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Edwin L. Sabin

The Bloody Belt of Pontiac (1760–1763)

When it Passed among the Red Nations

Soon after the Mohawks broke the peace with the French and Algonkins in Canada, and in 1647 killed Piskaret the champion, they and the others of the Five Nations drove the Hurons and Algonkins into flight.

The Hurons, styled in English Wyandots, fled clear into Michigan and spread down into northern Ohio.

Of the Algonkins there were three nations who clung together as the Council of the Three Fires. These were the Ottawas, the Ojibwas and the Potawatomis.

The Ottawas were known as the "Trade People" and the "Raised Hairs." They had claimed the River Ottawa, in which was the Allumette Island upon which Piskaret and the Adirondacks had lived.

The Ojibways were known as the "Puckered Moccasin People," from the words meaning "to roast till puckered up." Their tanned moccasins had a heavy puckered seam. The name Ojibwa, rapidly pronounced, became in English "Chippeway." As Chippeways and Chippewas have they remained.

The Potawatomis, whose name is spelled also Pottawattamis, were known as the "Nation of Fire." They had lived the farthest westward of all, until the Sioux met them and forced them back.

The Ottawas were recorded by the early French as rude and barbarous. The Chippewas, or Ojibwas, were recorded as skillful hunters and brave warriors. The Potawatomis were recorded as the most friendly and kind-hearted among the northern Indians.

Of these people many still exist, in Canada and the United States.

When England, aided by her American colonies, began to oppose France in the New World in 1755, the Three Fires helped the French. They were then holding part of present Wisconsin and all of Michigan.


Pontiac, the Red Napoleon

Now in the fall of 1760 France had lost Canada. She was about to surrender to England all her forts and trading posts of the Upper Mississippi basin, from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River.

In November Major Robert Rogers, a noted American Ranger, of New Hampshire birth, with two hundred hardy American woodsmen in twelve whale-boats, and with a herd of fat cattle following the shores, was on his way from Montreal, by water, to carry the English tongue and the British flag to the French posts of the Great Lakes.

He had passed several posts, and was swinging around for Detroit, when a storm of sleet and rain kept him in camp amidst the thick timber where today stands the city of Cleveland, Ohio.

Here he was met by a party of Indians from the west, bearing a message.

"You must go no farther," they said. "Pontiac is coming. He is the king and lord of this country you are in. Wait till he can see you with his own eyes."

That same day in the afternoon Chief Pontiac himself appeared. Major Rogers saw a dark, medium tall but very powerful Indian, aged near fifty years, wearing not only richly embroidered clothes but also "an air of majesty and princely grandeur."

Pontiac spoke like a great chief and ruler.

"I have come to find out what you are doing in this place, and how you dare to pass through my country without my permission."

Major Rogers replied smoothly.

"I have no design against you or your people. I am here by orders from your new English fathers, to remove the French from your country, so that we may trade in peace together."

And he gave the chief a pledge of wampum. Pontiac returned another belt.

"I shall stand in the path you are walking, till morning," was all that he would say; and closed the matter for the night.

During the storm of the next few days he smoked the pipe of peace with the major, and promised safe passage for him, to Detroit.

Thus Major Rogers was the first of the English Americans to be face to face with one of the master minds of the Indian Americans.

This Pontiac was head chief not alone of the Ottawas, but of the Chippewas and Potawatomis. Rumor has declared that he was born a dark Catawba of that fierce fighting nation in South Carolina, who frequently journeyed north to fall upon the northern tribes. But his father probably was an Ottawa, his mother an Ojibwa.

By reason of his strong mind, and his generalship in peace and in war, he was accepted as a leader throughout all the Great Lakes country. The name and fame of Pontiac had extended far into the south and into the east. It is said that he commanded the whole Indian force at the bloody Braddock's Field south of Pittsburg, when on July 9, 1755, the British regulars of General Sir William Braddock, aided by the colonial militia of Major George Washington, were crushed and scattered by the French and Indians.

Before that he had saved the French garrison of Detroit from an attack by hostile Foxes.

Having talked with Major Rogers, Pontiac sent runners to notify the villages that the English had his permission to march through the country. He himself went on with the party. He astonished the major by his shrewd questions—as to how the English waged war, how their clothing was made, how they got iron from the ground, for their weapons.

He even stated that he was willing to form an alliance with the king of England and to call him uncle; but that he must be allowed to reign as he pleased in his own country, or "he would shut up the way and keep the English out."

Puzzled and stung by the news that their fathers, the French, had been beaten in war, a great number of Ottawas, Potawatomis, Chippewas, Sacs and Wyandots gathered at old Detroit, to witness the surrender. They could not understand why the French should march out and lay down their arms to such a small company of English. Evidently these English were gifted with powers that made their enemies weak.

For a brief space all went well, while the Indians of Pontiac's country watched, to see what kind of men these English should prove to be.

But the name of the English already was bad. These Northern tribes well knew what had occurred in Virginia and in New England. The Powatans, the Pokanokets, the Narragansetts and other peoples had been wiped out, their lands seized. The English were bent upon being masters, not allies.

There was found to be a great difference in the methods of the French, and these English.

The French treated chiefs as equals, and tribes as brothers and children; lived in their lodges, ate of their food, created good feeling by distributing presents, interfered little with ancient customs, traded fairly, and forebade whiskey.

The English despised the Indians, lived apart, demanded rather than asked, were stingy in trading, and cheated by means of liquor.

"When the Indians visited the forts, instead of being treated with attention and politeness, they were received gruffly, subjected to indignities, and not infrequently helped out of the fort with the butt of a sentry's musket or a vigorous kick from an officer."

Pontiac and his people soon saw this. The French-Canadian traders still at large took pains to whisper, in cunning fashion, that the great French king was old and had been asleep while the English were arming; but that now he had awakened, and his young men were coming to rescue his red children. A fleet of great canoes was on its way up the St. Lawrence River, to capture the Lakes, and the French and the Indians would again live together!

The Three Fires and their allies the Sacs and the Wyandots longed for the pleasant company of their French brothers. In his village on the Canada border just across the river from Detroit, Pontiac watched these "Red Coats" for two years and found, as he thought, nothing good in them or their cheating traders and he resolved to be rid of them all.

With the eye of a chief and a warrior he had noted, also, that they were a foolish people. As if despising the power of the Indian, they garrisoned their posts with only small forces, although many of these posts were lonely spots, far separated by leagues of water and forest from any outside aid. Messages from one to another could be easily stopped.

The French were being allowed to remain and to move about freely. The peace treaty between the French and the English had not yet been signed. No doubt the French would join the Indians in driving the invaders from this country so rich in corn and fish and game.

Out of his brooding and his hate, Pontiac formed his plan. It was a plan like the plan of Opechancanough and King Philip, but on a larger scale. He worked at it alone, until he was prepared to set it in motion.

Then, late in the year 1762, he sent to the eastward his runners bearing to the Senecas a red-stained tomahawk and a Bloody Belt.

They carried the message:

"The English mean to make slaves of us, by occupying so many posts in our country. Let us try now, to recover our liberty, rather than wait until they are stronger."

From the Senecas the Bloody Belt was passed to the Delawares of western New York and eastern Pennsylvania; from the Delawares to the Shawnees of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio; from the Shawnees it was passed westward to the Miamis, and the Wyandots of Indiana.

Several thousands of miles had the Bloody Belt traveled, when in March, of 1763, it was caught and stopped by Ensign Holmes, the young commander at old Fort Miami near the present city of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

He sent it back to Detroit, far northward, with a note of warning for Major Gladwyn the commander. He believed that with the stoppage of the belt he had checked the plan. Major Gladwyn, in turn, reported to his superiors that this "was a trifling matter which would blow over."

The belt may have been stopped, but not the word of Pontiac. It traveled on, until from Lake Superior of the Canada border down to Kentucky all the tribes between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi River were only waiting for the Day.

Vague rumors brought in by traders and friendly scouts floated hither-thither—rumors of mysterious remarks, of secret councils, of a collecting of arms and powder, and a sharpening of knives and hatchets, even among tribes remote from the posts.

But the garrisons were not reinforced. The soldiers idled and joked, the Indians came and went as usual, gates were not closed except at night.

A Delaware prophet was reported to be preaching death to the Red Coats. Unrest seethed, and yet could not be traced to any source. On April 27, unknown to a single one of the English at the Great Lakes, a hundred strange chiefs gathered within a few miles of Detroit itself, to confer with Pontiac.

In the midst of the forest he addressed them. Here, seated in a large circle, were Ottawas, Ojibwas, Sacs, Potawatomis, Wyandots, Senecas, Miamis, Shawnees, Foxes, Delawares, Menominis—all intent for the words of Pontiac.

His speech was full of fire and eloquence. He was an orator. He reminded his brothers of their treatment by the English, and of their better treatment by the French—their friends who had been ousted. He told them that now was the time to rise, when the war canoes of their French father were on the way to re-people the land with happiness.

A prophet had been born among the Delawares, said Pontiac. The Great Spirit had appeared to this prophet in a dream, and had demanded why the Indians suffered the white strangers to live in this land that he had provided with everything for the Indian's use.

Let the Indians return to the customs of their ancestors—fling away the blankets, the coats, the guns, the fire-water, and use again the skins, the bows, and the native foods, and be independent. "As for these English, these dogs dressed in red, drive them from your hunting grounds; drive them! And then when you are in distress, I will help you."

The day was named by Pontiac. It should date from the change of the moon, in the next month (or about May 7). At that time should begin the work, by all the tribes, of seizing every English fort and trading post in the Great Lakes country and west of the Alleghany Mountains. The tribes nearest to each should attend to the matter—strike when they heard that he had struck Detroit.

The date and the plan were approved. The council broke up. As silently as they had come, the chiefs went home; some by water, some afoot, and no white man knew of the meeting!

Detroit was the largest and most important of the English posts. Pontiac himself would seize this by aid of his Ottawas, some Potawatomis and Wyandots. To the Chippewas and the Sacs was given over the next important fur-trade station, that of Mich-il-imac-ki-nac, north.