- Pontiac's War: Its Causes, Course, and Consequences
'Pontiac's War,' writes Richard Middleton, 'was one of the most successful campaigns fought by the Indian peoples of eastern North America in three centuries of European contact' (ix). Few scholars would dispute this claim, but, until the publication of Pontiac's War, no one has so determinedly pursued the military and diplomatic history of the conflict to show just how close First Nations came to driving the British from the trans-Appalachian west. Indeed, soon after fighting broke out in May 1763, warriors captured nine British forts. Only Detroit, Pitt, and Niagara held out against the multinational forces [End Page 166] arrayed against them. If warriors could not quite seal final victory, British generals faced problems of their own. Lacking resources and unable to convince colonies to share the financial and human costs of the war, British armies were unable to launch effective counter-offensives. Instead, Britain negotiated a series of treaties in 1764 and 1765 that ended the fighting but without punishing Pontiac or his followers. In this battle-by-battle account, Middleton strives to provide a 'balanced' retelling of this sprawling conflict. In particular, he wants to 'reevaluate the role of the different Indian nations, many of whom have been inadequately assessed' (ix). This compact and accessible overview does not offer a wholly original interpretation so much as engage established historiographical debates, but, by focusing on the First Nations' military and diplomatic achievements, it does restore a sense of contingency to a now familiar subject.
Middleton's greatest achievement is his ability to impose narrative unity on a complex war that involved numerous groups and ranged over a vast landscape. Two related interpretive choices make this possible. First, Middleton restores Pontiac to a central place in the conflict that bears his name. Since Howard Peckham demoted Pontiac from a pan-Indian leader to a local war chief, scholars have debated whether the war was one conflict guided by a single mind (Pontiac's) or a series of engagements directed by several regionally prominent leaders. While Middleton recognizes that the diffuse nature of power within Aboriginal societies prevented any one person from taking command, he concludes, 'The influence of Pontiac seemed almost universal' (185). 'It was Pontiac who lit the torch and sustained the coalition for three different campaigns' and it was Pontiac who 'brought the hostilities to an end' (202). Second, Middleton argues that First Nations acted not in a disorganized fashion, as one would expect of societies composed of fluid and unstable leader-follower networks. Rather, Pontiac followed a grand strategic plan first proposed by the Seneca that involved many nations working in concert to strike several British forts simultaneously. Middleton may exaggerate Pontiac's ability to direct events across half a continent – his own evidence suggests the persistence of considerable local autonomy – but he does make a strong case that Pontiac was greater than a local war chief. Nonetheless, Pontiac's extraordinary battlefield and diplomatic successes could not alter British and colonial attitudes and policies towards Aboriginal people. Middleton concludes that Natives 'had no chance ultimately of prevailing against the European Americans' (206).
Like Pontiac, Middleton succeeds on many fronts but falls short in the end. For a work about Native participation in Pontiac's War, [End Page 167] this book is curiously uninformed by ethno-history. For example, Middleton attributes the origins of the pan-Indian war against the British to the French because 'the scheme . . . certainly had the hallmark of someone thinking imperially' (35). First Nations with real grievances against British policies and who were steeped in the influences of militant, nativist prophets did not require the French either to prod them to war or to supply them with a strategy. Elsewhere, Middleton depicts the Six Nations as imperialists, a characterization that flies in the face of a generation of scholarship. At other times, the book is burdened with ethnocentric language. Alexander McKee is described as a 'half-breed' (84), and some First Nations' victories are deemed massacres, slaughters, or butchery (85...