The Seven Years’ War (1756-63) ended with the British defeating the French and the Natives and, in doing so, secured title to virtually all of North America east of the Mississippi River. But, how did the Natives made sense of this conflagration?
Seven Years’ War: A Non-event for Natives
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.
And thus began Pontiac’s War—named after Odawa chief Pontiac—which lasted from May 1763 to July 1766.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Let’s consider the vision of Neolin, a Lenape prophet whose message influenced Pontiac’s own. In 1763, Pontiac reiterated the message that the Master of Life, or the Creator, gave to Neolin this way:
I am the Master of Life, whom thou desirest to know and to whom thou wouldst speak. Listen well to what I am going to say to thee and all thy red brethren. This land, where you live, I have made for you and not for others. How comes it that you suffer the whites on your lands? Can’t you do without them?
Pontiac also turned to the problem of dependency and referred to colonial traders who fostered indebtedness and dependency and introduced harmful things, such as alcohol, into Native communities.
Still, he offered an explanation of why such trouble befell Indian people:
You had no need of gun nor powder, nor the rest of their things, and nevertheless you caught animals to live and clothe yourselves with their skins, but when I saw that you went to the bad, I called back the animals into the depths of the woods, so that you had need of your brothers to have your wants supplied and to cover you.
Pontiac’s Solution for the Natives
If bad behavior caused this to happen by offending the Master of Life, what could Native people do to make things right again? According to Pontiac, the Master of Life offered the answer as well.
He talked about separate creations and of a sovereignty rooted in the soil. He gave affirmation to the idea of being created in a place and for a place. No less significant, we gain an explanation for the loss and restoration of power. Through his message, we come to understand that Native people believed they could reform the world through ritual action and, in so doing, restore their world to its former state. And that’s exactly what Pontiac and a vast intertribal alliance set out to do in the spring of 1763.
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An Alliance to Defeat the British
At Fort Detroit, Pontiac urged Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe to accept Lenape war belts. Fashioned from black beads, they represented a call to arms—an invitation to go to war and rid the Ohio Country of the British.
Soon, they would be joined by Myaamia, Wyandot, Kickapoo, Piankashaw, Shawnee, and others. Attacks on 13 British posts throughout the Upper Ohio Country followed. The combined Native forces rolled over the British forts Miami, Sandusky, and St. Joseph, among others.
Sometimes this involved the use of carefully crafted tactics of deception and trickery.
Natives Apply Ingenious Tactics
In June 1763, right in front of Fort Michilimackinac, in modern-day Mackinaw City, Michigan, Ojibwe and Sauk men staged a lacrosse game. During the match, one of the players intentionally fired the ball over the fort’s walls.
The British, having been lulled into a false sense of security, allowed the players to enter to recover their ball. Once inside, the Indians turned on the garrison and took control of it. The British responded with nefarious means—biological warfare, no less.
The British Use the Biological Warfare
In the spring of 1763, Native attacks on the pivotal strongholds of Fort Pitt, Fort Detroit, and Fort Niagara had turned into long-term sieges.
Early on, British leaders had ordered the dissemination of smallpox-infected blankets to a group of Lenape that had come to negotiate. The effects were catastrophic.
It’s important to note, however, that this wasn’t an isolated incident. According to historian Elizabeth Fenn, the military use of smallpox in particular arose frequently in 18th-century America. By the second half of the century, many of the combatants in America’s wars of empire had the knowledge and technology to attempt biological warfare with the smallpox virus, Fenn adds.
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Royal Proclamation of 1763
Despite the ravages of biological warfare, the success of the indigenous military campaign in the Ohio Country forced the British government to respond to their demands.
In October 1763, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation, which established a line that made the Appalachian Mountains the boundary between Indians and colonists. It also forbade private purchases of Indian land, restricted commerce to licensed traders, and ordered colonists west of the line to return to the east.
However, the British didn’t agree to abandon their forts, and conflict erupted once more throughout the borderland.
Cracks Appear in Native Unity
The combined effects of British offensives in 1764, intertribal disputes, disease, and the absence of a European ally ultimately broke pan-Indian unity. An uneasy stillness settled over the Upper Ohio Country by the summer of 1766.
It was then that Pontiac made peace with the British. In doing so, Pontiac fell out of standing with those within the intertribal alliance that wanted to continue the war.
Result of the Seven Years’ War for the Natives
The Seven Years’ War and Pontiac’s War were setbacks, but there were victories to be found within them. The Indians in the Ohio Country had managed to secure British recognition that they were not subjects but sovereign nations.
What is more, the British begrudgingly restored their observance of indigenous diplomatic protocols. And, most important of all, as the line drawn by the Royal Proclamation attested, the Indians of the Ohio Country had survived despite being caught between empires.
They remained in possession of the land the Master of Life had created for them, the land for which they had been created. Yet, these were indecisive ends. Questions lingered. Unnatural quarrels brewed. And there was trouble coming.
Common Questions about Native View of the Seven Years’ War
Pontiac forged alliances with the Natives of Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe, Myaamia, Wyandot, Kickapoo, Piankashaw and Shawnee, among others.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established a line that made the Appalachian Mountains the boundary between Natives and colonists. It also forbade private purchases of Indian land, restricted commerce to licensed traders, and ordered colonists west of the line to return to the east.
Yes, the British used biological warfare against the Natives. British leaders had ordered the dissemination of smallpox-infected blankets to a group of Lenape people.