In August 1763, on a densely wooded hillside near Bushy Run Creek (Westmoreland County), about 25 miles east of Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh, Allegheny County), a combined force of Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo and Wyandot warriors attacked and surrounded Colonel Henry Bouquet and his small army of British regulars as they attempted to relieve Fort Pitt’s besieged garrison. The ensuing two-day engagement culminated in a stunning victory for Bouquet’s troops. Frontier historian Francis Parkman celebrated the battle as “one of the best contested actions ever fought between white men and Indians.” The narrowly-won British victory assumed greater significance as a precursory step in the eventual defeat of Native Americans’ last unified attempt at resistance to colonization. Failing to protect their homes and their hunting grounds from the pressures of colonial expansion, the Indians never recovered their status as strong independent nations and were constrained to accept a peripheral role in the new America.
The French and Indian War, as it was known in the colonies, pitted England against France and their Indian allies in a struggle to protect and extend their respective colonial possessions. Hostilities in North America ended in French defeat in 1760. The official end to the war came in February 1763 with the Treaty of Paris in which France ceded Canada and its territories east of the Mississippi River to the British. As a result, relations between the British, who now controlled all former French forts, and the Indians became increasingly strained.
Initially, the British assured the Indians that they would receive fair treatment and many gifts as they had received from the French. But by 1761, General Jeffrey Amherst, commander of all British forces in North America, instituted policy changes from his New York headquarters that nullified these earlier promises. He ordered his post commanders to halt the practice of gift giving, no longer willing to bribe the Indians for their loyalty. But the Indians saw it as a time-honored custom to codify treaties and affirm alliances. Amherst also prohibited the sale of rum to the Indians and transferred the sale of arms and ammunition to unscrupulous civilian traders. Additionally, the British continued to maintain fortifications on Indian lands and failed to stem the tide of settlers pouring over the Alleghenies, both in violation of the 1758 Treaty of Easton. The Indians repudiated the army’s continued presence and complained of abuse and deceit. The British countered that the forts existed to protect everyone. By early 1763 Captain Simeon Ecuyer, commander at Fort Pitt, reported that the Indians believed “the English had an Intention to make War” against them “by their keeping Ammunition from them and settleing so many Forts in their Country.’” The smoldering embers of discontent flared into open conflagration and a charismatic leader emerged to wage war against the British.
Pontiac, an Ottawa chief of mixed tribal parentage, spoke persuasively and passionately in council of the need for unity and cooperation among tribes. He conceived a plan to force the British east of the mountains and reclaim the lands promised to the Indian nations, but he needed a strong unified coalition from the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley substantial enough to drive off the enemy. A Delaware prophet’s vision inspired him in his mission and he used it to persuade other tribal leaders to join the alliance.
Neolin’s vision appeared to him in 1760. He stood before the Master of Life who warned him that his people had been barred from the path to Heaven by the corrupting influence of white interlopers and that the Indians should return to their native ways. Neolin urged the Indians to stop all trade for European goods and return to living off the land, to purify their bodies of drink and vice, and to rid their lands of all white people. Although some Indians sanctioned Neolin’s revelations and resented the British for their policies, their chiefs did not immediately respond to Pontiac’s call to arms.
Two events transpired to change attitudes. First, rumors of the Treaty of Paris circulated among the tribes. Though the Indians saw this as a trick by the British, it forced them to realize that the French army might not come to their aid. Their only chance was to unite in war. As Parkman claimed, “While the sovereigns of France, England, and Spain, were signing the treaty at Paris, countless Indian warriors in the American forests were singing the war-song, and whetting their scalping-knives.” Second, the Delaware circulated two war belts in April 1763—one to avenge the attack on Kittanning in 1756 and the other to avenge the recent murder of chief Teedyuscung. The chiefs eagerly embraced the appeal for justice for Teedyuscung’s murder, but still hesitated to endorse Pontiac’s battle plan at a tribal council on April 27. However, at a second meeting on May 5, Pontiac finally convinced them to join the alliance consisting predominantly of Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Wyandot from the Great Lakes region and Delaware, Shawnee, Sandusky Wyandot, Mingo and Seneca in the Ohio Valley and Pennsylvania.
In early May 1763, while Pontiac and his warriors invested Fort Detroit, his Eastern allies defeated all British-held posts in the Ohio Valley in three weeks’ time. Then they struck the heart of the Pennsylvania frontier. In late May, the Delaware perpetrated attacks on settlements near Fort Pitt. One murder in particular caught the attention of Captain Ecuyer when a war party killed former militia colonel William Clapham. The Pennsylvania Journal & Weekly Advertiser reported, “that he and all the Rest of his Family were Murthered by the Indians.”
Ecuyer commanded a garrison of 230 British regulars and local militia with an additional 150 women and children under his protection. They remained safely behind the fort’s walls, which were constructed of stone with large protruding bastions. While direct assaults by the Indians would inevitably fail, the fort’s isolated location made it vulnerable to a long siege. Ecuyer cautiously prepared for this eventuality by burning the wooden structures surrounding the fort and taking measures to protect the garden, stockade and other food stores.
Ecuyer warned Amherst about the numerous attacks on nearby settlements. Despite reports of the siege on Detroit, Amherst initially believed that the Indian mischief was limited to a handful of miscreants around Fort Pitt. However, on June 6 he ordered two light infantry companies from the 42nd “Black Watch” and 77th regiments to march from Staten Island in New York to Colonel Bouquet in Philadelphia, entrusting him to employ the troops as needed to secure the Pennsylvania frontier and mitigate any Indian hostilities.
Bouquet, a Swiss-born career soldier, gained experience in several European conflicts before he received a British commission as commander of the 60th Royal American Regiment in 1756. Bouquet served as second in command to General John Forbes in the capture of Fort Duquesne (destroyed by the French) in 1758 during which time he supervised the building of Forbes Road from Carlisle to the Ohio River as well as many of the British forts in western Pennsylvania, including forts Pitt and Presque Isle. These earlier experiences molded him into an effective frontier commander.
In mid-June, war parties comprised of Seneca and Mingo from the Iroquois nations and Ottawa and Wyandot from Pontiac’s western coalition attacked Forts Venango (Franklin, Venango County), Le Boeuf (Waterford, Erie County), and Presque Isle (along Lake Erie), killing the garrisons or forcing them to flee. Dixon summarized the losses, reporting “In the span of one week, the Senecas and their allies had, by taking three British outposts, severed the line of communication between forts Pitt and Niagara.” Colonel Bouquet scathingly criticized Lieutenant John Christie, commander of Presque Isle, complaining of “an infamous capitulation with savages” and that he “delivers up to them a post of the greatest importance, which was to be defended.” Ironically, Christie became a prize of the Wyandot who later exchanged him at Detroit in a bid to quit the alliance.
On June 2 and again two weeks later, the Delaware unsuccessfully attacked Fort Ligonier (Westmoreland County), its commander, Lieutenant Archibald Blaine, having taken the same precautions against attack as Ecuyer. On June 22, the Delaware were joined by their Shawnee and Mingo allies and converged on Fort Pitt. Ecuyer answered their assault with artillery fire. Two days later the Indians, lacking the numbers and supplies to sustain a long-term offensive, offered surrender terms. Delaware spokesmen boasted to Ecuyer “that all your Forts, & Strong Places from this backwards, are all burn’t and cut off; This is now the only one you have left in our Country.” The Indians would allow the fort inhabitants safe passage east if they surrendered immediately. Ecuyer refused to submit, replying confidently, “this Post is sufficiently Provided, & supply’d, with Men, Arms, Amunition & Provisions to defend it, against all Nations of Indians that dare Appear before it; And is resolved to keep it while a White Man lives with in it.” During the negotiations, Captain William Trent, a former militia officer, gave the Indians two blankets and a handkerchief infected with small pox, becoming the first documented use of germ warfare, a strategy Amherst himself suggested to Bouquet to reduce enemy strength.
Once Amherst realized that the Indians were attacking in force, he sent additional light infantry—some sick with malaria—and artillery on June 18 to rendezvous with Bouquet at Carlisle and approved his plan to march reinforcements and supplies to Fort Pitt. On June 23, he dispatched the remainder of the 42nd and 77th regiments and ordered Bouquet to send reinforcements to Presque Isle. He wrote Bouquet again on June 29, stating, “that I Wish to Hear of no Prisoners, should any of the Villains be met with in Arms.”
Bouquet arrived in Carlisle in late June amid a flooding tide of terror-stricken inhabitants escaping the carnage already committed on friends and neighbors. The Pennsylvania Journal & Weekly Advertiser reported from Fort Bedford that, “two Men are brought in alive, tomahawked and scalped more then half the Head over” and that the victims present “a Scene of bloody and savage Cruelty.” Concerned for the safety of forts Bedford and Ligonier, Bouquet ordered a relief column to secure those two posts. He hurriedly assembled packhorses, wagons, drivers and wagonmasters to transport flour, powder, and sheep across the rugged Pennsylvania terrain. Historian Don Daudelin applauded Bouquet’s logistical abilities despite “a frightened populace and an indecisive legislative assembly” claiming that he “deserves nothing but praise.”
In early July, the Delaware heightened their attacks on settlements west of Carlisle killing about 50 settlers and frightening countless others from their homesteads. Bouquet entreated the Pennsylvania Assembly to provide him with reinforcements. It reluctantly complied on July 8, authorizing 700 recruits to patrol the backcountry, but only east of the Allegheny Mountains. Bouquet lamented, “The few Troops voted by the Assembly can neither be raised in Time, nor when raised will they be able to save the People & their Harvest from Destruction.” He would have to carry out his orders with the troops sent by Amherst to put down the insurrection.
On July 18, the Indians resumed their siege of Fort Pitt. Eight days later, they again urged Ecuyer to surrender, but he refused. They answered his impudence with a harrowing four-day assault. Meanwhile, Bouquet arrived at Fort Bedford on July 25. Before continuing west, he raised a company of 14 rangers, commanded by Captain Lemuel Barrett, to act as scouts, complaining “the Highlanders lose themselves in the Woods as soon as they got out of the Road.” He left behind a detachment of soldiers to bolster Captain Lewis Ourry’s undermanned garrison, then marched for Fort Ligonier on July 28 arriving five days later. Lieutenant Blaine apprised him of Ecuyer’s tenuous situation. To make haste, Bouquet left behind his artillery and wagons and transferred the flour and other supplies onto packhorses. Unaware that the Indians had curiously quit the siege of Fort Pitt on August 1 to launch a surprise attack on his column, he departed on August 4 to begin the last leg of his march.
The next day, Bouquet halted his column at Bushy Run Creek to rest. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the Indians ambushed his advanced guard. Two light infantry companies joined in support and repelled the attackers, but the Indians persisted “extending along the Flanks” of the column. As soon as the regulars routed them from one position, “they appeared on another, till by continual Reinforcements, they were at last able to surround us.” Then they attacked the supply train forcing Bouquet to turn the column to the rear. “The action then became general, and though we were attacked on every Side, and the Savages exerted themselves with uncommon Resolution, they were constantly repulsed with Loss.” The Indians relentlessly harassed the British lines until nightfall.
By day’s end, the Indians had encircled Bouquet’s army. He lost 60 men dead or wounded and fatigue and thirst afflicted his remaining troops. The Indians killed or drove off many of the packhorses. The frightened drivers cowered in the brush unable to contribute anything to the fight. Bouquet found his army in desperate straits, but he occupied high ground. He ordered his men to place the flour sacks in a circle atop the hill to shield the wounded. The soldiers formed a concentric ring of defense surrounding them. Once Bouquet set up the encampment to his greatest advantage, he wrote a letter to Amherst reporting the dire condition of his shrinking army, expressing concern about the “insurmontable difficulties in protecting & transporting our Provisions; being already So much weakened by the Losses of this Day in men, and Horses.”
At daybreak, the Indians “Surrounded our Camp, at the distance of about 500 yards, & by Shouting and yelping quite round that extensive Circumference thought to have terrified us with their numbers.” The soldiers counterattacked where they received the heaviest fire. However, they were “extremely fatigued with the long march, and as long Action of the preceding Day, and distressed to the last Degree by a total want of water.” Bouquet needed a victory or he risked losing his army. A defeat meant the loss of Fort Pitt and all British interests on the Pennsylvania frontier. He could neither advance nor retreat so he devised a plan to “intice them to come close upon us, or to Stand their ground when attacked.” Then he would deliver a swift crippling blow. He put his desperate plan into operation.
Bouquet ordered two light infantry companies to withdraw into the inner circle. The two adjacent companies “opened their Files and filled up the Space; that it might Seem they were intended to cover the Retreat” appearing weak and vulnerable. The Indians “hurried headlong on, and advancing upon us with the most daring intrepidity galled us excessively with their heavy Fire.” As they did, the first two companies, concealed in a position outside the circle, fell upon the Indians’ right flank and crushed their assault. “They resolutely returned the Fire, but could not Stand the irresistible Shock of our Men, who rushing in among them, killed many of them, and put the rest to Flight.” Two additional companies caught the surprised Indians “who happened to run that moment before their Front” in a devastating crossfire. The brave warriors fought valiantly but the soldiers overwhelmed them and drove them off. Their comrades watched from the trees but “were kept in awe by the Remains of our Troops” and they “being witness to their defeat, followed their Example and fled.” The infantry pursued the fleeing Indians a short distance, then returned to their ranks. Bouquet destroyed most of the supplies, assembled his troops and marched his beleaguered column to Fort Pitt arriving on August 10.
Bouquet’s men executed his plan brilliantly and the discipline and courage he instilled in them rewarded him in a swift and decisive victory. He applauded their actions and resolute courage, which “Speaks for itself So Strongly, that for me to attempt their Eulogium would but detract from their merit.” Bouquet deserves much of the credit for the victory because of his proven capabilities as a frontier tactician. Niles Anderson extolled Bouquet’s abilities on the battlefield “to adapt his textbook tactics to conditions of wilderness conflict.” Bouquet also studied his enemy and anticipated their actions. Finally, he was “gifted with that intangible quality called leadership; from this leadership came good discipline and high morale.”
Bouquet’s contemporaries lauded his victory in newspapers and letters. The Pennsylvania Gazette reported that Bouquet’s army “totally routed a very considerable Body of Indians” and that “there never were Troops that behaved with more Coolness, Firmness, and real Resolution.” The battle concluded with “the Indians firing some random Shots, but never daring to face the Troops again.” Captain Ourry wrote on August 27 celebrating Bouquet’s “Defeat of the Savages” and expressing his relief at their safe arrival at Fort Pitt, adding that the Indians “have not appeared on this communication since.” Two days later, Governor James Hamilton congratulated Bouquet, adding that his victory and the relief of Fort Pitt were “very important services both, and of the utmost consequen to these Colonies!”
Bouquet’s ingenious battle plan succeeded, but not without cost. In spite of the outcome, Bouquet’s victory was a double-edged sword. An Indian victory would have forced Bouquet and his men back to Fort Ligonier, leaving the supplies and wounded behind and placing Ecuyer’s garrison in peril. The two-day action resulted in the loss of 110 men, almost one-third of his complement. He destroyed the supplies to transport the wounded and his diminished troop strength prevented him from reestablishing defenses at Presque Isle.
Notwithstanding his losses, Bouquet saved Fort Pitt from surrender and prevented the Indians from gaining the supplies they needed to fuel the rebellion. Furthermore, Bouquet’s victory quelled further assaults on British fortifications in Pennsylvania. The British killed an estimated 60 warriors including Delaware chiefs Keekyuscung and Wolf. Dixon concluded that the Indians “were never again formidable enough to cut off a strategic British outpost.” The Indians resumed harassing attacks on settlements, but they could no longer pose a serious threat. Finally, the victory enabled Bouquet to march into the Ohio Valley the following year and defeat the Indians at Muskingham (now Muskingum).
Pontiac’s life mirrored the events of his rebellion, initially successful but eventually defeated and marginalized. Richard Middleton applauded Pontiac as the leader “who lit the torch and sustained the coalition for three difficult campaigns during which he showed both tactical and strategic ability.” But by 1765, the British had thoroughly defeated the Indians and Pontiac’s pan-Indian alliance had crumbled. He antagonized other Indian leaders by flaunting his celebrity with the British. Whatever his prominence during the conflict, once peace was secured he lived the remainder of his life as an outcast. In 1769, a Peoria warrior killed him in a fight near Cahokia, Illinois.
Pontiac’s inevitable defeat cost the Indians their lands and their autonomy. Ironically, they came closer to victory than they realized. Middleton summarized that within a few weeks Pontiac’s forces “captured nine forts, killed nearly three hundred British troops, slaughtered or captured several hundred settlers, displaced many thousands more, pushed the frontiers back fifty miles in many places, and seized £100,000 worth of merchandise.” They defeated the British in every engagement with few exceptions. The British constantly waged war from undermanned defenses, but the Indians failed to exploit their weaknesses. Furthermore, tribal interests prevented them from sustaining a prolonged war. Despite Pontiac’s unifying efforts, Indian leaders represented only the interests of their own people. When they saw no tribal advantage in attacking, they quit the alliance and negotiated a separate peace. The net effect of these obstacles cost the Indians their status as independent nations.
Pontiac’s Rebellion accentuated the desperation of a race of proud people clinging to their lands and their culture. The British, and subsequently American, governments denied the Indians citizenship rights and marginalized them geographically and culturally. Jane Ockershausen reasoned that “no matter how Native Americans negotiated treaties with the colonists, their fate was sealed; their own eastern homelands and hunting grounds were lost to them, and they would continue to be pushed further west.” Significantly more than a contentious dispute over trinkets and treaties, a mere land grab, or even bitter hatred between races, Dixon viewed Pontiac’s uprising as a “transcendent episode in the struggle of Native Americans to retain their identity and sovereignty.” The encounter between two small armies fighting over supplies on an August afternoon in 1763 proved to be the prelude to the final act in the clash between divergent cultures.