The Siege of Detroit 1763 Historical Marker

Northeast corner of Riverside Drive East and Pillette Road on the waterfront in
Windsor, Ontario

Both the French and British colonists viewed Indians as savages and used much force to subdue or remove many tribes. But after about a century of contact with the Indians, the French had worked out a peaceful detente. For the most part, the French successfully traded European goods for the valuable pelts the Indians supplied. In addition, quite a few of the French courier de bois started families with the Indian women with whom they cohabited or married. Numerous French missionaries encouraged Indians to adopt the French civilization and the Roman Catholic religion. I am not sure how successful they were with regard to religion or French civilization, but French was spoken by many Indians since numerous tribes had productive and peaceful economic exchanges with French merchants.

The English replaced the French as the dominant power in North American in 1760 and their relations were the Indians were much less successful. One view is that English traders were much more exploitative than French traders. Another interpretation is that the English had a much more negative view of Indians and their culture and could not see the Indians as anything other than brutal savages. There were, of course, only a few English missionaries and the English, apparently, could not imagine that any English man would marry an Indian woman.

In 1760, a small number of English troops from Fort Pitt, let by Major Robert Rogers, traveled to Detroit and on November 29 of that year, the British flag replaced the fleur-de-lis at Fort Pontchartrain. I believe the British renamed the military establishment Fort Detroit. As early as 1761, the commander of the fort in Detroit—Captain Donald Campbell—learned of a plan by the Iroquois to unite Indian tribes for a coordinated attack on the British forts throughout the region. There was also a meeting of Indian chiefs near Detroit in September, 1861 to discuss a coordinated attack on the English. Nothing came of those plans but the Indians' dislike for the British colonists apparently grew.

Ottawa Chief Pontiac advocated that the tribes join together to force the British out. On April 27, 1863, Pontiac met with the chiefs of the Huron, Ojibwa, Ottawa and Pottawatomie tribes on the shores of the Ecorse River. This location is now commemorated as Council Point Park in Lincoln Park. Apparently, they agreed to carry out attacks on the British forts in the Midwest during that summer. Pontiac planned to start the insurrection by killing the British soldiers in Detroit. He requested that he, 10 other chiefs and 60 warriors meet with the British commander in Fort Detroit on May 7 to discuss a peaceful resolution to their disputes. However, Pontiac intended to have the chiefs and warriors conceal weapons in their garments when they entered the fort. Pontiac intended to give a signal and then his colleagues would slaughter the British. The British commander, Henry Gladwin, welcomed the chiefs and warriors into Fort Detroit. However, he had intelligence about Pontiac’s plans so he had his forces prepared to slaughter the Indians should Chief Pontiac give a sign. At the meeting, Pontiac realized that Gladwin had knowledge of his intentions so he never gave the signal to attack. Pontiac requested another meeting on May 8 to discuss peace but the British commander refused. On May 10, Pontiac laid siege to Detroit, a siege that would last until October 31 of that year.

Observers thought that Chief Pontiac was directing a well-organized and highly effective conspiracy. During the early summer of 1863, Indians overran all of the British forts in the Midwest except the forts in Pittsburgh, in Detroit and along the Niagara River. They drove the British out of their forts at Erie and Franklin, Pennsylvania; at Sandusky, Ohio; at Lafayette and Fort Wayne, Indiana, at Green Bay, Wisconsin and at Mackinaw City, Niles and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Much to the dismay of the British commander in North America, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, Indians pinned down that summer, killed many British troops and destroyed their forts. Amherst knew that the British forces had defeated the well-organized and sophisticated French forces in North American but were unable to conquer the savages.

In late May of 1763, Lieutenant Abraham Cuyer planned to sail from Fort Niagara at the eastern end of Lake Erie to Detroit to provide more troops to Fort Detroit. They interrupted their journey with a brief stop at Pointe Pelee. Indians learned about this and killed or captured 61 of the 96 British troops. Those captured were taken to eastern shore of the Detroit River. They were killed and mutilated; then there bodies were thrown in the River so that they would float by Fort Detroit as a warning to the British.

In late July, 1863, the British, under cover of dense fog, were able to breech the siege and move about 260 troops into Fort Detroit. On July 31, the British commander, Captain Dalyell, led these troops under cover of darkness in what he presumed would be a surprise attack on the Ottawa who, he believed, were located several miles northwest of the fort. However, the Ottawa had intelligence about his surprise attack. They let the British march into an exposed location on a bridge that crossed Parent Run. The Ottawa attacked and killed Captain Dalyell. I have seen reports that between 20 and 60 additional British soldiers were killed. This was known as the Battle of Bloody Run. Other British troops were injured or captured. After the slaughter, the water in the creek became red; hence the name. The creek ran through what is now Elmwood Cemetery on Detroit’s east side. This historical marker commemorating the Battle of Bloody Run is on the Players Club building at 3321 East Jefferson.

In September, 1863, Pottawatomie leaders proposed ending the siege. Within a month or so, many of the other tribes apparently saw little wisdom in continuing the siege of Detroit into the winter. On October 31, 1863, Chief Pontiac announced that he was ending the siege and sought to meet British commander Gladwin. Gladwin refused to meet him. In November, Pontiac and the remaining Indians moved away from Detroit. Apparently, throughout the summer of 1763, Pontiac hoped that the French would send military forces then located near St. Louis to assist the Indians and eventually reestablish French control of the Midwest. By October, Pontiac received officially word from the French would not carry out a war against the British.

Chief Pontiac left Detroit and traveled to Illinois and the area near St. Louis. For several years, he encouraged Indians to attack the British, but then he clearly understood that the French would not support him in his efforts to organize a war against the English. On July 25, 1766 in Oswego, New York, Pontiac signed a peace treaty with the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, William Johnson, ending what is often called “Pontiac’s Uprising.” In late 1763, the English decided that a good solution for the Indian problem would be to draw an imaginary line on a map extending from the Ottawa River in Canada along the peaks of the Alleghenies into the South. British colonists were discouraged or prohibited from settling west of that line. In addition, only officially-certified British agents were allowed to trade with Indians west of that line. Needless to say, given the small number of British troops and the vast area, this regulation was not easy to enforce. Chief Pontiac was murdered on April 20, 1769 in the French-Indian village of Cahokia—near St. Louis—by a Peoria Indian. Over the centuries, it appears that many Americans developed a favorable view of Pontiac. There are several cities named after him and General Motors sold millions of Pontiac automobiles. Perhaps his good reputation comes from the view that his efforts to expel the British from the Midwest were very similar to the colonist’s efforts in the Revolutionary War.

Photograph: Ren Farley; October 19, 2008
Description prepared: November, 2008

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