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Michigan saw the last great Indian struggle for ancestral lands and survival

Posted in America, Geography, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 27 September 2013

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This edited article about the United States of America originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

Pontiac, picture, image, illustration

Pontiac – the great Indian chief – marshalled his people in Michigan in a massive stand against the British by Angus McBride

In 1763, America was almost turned upside down. Inspired by a brilliant leader, Pontiac, Indians from all over the country agreed that they were tired of needless oppression and joined forces in one massive attempt to expel the British. Plans were laid carefully, and in May the explosion occurred. For over three years the war was waged, and for a while the British tottered on the brink of defeat. The whole future of America looked very uncertain.

From 1613, the territory which is now Michigan was part of New France. It was not a particularly well-developed area, and the French there were mainly missionaries and traders who, for the most part, got on well with the Indians. But, then, in 1760, Britain completed her conquest of Canada, and the Michigan settlements passed into the hands of the British.

At that point, the fortunes of the Indians changed. Britain’s American colonists wanted land, not trade, and they mostly looked down on Indians. The few Britons who did understand them and sympathised with them were overruled by Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the conqueror of Canada. He despised Indians and ordered that they should be treated harshly and under no circumstances be befriended.

Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa Indians, was one of the first to realise the difference between French and British rule – that Indians were no longer welcome at the forts and that they were eventually going to lose their hunting grounds. Vague promises of help from France helped him decide to strike back, and in 1762 he solicited the support of most of the Indian tribes from Lake Superior to the lower Mississippi. His plan was simple, and, as time proved, dramatically effective. He asked each tribe to attack the fort nearest to it in May, 1763.

Of eleven forts west of Niagara, eight fell to the Indians. Most of the garrisons were massacred, many relief expeditions were almost annihilated, and the frontiers were laid waste.

Amherst was staggered – so much so that he even suggested infecting the Indians with smallpox! Luckily he returned to Britain before anybody gave serious thought to his suggestion.

During the Indian uprising, the fall of one fort in particular aroused the greatest, if reluctant, admiration of the Indians’ ingenuity.

Outside Fort Micilimackinac in northern Michigan, Chippewa and Sauk Indians staged a game of lacrosse, watched by officers and soldiers. In the meantime, the wives of the Indians wandered into the fort carrying tomahawks and scalping knives under their blankets. Suddenly, a player hooked the ball over the stockade. The players dashed in after it, grabbed their weapons from their wives, and massacred nearly everyone except a few Frenchmen.

Pontiac was in command outside Fort Detroit, the key port situated on a riverbank. Though Indians were not used to conducting a siege, they nearly succeeded in this one. As it was, the garrison commander, Major Gladwin, was warned the night before the intended uprising, and when 300 warriors strolled into the fort next day with sawn-off guns concealed under their blankets, the 100 strong garrison was on the alert. Pontiac and his men were forced to withdraw. The ensuing siege took a year to lift completely, and only after terrible loss of life throughout the North-West was peace restored, when Pontiac concluded a treaty of peace in 1766. Though Indian wars continued until 1890 in America, Pontiac’s rebellion was the Indians’ last real chance of total victory. Had Detroit fallen, they might have achieved it.

Until 1837, when it became a state, Michigan was little more than a wilderness outpost. After that date, progress was rapid, especially when the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made Michigan easier to reach.

Nicknamed the Wolverine State, which harks back to the days when wolverines roamed it, its actual name comes from two Indian words meaning “great water.” Covering 58,216 square miles, it has adopted Lansing as its state capital, while its largest city is Detroit, the automobile manufacturing centre of the United States.

It is easy to see how Wisconsin got its name. It comes from two Indian words, “Wees Konsan,” meaning the “gathering of the waters,” and this refers to the fact that it is bounded in part by Lake Michigan in the East, by Lake Superior and by the Mississippi in the West. It is nicknamed the Badger State, because early travellers apparently saw miners living in shafts as they were too busy to build houses, and they compared them to badgers burrowing holes in the ground.

French explorers were the first to reach it in the 17th century, but later Britain and then the United States moved in, before it became a state in 1848. In the Civil War (1861-5), Wisconsin troops formed most of a crack fighting unit known as the Iron Brigade.

Covering 56,154 square miles, it is often known as America’s Dairyland, which is self-explanatory, but it does have some industries, including iron ore, lead and timber. The state capital is Madison, while the largest city is Milwaukee, which produces cars, machinery and very famous beer.

Like Michigan, Minnesota was also a scene of Indian agitation. It was the territory of the Chippewa and Sioux, who, when they were not fighting amongst themselves, did a lot to discourage settlers. The French reached Minnesota in the 17th century, later building some lonely forts there, and they were followed by the British and Americans. But, even as late as 1858, when Minnesota became a state, settlement remained a risky business, and there was constant conflict between the settlers and Indians. In 1862, the Sioux, inflamed by broken treaties, loss of lands, evil traders and dishonest agents, carried out one of the worst massacres in the history of the West. Peace was only gradually restored, and then the growth of railroads in the 1870s and 80s brought rapid prosperity to the state.

Popularly known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota also has fertile valleys, large forests and vast prairies. It has two other names – the North Star State, a translation of its French motto, L’Etoile du Nord, and the Gopher State, because it abounds in these little creatures. The actual name of Minnesota comes from an Indian word meaning “cloudy water,” which refers to a tributary of the Mississippi River, which rises in the state. Covering 84,068 square miles, the state has St. Paul as its capital, while its largest city is Minneapolis. It is mainly agricultural, with timber, cattle, flour-milling and wheat-farming playing their part in its prosperity.

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