Pontiac’s War

In 1763, the Ottawa leader Pontiac led an alliance of Indian nations in the Ohio Valley in a war of resistance against the British. In defeating this Indian alliance, the British turned to biological warfare in the form of smallpox.

Pontiac was probably born about 1720 along the Maumee River in what is now Ohio. His father was Ottawa and his mother was Chippewa (Ojibwa). By 1755 he was recognized by the Ottawa as one of their leaders (i.e. “chiefs”).

Background: Prelude to War

 In 1759, a party of Ottawa, Huron, and Potawatomi encountered an English Ranger group in present-day Michigan. The Ottawa leader Pontiac demanded to know why these strangers were trespassing on Indian land. The English told him that they were there only to remove the French. After they gave Pontiac wampum, he smoked with them. While Pontiac agreed to be a subordinate of the English Crown, he told the English that if the King should neglect him, he would shut down all routes to the interior.

The French and Indian War officially ended in 1760 with the defeat of France. As a result, English settlers began to pour across the Alleghenies into Indian territory. While the French had secured the loyalty of their Indian allies by providing them with ammunition and supplies, the English did not. Lord Jeffrey Amherst wrote:  “I do not see why the Crown should be put to that expense. Services must be rewarded; it has ever been a maxim with me. But as to purchasing the good behavior either of Indians or any others, [that] is what I do not understand. When men of whatsoever race behave ill, they must be punished but not bribed.”

Indians soon found that they were not welcome at the forts and that intermarriage was discouraged. The English simply assumed that they had no obligation to the original inhabitants of the country and acted accordingly. From an Indian viewpoint, this was not only a breach of protocol, but an open insult to the Indian nations and their leaders. Historians Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn, in their book Indian Wars, write:  “In sum, the English acted as though they had no obligation toward the inhabitants of the country—with predictable consequences.”

 In 1761, the English placed Jeffrey Amherst in charge of Indian relations in the Old Northwest Territory. Amherst felt that presents to the Indians encouraged laziness and that the Indians should support themselves by hunting so that they could obtain the trade goods which they desired. Historian Richard White, in his book The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, describes Amherst as having “the moral vision of a shopkeeper and the arrogance of a victorious soldier.”

Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the commander-in-chief of the British forces, suggested to Henry Bouquet, the commander of Fort Pitt:  “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those dissatisfied tribes?”  In response Bouquet suggested using infected blankets to distribute the smallpox. He also suggested hunting the Indians with dogs.

In 1762, the Delaware (Lenni Lenape) prophet Neolin had a vision in which he undertook a journey to meet the Master of Life. He was told:  “The land on which you are, I have made for you, not for others. Wherefore do you suffer the whites to dwell upon your lands?”  “Drive them away; wage war against them; I love them not; they know me not; they are my enemies; they are your brothers’ enemies. Send them back to the land I have made for them.”  He received a prayer which is carved in symbolic language on a stick.

After returning from the vision, the prophet drew a map on a deerskin which was used in explaining his vision. This “great book” was sold to followers so that they might refresh their memories from time to time. Neolin’s vision provided the foundation for a pan-Indian movement. One of Neolin’s followers was the Ottawa chief Pontiac. According to ethnologist James Mooney, writing in 1896:  “The religious ferment produced by the exhortations of the Delaware prophet spread rapidly from tribe to tribe, until, under the guidance of the master mind of the celebrated chief, Pontiac, it took shape in a grand confederacy of all the northwestern tribes to oppose the further progress of the English.”

Historian Randolph Downes, in his book Council Fires on the Upper Ohio: A Narrative of Indian Affairs in the Upper Ohio Valley until 1795, writes of Neolin’s followers:  “They gave up the use of firearms and hunted exclusively with the bow and arrow. They lived entirely on dried meat and a bitter drink whose purgative quality was supposed to rid them of poisons absorbed by years of white contamination.”

While Neolin’s message was anti-European, under Pontiac it became anti-British. Many of Neolin’s followers felt that he was the reincarnation of Winabojo, the great teacher of the mythic past.

The War:

In 1763, Neolin, in present-day Michigan, urged the Three Fires Confederacy—Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi,—to expel the British. In response, Pontiac led an alliance of Shawnee, Delaware, and Ojibwa against the British. He told his people:  “It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our land this nation which only seeks to kills us.”

Pontiac and his allies soon seized nine of the eleven British forts in the Ohio Valley. While Pontiac is generally credited with leading the resistance movement, he was actually just one of many Indian leaders who had decided that war with the British was necessary to defend their territory and their way of life.

In response to the Pontiac war and in an attempt to stabilize the volatile situation between settlers and Indians, the British issued the Proclamation of 1763 which forbade European settlement west of the Appalachians. This was, in George Washington’s words, “a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.” The Proclamation also removed jurisdiction over Indians from the colonies. Each Indian tribe was regarded as an independent nation and, as such, had to be dealt with by the Crown.

Pontiac’s rebellion was defeated in part because of a smallpox epidemic among the allied tribes. Once again Sir Jeffrey Amherst, Commander of the British forces suggests the use of smallpox as a weapon of war:  “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”

One officer—Captain Simeon Ecuyer, a Swiss mercenary—reported that during peace negotiations with the Delaware, the Indians were given two blankets and a handkerchief which had been deliberately infected with smallpox spores at the post hospital. Other officers handed out smallpox-infected clothing. The English recorded this transaction in an invoice which stated:  “To sundries go to replace in kind those which were taken from the people in the hospital to convey the smallpox to the indians. Viz: 2 Blankets; 1 silk hankerchef and 1 linnen”

Soon smallpox was sweeping through the allied tribes, weakening their ability to wage war. R. G. Robertson in his book, Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian, reports:  “By mid July, the Delawares were dying as though they had been raked by a grape cannonade.”

In 1764, Pontiac sent the British a wampum belt for peace. The British simply chopped up the belt. This would be like a European ambassador urinating on a proposed treaty. It was an act which shocked and angered the Indians. The act convinced Pontiac that he had nothing to gain by negotiating with the British.

In the Ohio Valley, the Shawnee, Seneca, and Lenni Lenape joined together to send war belts to the Miami and to Pontiac’s Ottawa asking them to fight the British. These three nations were joined by the Munsee and the Wyandot to form the Five Nations of Scioto.

At the end of the conflict, the British demanded that all European “captives” be returned. About 200 men, women, and children were turned over to the soldiers amid a torrent of tears. According to one military observer: “Every captive left the Indians with regret.” While there were no reports of Indian captives who did not want to return to their own people, it was common for European captives to refuse repatriation.

With regard to the defeat of Pontiac and his allies, Lee Miller, in his book From the Heart: Voices of the American Indian, notes that the  “British can congratulate themselves, for they will go down in infamy as the first ‘civilized’ nation to use germ warfare.”

By 1765, the war was over and the British asked Pontiac to carry the message of peace to the other tribes of the Ohio Valley and to serve as an intertribal chief in negotiating peace. As a result the Ottawa, Wyandot, Ojibwa, Miami, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, and Mascouten attended peace conferences.

The Indians felt that the French had simply been tenants on their land and had provided tribute—powder, rum, and other goods—as a type of rent. The British, on the other hand, felt that they themselves were governed by international law and that Indians were not members of the “family of nations”. Therefore, from the British viewpoint, the Indians should have no more rights than the animals they hunted.

In 1767, Pontiac formally signed a peace agreement with the British. Two years later he was killed by Black Dog, a Peoria Indian, following a drunken argument in the establishment of a British trader. Many felt that the British arranged for Pontiac’s assassination because Black Dog was known to be in the pay of the British.

American Indians and European Diseases

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There were an estimated 18 million Native Americans living north of Mexico at the beginning of the European invasion. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, American Indians were remarkably free of serious diseases. People did not often die from diseases. As the European explorers and colonists began to arrive, this changed and the consequences were disastrous for Native American people. The death tolls from the newly introduced European diseases often reached 80-90 percent. Entire groups of people vanished before the tidal wave of disease.  

Aboriginal Health:

If we were to compare the overall health of American Indians in North America with that of Europeans in 1500, we would find that Indians were generally healthier. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, Indians had better diets and they were less likely to face starvation and hunger. The first Europeans to reach North America often commented on the large size of the Indians. American Indians were larger than the Europeans simply due to better diets and less starvation. Unlike the Europeans, Indian political leaders did not store their wealth but accumulated prestige by giving food to those in need. No one in an Indian village or an Indian band starved unless all did so.  

Secondly, American Indian populations did not have many of the infectious diseases that were endemic in Europe.  A number of reasons have been suggested for this lack of disease. Some scientists have suggested that Indian people came to this continent through the cold, harsh climate of the north and that this acted as a germ filter which screened out infectious diseases. Others have suggested that Indians were disease-free because of the lack of domesticated animals. Measles, smallpox, and influenza are among the diseases which are closely associated with domesticated animals. Lacking the large domesticated animals, there were comparatively few opportunities in this hemisphere for the transfer of infections from animal reservoirs of disease to human beings.

European Diseases:

The diseases brought to this continent by the Europeans included bubonic plague, chicken pox, pneumonic plague, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. The diseases introduced in the Americas by the Europeans were crowd diseases: that is, individuals who have once contracted the disease and survived become immune to the disease. In a small population, the disease will become extinct. Measles, for instance, requires a population of about 300,000 to survive. If the population size drops below this threshold, the virus can cause illness and death, but after one epidemic, the virus itself dies out.

Another important factor in the European diseases was the presence of domesticated animals. The source of many of the infections was the domesticated animals which lived in close proximity with the humans.

Overall, hundreds of thousands of Indians died of European diseases during the first two centuries following contact. In terms of death tolls, smallpox killed the greatest number of Indians, followed by measles, influenza, and bubonic plague.


The most deadly European disease was smallpox, a disease almost unknown in today’s world but common prior to the twentieth century. Smallpox is caused by a virus that may be airborne or spread by direct contact. There are three forms of smallpox: (1) Variola major which is quite virulent; (2) Variola minor which is comparatively mild; and (3) Variola vaccinae which is also known as cowpox. An attack of any one of these forms will provide immunity against the other two.

Children resist the smallpox virus better than teenagers or adults. In a larger population, smallpox is a constant. Since nearly all children contract some form of smallpox, this means that adults have had the disease and are immune. Smallpox thus becomes a childhood disease with relatively low mortality.

When smallpox strikes a virgin population, such as the Native Americans, the initial death toll is quite high, particularly among adults and elders. As a result a great deal of cultural knowledge, such as how to conduct certain ceremonies, is lost.

Smallpox is a crowd disease. Once it strikes a low density population it soon becomes extinct in that population as it does not have enough hosts. Thus, in American Indian populations, smallpox would strike, the population would plummet, and the disease would die out. The population would begin to recover and about a generation later, smallpox would strike again.

Smallpox first struck American Indians in what is now the United States after 1520. It was not uncommon for Native people to encounter the deadly European diseases long before they encountered European people. For thousands of years, Native American trade routes interconnected the many diverse cultures on this continent. The new European diseases simply followed these trade routes, carried by both the traders and their goods. The smallpox virus can live in cloth, particularly cotton cloth, for many years.

The European diseases devastated many nations and consequently European explorers, particularly in the southeast and northeast, frequently reported finding empty villages and fields. From these reports came the common misconception that North America was only sparsely populated by Indians.  In the Southeast, the Muskogee (Creek) population has been estimated at two hundred thousand before the Europeans arrived on the continent. It had declined to about twenty thousand by the time Europeans actually visited their villages.

Traditional Native American curing techniques were not effective against smallpox and many of the other European diseases. One of the primary ways of dealing with disease among most of the tribes was the sweat bath which actually increased Indian mortality from febrile diseases such as smallpox, measles, and chickenpox.

In most of the American Indian cultures, healing was a part of their religious ceremonies. When their ceremonies failed to cure the new European diseases the faith in the traditional Indian spiritual ways was also damaged. This in turn provided an opening for the Christian missionaries who were immune to the disease. Since Christians didn’t seem to die from smallpox, some Indians began to reason, then it must be the power of their religion that saved them.

Smallpox Vaccinations:

By the early 1700s, Europeans understood how smallpox was transmitted and had begun vaccination programs to prevent the disease. In North America, doctors in Boston and in Charlestown began vaccination programs about 1721. By 1800, the United States had begun smallpox vaccination programs for Indians. In 1802, for example, Indian chiefs visiting Washington were vaccinated against smallpox using a vaccine that President Jefferson had cultured. In 1804 the Corps of Discovery under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carried with them smallpox vaccine so that they could inoculate the tribes they encountered on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, the vaccine was ruined soon after they left St. Louis.

In 1832, Congress appropriated $12,000 to vaccinate Indians against smallpox. The Secretary of War was to be in charge of the vaccinations. It was estimated that the appropriated funds were sufficient to vaccinate two-thirds of the country’s Indians. However, the Secretary of War notified the Indian agent for the upper Missouri that no tribes upstream from the Arikara were to be vaccinated. It was felt that the spread of smallpox to the tribes of the Northern Plains, such as the Blackfoot, would aid American military efforts against these groups.

Smallpox was not eradicated among American Indians until the twentieth century. The last major smallpox epidemic among an American Indian tribe was in 1921 when the disease struck the Indians living in the Pit River, California area. The impact of the epidemic was increased by starvation and lack of medical care. As usual, Congress quickly reacted to this healthcare concern: in 1928, prompted by complaints about the failure of Indian health care in dealing with the smallpox epidemic, Congress launched an investigation into charges of willful neglect. By ignoring the impact of poverty and starvation and its relation to general health conditions, the government shifted attention from its failings by stepping up attacks on shamans and blaming their influences for poor sanitary conditions.

European Views:

The early Europeans were aware that diseases were devastating the American Indian communities. In New England many of the English colonists saw the diseases as evidence of God’s plan for them to settle the area. Regarding the smallpox epidemic of 1633 which killed many Massachusett and Pawtucket, the English governor commented that the disease “cleared our title to this place.”

Many Europeans, both Spanish and English, see the devastating diseases as evidence of God’s wrath directed toward the Indians and evidence of the sinful life of the Indians. Many Protestants, particularly Calvinists, viewed disease as a divine punishment for sin. Since American Indians were heathens-the greatest sin of all-it was natural that God should destroy them with smallpox. Similarly, the Catholic priests in California attributed diseases such as smallpox to tribal sin, especially the cardinal sin of refusing to believe in Christ.

However, there were some Spanish priests who felt that the diseases which were devastating Indian populations were an indication of God’s wrath against the Spanish colonists. They see the depopulation of the Indian communities as depriving the Spanish of their labor force.

Syphilis carried from America to Europeans?:

At one time it was commonly assumed that syphilis originated in the Americas and was initially brought back to Europe by the first Spanish sailors. This assumption was based on the fact that the disease first began to be reported in Europe shortly after Columbus returned from his first voyage to the Americas. However, the archaeological record, in the form of burials in England, has disproved this assumption. At Hull, four skeletons of individuals who had died in the mid-fifteenth century show fully developed tertiary syphilis. This is evidence that the disease was already well established in Europe at least a half a century before Columbus set sail.