Wednesday, December 3, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
A period of American history that I find fascinating, but about which I shamefully have to confess a fair amount of ignorance, is the decade or so leading up to the Revolutionary War. I am, of course, aware that it was a time when the British won a decisive war against the French, and that the French lost Canada, plus their holdings east of the Mississippi. And I knew that Pontiac was an Indian chief who fought against the British; but it was not until I read Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac that I was able to fill in many of the gaps in my knowledge of the era.
Parkman was a 19th century American historian who wrote several classic works (in addition to Pontiac, he authored The Oregon Trail and France and England in North America). Today’s featured book begins with a summary of the French experience in North America, including the history of the trappers, the soldiers and that indefatigable religious order, the Jesuits, who, all in all (and despite occasional hostilities) were largely successful in co-existing with the Indians in Canada and the Great Lakes region. Parkman then discusses the French and Indian War, and its tragic ramifications for the Indian tribes in the area east of the Mississippi. Throughout the narrative of French and British colonial history, and the French and Indian War, Parkman skillfully weaves the story of the numerous Indian tribes and their alternately rising and falling fortunes as their contact with Europeans became more unavoidable.
As the author points out, the Indians suffered from numerous inherent disadvantages in their encounter with the colonists. For the most part, their ethos was one of near-complete personal freedom, which generally prevented them from functioning as a cohesive force above the level of the tribe (and, as a practical matter, even the tribal ties were frequently undermined by family and personal feuds). They were nomads, who gorged themselves in fat times, and starved in lean, and their civilization had failed to advance, technologically, beyond that of their distant ancestors.
It was during the mid-1760’s when a great chief of the Ottawas arose to unite many of the tribes near the Great Lakes and in the Ohio Country, in an effort to oust the British. Pontiac had been an ally of the French during the French and Indian War, and was a bitter enemy to the victorious British. He plotted the siege of Detroit, which, while ultimately unsuccessful, sparked uprisings from the Carolinas to Western Pennsylvania. French settlers gave him false hope that the French would return and help him drive the British out of the country, and this promise helped to prolong the uprising for months. Eventually, as it became clear that the French were powerless to intercede, many Indians became disaffected and returned to their homes. A British military expedition in 1764 led to a cessation of general hostilities, and a formal peace was declared in 1766. Pontiac was murdered by a Peoria Indian in 1769, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Parkman writes in a vigorous prose style, and those who are guided wholly by that phenomenon known as “political correctness” will no doubt find much to offend them (for example, Indians are frequently referred to as “savages”); however, Parkman strikes me, by and large, as a man striving to be fair, and his condemnations of perfidy among white men appear frequently in the text, and are unadorned with weasely justifications (his denunciation of a plan to infect Indians with smallpox is an unqualified, and even angry, indictment of an act of extraordinary inhumanity).
The book is filled with episodes of heroism, betrayal, victories against long odds, surprising defeats, and cunning stratagems – all against the backdrop of the wild and vast American forest of the 18th century. Not only history, Pontiac has attained the status of literature.