Siege of Detroit

Published on February 6, 2013 by Carol

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Siege of Detroit

Detroit was a more important situation even than Fort Michiliinackinac. Besides, an immense quantity of valuable goods, it was stated, that over two million dollars was known to be stored there. If captured, it would unite the separate lines of operation, pursued by the Indian tribes above and below the Great Lakes. Under these circumstances, its reduction was undertaken by Chief Pontiac in person. The garrison numbered 130 men, including officers, beside whom, there were about 40 individuals in the village engaged in the fur trade.

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Such was the situation of Detroit when the Ottawa chieftain, having completed his arrangements on the 8th of May, presented himself at the gates of the town with a force of about 300 Indians, chiefly Ottawa and Chippewa, and requested a council with Major Henry Gladwyn, the commandant. He expected, under this pretext, to gain admittance for himself and a considerable number of attendants, who accordingly were provided with rifles, sawed off so short as to be concealed under their blankets. At a given signal, which was to be the presentation of a wampum belt, in a particular manner, by Pontiac, to the commandant, during the conference, the armed Indians were to massacre all the officers, then open the gates to admit the main body of the warriors, who were to be waiting without for the completion of the slaughter and destruction of the fort.

However, an Indian woman betrayed the secret. She had been employed by the commandant to make him a pair of moccasins out of elk skin, and brought them into the fort finished, on the evening of the day on which Pontiac made his appearance and application for a council. The Major paid her generously, requested her to make more from the residue of the skin, and then dismissed her. She went to the outer door, hut there, stopped and loitered about, as if her errand was still unperformed. A servant asked her what she wanted, but, she made no answer. The Major himself observed her, and ordered her to be called in, when, after some hesitation, she replied to his inquiries, that as he had always treated her kindly, she did not like to take away the elk skin which he valued so highly — she could never bring it back. The commandant’s curiosity was, of course, excited, and he pressed the examination until the woman, at length, disclosed everything which had come to her knowledge.

Her information was not received with implicit credulity, but, the Major thought it prudent to employ the night in taking active measures for defense. A strict guard was kept upon the ramparts during the night, it being apprehended that the Indians might anticipate the preparations now known to have been made for the next day. Nothing, however, was heard after dark, except the sound of singing and dancing in the Indian camp, which they always indulged in upon the eve of any great enterprise.
In the morning, Pontiac and his warriors sang their war song, and danced their war dance, and then repaired to the fort. They were admitted without hesitation, and conducted to the council house, where Major Gladwyn and his officers were prepared to receive them. They perceived at the gate, and as they passed through the streets, an unusual activity and movement among the troops. The garrison was under arms, the guards were doubled, and the officers were armed with swords and pistols.

Pontiac inquired of the British commander, what was the cause of this unusual appearance. He answered that it was proper to keep the young men to their duty, lest they should become idle and ignorant. The business of the council then commenced, and Pontiac proceeded to address Major Gladwyn. His speech was bold and menacing, and his manner and gesticulations vehement, and they became still more so, as he approached the critical moment. When he was upon the point of presenting the belt to Major Gladwyn, and all was breathless expectation, the drums at the door of the council house suddenly rolled the charge, the guards leveled their pieces, and the officers drew their swords from their scabbards. Pontiac, whose eagle eye had never quailed in battle, turned pale and trembled. This unexpected and decisive proof that his treachery was discovered, entirely disconcerted him. He delivered the belt in the usual manner, and thus failed to give his party the concerted signal of attack; while his warriors stood looking at each other in astonishment, Major Gladwyn immediately approached Pontiac, and drawing aside his blanket, discovered the shortened rifle, and then, after stating his knowledge of his plan, advised him to leave the fort before his young men should discover their design and massacre them. He assured him, as he had promised him safety, that his person should be held unharmed until he had advanced beyond the pickets. The Indians immediately retired, and as soon as they had passed the gate, they gave the yell and fired upon the garrison: Several persons living without the fort, were then murdered, and hostilities commenced.

The cannibalism of the Indians at this time, may be learned from the fact, that a respectable Frenchman was invited to their camp to partake of some soup. Having finished his repast, he was told that he had eaten a part of an English woman, a Mrs. Turnbell, who had been among the victims; a knowledge that, probably, did not improve his digestion.

The Indians soon stationed themselves behind the buildings, outside the pickets, and kept a constant, though ineffectual fire upon the garrison. All the means which the savage mind could suggest, were employed by Pontiac to demolish the settlement of Detroit. During the siege, which lasted more than two months, the Indians endeavored to make a breach in the pickets, and aided by Major Gladwyn, who, as a stratagem, had ordered his men to cut also on the inside; this was soon accomplished, and the breach immediately filled with Indians. At this instant, a cannon was discharged upon the advancing Indians, which made destructive havoc. After that period, the fort was merely invested; supplies were cut off, and the English were reduced to great distress from the diminution of their rations, and the constant watchfulness required to prevent surprise.

While the siege was in progress, twenty batteaux, with 97 troops and stores, on their way from Niagara to Detroit, arrived at Point Pelee, on Lake Erie, about 50 miles easterly from Detroit. Apprehending no danger, the troops landed and encamped. The Indians, who had watched their movements, attacked them about dawn of day, and massacred or took prisoners all, except 30, who succeeded in escaping, in a barge, across the lake to Sandusky Bay. The Indians placed their prisoners in the batteaux, and compelled them to navigate them on the Canadian side of the lake and river, toward Detroit. As the fleet of boats was discovered coming around the point of the Huron church, the English assembled on the ramparts to witness the arrival of their friends; but, they were only greeted by the death song of the Indians, which announced their fate. The light of hope flickered on their countenances only to be clouded with the thick darkness of despair. It was their barges; but they were in possession of the Indians, and filled with the scalps and prisoners of the detachment. The prisoners, with the exception of a few who escaped when opposite the town, were taken to Hog Island, above Detroit, massacred and scalped.

A few weeks after, a vessel from Niagara with 60 troops, provisions and arms, entered the Detroit River. For the purpose of boarding her as she ascended, the Indians repaired to Fighting Island, just below the city, which she soon reached, and then, for want of wind, was obliged to anchor. The Captain concealed his men in the hold, and in the evening, the Indians proceeded in silence, to board the vessel from their canoes, while the men on board were required to take their stations at the guns. The Indians approached near the side, when the signal for a discharge was given by a blow upon the mast with a hammer. Many of the Indians were killed and wounded, and the remainder, panic stricken, paddled away in their canoes with all speed. After this, Pontiac endeavored to burn the vessels that lay anchored before Detroit, for which object, he made an immense raft from several barns, which he pulled down for that purpose, and filled it with pitch and other combustibles. It was then towed up river and set on fire, under the supposition that the current would float the blazing mass against the vessels. The English foiled this attempt by anchoring boats, connected by chains, above their vessels.

During the siege, the body of the French people in and around Detroit, were neutral. Pontiac, in a speech of great eloquence and power, endeavored to persuade them to join his cause. But, his solicitations did not prevail, and shortly after, on June 3rd June, the French had a double reason for maintaining neutrality in the news which they received of the treaty of peace, by which France ceded their country to England.On the 29th of July, 300 regular troops, under Captain James Dalyell, arrived, in gun-boats, from Canada. On the night of the 30th, Captain Dalyell, with over 200 men, attempted to surprise Pontiac’s camp. That chieftain having, by some means, been apprised of the contemplated attack, was prepared, and lay in ambush with his Indians, concealed behind high grass, at the Bloody Bridge, one and a half miles above Detroit. As the English reached the bridge, a sudden and destructive fire was poured upon them. This threw them into the utmost confusion. The attack in the darkness, from an invisible force, was critical. The English fought desperately, but, were obliged to retreat, with the loss of their commander, and over 60 in killed and wounded.

The operations of Pontiac in this quarter, soon called for the efficient aid of government, and during the season, General John Bradstreet arrived to the relief of the posts on the lakes, with an army of 3,000 men. The tribes of Pontiac, excepting the Delaware and the Shawnee, finding that they could not successfully compete with such a force, laid down their arms and made peace. Pontiac, however, took no part in the negotiation, and retired to Illinois, where he was, a few years after, assassinated by an Indian of the Peoria tribe.

Source: Legendsofamerica Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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