fort gates.

He would speak to the major with a belt, white on the one side, green on the other. When he turned the belt and presented it wrong end first, let every warrior kill an English soldier, beginning with the officers. At the sound let every warrior outside the council use gun and hatchet.

On May 5 a French settler's wife crossed the river to buy maple-sugar and deer-meat at the Ottawa village. She saw the warriors busy filing at their gun-barrels—shortening the guns to scarce a yard of length. This was a curious thing to do. When she went back to the post she spoke about it.

"That," said the blacksmith, "explains why those fellows have been borrowing all my files and hack-saws. They wouldn't tell me what for. Something's brewing."

When Major Gladwyn was informed, still he would not believe. But the fur-traders at the post insisted that when an Indian shortened his gun, he meant mischief. The opinion of fur-traders carried no weight with Major Gladwyn, the British officer.

The next evening Catharine, a pretty Ojibwa girl who lived with the Potawatomis, came to see him in his quarters. She was his favorite. She had agreed to make him a pair of handsome moccasins, from an elk hide. Now she brought the moccasins, and the rest of the hide.

Usually she had been much pleased to look upon and talk with the handsome young major in the red clothes. This time her face was clouded, she hung her head, and spoke hardly at all. Her eager girlishness had vanished. The major's delight with the moccasins failed to cheer her up.

Trying to win her smiles, he told her the moccasins were so beautiful that he wished to give them to a friend. Would she take the elk-hide away with her, and make another pair of moccasins for himself?

She finally left, with strangely slow step, and backward glances. At sunset, when the gates of the fort were to be closed, the guard found her still inside. As she would not go, the sergeant took word to the major.

"She won't talk with me, sir," he reported.

"Send her in and I will talk with her," ordered the major.

Catharine came, downcast, silent, and timid.

"Why have you not gone before the gates are shut, Catharine?"

She hesitated.

"I did not wish to take away the skin that is yours."

"But you did take it away, as far as the gate."

She hesitated more.

"Yes, that is so. But if I take it outside I can never return it."

"Why not?"

"I cannot tell. I am afraid."

"You can talk freely. Nothing that you say shall go to other ears. If you bring me news of value you will be well rewarded, and no one shall know."

Catharine loved the major. Presently she told him of the mind of Pontiac, and the deed planned for to-morrow morning.

A cold fear clutched the heart of Major Gladwyn. He recalled the shortened guns, he recalled the Bloody Belt, he recalled the date made with him for a big council on the morrow. At last he rather believed.

So he sent away the trembling Catharine, that she might go to her village. He held a council with his officers.

Here they were, with only one hundred and twenty soldiers, and less than three weeks' provisions, cut off by one thousand, two thousand, three thousand merciless Indian warriors, and by the French settlers and traders who probably would be glad to have the English killed.

"The English are to be struck down, but no Frenchman is to be harmed," had said Catharine.

That looked bad indeed.

This night guards were doubled along the parapets, and in the block-houses. The major himself walked guard most of the night. From the distant villages of the Ottawas, the Wyandots, and the Potawatomis drifted the clamor of dances—an ugly sound, full of meaning, now.

Precisely at ten o'clock in the morning a host of bark canoes from the Ottawa side of the Detroit River slanted across the current, and made landing. Pontiac approached at the head of a long file of thirty chiefs and as many warriors. They walked with measured, stately tread. Every man was closely wrapped in a gay blanket.

They were admitted through the gate of the fort, but it was closed against the mass of warriors, women and children who pressed after.

As Pontiac, with his escort, stalked for the council room, his quick glances saw that the soldiers were formed, under arms, and moving from spot to spot, and that a double rank had been stationed around the headquarters.

In the council chamber he noted, too, that each officer wore his sword, and two pistols!

"Why," asked Pontiac, of Major Gladwyn, "do I see so many of my father's young men standing in the street with their guns?"

"It is best that my young men be exercised as soldiers, or they will grow lazy and forget," answered the major.

Ha! Pontiac knew. Somehow his plans had been betrayed; his game was up, unless he chose an open fight.

His chiefs and warriors sat uneasily. They all feared death. By Indian law they ought to be killed for having intended to shed blood in a calumet council.

Pontiac started his talk. He acted confused, as though he was not certain what course to pursue.

Once he did seem about to offer the belt wrong end first, as the signal—and Major Gladwyn, still sitting, slightly raised his hand. Instantly from outside the door sounded the clash of arms and the quick roll of a drum, to show that the garrison was on the alert. The officers half drew their swords.

Pontiac flushed yet darker. He stammered, and offering the belt right end first, closed his talk, and sat down again.

Major Gladwyn made a short reply. He said that the English were glad to be friends, as long as their red brothers deserved it; but any act of war would be severely punished.

That was all. The major let the Indians file out again. Pontiac knew.

He was too great a leader, in the Indian way, to be balked by one defeat. He actually proposed another council; he actually persuaded the foolish major to send out to him two officers, for a peace talk. One of the officers barely escaped from captivity, the other never came back.

Then Pontiac boldly besieged Detroit, in white race fashion—the closest, longest siege ever laid by Indians against any fort on American soil.

His two thousand Indians swarmed in the forest, held the fences and walls and buildings of the fields, peppered the palisade with bullets and arrows, shot fire into the town; captured a supply fleet in the river, ambushed sallying parties, cut to pieces a column of reinforcements.

The siege lasted six months. The orders to attack went out. On May 16 Fort Sandusky, at Lake Erie in northern Ohio, was seized by the Wyandots and Ottawas, during a council.

On May 25, Fort St. Joseph of St. Joseph, Michigan, on Lake Michigan across the state from Detroit, was seized in like manner by the Potawatomis. On May 27, Fort Miami, near present Fort Wayne of Indiana, commanded by Ensign Holmes who had discovered the Bloody Belt, was forced to surrender to the Wyandots. Ensign Holmes himself was decoyed into the open, and killed.

On June 4, populous Michilimackinac of northern Michigan was pillaged. The Chippewas and Sacs celebrated the King's Birthday, in honor of the English, with a great game of lacrosse in front of the post. Michilimackinac did not know that Detroit was being besieged!  The gates were left open, the officers gathered to witness the game. The ball was knocked inside the palisades, the players rushed after—and that was the end of Michilimackinac.

On June 15 the little fort of Presq' Isle, near the modern city of Erie on the Lake Erie shore of northern Pennsylvania, was attacked. It was captured in two days, by the Ottawas and Potawatomis from Detroit.

On June 18, Fort Le Boeuf, twelve miles south of it, was burned. Just when Fort Venango, farther south, fell to the Senecas, no word says, for not a man of it remained alive. June 1, Fort Ouatanon, below Lafayette on the Wabash River in west central Indiana, had surrendered.

Niagara in the east was threatened; Fort Legonier, forty miles southeast of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania, was attacked by the Delawares and Shawnees, but held out; the strong Fort Pitt (now Pittsburg), with garrison of over three hundred soldiers and woodsmen, was besieged by the united Delawares, Shawnees, Wyandots and Mingo Iroquois.

A second Bloody Belt had been dispatched by Pontiac from Detroit; as fast as it arrived, the allies struck hard. Of twelve fortified English posts, eight fell. Not only that, but the fiery spirit of Pontiac had aroused twenty-two tribes extending from Canada to Virginia, and from New York to the Illinois. A hundred English traders were murdered in camp, and on the trail. A thousand English are supposed to have been killed. Five hundred families of northern Virginia and of western Maryland fled for their lives.

While this work was going on, and the frontier settlements shuddered, and feared the morrow, Pontiac was sternly sticking to his siege of Fort Detroit.

The French around there complained to him that his men were robbing them of provisions, and injuring the corn-fields.

"You must stand that," rebuked Pontiac. "I am fighting your battles against the English."

He gave out receipts, for the supplies as taken. These receipts were pieces of bark, pictured with the kind of supplies taken, and signed with the figure of an otter—the totem of the Ottawas. After the war every receipt was honored, by payment.

Only his Ottawas were still fighting Detroit, when on October 30, this 1763, there arrived, from the French commander on the lower Mississippi, a peace belt and a messenger for Pontiac.

He had been told that peace had been declared between the French and the English, but he had not believed. Now he was told again, by word direct, that the king of France and the king of England had signed peace papers; the country was English, his father the king of France could not help him. He must stop his war, and "take the English by the hand."

Weeks before this, the Indians to the south had withdrawn; his other allies were fading into the forest. So, sullen and disappointed, he, too, withdrew. His sun had set, but he tried to follow it southwestward.

Before he gave his hand to the English he did attempt another war. The tribes of the Illinois hesitated, in council.

"If you do not join my people," thundered Pontiac, "I will consume you as the fire eats the dry grass of the prairies!"

The plot failed, but the Illinois did not forget his insulting words. In April, 1769, while leaving a council with the Illinois beside the Mississippi River, and wearing a blue-and-silver uniform coat given to him years before by the brave General Montcalm of the French, he was murdered by a Kaskaskia of the Illinois nation, in the forest which became East St. Louis.

The Kaskaskia had been bribed by an English trader, with a barrel of whiskey, to do the deed. There died Pontiac. He was buried, it is said, on the site of the present Southern Hotel in St. Louis City.

The Illinois suffered from this foul crime. All of Pontiac's loyal people—the Ottawas, the Potawatomis, the Sacs, the Foxes, the Chippewas—rose against them and swept them from the face of the earth.

Now what of Catharine, who saved Detroit from Pontiac? She saved Detroit, but Fort Detroit did not save her. Pontiac was no fool; he very quickly had suspected her. He well knew that Major Gladwyn was her friend, and that she had taken the moccasins in to him.

She was seized by the chief, beaten almost lifeless with a lacrosse racquet, and condemned to the meanest of labor. After the siege, Major Gladwyn made no effort to rescue her or reward her. At last, when an old and miserable woman, she fell into a kettle of boiling maple sap, and died.

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