Guest Writer Willard W Glazier
“A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers; but when I go up to the river, I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo; and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.” ~Satanta, Kiowa Chief
In the days of the early explorers the present site [of Detroit] was looked upon as favorable for a settlement, commanding as it does a rich tract of country and lying at the very entrance to the Upper Lakes. The Iroquois were then in possession and their village was known as Teusha Grondi. Both the English and French coveted this point, but the latter were more enterprising, and anticipated their rivals by making an appointment with the Iroquois for a great council at Montreal, in which the Governor-General of Canada and others were to have a voice. The wary Frenchmen presented their claims very plausibly, but failed to win the approbation of the equally wary Indians. They were told that their brothers, the Englishmen, had been refused, and that it was not well to show partiality; but this excuse had very little weight with the subjects of the Grande Monarque [the French], who had been accustomed to make themselves at home generally. The Governor-General in an impressive speech replied that neither the Iroquois nor the English had any right to the land which belonged to the King of France, and that an expedition had been already sent out to establish a fort on the Detroit River!
This was indeed the case. La Motte Cadillac, with a Jesuit missionary and one hundred men, was on his way, while his countrymen, with the consistency which has ever marked the dealings between the red and white races, were asking permission of the Indians. The French fleet, composed of twenty-five birch canoes bearing the colors of France, reached the Detroit River in July, 1701. There was a telling significance in the floating of that flag over the boats decorated with Indian symbols and, if the savages had discerned it, the French commander and his followers would never have reached their destination. As it was, they came quietly as friends, and were allowed to establish themselves without interference.
On the first rise of ground overlooking the river, the palisades were raised and the guns set, and by the close of August, Fort [Pontchartrain du Détroit] became a reality. The Miamis and Pottawattomies were soon induced to make a settlement nearby, and afterward a few Huron and Ottawa bands collected on the opposite shore of the river near the site of Windsor [Ontario, Canada]. The point quickly attracted the fur trader, being in a direct line from [Fort] Michilimackinac to Montreal and Quebec [via the Strait of Mackinac]. For sixty-two years the French held possession of Detroit, profiting by her superior location, and the friendship of the Indians, but their day ended  when the sharp eyes of [General James] Wolfe discovered the steep ascent to the Plaines d’Abraham (“Plains of Abraham“), in Canada, and pointed a way for British supremacy.
The Treaty of Paris , which was the outcome of the French and Indian War, called for the surrender of all the forts held by the French, but news traveled so slowly that when Captain Robert Rogers with his two hundred Rangers came to take possession of Fort Pontchartrain, he found still floating over it the flag of France. While on his way to execute this mission, he was met by Pontiac, the Ottawa chief, who was angered by the transfer of claimants to his land, and who demanded of Rogers “what right he had in entering the dominion of the great Indian king without permission.” The answer he received was far from satisfactory, but he bided his time to make his dissatisfaction felt. The same feeling was manifested everywhere by the Indian allies of the French, but their wrath was concentrated on Detroit, on account of its being the great stronghold of the West.
In 1763, Pontiac had arranged his famous scheme for either annihilating the obnoxious newcomers or driving them east of the Alleghenies. They did not treat him so considerately as the old claimants, and he was far-seeing enough to realize the result. Aflame with hatred and determined to save his people from the fate that awaited them, he visited the great tribes that were friendly, and sought their cooperation. In a speech at the great council held at Ecorse on the twenty-seventh of April, 1762, he said, “As for these English—these dogs dressed in red who have come to rob you of your hunting-grounds and to drive away the game—you must lift the hatchet against them and wipe them from the face of the earth.”
The plan was worthy of a Napoleon. The confederated tribes were to attack simultaneously all the Western forts, while his particular band was to be brought against Detroit. This point he had expected to take by stratagem and would no doubt have succeeded but for the betrayal of the plot by an Ojibway [Chippewa] maiden who was in love with the British commandant. The day before its execution this Indian girl brought [Commandant Henry] Gladwyn a pair of moccasins which he had asked her to make for him, and on her way home with the remainder of the deer-skin, which he had furnished for the same purpose, she lingered about the gate so as to attract the attention of the sentinel. He saw that she seemed to be troubled about something, and asked her to return. Wavering between love and duty to her race, she hesitated; but finally the impulse of her heart prevailed, and returning to the room of the commandant, she told him the terrible secret.
Pontiac was to come to the fort on the morrow ostensibly to hold peaceful negotiations with his white brothers, but really to massacre them. His warriors, who had cunningly shortened their rifles by sawing off a part of the barrels, so that they might carry them concealed beneath their blankets, were to fall upon Gladwyn and his men at a given signal. This news was lightly received although the statements of the Indian girl seemed to be verified by a slight thread of evidence which had from time to time been brought to Gladwyn’s notice. He laughed at the thought of danger at such a time, when the peace which had lasted for two years appeared so likely to continue; but while he doubted Pontiac’s real intentions, he decided to be prepared for any issue. The guards were doubled, sentinels were stationed on the ramparts, and when the great chief came in the guise of friendship, he was completely nonplussed by the show of discipline in the garrison. Entering the north gate with his blanketed conspirators, he found himself confronted by a double line of red-coated soldiers, their muskets held at “present arms.” At the corners of the streets were groups of fur traders, and at regular intervals the silence was broken by the beating of drums.
Surprised at every turn, and fearing that his plot had been discovered, Pontiac walked on sullenly endeavoring to conceal his annoyance. When he reached the council-house, he said to Gladwyn, “Why do I see so many of my father’s young men standing in the streets with their guns?” The commandant lightly replied that he had just been drilling them to preserve discipline and that it was moreover a custom with the English to thus honor their guests. These suavely spoken words failed to reassure the chief, who sat down for a few moments without speaking; but having recovered his self-possession and assuming with it an habitual expression of stoical defiance, he arose and began his harangue. Gladwyn, he noticed, instead of listening to what was being said, kept his eyes steadfastly on the movements of the other Indians, and when the belt of wampum was taken up and the chief began to reverse it in his hands—the signal for attack—Gladwyn made a quick motion and in an instant the dusky semi-circle was startled by the grounding of arms and the beating of drums.
Thus interrupted and foiled, Pontiac took his seat in silence. Gladwyn then arose, and began his speech as though nothing unusual had occurred; but after a few moments he changed his tone, accused Pontiac of treachery, and stepping quickly to the nearest Indian threw open his blanket and disclosed the hidden weapon. He then told Pontiac to leave the fort at once, assuring him that he would be allowed to go in safety. The unfortunate result of this act of clemency was very soon felt, for as soon as the Indians were outside of the gates, they turned and fired upon the garrison, thus beginning the terrible siege which was to last fifteen months.
Autumn approached, and, as the crops were poor, several of the tribes withdrew for the winter, but Pontiac, untiring in his efforts to harass his enemies, remained, sending messages in the meantime to several of the French posts, asking their help. In November he received word from the commandant of Fort Chartres on the Mississippi telling him that it was impossible for the French to give any help as they had signed a treaty with the English; and later similar messages reached him from other points. Still he did not give up. His allies had captured eight forts; and if he could take Detroit, success would undoubtedly follow.
In the spring  the tribes returned to renew the attack upon the well-nigh exhausted garrison, keeping up their fiendish tortures, capturing vessels sent with supplies and reinforcements, and bringing the handful of brave men within the palisades to the verge of despair. As summer advanced, the anxious watchers, hearing the sunset gun thunder out across the water, thought that each night might be their last; but off in the East, General [John] Bradstreet and his large force were starting to the rescue, and by midsummer they had crushed the hopes, if not the proud spirit of Pontiac. Sending one of his officers to this chief with terms of peace, his advances were received with the coldest disdain. Captain Morris, who was the ambassador, was met beyond the Indian camp by Pontiac himself, but the chief refused to extend his hand, and bending his glittering eyes on the officer said, with a voice full of bitterness and hatred, “The English are liars!”
All attempts at conciliation were made in vain. Pontiac, taking with him four hundred warriors, went away, revisiting all the tribes, sending the wampum belt and hatchet stained with vermilion far and wide, and exhorting the Indians to unite in the common cause, threatening, if they refused, to consume them “as the fire consumes the dry grass of the prairie.” He failed to rouse them, however, and was forced, at last, to return to Detroit and accept peace.
The feelings that surged in his savage heart, when he found himself thus defeated, can only be guessed. Chagrined and disappointed, he retired to Illinois, and there perished by the hand of an assassin. No stone marks his burial-place, “and the race whom he hated with such burning rancor trample with unceasing footsteps over his forgotten grave.”
“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it. It was not hard to see that the white people coveted every inch of land on which we lived …. Little by little, with greed and cruelty unsurpassed by the animal, he has taken all. The loaf is gone and now the white man wants the crumbs.” ~Luther Standing Bear
Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee
* Willard W Glazier, Ocean to Ocean on Horseback / Being the Story of a Tour in the Saddle from the Atlantic / to the Pacific; with Especial Reference to the Early History / and Devel (Philadelphia: Edgewood, 1899), chapter 17. Photos, quotes added.