Pontiac’s Rebellion and British Germ Warfare

Pontiac swinging an ax.
The siege of Fort Detroit.
A map of the Great Lakes region where Pontiac’s rebellion took place.

The multicontinental Seven Years’ War, while lasting from 1756 to 1763 in Europe, stopped already in 1760 in North America, when France’s army here was forced to surrender to their wartime enemy Britain. Britain, now, took command of North American land inhabited by both Frenchmen and First Nations, and the indigenous people, who had just lost their surrendering French allies’ military support, tentatively accepted the new political authority. However, callous British policies would soon stir up renewed opposition from people of the First Nations, in particular from Pontiac.

Attacking Fort Detroit

Odawa war chief Pontiac believed that the British policy of seizing North American land was unacceptable and that addictive European trade goods corrupted the First Nations. Therefore, in 1763, he encouraged indigenous tribes to unite to push back the British and break the dependency on Western goods. A band of warriors led by Pontiac then attacked the British garrison at Fort Detroit, which they were unsuccessful in taking. Even so, Pontiac and his men overpowered significant contingents of British troops in the surrounding areas and wreaked havoc among English-speaking civilians, seriously challenging British authority.

News of Pontiac’s achievements spread and inspired indigenous tribes all over the Great Lakes region to rise up in arms. Soon, after attacks on local fortifications, nine out of eleven British-controlled forts in the area had fallen to ferocious indigenous warriors, with the two remaining forts, Fort Pitt and Fort Detroit, being under siege.

Infected blankets

Desperate to repel the fast-advancing First Nations warriors, Brits at the besieged Fort Pitt turned to germ warfare. Cunningly, during negotiations with the First Nations warriors, they gifted their counterparts blankets that had deliberately been infected with smallpox, in the hope that their enemies would fall ill and die. The unknowing indigenous people, accepting the gift as a gesture of good will, then came in contact with the infectious germs, and as the defenders of Fort Pitt had hoped, soon contracted disease, leading to a weakening of the siege.

At Fort Detroit, the other fort to remain under British control, just like at Fort Pitt, the First Nations’ alliance could not seize the British stronghold. Still, atrocities on both sides here spurred hatred, and fighting continued on for months. Among other things, the scalping and cutting to pieces of a nephew of an indigenous chief led to the revenge killing of a British commander, where fellow tribesmen of the scalped warrior tore the commander’s heart out and ate the heart.

Loss of momentum

The indigenous people’s fervor notwithstanding, confirmation that France was not considering a re-entry into the Seven Years’ War, by 1763, lowered their morale. Britain now saw an opportunity to end the uprising, and promised to rule with respect for indigenous people’s rights, luring some demotivated First Nations warriors to stop fighting and go back home. The uncoordinated rebellion now broke up and Pontiac’s momentum waned. Pontiac himself, eventually, begrudgingly pledged loyalty to Britain, leading to his most stalwart followers regarding him as a traitor. Nevertheless, in decades to come, his memory would inspire at least one new First Nations confederation.