It began as a struggle for dominance between the British and the French in Ohio Country. However, by the time the European powers got around to making formal declarations of war in 1756, the North American conflict had become global. So how did it end in 1763? And, how did the Natives made sense of the situation?
The French Lose, the Natives Suffer
Despite early French victories, the bloody, protracted war had turned in favor of the British and the Iroquois. It proved devastating to the nations of the Ohio Country, and, in the South, to the Cherokees, as well.
By 1758, the alliance Native people in the Ohio Country had forged with the French was faltering. This was due, in no small measure, to the ravages of smallpox, a disease that raced ahead of armies as they campaigned through the Ohio River Valley and into the Great Lakes.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Treaty of Paris, 1763
In the fall of 1758, though, the Indians of the Ohio Country made peace with the British through the Treaty of Easton. And within a few months, the French withdrew from the forks of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers. For the French, the war was lost, though it would take another five years to arrive at a peace.
At the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French surrendered all claims to lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, as well as present-day Canada. Now, everything east of the Mississippi was being claimed by the British, and everything west of the Mississippi was claimed by the Spanish. But what’s wrong with this picture?
Seven Years’ War from Native Perspective
What’s wrong is that there weren’t any Indians in it. Seen from Indian perspectives, then, the Seven Years’ War resolved nothing. The indigenous peoples of the Ohio Country didn’t share French aims. They weren’t fighting to legitimate French claims to their lands; they were fighting to preserve their own.
The Indians of the Ohio Country didn’t accept the idea that France could relinquish their claims to the British; it wasn’t their land to cede.
The Ohio Country was Native ground in 1754. It was still Native ground in 1763. And the people who lived there intended to keep it that way. So, the British might have defeated the French, but not the Native people. And Native people expected the British to behave accordingly.
Effect of Seven Years’ War on the Natives
The French withdrawal from North America didn’t bode well for Indians in the Ohio Country. In fact, a foreboding symbol of British intentions soon came in the form of a bolstered and now renamed Fort Pitt at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.
To understand this better, let’s balance the British idea that Fort Pitt was the leading edge of the empire’s inevitable westward course against a Native map painted onto a tree by a Lenape warrior named Wingenund.
The Lenape warrior’s rendering offers a fundamentally different way of imagining Fort Pitt, both psychically and geographically. Indeed, Wingenund located Fort Pitt, as well as Forts Detroit and possibly Loudoun, in the center of Indian Country, utterly surrounded by signs of the continuing presence of Lenape people, martial power, and sovereignty. The map, in other words, conveys the Lenape’s continuing control of the region, no matter what claims the British made to it.
Learn more about the American Revolution through Native eyes.
The War Called Pontiac’s
And that brings us to the war called Pontiac’s, which lasted from May 1763 to July 1766. The other names by which this conflict is commonly known—Pontiac’s War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, and Pontiac’s Conspiracy—deserve scrutiny.
The first name, Pontiac’s War, is problematic because it suggests that a single person was responsible for leading the war effort—an oversimplification of what happened on the ground. The other two names are problematic because they tacitly suggest that Indians acknowledged the legitimacy of British imperial claims. Well, they didn’t.
According to historian Gregory Evans Dowd, the war was really about the status of Native nations. The Indians of the Ohio Country didn’t see themselves as subjects, and they liked it even less when they were treated that way by the British. It might be better, then, to refer to this pivotal event as a war for continued independence.
Natives’ War for Independence and Religious Beliefs
Dowd also argues that Native religious beliefs played a central role in the conflict. Native people, for instance, talked about their rights to the land—their sovereignty—as being founded on the fact that they had been created in and for a particular place.
Moreover, Native actions were informed by prophetic visions. These visions called on Native people to restore power through right behavior and ritual activity. Only then could they be rid of their dependency on Europeans.
Learn more about the Seven Years’ War in Indian Country.
Who Was Pontiac?
Pontiac was an Odawa. Born sometime in the 1720s, he was raised in the area west of Lake Erie, near to where the French founded Fort Detroit. He was a civil leader, a most respected man, who headed a network of extended families. Much of his authority came from his good judgment and generosity—his ability to dispense gifts, trade goods, and the like.
Pontiac might also have been a seeker of spiritual power. That is to say, it’s possible Pontiac was considered someone who was able to converse with spirits in order to transform and regenerate the world.
British Reject Kinship Ties
Native people were becoming increasingly dependent on British traders because of overhunting and the disappearance of game in the Ohio Country. Indians were also forced to pay high prices for goods, which fostered indebtedness. Added into that was the constant encroachment by colonists and the presence of British soldiers as they occupied abandoned French forts.
The British officials also bruised Native feelings and perspectives by prohibiting gift giving and ritualized acts of reciprocity—the very grease of diplomacy.
Given their victory over the French and their Indian allies, the British had no intentions of abiding by kinship expectations at all. Rather, they saw their dominion as something to be governed, not something to be negotiated.
Treating Native people as though they were conquered subjects cut against Native people’s own sense of themselves and their relationship with the British. Indians didn’t see themselves as conquered people, and they expected the British to respect their status as independent nations. Yet, this did not happen, and the Natives, under Pontiac, launched a resistance against this British approach.
Common Questions about the Seven Years’ War and War of Pontiac
At the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French surrendered all claims to Native lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, as well as present-day Canada.
Pontiac was an Odawa. He was a civil leader, who headed a network of extended families.
The Indians of the Ohio Country didn’t accept the idea that France could relinquish their claims to the British, as it wasn’t their land to cede.