Pontiac vibe

By Bill Castanier

Local author details complex history surrounding Native American

When I was a child, I always looked forward to our family’s annual summer vacation in Sault Ste. Marie, pestering my grandmother in the front seat when we were going to see “real” Indians — not knowing at the time she was 100 percent Chippewa. The high point of the trip was the stop at Fort Michilimackinac. (I liked to sound out the melodic “mish-ill-a-mack-a-nac,” with the definitive emphasis on the “nac,” as in “nac attack.”) There I learned about the massacre that happened there on June 2, 1763.

No matter how many times I saw the reenactment (or “pageant”), I stood in awe as actors portraying an Odawan tribe, playing a game of baggatiway (a form of lacrosse), allowed an “errant” ball to roll into the fort gate that had been left open. When they approached to retrieve their ball, the men were furtively weaponized by their women positioned near the gate who had hidden knives and hatchets under their clothes. The attack was swift and brutal; in short order, 16 British soldiers and an English fur trader who thought they watching a pleasant sporting event were slaughtered, allowing the fort to fall into the hands of the Odawans. Knowing this event actually happened magnified my terror.

Later on, I learned more about the history of the war on the western borderland in the 1700s. That history was mostly rolled into the generic name “Pontiac’s War,” named after the Odawa chief who sought to recapture Native American land occupied by the British following the French-Indian War in 1763. Although his role as leader of the insurrection may have been exaggerated, Chief Pontiac certainly rallied Native Americans across the frontier in an effort to expel the British, who had effectively ended French reign and the control of the economically important fur trade.

In the mid 1700s, the Straits of Mackinac, due to its geographical location at the center of several waterways, was the nexus of the fur trade for all of North America; the Massacre at Fort Michilimackinac threatened an all-out war between the Native Americans and the British in that important area. Ultimately, the British would squelch the rebellion, thereby settling in until the War of 1812.

That account pretty much summed up my knowledge of that time until I picked up Keith R. Widder’s new book, “Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763.” The 331- page tome, illustrated with scores of maps, drawings and photos of artifacts discovered at the fort, was recently named one of the 20 Michigan Notable Books for 2014. It is a combined publishing effort of MSU Press and the Mackinac State Historic Parks.

Widder, 70, who lives in East Lansing, graduated from Wheaton College and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee before receiving his Ph.D. in history from Michigan State University. He worked for the Mackinac State Historic Parks from 1971 to 1997 where he created interpretive programs for the exhibits and helped build a research library focusing on the area’s rich history.

“The (Straits of Mackinac) has always been a window into the bigger things going on,” he said in a recent interview. After he retired, Widder took on the project of writing the definitive history of Michigan Agricultural College for MSU’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2005. He focused on the 15-year history of British control in the Straits area, but he said he kept coming back to time surrounding the massacre. Widder draws the reader’s attention to the very complex relationships that existed between the various Native American tribes, the French traders and the British occupying force.

“The attack was significant, but the things that lead up to it and its aftermath was the most interesting,” he said. In his book, Widder, for the first time, explains the confusing and interrelated dynamics of the time and explains why the massacre did not escalate into all-out warfare in the Straits as it easily could have. First, he explains why the massacre happened, attributing that to the Ojibwe’s closer relationships with the French because of intermarriage, the French being more accommodating of Indian lifestyles and their attachment to the land contrasted with the British intent to rule the land.

Widder describes how it became clear very quickly that the massacre disrupted the lucrative fur trade, upon which Native Americans across the continent had come to rely for supplies, especially manufactured goods. That was certainly Pontiac’s intent when he sent “war belts” to the Ojibwe and the Odawa of the Straits area, ostensibly setting in motion the massacre.

Shortly after the massacre, Odawa from nearby L’Arbre Croche who were interested in reestablishing the fur trade freed the surviving British prisoners, enabling them to reoccupy the fort. The Odawa, Widder says, did this through diplomacy and tradition rather than an act of war. And that’s what Widder does best in his book: Explaining how complex personal relationships and extreme diplomacy allowed for a peaceful settlement and avoided further violence on the western borderland, while to the south, especially around Detroit, violent battles nearly resulted in Native American dominance.

Widder will join the 19 other Michigan Notable authors at the gala reception Night for Notables on April 26 at the Library of Michigan, honoring them for their contributions to Michigan literature. Watch for details at michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan.