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

“Along the Western frontiers of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, terror reigned supreme. The Indian scalping-parties were ranging everywhere, laying waste the settlements, destroying the harvests, and butchering men, women, and children, with ruthless fury.” (640)

Parkman wrote this of the Indians, galvanized by Pontiac, to resist white settlement into the West in 1763. He wrote it after two decades of violence aimed at Indian removal from the frontier. He wrote it at a time that the US army was completing its conquest of Mexico and setting the stage for the violent usurpation of Indian homes. In fact, a simple change of a few nouns and we can turn the above into an accurate description of formal US government policy in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Additionally, at the time of Pontiac’s rebellion the same could be said of white vigilante groups along the frontier.

Volume Two of Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac covers the suppression of the Indian uprising, the explosion of vigilant violence that touched on the Pennsylvania government itself, and the consequences of the failure for the Indians in the American West after the Seven Years War. The final point is the easiest to see, in part because it was implied by the reasons for the uprising itself. Pontiac saw clearly that the French withdrawal from Canada and the Great Lakes meant the eventual settlement of these areas by the English, but more importantly, the loss of the major diplomatic strategy that the Indians enjoyed, that of the “middle ground.” The fact that the British imposed limits on western settlement after the war (as a cost saving measure and to avoid wars like Pontiac’s from reoccurring) provided some breathing space for Indian autonomy and the possible resurrection of the “middle ground” when the American Revolution broke out.

The major point I would like to explore today has to do with the morality and violence of rebellion. The quote I opened with is about the Indian violence, but the war was closer to gang violence on both sides, with the Indian raiding parties juxtaposed to the Paxton Boys and other vigilante groups. Now just to be clear, I am not necessarily opposed to vigilantism, as long as it is not a cover for violence and theft. As a form of self-defense, it seems some form of vigilantism is required, especially in a revolutionary context. (Worker’s councils of strikers preventing scabs from entering a factory may be one example.) If vigilantism just becomes an extension of the arm of the state, by filling in for the state where it is weak, it is just another statist organization. That seems to be what was going on with the Paxton Boys.

Parkman presents the “Paxton Men” as a group of frustrated frontiersman unable to accept their loss of life and property and driven to violence by the inability of the Pennsylvanian government to protect them. He justified their violence in a way that actually justifies the desperate acts of Pontiac and his followers. Driven to the wall, people are capable of horrible things. “It is not easy for those living in the tranquility of polished life fully to conceive the depth and force of that unquenchable, indiscriminate hate, which Indian outrages can awaken in those who have suffered them. The chronicles of the American borders are filled with the deeds of men, who, having lost all by the merciless tomahawk, have lived for vengeance alone’ and such men will never cease to exist to long as a hostile tribe remains within striking distance of an American settlement.” (702) Again, a few changed nouns and we see that Parkman’s claim, if applied universally, will explain the Pontiac uprising itself. Parkman should know better, having live with various besieged Indian groups while investigating the Oregon trail. Readers in our time need only look back at centuries of vigilant racial violence and violence against labor unions to know the consequences of uncritical acceptance of the mob.


Eventually, the Paxton vigilantes turned on the Quaker government, due to their apparent unwillingness to deal with the frontier attacks. As time went on, various vigilante groups fought amongst themselves. It seems that this is the great fear of the defenders of the state? How to respond to this? These vigilantes were certainly motivated by racism (not unlike in Bacon’s Rebellion), their violence was indiscriminate, we rightfully have little sympathy left for the occupying gangs of state-organized police. Untying this knot is the realization that what both Pontiac and the Paxton vigilantes wanted was a baseline of security of their life and homes. Perhaps there was a missed common ground here.

When not bashing heads, the Paxton Boys were quite polite and formal

When not bashing heads, the Paxton Boys were quite polite and formal

A real response, however, is that both Pontiac and the vigilantes were seeing like a state. This is clear in a later chapter when we learn that government fully embraced brutal policies toward the Indians in an effort to end Indian attacks. “So fierce and active were the war-parties on the borders, that the English governor of Pennsylvania had recourse to a measure which the frontier inhabitants had long demanded, and issued a proclamation, offering a high bounty for Indian scalps, whether of men or women; a barbarous expedient, fruitful of butcheries and murders, but incapable of producing any decisive result.” (762) Even if this is explained away as the pressure of the mob, the powers that the various colonial governments and the British state collected to smash Pontiac was impressive and not ever moderate. The problem, it seems, comes from seeing like a state and solving problems like a state would, whether we are state actors or not.


Despite my hostility to much of Parkman’s prejudice and his narrative which suggested that anything that was in the way of the progress of Protestant, English civilization should be opposed for the betterment of the future, there is much that is attractive in this account and I am glad I read it. The chapter on the “Desolation of the Frontier” is particularly moving in its description of the lives of people on the frontier and the horrible situation they were put into, working, in effect as unwitting agents of empire.

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.