… And the Old Northwest Territory
It is entirely possible that no one in the United States today knows who Jeffrey Amherst was. I’ll solve that problem right now: he was the man who, as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, brought an end to New France in North America. His younger years groomed him to become a significant character in history, his engrained values shaped his attitude — his point of reference, or if you prefer, his worldview.
His father, a prominent attorney in Kent, siphoned him off at an early age to serve the Duke of Dorset as a page. At 18 years, he became an ensign in the Grenadier Guards of the British Army. He served in the War of the Austrian Succession, as an aide-de-camp to General John Ligonier. He participated in the Battle of Dettingen (1743) and the Battle of Fontenoy (1745). He was only 28 years old when promoted to lieutenant colonel. He fought in the Battle of Rocoux (1746), served as an aide to the Duke of Cumberland, and participated in the Battle of Lauffeld (1747). Amherst assumed command of the 15th Regiment of Foot in June 1756 and led the regiment in battle in the following year.
As previously stated, the French and Indian War (1754-1763) was part of a larger, global war. The British Crown ordered Amherst to the American colonies as commander-in-chief of the British Army in North America. He fought French troops on Lake Champlain, where he captured Fort Ticonderoga, Niagara, and Quebec (1759). Montreal fell to the British in 1760 — the result of which ended French rule in North America. In recognition of his achievement, the Crown appointed him as Governor-General of British North America and promoted him to the rank of major general.
Following his victory over the French, and their withdrawal from North America, Amherst became responsible for directing British policy toward American Indians. This responsibility involved military matters and regulation of the fur trade. His challenge was to demonstrate to the Indians that they then lived under British Rule; his handicap was in believing that British military forces were superior to any “army” the Indians might organize. Of the total of Amherst’s force of 8,000 uniformed men, barely 500 garrisoned the forts in the Great Lakes region of Canada — the area where Indian discontent was strongest.
General Amherst and his officers had little patience with the Indians. In Amherst’s view, they were slovenly heathens deserving no respect. The Indians, being a prideful people, deeply resented this treatment, but the main bone of contention was that, following the Cherokee Uprising of 1761, Amherst decided to withhold gifts offered to tribal leaders. This may not seem like much to us today, and certainly not something that should start a war, but among the Indians, it was an important matter.
Offering gifts to tribal leaders was a key element in the relationship between the French and their Indian allies because the gifts became a symbol of goodwill and respect. Presented to the tribal chiefs, who would in turn distribute them among his people, the gifts traditionally included firearms, gun powder, knives, tobacco, and clothing. In the giving of gifts, the French demonstrated their acknowledgment of the chief as a powerful leader and by distributing the gifts, the chief became the tribe’s patron. General Amherst regarded the gifts as an unnecessary expense and a form of bribery. The Indians, he felt, as British subjects, shouldn’t require gifts to secure their loyalty to the Crown.
Beyond the gifts, Amherst restricted the amount of gunpowder and ammunition that traders could sell to the Indians. Given the Cherokee problem, Amherst’s decision was prudent, but to the Indians, firearms, shot, and gunpowder helped them to feed their families. British Indian Agent Sir William Johnson warned Amherst about this, but he would not be persuaded to reverse his policy.
The other issue of contention among the Indians was the movement of white settlers into Indian lands. The Shawnee and Delaware Indians living in the Ohio River Valley had migrated there because they were pushed out of their traditional lands by British colonists. The Indians wanted this encroachment to stop. Added to the insult of curtailing gifts and encroachments, the Indians experienced a “religious awakening” in 1761, inspired by food shortages and an increase in diseases.
Some Indian religious leaders effectively melded Christian teachings with Indian traditions and began calling upon their people to shun the whites, refuse to trade with them, reject their alcohol and tobacco, refuse to wear the white man’s clothing. One such leader, Neolin, told the Indians, “If you suffer the English among you, you are dead men. Sickness, smallpox, and their poison (alcohol) will destroy you entirely.”
Between 1761-1766, American Indians formed a lose confederacy of numerous tribes that acted independently against the British forces, and which were led by several tribal leaders. While referred to as Pontiac’s War, modern historians point to the fact that Pontiac, while involved, was not the Indian’s overall commander — suggesting that the conflict was actually something other than “Pontiac’s War.”
The Pontiac War began at Fort Detroit and spread quickly throughout the region. Eight British forts fell to Indian attacks. Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt, although besieged, remained viable, but British settlements from New York to Virginia and from Pennsylvania to Illinois became targets of Indian hostilities and the Indians were taking no prisoners. In present-day Franklin County, Pennsylvania, hostiles murdered and scalped a school teacher and all ten of his students. Such depredations prompted the colonists to offer bounties on Indian scalps.
An interesting aside
While the French and Indian War was in full swing, in 1757, the Pennsylvania Assembly dispatched Benjamin Franklin to England as their colonial agent. His mission was to protest the political influence in Pennsylvania of the Penn family, the proprietors of the Pennsylvania colony. Franklin returned to the colony in 1762. For five years, London politicians treated Mr. Franklin dismissively, frequently lecturing him as if he was a country bumpkin. When he returned to America, he had nothing to show for his efforts — except this one thing: when he arrived in England, he was a fiercely loyal British subject; when he returned to the American colonies, he was a staunch American patriot.
The Pennsylvania Assembly sent Franklin back to England in 1764 to continue the colony’s struggle against the Penn family. While in London, newly-minted patriot Franklin vocally opposed the Stamp Act of 1765. Franklin’s efforts caused British politicians to double-down on their personal insults and insufferable arrogance. He still wasn’t able to break the Penn family’s hold over the Pennsylvania Colony, but his testimony before the House of Commons did result in their repeal of the Stamp Act. In a few years, the country bumpkin who provided so much levity among his London betters would help direct the American people in a different direction.
The King Steps In
General Amherst’s superiors, holding him responsible for the Indian uprising, ordered him back to England, replacing him with Major General Thomas Gage. Subsequently, on 7 October 1763, King George III issued his Royal Proclamation which prohibited any colonial expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
The edict was significant for several reasons:
- It was the first British measure to apply to all thirteen colonies.
- It forbade private citizens and colonial governments from buying land or making any agreements with Indians. The only people authorized to travel west or deal directly with Indians were licensed traders.
- Its intent was to protect colonists from Indian attacks and shield the natives from white hostilities.
- It established Quebec, West Florida, and East Florida as British colonies and extended Georgia’s southern border.
- It granted land to soldiers who had fought in the Seven Year’s War.
- It became (and remains today) the foundation of American Indian law., and
- It set into motion popular opposition to the authority of the British Crown in the American colonies. In the minds of colonists, many of whom ignored the edict, the King would be hard pressed to enforce his law.
The Rocky Road
Victory in the Seven Year’s War may have made the British masters of North America, but their triumph was economically painful — and it would become even more so. Someone would have to pay the costs of the North American portion of that war, and in the view of Parliament, that responsibility should fall upon those who benefitted most from the generosity of the King.
However, this rather substantial change in British colonial policy pushed the colonists into realizing that they were less British than American. In the old world, they were subjects of the King; in America, they were subjects of no man — and from this, they discovered a new way of thinking about nature, society, citizenship, and government. In England, the country had been long established and set in its ways — America was theirs to shape.
All of this, however, was the result of Britain’s neglect. For most of the 17th century, the British government had no official policies regarding the American colonies. The vast number of companies, merchants, and corporations governed themselves with little interference by, or the interest of, the British Parliament.
When a change of government in London repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, there was widespread jubilation in the colonies. But London wanted to ensure that the colonists knew who was running the show. The Parliament emphatically declared that it had the absolute power to make binding on any of its colonies whatever laws and changes it saw fit — even though the colonists had no representation in Parliament. In the colonies, jubilation turned to loud moans and grumbling. Parliament had declared its right to deny traditional Anglo-Saxon liberties. To the Americans, this simply wouldn’t do.
But to emphasize their power, in 1767, Parliament imposed heavy import duties on a wide range of produces (including tea) arriving at American ports. Their aim was simple enough: raise money to pay for the costs of administering the colonies. What Parliament actually accomplished was alienating 1.5 million American colonists. In two years, the American colonists had gone from alienated to openly hostile.
In 1770, Lord North’s new government removed all recently imposed taxes, except the one on tea. Though this was welcomed in the colonists, Lord North noted that the colonists frequently boycotted goods from England whenever it suited them and generally refused to cooperate with any of London’s “great ideas.” To change these attitudes, North’s government began importing large amounts of surplus tea held by the East India Company into America, but with a much lower tax rate than that imposed upon Britain. In one stroke, North demonstrated how one part of the British Empire was able to look after another part of the Empire.
Tea had never been cheaper in North America, and one would think the American colonists would be pleased. Some were, but this was a time when Bostonians were making themselves wealthy smuggling tea and other goods. It was the Boston smugglers who organized the now-famous Tea Party in December 1773. In the larger view, it was a trivial incident, but Lord North had grown tired of American insolence. He promptly imposed measures intended to coerce the Americans into behaving as good Englishmen. The Americans called these measures the Intolerable Acts.
First, British officials closed Boston harbor until the people of Boston paid for the destroyed tea. Second, Parliament revoked the Charter of the Massachusetts Colony. Third, the Administration of Justice Act permitted the trial of royal officials outside the thirteen colonies. Fourth, the Quartering Act required all colonial legislatures to furnish regular British soldiers with accommodations.
In 1774, Lord North was trying to control the uncontrollable; Americans were already far past the point of accepting any form of British authority over them. In many ways, the American Revolution began long before the “shot heard around the world.”
In England, the people were bitterly divided between those who sided with the Parliament, and those who sided with the Americans. Merchants, sea captains, and traders worried about their livelihoods if war were to break out between England and the colonies. The King and Parliament were stuck on the idea of teaching the Americans a lesson, and the Americans were stuck on the idea that the King and Parliament had no legitimate power over them.
The colonies had expanded, of that there is no doubt — but far further than the British wished. As for the King’s Proclamation, the Americans simply ignored it and moved west, which brings us back to those pesky Indians.
(Next week: The Northwest Indian War)
- Abernethy, T. P. Western Lands and the American Revolution. Russell & Russell, 1959.
- Holton, W. The Ohio Indians and the Coming of the American Revolution in Virginia. Southern History Journal, 1994.
- Middleton, R. Pontiac’s War: Its Causes, Course, and Consequences. Routledge, 2007.
- Sosin, J. M. Whitehall and the Wildernesses: the Middle West in British colonial policy: 1760-1775. University of Nebraska Press, 1961.
 Although it is likely that the French stirred up the Indians as they withdrew from North America, there is no concrete evidence of it — but even if it wasn’t true, given the timing of it, the Pontiac War was a remarkable coincidence.
 There may be a lesson in this for those who wonder about modern America’s political dynasties.
 The legislature was dissolved, and the colonial governor was replaced by a British military governor.