- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

By Gregory Evans Dowd
Johns Hopkins University Press, $32, 360 pages, illus.

In the spring of 1763 Indians attacked the backcountry post of Detroit, recently surrendered to England by France. Assaults quickly spread among virtually all tribes west of the Appalachians, east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio River. By the time the conflict ended two years later it had become the bloodiest of the colonial period. As Gregory Evans Dowd tells the story in his exceptionally fine new book "War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire," the war was also enormously revealing of the contours of power and belief on the eve of the American Revolution.
Traditionally the war has taken its name from its most visible figure, the Ottawa leader Pontiac. Francis Parkman, writing in a romantic age celebrating the heroic individual, portrayed Pontiac as a Satanic genius of the forest who took the tribes to war by persuasion and force of will. In the 20th century's only full study of the war, Howard Peckham demotes Pontiac to a local commander in a conflict engineered by a France embittered by its loss of North America.
Mr. Dowd writes out of his own scholarly time. Looking for a single, simple cause of the war "is useless." It came as Indians evaluated their changing status and maneuvered within it. As for Pontiac, his considerable influence is understandable only within the native cultural and spiritual milieu.
When France turned over its claim to the region to England in 1760, Indians correctly sensed an English determination to dominate native peoples and to require Indians to recognize that domination. Ottawas, Potawatomis, Ojibwas, Menominees, Miamis and others feared economic calamity, enslavement and eventual loss of their land. Their anxiety and their jockeying with the English, however, were not expressed on those terms. The language was symbolic.
When English leaders drastically reduced annual gifts to the tribes, the larger message was to change the relationship from familial respect to one of "charity of the gentry to the beggar." Their use of arrogant and dismissive terms in addressing native leaders, what one Shawnee called "evil speech," was a purposeful move to establish their mastery. "Speech was a material issue," Mr. Dowd writes, for choice of words, like gestures of gift-giving, implied what treatment and behavior awaited.
Native religion also played a crucial role, both as motive and strategy. Among the Delawares the prophet Neolin told of a vision in which he visited the Master of Life and was given a new teaching. A cobbling of tradition, Christian influence and new elements, Neolin's religion promised that if a rigorous moral code were kept and ceremonies followed faithfully the Indians' oppressors would be swept from the land.
This vision inspired Pontiac and other leaders. The uprising was in part a holy war.
Mr. Dowd is by no means the first to point out the power of symbolic language and the role of religious vision in these events. His contribution is in his masterful and nuanced tracing of the connections between the outer and inner worlds of native peoples. Neolin's Delawares had been in close contact with whites longer than Pontiac's Ottawas, and as the Delawares were pushed out of Pennsylvania they let the tribes there know of the disastrous consequences.
Neolin's spirituality and its appeal were rooted in a genuine material crisis increasingly clear to all the region's Indians. Mr. Dowd shows as well that Neolin directed the new teaching at the English far more than the French. Religion, that is, reflected the realpolitik of the backcountry.
Ultimately there was no separating what Mr. Dowd terms the "worldly" and "otherworldly" wars between the cultures.
The Indians' material concerns depletion of game and competition with white hunters, deterioration of trade relations, demands for return of captives well integrated into tribal life and affections, a fear of enslavement all found expression in religious revival, which in turn provided common ground, inspiration, and even strategic models for resisting tribes.
Mr. Dowd's treatment of the English is especially fresh. Historians have portrayed the new leaders, especially Jeffrey Amherst, commander of lands taken from France, as alienating Indians mainly out of inexperience and a failure to grasp the messages implied by their heavy-handedness. To Mr. Dowd English leaders were knowingly arrogant.
They understood well enough that Indians would take their attitudes and policies as they were in fact intended an effort to be not a compassionate father but an iron master. The English were not blindly disdainful but purposefully imperious. Both sides, that is, understood quite well in their way that this was a showdown.
Small wonder the fighting was so brutal and the blood so deep. At the start Indian forces were brilliantly successful.
Pontiac's attack and seige of Detroit ultimately failed, but within months warriors took every significant post except it and Fort Pitt at the headwaters of the Ohio River, lynchpin of British power in the west.
Pontiac in no sense was overall commander, but his influence did reach much beyond the radius of his immediate followers. Indian campaigns generally were in a similar tension between traditional tribal independence and the need for some coordinated effort against a common threat.
Despite the vastly superior resources of the British empire, the numbers either side could actually deploy were roughly equal at about 3,000 men. The evidence left behind by Indians and English on the other hand is grossly imbalanced, so the thinking of native leadership must be informed historical guesswork. Mr. Dowd finds a pattern to the Indians' campaigns. They focused on posts and on their opponents' dangerously extended supply lines. They fought viciously but mostly spared French settlers, executed some prisoners but apparently fewer than Indian captives killed by the English.
The English plans were simple and clear: Punish the enemy physically and crush their spirit. They would use whatever worked, including paying settlers for Indian scalps.
The Swiss officer Henry Bouquet proved a determined opponent but, writes Mr. Dowd, not nearly as successful as often claimed. Indians frustrated English campaigns but suffered from diminishing resources and finally divisions in their own ranks. In 1765 English played on those divisions in a series of treaties that ended the war peacemeal.
As usual the innocent paid a price. The only English goal even partly met was the return of captives, many or most of whom desired to stay with their adoptive people. Some indeed vanished into their new lives, never finding their original families. Christianized Indians meanwhile were attacked by English mobs, most famously in the so-called Paxton "riots."
Mr. Dowd is especially original in his analysis of the war's legacy. Its prime lesson, its ambiguity, was part of a larger crisis of empire. As with the conflict with the colonies that followed immediately, England simply was unable to establish a mastery it felt was its due. The result was a muddy, confused, contradictory policy toward both Indians and colonists the approach toward western tribes treating them now as independent actors, now as dependent children. After the Revolution, Mr. Dowd says, the republic inherited this muddled and conflicted Indian policy.
The war rippled far into the American future. This tightly written and engaging history brings it alive and lifts it convincingly to its proper place as a turning point in the continental story.

Elliott West is professor of history at the University of Arkansas.

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