Detroit – Historic Landmarks

THE elevated belt of inland seas which stretches from the St. Lawrence to the tenth parallel of west longitude has always formed one of the most striking and important features of this continent. At the outset, when an unbroken forest extended, in the southern section, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through which the settler must hew his difficult way with the axe, he could, by these great inland seas, penetrate to its very centre. The French, who claimed the Canadas by right of discovery, extended their exploration to Michilimackinac, and thence south to the mouth of the Mississippi. But the English colonies, pushing in from the Atlantic seaboard, south of the St. Lawrence, forced them back, till the lakes and the river became the boundary-line between the two, and the scene of bloody conflicts. So in the Revolution a fiercer struggle took place along this belt of water.

The French early saw that the Detroit River was a miniature Straits of Gibraltar to all the water that lay beyond, and, as far back as 1701, established there its most important western station. It was composed of a military colony, extending for twelve or sixteen miles up and down the west bank of the river, in the centre of which stood the fort, a quadrilateral structure embracing about a hundred houses. Numerous white dwellings lay scattered along the banks, each surrounded with a picket-fence, while orchards and gardens and outhouses exhibited the thrift of the Canadian settlers. It altogether formed a beautiful and sunny opening to the gloomy wilderness; and to the trader and soldier, weary with their long marches and solitary bivouacs in the forest, it was ever a most welcome sight. Three large Indian villages were embraced in the limits of the settlement. A little below the fort, and on the same side of the river, were the lodges of the Pottawatamies; nearly opposite them, those of the Wyandots; while two miles farther up lay sprinkled over the green meadows the wigwams of the Ottawas.

The French and English struggled long and stubbornly for the control of the Western continent, but at last the decisive conflict came, when the Canadas were put up and battled for on the Plains of Abraham. With the fall of Montcalm, the French power was forever broken; and the surrender of Montreal, which soon followed, virtually closed the war. The St. Lawrence and the Lakes now being in possession of the English, nothing remained for the weak Western posts but to submit quietly to their new masters.

The news of the overthrow of the colonial government had reached them, but having received no formal summons to surrender, they still kept the flag of France flying; and Captain Rogers, a native of New Hampshire, was sent with 200 Rangers, in fifteen whaleboats, to take possession of them. On the 7th of November he encamped on the present site of Cleveland—a point never before reached by British troops. Here a deputation of Indians met him, in the name of Pontiac, the savage lord of this wilderness. Before night the chief himself arrived, and demanded the reason of Rogers’s visit. The latter told him that the French had ceded all Canada to the British, who now had undisputed sway, and he was on his way to take possession of Detroit. Pontiac stayed till morning, and in another interview with the Ranger professed a desire for peace. Rogers then kept on, and at length reached Detroit, over which the lilies of France were still waving. The British colours at once supplanted them, and the surrounding Canadians swore allegiance to the British crown.

The Indians, who had been on the most friendly terms with the French, soon had cause to regret their change of masters. The English always practiced a cruel policy towards the Indians, which soon showed its legitimate fruits among the tribes in the neighbourhood of Detroit. There was one chief among them who held undisputed sway by the force of his genius and the loftiness of his character. Like Tecumseh and Red Jacket, he was one of those few savage monarchs that seem made for a nobler destiny than to be acknowledged leader of a few thousand naked barbarians. He saw, with great forecast of thought, the humiliation of the Indians if the British were allowed undisputed sway; for, with the French no longer as allies, he could not resist successfully their aggressions. He resolved, therefore, before the British got firmer foothold, to overwhelm them with savage forces, trusting to French aid to complete the work. So, in May, 1762, he sent messengers to the various surrounding tribes, summoning them to assemble for consultation on the banks of Ecorces River, a short distance from Detroit.

Pontiac was chief only of the Ottawas, though the other tribes acknowledged his authority. He was at this time about fifty years of age, and though not above the middle height, bore himself with wonderful dignity.

The tribes responded to Pontiac’s call. Soon the fierce Ojibwas and Wyandots assembled at the place of rendezvous, and took their seats upon the grass in a circle. For a long time not a word was spoken in the council. At last Pontiac strode into its midst, plumed and painted for war. Casting his fierce glance around on the waiting group, he commenced denouncing the English and calling on the chiefs to arise in defence of their rights. His voice at times pealed like a bugle, and his gestures were sudden and violent. After arousing his chiefs by his eloquence, he unfolded his plans.

He proposed that on the second of May they should visit the fort, under pretence of interchanging friendly and peaceful greetings; and then when the garrison was suspecting no treachery, suddenly fall on them and massacre the whole. They all readily assented to his scheme.

Gladwyn, commander of the fort, had seen nothing to rouse his suspicions, and everything betokened a quiet summer, until, just before this premeditated massacre, when a Canadian woman, who had visited the Ottawa village to buy some venison and maple sugar, reported that, as she was passing among the wigwams, she observed the warriors busily engaged in filing off their gun-barrels.

Among the Ojibwas was a young Indian girl, named Catherine, of rare beauty and exquisite form. Large dark and dreamy eyes lighted up her nut-brown complexion, revealing a loving and passionate nature, while her moccasined foot pressed the green sward light and gracefully as a young fawn’s. Struck with her exquisite loveliness, Gladwyn had become enamoured of her; and his passion being returned, she had become his mistress. The next day after the re-port of the woman was made, this girl came into the fort bringing some elk-skin moccasins, which she had worked with porcupine quills, as a present for Gladwyn.

Her pertinacity and the melancholy manner in which she resisted his importunities convinced him that she held a secret of serious import, and he pressed her still more earnestly. At last her firmness gave way before his warm pleadings, and the loving heart triumphed over its fears. She no longer saw her angry tribe and the vengeful chieftains demanding her death as the betrayer of her race. She only saw the adored form of her lover before her, and her lips broke their painful silence.

Making him promise not to betray her secret, she told him that the Indians had sawed off their gun-barrels so that they could carry them concealed under their blankets; and Pontiac, with his chiefs thus armed, was about to visit the fort to hold a council. He would make a speech, and at its close present to Gladwyn a peace-belt of wampum. When he reversed it in his hands, it was to be the signal for a general massacre of all but the Canadians.

When the welcome light of morning broke over the forest, all was bustle and commotion within the fort. The sun rose bright and clear; but a heavy mist lay along the river, entirely shrouding it from view. At length the heavy folds began to move and lift, and finally parted and floated gracefully away on the morning air, revealing the water covered with bark canoes moving steadily across the river. Only two or three warriors appeared in each, the others lying flat on their faces on the bottom, to avoid being seen. Pontiac had ordered this to be done, so as not to awaken any suspicions in the garrison that his mission was not what he represented it to be—a peaceful one. He could not leave them behind, for he would need them in the approaching conflict. There was a large common behind the fort; this was soon filled with a crowd of Indians—squaws, children, and warriors mingled together—some naked, some dressed in fantastic costumes, or gaudily painted, and all apparently preparing for a game of ball. Pontiac slowly approached the fort, with sixty chiefs at his back marching in Indian file. Each was wrapped to the chin in his blanket, under-. neath which, grasped with his right hand, lay concealed his trusty rifle. From the heads of some waved the hawk, the eagle, and raven plume. Others showed only the scalp-lock, while a few wore their hair naturally—the long dark locks hanging wildly about their malignant faces.

As Pontiac passed through the gate of the fort he uttered a low ejaculation of surprise. Well might he do so; for the unexpected sight that met his gaze would have startled a greater stoic even than he. Instead of beholding the garrison lulled into security, and entirely off its guard, he found himself between two lines of glittering steel, drawn up on each side of the gate to receive him. The houses of the traders and those employed by the garrison were all closed, and the occupants, armed to the teeth, standing on guard upon the corners of the streets; while the tap of the drum, heard at intervals, told in language that Pontiac could not mistake that the garrison, which he expected to find care-less and insecure, was in a state of the keenest vigilance and apparent alarm. Casting a dark and moody glance around on these hostile preparations, he strode haughtily through the principal street of the place, and advanced direct to the council-house, followed by his chiefs.

Passing through the door he saw Gladwyn and the other officers seated at the farther end, each with his sword by his side, and a brace of pistols in his belt. Pontiac’s brow darkened at this additional proof that his treacherous and bloody plot had been discovered. Controlling himself, however, by a strong effort, he rallied, and addressing Gladwyn, said, in a somewhat reproachful tone, ” Why do I see so many of my father’s young men standing in the streets with their guns? ” Gladwyn replied carelessly that he had just been drilling them to keep up proper discipline. Pontiac knew this to be false; but he could not do otherwise than appear to believe it, and the chiefs sat down. Pontiac then arose and began his address—holding in the meantime the fatal wampum belt in his hand. Gladwyn paid indifferent attention to his speech, but kept his eye glued to that belt of wampum; for when the deadly signal should be given, no time must be lost. Pontiac spoke with all that plausibility and deep dissumulation so characteristic of the Indian when plotting treachery.

Pontiac slowly reached forth his hand, and began to reverse the wampum. Gladwyn saw it, and quick as lightning, made a slight, rapid gesture—a signal before agreed upon. In an instant every hand sought the sword hilt, and the quick clank of arms through the open door smote ominously on the ear. The next moment the rolling sound of the drum, beating the charge, echoed afar through the streets. The effect was electrical. Pontiac paused, confounded. He now knew that his dark plot had been discovered. The look of baffled rage and undying hate which he threw around him was followed by an uncertain, disturbed look. He dared not make the signal agreed upon, for a girdle of steel surrounded him. The lion was caged ; the haughty lord of the forest caught in his own trap. But beating back his swelling rage, smothering with a strong effort the fires ready to burst into conflagration, he resumed his composure, and sat down. Gladwyn rose to reply. Indulging in no suspicions, he received the belt of wampum as if it had been offered in the true spirit of conciliation and kindness. Pontiac was compelled to swallow his fierce passions and listen calmly, outwardly with meekness—to the hypocritical harangue. The farce was the more striking for its being the finale of such an intended tragedy. These two men, burning with hatred against each other, yet wearing the outward guise of friend-ship, and expressing mutual trust and confidence—while such an unsprung mine of death and slaughter lay at their feet—presented a scene not soon to be forgotten by the spectators. At length the council broke up; and Pontiac, casting haughty and fierce glances on the ranks as he passed out, strode through the gate of the fort, and returned, silent and moody to his wigwam.

Determined not to be baffled so, he next morning re-turned to the fort, with but three chiefs, to smoke the calumet of peace, and another farce was enacted, in which each endeavoured to outdo the other in dissimulation.

To keep up this show of friendly relations, Pontiac, after the interview was over, retired to the field, and calling his young warriors together, had one of their wild, grotesque, indescribable games of ball. The next Monday, early in the morning, the garrison found the common behind the fort thronged with the Indians of four tribes. Soon after, Pontiac was seen advancing toward the fort accompanied by his chiefs. Arriving at the gate, he demanded admittance. Gladwyn replied that he might enter alone, but that none of his riotous crew should accompany him. Pontiac, in his rage, turned away, and repeated Gladwyn’s reply to the Indians, who lay hidden in the grass. In an instant the field was in an uproar. They leaped up, yelling and shouting, and finding nothing else to wreak their vengeance upon, went to the house of an old English woman, and, dragging her forth, murdered her. They also mangled and butchered a man by the name of Fisher. Pontiac, scorning such mean revenge, hastened to the shore, and launching his boat, sprang in, and turned its prow up the stream. With strong and steady strokes he urged it against the current till he came opposite the village of his tribe, when he halted, and shouted to the women to immediately remove to the other side of the river from that on which the fort stood. They instantly obeyed; and huts were pulled down and dragged with all their utensils to the shore. Pontiac then retired to his cabin, and spent the day pondering future schemes of revenge. By night the removal was effected ; and the warriors having returned from the fort, all were assembled on the grass. Suddenly Pontiac, in full war costume, and swinging his tomahawk above his head, leaped into their midst, and began a fierce and exciting harangue. When he had closed, a deep murmur of assent followed, and open war was resolved upon.

The long and weary summer at length wore away, and the frosty nights and chilling winds of autumn reminded the garrison of the approach of winter, when they would be blocked in beyond all hope of succour. The Indians had neglected their crops; and they, too, began to look anxiously forward to the winter, for which they were poorly provided. At the end of September several of the tribes broke up their camps and left. Pontiac, however, remained; and though he dared not attack the fort, he kept the garrison as closely confined as they would have been if besieged by an army of ten thousand men. The beautiful month of October passed like the sultry summer. The farmers had gathered in their harvests; the forest had put on the glorious hues of autumn, till the wilderness was one immense carpet of purple and gold and green. The placid stream reflected, if possible, in still brighter colours, the gorgeous foliage that overhung its banks; and when the mellow breeze ruffled its surface, broke up the rich flooring into ten thousand fragments and forms, till it looked like a vast kaleidoscope. The dreamy haze of the Indian Summer overspread the landscape; the forest rustled with falling leaves; the wild-fowl gathered in the stream, or swept in clouds overhead, winging their way to the distant ocean; and all was wild and beautiful in that far-off island of the wilderness. But all this beauty passed unnoticed by the little beleaguered garrison.

At length the cold storms swept the wilderness, filling the heavens with leaves, and scattering them thick as snow-flakes over the bosom of the stream, until the gayly decorated forest stood naked and brown against the sky. Still Pontiac lingered, determined to starve his enemies out. But as November approached he received a message from Fort Chartres, on the Mississippi, which, at the same time that it filled his daring spirit with rage, crushed his fondest hopes. It was a despatch from the French commander at that post, telling him that he must no longer look for help from that quarter, as the French and English had made peace. Enraged and mortified, he broke up his camp and retired with his warriors to the Maumee.