The Beaver War 1763 – Part 6

April 23, 2011

By 1763 the Detroit River was dotted with French homesteads. This pioneer community had slowly grown over the previous fifty years and there had always been good relations with the surrounding First Nations. In fact most of the French families just wanted to remain neutral in this conflict. It must be remembered that Pontiac and his First Nation allies considered themselves to be at war with the British. They still considered the French to be their allies and the French settlers to be their friends.

However, when the war broke out the warriors indiscriminately began to kill their livestock and confiscate their goods. The French settlers asked for a council with Pontiac and it was granted. They complained bitterly explaining the disastrous consequences this policy had upon them and begged him to put a stop to it. He promised them he would under the condition that if the First Nations needed anything to support the continuation of the war they should give it up upon being asked to do so. They agreed. After this council the warriors ceased to trouble the settlers without the permission of their chiefs. They were allowed to continue going about their business during the week as well as go to mass on Sunday unmolested. 

When the captured bataux arrived at the Ottawa encampment above the fort Pontiac secured the supplies and stowed them away. A French woman named Deriviere had been expecting a trunk to arrive for her in that shipment. It contained personal goods and clothes and she was distraught that it had been lost. She convinced the interpreter Mr. Labutte to escort her from the fort to the Ottawa camp where she told Pontiac of her dilemma. He had the confiscated goods searched and Miss Diriviere’s missing trunk was found. It was returned to her with no objections. 

Most of June was spent keeping the fort under siege. The warriors continually roamed near the stockade in small parties either shooting at the fort or the ship anchored in the river. The British would return fire but neither was of any consequence. Attempts were made by the warriors to set fire to both the fort and the ship but they failed.

In one instance a cart was loaded with combustibles, lit on fire and pushed full speed at the fort’s pickets. The cart was let go when they reached a point just out of range of gunfire but the cart flipped over before it reached its target. In another instance two rafts were loaded with combustibles tied together with a long length of rope and floated toward the British ship anchored in the river just off the fort. The rafts were let go about 20 rods off the ship’s bow. The idea was that the current would carry the two rafts, one on each side of the ship’s bow, and set the ship ablaze. But the British saw the danger approaching, raised their anchor and moved out into the river just as the two rafts floated passed a few yards off their port side.

Lieutenant McDougal made a decision to try to escape back to the safety of the fort. There were no guards at the house where he and Major Campbell were being kept but there were groups of warriors always moving about just outside the homestead. Major Campbell decided not to go with him but approved of his plan. The young lieutenant executed his plan successfully making his way back to the fort. His older superior remained Pontiac’s captive at the house of Mr. Meloche. 

The armed sloop Beaver was sent to Niagara for reinforcements and it returned with 300 troops and some supplies. This was the only relief Fort Detroit received. Some of the French settlers secretly sympathized with the British. They would float canoes filled with supplies downriver during the night. A lantern would be lit just as they reached the fort as a signal to the garrison to come out and retrieve the supplies. These things made the strategy of starving out the garrison next to impossible.

During one of the warriors’ sorties a Chippewa chief was shot and killed. The body was retrieved by a French volunteer who was fighting for the British. He desecrated the chief’s body by scalping it and cutting it into pieces. The young chief happened to be the nephew of Wasson the leading war chief from Saginaw. He was livid and the rest of the Saginaw Chippewa were enraged. They raced to the house where Major Campbell was being held and demanded his life for the life of Wasson’s nephew. This was in accordance with First Nations’ custom. The act upon the dead chief was so grievous that Pontiac could not intervene. Campbell was turned over. He was immediately taken out, tortured by having his lips cut off, shot dead with arrows then cut into pieces. Campbell was not only a commanding officer but the cousin of his replacement Major Gladwin. This whole episode had now turned personal on both sides and could only lead to many more unnecessary deaths!

NEXT WEEK:  The Beaver War 1763 – Part 7


The Beaver War 1763 – Part 5

April 17, 2011

When the siege began Fort Detroit was quadrilateral in shape with the front facing the river. It was protected by a single palisade twenty-five feet high with blockhouses at the gates and at the corners. Its heavy armament consisted of two six-pounders, one three-pounder and three mortars. Two vessels, the Beaver and the Gladwyn, were also anchored just off the corners of the fort. They protected the fort from attack by water.

About 100 small buildings were enclosed in the fort. They were built close together on narrow streets. There was also a church, a council house and barracks for the soldiers. They were all made of wood and prone to the hazards of flaming arrows, but the cisterns were full so this didn’t pose too much of a problem.

The warriors, who were made up of Ottawa, Potawatomi and Wyandotte Nations, surrounded the fort. They kept just out of reach of the heavy artillery picking off any poor soldier who happened to stick his head above the pickets or moved in front of a porthole. 

Pontiac decided to try to set the roof of the church on fire as it was particularly vulnerable because it was close to the palisade. He hoped if it caught fire it would spread to the rest of the fort. The British got wind of the plan so the priest got word to Pontiac through a French settler that the Great Spirit would be angry with him if he put his plan into action. He heeded the priest’s advice.

On May 10th the warriors opened fire on the fort early in the morning and kept it up until about 11 am. Then Pontiac proposed a council with the officers outside the fort. Major Campbell thought perhaps he could do some good so he agreed to go with Lieutenant McDougal. Some of the French traders advised against it but the two officers went anyway. When they arrived Pontiac changed his mind about a council to discuss terms and instead seized Campbell and McDougall as prisoners to be held for ransom.

Three days later the Wyandotte captured a trader by the name of Chapman who was coming to Detroit with five bateaux loaded with provisions. He was unaware of any hostilities and he and his men were taken prisoners. The provisions included sixteen half barrels of powder and rum. The prisoners and the booty were taken to the Wyandotte village which was on the east side of the river a short distance below the fort.

Gladwin got word of the loss and had heard that all the Wyandotte warriors were drunk on the rum. Captain Hopkins with twenty-five rangers and a few volunteers made their way to the sloop with the idea of sailing it to the village and under the cover of the ship’s cannons burn the village along with the captured booty. As they were approaching the Wyandotte’s village the wind shifted and they could not complete their task. The warriors open fire on the sloop as it returned to the fort but this was of little consequence. However, they did gain the intelligence that the Wyandotte warriors were not drunk but were completely on their guard.

On the 25th of May Chief Sekos left  with 150 Chippewa warriors for the mouth of Lake Erie. They had heard of a large shipment of provisions from Niagara was making its way along the north shore of Lake Erie bound for Detroit. Lieutenant Cuyler had left Fort Niagara on the 14th with 96 men in eighteen boats. He landed at Point Pelee on the 28th to encamp but was ambushed by Sekos and his warriors. Cuyler’s men threw down their guns and ran for their boats. Five boats pushed off but only two escaped including Cuyler. The rest was captured along with a plentiful supply of provisions, arms, shot  and powder.

During the first part of June seven bateaux were attacked at the mouth of the Grand River by Chief Kinisshikapoo and his party of seventy-five Mississauga warriors. Five boats were captured but two escaped. These provisions were brought to Pontiac and Kinisshikapoo and his warriors attached themselves to Sekhas’ Chippewas. It was going to be a long hot summer for the British.

NEXT WEEK:  The Beaver War 1763 – Part 6


The Beaver War 1763 – Part 4

April 9, 2011

Pontiac was an Ottawa War Chief and lived on Peach Island at the mouth of the Detroit River above the fort. Of the four British posts in what is today Michigan Detroit was the most important. Consequently he led the attack on Fort Detroit personally. He sent out war belts as a call to arms to the surrounding First Nations.

On May 21st Chippewa war chief Sekhas responded by arriving at Detroit with one hundred and twenty warriors from the Thames River and Kettle Creek. Another Chippewa war chief, Wasson from Saginaw Bay, arrived on May 31st with two hundred and fifty warriors. Other First Nations were also with Pontiac because they lived around Detroit. These included the Detroit Potawatomi and the Wyandotte led by the war chief Takay. Others from the Wabash arrived including some Miami and Kickapoo. There was even a band of Fox under Ninivois present. By June Pontiac had a force of 900 warriors.

But not all First Nations thought a war with the British was prudent. Wabbiccomicot, a very influential Mississauga chief from Toronto kept most of that Nation out of the fray. The Wyandotte were split. Most of them joined Pontiac but one band led by a chief named Teata held back.

The whole territory that surrounded Detroit was Chippewa country. As stated above the chiefs and warriors from Saginaw and the Thames answered the call of Pontiac’s war belts. However, the St. Clair Chippewa were strangely absent. If fact there is no record of their major war chief Little Thunder being sent a belt. He was known to be a staunch British ally especially in his later years.

The plan Pontiac devised was much like the one’s used in the fall of the other British posts. It was one of stealth. On the 1st of May he came to the post with about fifty warriors saying it was his intent to dance the calumet, which was a peace dance, at the house of the commandant inside the fort.  They entered the fort, made their speeches, danced their dance and then they mingled about the inside of the fort feigning friendship with all the inhabitants. In reality, this was a recognizance mission. Pontiac informed Major Gladwin that they would return in a few days with the whole Nation. They would arrive for a friendship gathering which was customary to do once each year. 

Meanwhile, the commandant began to suspect something was amiss. A Mrs. St. Aubin had gone to the Ottawa village to trade her bread for sugar and grease when she noticed the warriors all filing their guns down. She asked them why they were doing this and they replied they worked better sawed off. She reported this to her cousin Mr. LaButte who was the post’s interpreter who in turn told Major Gladwin. 

The Ottawa also had a traitor in their midst. In one report it was a young Ottawa maiden named Catherine made a pair of moccasins for the commandant who planned to give them to a friend as a gift. He liked them so much he ordered another pair for himself. During the time he transacted business with her she became infatuated with him and secretly told him of the Ottawa’s plans. But she was found out and when she returned to the village Pontiac beat her with a stick leaving her laying on the ground. The rest of the village called for her death but she was spared.

To convince the British there was no treachery planned the Ottawa came to the fort with an old woman in tow saying that they had heard that she was at the fort telling lies to the commandant. They said that the Ottawa only wanted peace and friendship with the English and that he old woman was evil.

In another report the traitor was an Ottawa man who did not agree with the attack on the British. Mahigama came to the fort in secret and asked to speak with the commandant as he had something very important to tell him. He was taken to Major Campbell who was being replaced by Major Gladwin. Campbell also called Gladwin to the meeting. They wanted to send for Mr. LaButte to interpret but Mahigama would not allow it. He said he could speak French well enough for Campbell to understand him.

He told them of the plan to attack the fort, on which day and how the First Nations would come into the fort for the peace gathering with all their arms including sawed-off guns hidden under their blankets. He begged the officers to keep his name secret because if his people found out they would surely kill him. It is not sure which story is true but the British did discover the details of Pontiac’s plan and they did hold their source in confidence.

On the day of the planned assault the British were ready. They had 300 men under arms all with swords and pistols at the ready. They opened the gates but only let in the chiefs, Pontiac, Mukeetaa Pinaasee (the Blackbird), Neewish and Wabinema. Pontiac gave the long speech he had prepared but when he got to the part where he was to give the war-whoop and the attack was to begin he just sat down. The Ottawa plan of attack had been foiled.

They left the fort enraged rushing to an English house outside the fort which was occupied by an old woman and her family. They killed everyone in the house. Then they move on to Hogg Island where they killed another English family that lived there. The above mentioned war belts were sent out, the Chippewa reinforcements arrived and the siege of Fort Detroit began.

NEXT WEEK:  The Beaver War 1763 – Part 5