Pontiac's Rebellion and Smallpox as a Weapon

Native American soldiers on the ground during battle
Siege of Fort Detroit.

Frederic Remington/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Victory in the French and Indian War had opened up new areas of North America for British settlers. The previous inhabitants, France, hadn’t settled to the extent that the British now tried, and had not impacted the Indian populations to a great extent. However, colonists now flooded into the newly conquered areas. Indian representatives made it clear to the British that they were unhappy with the number and spread of settlers, as well as the increasing number of British fortifications in the area. This last point was especially heated as British negotiators had promised that the military presence was only to defeat France, but they had stayed on regardless. Many Indians were also upset with the British apparently breaking peace agreements made during the French and Indian war, such as those promising certain areas would be kept for Indian hunting only.​

Initial Indian Rebellion

This Indian resentment caused uprisings. The first of these was the ​​Cherokee War, caused by colonial infringement on Indian land, attacks on Indians by settlers, Indian revenge attacks and the actions of a prejudiced colonial leader who tried to blackmail the Cherokee by taking hostages. It was bloodily crushed by the British. Amherst, the commander of the British army in America, implemented stringent measures in trade and gift giving. Such trade was vital to the Indians, but the measures resulted in a decline in trade and greatly increased Indian anger. There was a political element to Indian rebellion too, as prophets began preaching a divide from European cooperation and goods, and a return to old ways and practices, as the way in which Indians could end a downward spiral of famine and disease. This spread across Indian groups, and chiefs favorable to Europeans lost power. Others wanted the French back as a counter to Britain.

'Pontiac's Rebellion'

Settlers and Indians had become involved in skirmishes, but one chief, Pontiac of the Ottowa, acted on his own initiative to attack Fort Detroit. As this was vital to the British, Pontiac was seen to take on a much greater role than he actually did, and the whole broader uprising was named after him. Warriors from a number of groups flocked to the siege, and members of many others—including Senecas, ​Ottawas, Hurons, Delawares, and Miamis—allied in a war against the British to seize forts and other centers. This effort was only loosely organized, especially at the start, and didn’t bring to bear the groups’ full offensive capacity.​

Indians were successful in seizing British hubs, and many forts fell along the new British frontier, although three key ones remained in British hands. By the end of July, everything west of Detroit had fallen. At Detroit, the Battle of Bloody Run saw a British relief force wiped out, but another force traveling to relieve Fort Pitt won the Battle of Bushy Run, and later the besiegers were forced to leave. The siege of Detroit was then abandoned as winter approached and divisions between Indian groups grew, even though they were on the brink of success.


When an Indian delegation asked the defenders of Fort Pitt to surrender, the British commander refused and sent them away. While doing so, he gave them gifts, which included food, alcohol and two blankets and a handkerchief which had come from people suffering smallpox. The intent was for it to spread among the Indians—as it had done naturally in the years before—and cripple the siege. Although he didn’t know of this, the head of British forces in North America (Amherst) advised his subordinates to deal with the rebellion by all means available to them, and that included passing smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians, as well as executing Indian prisoners. This was a new policy, without precedent among Europeans in America, one caused by desperation and, according to historian Fred Anderson, “genocidal fantasies”.

Peace and Colonial Tensions

Britain initially responded by attempting to crush the rebellion and force British rule onto the contested territory, even when it looked like peace might be achieved by other means. After developments in the government, Britain issued the ​Royal Proclamation of 1763. It created three new colonies in the newly conquered land but left the rest of ‘the interior’ to the Indians: no colonists could settle there and only the government could negotiate land purchases. Many of the details were left vague, such as how Catholic residents of the former New France were to be treated under British law which barred them from votes and offices. This created further tensions with the colonists, many of whom had hoped to expand into this land, and some of whom were already there. They were also unhappy that the Ohio River Valley, the trigger for the French Indian war, was given over to Canadian administration.

The British proclamation enabled the country to negotiate with the rebellious groups, although these proved messy thanks to British failings and misunderstandings, one of which temporarily returned power to Pontiac, who had fallen from grace. Eventually, treaties were agreed, reversing many of the British policy decisions passed in the aftermath of the war, allowing alcohol to be sold to the Indians and unlimited arms sales. The Indians concluded after the war that they could earn concessions from the British by violence. The British tried to pull back from the frontier, but colonial squatters kept flowing in and violent clashes continued, even after the dividing line was moved. Pontiac, having lost all prestige, was later murdered in an unconnected incident. No one tried to avenge his death.

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Wilde, Robert. "Pontiac's Rebellion and Smallpox as a Weapon." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/pontiacs-rebellion-smallpox-as-a-weapon-1222027. Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 27). Pontiac's Rebellion and Smallpox as a Weapon. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pontiacs-rebellion-smallpox-as-a-weapon-1222027 Wilde, Robert. "Pontiac's Rebellion and Smallpox as a Weapon." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pontiacs-rebellion-smallpox-as-a-weapon-1222027 (accessed March 28, 2023).