Francis Parkman, “The Conspiracy of Pontiac: Volume One,” (1851)

If one was disinclined to read the seven-volume France and England in North America—although I cannot imagine why—they could open up Francis Parkman’s 1851 work The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada and read the first four chapters to get a good picture of his basic perspective on the history of empire in North America. In brief, the Indians, although of different tribes with different levels of organization and power, were the “true child of the forest and the desert.” (359) In this way, they were not fit to be true empire builders or a generally progressive force in North American history. The French were a Catholic empire and also retrograde, defeated before they even began, despite their impressive history on the continent. “The character of the people, and the government which ruled them, were alike unfavorable to [the principle of increase]. Agriculture was neglected for the more congenial pursuits of the fur-trade, and the restless, roving Canadians, scattered abroad on their wild vocation, allied themselves to Indian women, and filled the woods with a mongrel race of bush-rangers.” (401) The English pushed their policy forward with power and population growth. Transforming North America rather than being transformed by it. Of course, the English were Protestant, a much more dynamic religion in Parkman’s mind than the Catholic French. You may consult my commentary on the seven volumes of Parkman’s history for more details on this perspective, but as you can see it is rather old fashioned, but has had a lasting impact on the scholarship on the West.


The story of Pontiac actually begins around chapter five, after setting up the context, essentially the conquest of Canada and the French territories east of the Mississippi after the Seven Years’ War, created a diplomatic crisis for the Indians not yet annihilated by the European expansion. They were traditionally French allies, but with France gone, the long-standing policy of playing the European powers off each other was lost. It was a rare moment where the Western Indian polities could agree on the need for resistance.

My reading of Pontiac’s war (a better term than “rebellion”, since that implies he and his supporters were subjects of Europeans, and much better than Parkman’s use of “conspiracy”) is shaped by our own dilemma. Pontiac knew well that his way of life was on borrowed time. Perhaps he could die as the leader of an independent tribe, but this would not be the fate of his children. He was (to borrow Zizek’s term) living in the end times. His choice was to accept fate or to resist is against hope. I suppose most people know that capitalism and industrial civilization is on borrowed time as well. Perhaps few think about it day to day, but who can deny that the environment and our societies are at a breaking point. Parkman wrote something similar about the Pontiac’s decision to rally the Western Indians. “It would be idle to suppose that the great mass of the Indians understood, it its full extent, the danger which threatened their race. With them, the war was a mere outbreak of fury, and they turned against their enemies with as little reason or forecast as a panther when he leaps at the throat of a hunter.” (484–485) Well, I suppose this is Parkman’s usual prejudice. As we have seen in The Oregon Trail, he rarely saw Indians as capable of a sustained effort. Again and again he posits them next to nature.

pontiac's war

Parkman gives Pontiac a bit more foresight, seeing his strategy as reasonable compared to the motives of his followers. He had hoped to create a situation where the English would be temporarily removed from the Western forts, created a space for their traditional ally, the French, to move in.
Pontiac was also engaged in a cultural revival of sorts. The entire Pontiac rebellion can, of course, be interpreted as a reactionary effort. This is Parkman’s interpretation and it has some truth to it. They were reacting to a drastic and sudden change. In one of his rallying speeches he said: The land on which you live I have made for you, and not for others. Why do you suffer the white man to dwell among you? My children you forgotten the customs and traditions of your forefathers. Why do you not clothe yourself in skins, as they did, and use the bows and arrows, and the stone-pointed lances, which they used? You have bought guns, knives, kettles, and blankets, from the white man, until you no longer do without them; and, what is worse, you have drunk the poison fire-water, which turns you into fools.” (499)

The second half of the first volume of The Conspiracy of Pontiac details the warfare in the West in 1763 between Pontiac’s followers and the British. The focus is on the attack on Detroit and various other forts. One thing that comes clear from these events is that much of what took place in that fateful year was less warfare than it was gang violence, on both sides. Neither side could really organize formal militaries to fight these battles. I wonder if this made the battles more vicious and endure longer in the memory of the West. In a way, the battlers were more personal than those fought between armies of mutually indifferent conscripts.

Chief Pontiac

Chief Pontiac

It is hard not to feel something tragic about the Indians in Pontiac’s revolt. Parkman assumed in his story that their failure was not only inevitable, but was likely just, given their backward lifestyle and the block they provided to the spread of the progressive English civilization, but in the context of our last capitalist world when that progressive civilization is leading to our death, we can easily imagine the mad opposition to the dark clouds on the horizon.


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