Foremost among the Indian leaders was Pontiac, the over-chief of the Ottawa Confederacy. It has been customary to speak of this chief as possessed of ‘princely grandeur’ and as one ‘honoured and revered by his subjects.’ But it was not by a display of princely dignity or by inspiring awe and reverence that he influenced his bloodthirsty followers. His chief traits were treachery and cruelty, and his pre-eminence in these qualities commanded their respect. His conduct of the siege of Detroit, as we shall see, was marked by duplicity and diabolic savagery. He has often been extolled for his skill as a military leader, and there is a good deal in his siege of Detroit and in the murderous ingenuity of some of his raids to support this view. But his principal claim to distinction is due to his position as the head of a confederacy —whereas the other chiefs in the conflict were merely leaders of single tribes—and to the fact that he was situated at the very centre of the theatre of war. News from Detroit could be quickly heralded along the canoe routes and forest trails to the other tribes, and it thus happened that when Pontiac struck, the whole Indian country rose in arms. But the evidence clearly shows that, except against Detroit and the neighbouring blockhouses, he had no part in planning the attacks. The war as a whole was a leaderless war.
Let us now look for a moment at the Indians who took part in the war. Immediately under the influence of Pontiac were three tribes—the Ottawas, the Chippewas, and the Potawatomis. These had their hunting-grounds chiefly in the Michigan peninsula, and formed what was known as the Ottawa Confederacy or the Confederacy of the Three Fires. It was at the best a loose confederacy, with nothing of the organized strength of the Six Nations. The Indians in it were of a low type—sunk in savagery and superstition. A leader such as Pontiac naturally appealed to them. They existed by hunting and fishing—feasting to-day and famishing to-morrow—and were easily roused by the hope of plunder. The weakly manned forts containing the white man’s provisions, ammunition, and traders’ supplies were an attractive lure to such savages. Within the confederacy, however, there were some who did not rally round Pontiac. The Ottawas of the northern part of Michigan, under the influence of their priest, remained friendly to the British. Including the Ottawas and Chippewas of the Ottawa and Lake Superior, the confederates numbered many thousands; yet at no time was Pontiac able to command from among them more than one thousand warriors.
In close alliance with the Confederacy of the Three Fires were the tribes dwelling to the west of Lake Michigan—the Menominees, the Winnebagoes, and the Sacs and Foxes. These tribes could put into the field about twelve hundred warriors; but none of them took part in the war save in one instance, when the Sacs, moved by the hope of plunder, assisted the Chippewas in the capture of Fort Michilimackinac.