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United States of Indians?

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Fort Ligonier, home to one of the key places in Pontiac's War
Pop quiz: Which war had the most impact on the history and development of the United States of America? What, you say? The Civil War? The American Revolution? Good answers both, but the truth may lie with a war that happened way back in 1763 and one I had never even heard of before this week. Pontiac's War, named after a charismatic Ottawa Indian chief, could have changed the course of history with just a single battle. Consider that if the Indians had won, the British would have been severely weakened and the colonists would have had nothing to revolt over and there would have been no American Revolution. That's some serious stuff to think over so let me shed some more light on this little known war that could have produced the United States of Indians instead of the United States of America!

The way we usually conceive of our history is that Europeans came to the "New World," settled down, worked hard, moved westward and America eventually became the most powerful nation in the world, a proud beacon of liberty and democracy. The problem with this scenario is it ignores the African slave trade, which contributed heavily to the economic prosperity of early America and it portrays an unoccupied, virgin America ready and waiting to be conquered by the brave and ingenious Europeans. It forgets that there were people who were already here for thousands of years and not too happy about having their lands and lifestyles disrupted by intruders.

Looking back, it may seem that the Indians were doomed from the start and that sooner or later, the Europeans would conquer them with their superior firepower and weapons. But Pontiac's War shows that the Indians didn't think of themselves as weaklings. They were not about to roll over. And the fact that they ultimately lost should make us think about all the ugly things that happened in order to make the United States of America a reality.

Pontiac's War has its roots in the French and Indian War. Most of the Native American tribes supported the French, who in turn provided the Indians with guns, powders and metal tools. The British would win the war and the French had to surrender most of their holdings in North America. In 1758, the British had negotiated the Treaty of Easton with the Native Americans. The British promised that once the French and Indian War was over, there would be no European settlement in the Ohio Valley, the British would abandon the forts built on Indian territory and no rum would be traded. Alcoholism was becoming a big problem in many tribes.

But after the British victory over the French, it became clear that none of the promises were going to be kept. The British kept all their people at the forts, white settlers were entering the Ohio Valley, and European traders still sold rum. Even worse, the British suspended the traditional gift giving exchanges between the Indians and Europeans. A Delaware Indian prophet by the name of Neolin began preaching on the Europeans' bad influence on the Indians. He urged them to reject Christianity and European ways and revert back to traditional Indian practices, such as wearing animal skins instead of the cloth they obtained through trade.

Pontiac heard Neolin's words and tried to unify the Indian tribes to take back their lifestyle and culture from the British. Pontiac was an electrifying speaker, but he did not want to revert to the old pre-colonial traditions that Neolin called for. He liked his guns and powder too much to do that. What he wanted was to restore the way of life that existed with the French. At a council of Indian tribes in 1762 which included the Huron and Potawatomi chiefs, Pontiac roused the crowd into supporting his idea to attack Fort Detroit. The attack the following year was a failure, but it inspired Native Americans in Pennsylvania and in the Great Lakes area to take up arms against the British. Pontiac's War had started!

No wonder the British were so scared of the Indians since they looked like this
Several Indians at the Council meeting had had visions telling them that if they repelled the British and returned to their traditional roots, they could experience again peace and prosperity. For awhile, the vision seemed to be coming true. Nine forts in the Great Lakes area fell to Pontiac's Indian allies. The British were in shock at the strength and audacity of the Indians. General Jeffrey Amherst, the hero of the French and Indian War, made no attempt to hide how much he hated the Indians and regarded them as nuisances standing in the way of British expansionism in North America.

To get rid of the Indians, Amherst suggested to one of his colonels, Henry Bouquet, that he give the Indians as "gifts" blankets infected with small pox so to "extirpate this execrable race." You could call it among the first examples of biological warfare. It's hard to tell how effective this tactic was. Many Indians were dying already of all sorts of diseases brought by the Europeans.

The only original remains of Fort Pitt
Pontiac's War now shifted to western Pennsylvania. Fort Ligonier and Fort Pitt were under siege and if these were to be won by the Indians, it would essentially stop all free movement of Europeans into the West from the colonies. My fellow trekker Neda and I went to Pennsylvania to retrace those fateful days when the outcome of the war, and the future of the colonies, hung in the balance. First stop, Fort Pitt, a part of which still stands today in modern Pittsburgh. Fort Pitt was a crucial part of the French and Indian War and one of the most strategically important areas for the British. The Fort is located right at the base of where two rivers meet. General Amherst sent in 450 troops under Colonel Bouquet to find a way to save Ft. Pitt.

Doesn't this look easy to attack?
From Fort Pitt, we drove out to Fort Ligonier, where Bouquet's army spent two days in preparation for battle. There is now a reconstructed fort at the site. Neda and I were sort of disappointed at the wimpiness of it. The short log walls did not impress us as we felt anyone could attack, but we had to remember these were the days before airplanes and tanks! From Fort Ligonier, Bouquet stopped at a point halfway between Ligonier and Fort Pitt. It was here that the decisive battle took place in 1763, the Battle of Bushy Run.

The drive to the battlefield from Fort Ligonier was full of stunning scenery. The lush and green rolling hills, the quaint houses dotting the landscape, the trees turning hues of orange and gold, reminded me of why I have such a deep love for the East Coast and autumn. As I took in the battlefield, it was hard to believe that something so bloody and violent could have occurred amidst this gorgeous landscape. But it did. About 100-400 Indians (nobody quite knows) launched a surprise attack on Bouquet's group. Bouquet, through some brilliant maneuvering, was able to regain the upper hand, killing about 50-60 Indians while the rest fled. Thanks to this victory, Fort Pitt escaped annihilation and the British continued to expand their empire, despite promising the Indians again after the war that the land was legally theirs and the British were only leasing it.

The Battlefield that sealed the fate of the Indians
For the Indians, Pontiac's War represented a unique and valiant effort, where tribes across the region worked together to fight for their liberty and their land. That they came so close to succeeding is a startling accomplishment. Visiting the Bushy Run Battlefield was discomforting in many ways. It's the winners who are glorified in history and much of the literature I read celebrated the British victory and portrayed the Indians as the troublemakers who dared to challenge the superiority of the Europeans. I watched a video of a parade commemorating the 200th anniversary of Bushy Run. Though I got a kick out of the 1960s swimsuits, I had to wonder: Should we feel proud to celebrate a war that was fought because the British had broken all their promises to the Indians and were wrecking their way of life? The British may have won a military battle, but who deserved to win on moral grounds?

Irene as the ghost of General Jeffrey Amherst
This brings up another thorny issue. Why do we make certain people into heroes? And who gets to choose who's a hero? The college I graduated from is named after General Jeffrey Amherst and is located in Amherst, Massachusetts. Last year, the townspeople started a petition to try and change the name of the town because they felt a man who had wanted to kill all the Indians through germ warfare did not deserve to have a town named after him. To the Indians and a few French people, Jeffrey Amherst is anything but a hero. But I think what's more important now than bickering over city names is that we do consider history not only from the winners point of view, but the losers, to see how two people could view the Battle of Bushy Run and Jeffrey Amherst in such totally different ways. History, after all, is about challenging the facts, not accepting them.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Iroquois Federation - The founding fathers?
Team - Dead before their time
Rebecca - Massive wall of falling water!
Making A Difference - Murder most foul and an innocent Indian