Pontiac’s War

Pontiac led the most successful war against European incursion in Canadian history

pontiac - cameoOn this day in 1766, Ottawa chief Pontiac signed a treaty with the British ending the uprising he initiated 3 years earlier. The treaty helped to establish aboriginal rights for the future.

Pontiac’s War was the most successful First Nations resistance to the European invasion in our history. Though it failed to oust the British from native lands, the conflict forced British authorities to a recognition of native rights that has had had far-reaching consequences down to our own time. In late July 1766 a great council convened at Fort Ontario (Oswego), deep in Seneca country on the southeast shore of Lake Ontario. A weary superintendent of Indian Affairs William Johnson had called together the chiefs of the Great Lakes nations in order to find an end to the war.

It had not gone well for the British. A loose coalition of tribes in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley area had captured nine frontier forts, killed some 2500 whites and laid siege to Forts Detroit and Duquesne for months. The war had its origins in the changing relationships of First Nations and whites after the British conquest of New France in 1763. The imprint of the French had been light, just a score of small posts and missions. The French learned the First Nations languages and customs and intermarried. The haughty condescension of General Jeffery Amherst, the British commander-in-chief, was in stark contrast. Amherst sold off native lands without regard, crushed any opposition with force, and forbade the giving of gifts, which had great symbolic significance to the First Nations.

Many chiefs played their parts in the ensuing conflict, but the greatest among them was the Ottawa chief Obwandiyag, whom the English called Pontiac. He was an imposing figure, tall strong and heavily tattooed, in the custom of the Ottawa. He fashioned his straight black hair in a narrow pompadour and wore silver bracelets on his arms and a collar of white plumes around his neck. He was courageous and commanded respect far beyond his own people.

pontic in councilPontiac was inspired by the words of Neolin, the Delaware prophet, who warned his people “if you allow the English among you, you are dead. Maladies, smallpox, and their poison will destroy you totally.” By the spring of 1763 Pontiac was contemplating war. With the support of the neigbouring Potawatomis and Hurons, he hatched a plan to capture Fort Detroit. When a spy revealed the plan, Pontiac laid siege. Historians have called the conflict that followed a “conspiracy,” “treason,” or an “uprising.” For the First Nations and notably for Pontiac it was a war of liberation.

The war spread for a month throughout the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, with a series of victories that sent the British reeling. A war party of Ottawas surprised a rescue force at Point Pelee, capturing 46 English soldiers and two boats. Pontiac’s success encouraged the Miamis, Illinois, Weas, Kickapoos, Mascoutens, Delawares, and Shawnees to join. The Ojibwas captured Fort Michilimackinac with their famous ruse of distracting the garrison with a game of lacrosse and following a stray ball into the fort. Pontiac then intercepted some 260 British reinforcements in a bloody encounter on the bridge across Parent’s Creek (later called Bloody Run). The British, cut to pieces, hurried back to the fort. It was at this low point that Amherst made his infamous suggestion: “Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians?”

However, Pontiac’s alliance slowly began to disintegrate. On 6 July, the Potawatomis dissociated themselves from Pontiac; Také’s Hurons likewise broke their alliance. Despite a final appeal by Pontiac, little by little most of his Ojibwa and Ottawa followers deserted him in October and scattered to their winter hunting grounds.

The final peace was concluded at Fort Ontario July 23-25, 1766. On July 25 Pontiac declared to Johnson “I speak in the name of all the Nations to the westward whom I command, it is the will of the Great Spirit that we should meet here today and before him and all present I take you by the hand and never will part with it.”

Pontiac’s acquiescence in peace set his former allies against him; his own village decided to banish him. His murder at the hand of a Peoria in Cahokia is filled with bitter irony. “Pontiac [is] forever famous in the annals of North America,” someone wrote as early as 1765, and history has celebrated his name. He perceived with great acuteness the problems that would afflict the First Nations for generations to come, particularly the inexorable occupation of their lands. In October 1763 the Royal Proclamation served as the new foundation of relations between the First Nations and the British. There is no doubt that Pontiac’s military successes played a major role in demonstrating to the British that aboriginal peoples were still masters of their own ancestral lands. That principle was written into the Royal Proclamation and is the basis of First Nations land claims to this day


Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia 

See also:  Tecumseh: Diplomat and Warrior in the War of 1812, by Irene Gordon



Superintendent Sam Steele, North West Mounted Police

Canada’s toughest, gentleman police officer in history

Sam SteeleThe adventures of (Sir) Sam Steele should definitely put to rest any notion that Canada lacks a colourful history, or, indeed, adventurers the equal to Pat Garrett and Davy Crockett.

Samuel Benfield Steele was born on the family farm in 1851 in Simcoe County, Upper Canada (now Ontario), and spent much of his youth in the nearby Town of Orillia learning to ride and other useful skills that would serve him well in his later life. At age 14-years he enlisted in the militia formed to guard against Fenian cross-border raids, and from there he volunteered for the federal militia called together to restore order with the Métis in what is now Manitoba.

“The journey was an exercise in endurance,” writes Quan: “The troops marched across southern Ontario to Sault Ste. Marie, where they boarded ships bound across Lake Superior to what is now Thunder Bay. That was the easy part. From the lakehead, 965 kilometres (600 miles) of rock, rivers, muskeg, and heavy forest lay between the troops and their destination, Fort Garry on the Red River (now Winnipeg). There was no railway yet, and the road was nothing more than a trail blazed through the bogs and bush. In fact, for the most part the “road” was a water route of interconnected lakes and streams with numerous difficult portages through mud, swamps, and dense forest.”

Unfortunately, for Sam, the uprising was over by the time they arrived so the troops turned around and marched back to Ontario again. However, Sam stayed with the militia—now promoted to corporal at age nineteen—but when the new provincial government was in place the militia was disbanded as well. Nevertheless, the new Canadian government decided it wanted its own army to replace the British troops, traditional peacekeepers, and Sam quickly joined the recently established Canadian army—being the 23rd person to do so.

NWMP-march-1v7xxnpTwo years later however, in 1873, the federal government established a mounted police force for the West, the North West Mounted Police, and Sam saw his chance to get back to his beloved frontier. Therefore, in 1874 the now Sergeant Major Steele (age 23) began one of the most rugged marches that have ever taken place in Canada, across the vast, uncharted territory of the West.

“The going was tough for the already beleaguered group. Grasshoppers razed the grass, and rain turned the wagon track to deep mud. Quicksand was another hazard many men had never experienced. Sam, among the strongest in the troop, was continually called on to help wrestle horses, oxen, and cattle of boggy deathtraps.”

That was only part of the adventure. Having little grass to eat the horses became so weak that they frequently collapsed in their tracks. Therefore the men had to lift them and encourage them to walk a bit further before collapsing again. This prompted one of them to quip. “I thought I’d have an easy ride to the Rockies with a good horse to carry me. Instead I’m having a tough walk to Edmonton, with me carrying the horse.”

The march to Edmonton, 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles), ended on October 31, 1874, but not without one last struggle with nature.

“Sam was preparing for sleep when someone shouted that a horse was in trouble in a nearby creek. Grabbing a rope, he waded into the ice-cold stream and deftly passed the rope around the struggling horse, tossing the other end to men on the bank. But before Sam could get out of the water, the horse slipped, dragging Sam and several men down. In the dark, with only moments before men and horse succumbed to the freezing current, the quick-thinking man made it out of the water, then he hauled the next man out, and so on, until troops and horse were all free of the ice and water.”

This, then, was the stuff Sam Steele was made of, and only the beginning of his remarkable career that included chasing criminals, defying native leaders, upholding the law—and having the time of his life. Indeed, he saw the establishment of a nation, the signing of treaties, the resolution of a rebellion, the building of a railway, war in South Africa, and action in WWI.

In my opinion this bit of Canadian history should be made mandatory reading in every elementary school history course taught, and for every person who is preparing to become a citizen of this country, for therein is the essence of Canadian pioneer culture: Dedication, adherence to standards and perseverance.

See also:

Institut Dominion Historica Dominion – https://www.historica-dominion.ca/content/heritage-minutes/sam-steele: Visit it to view a short dramatic clip.

Sam Steele: The Wild Adventures of Canada’s Most Famous Mountie by Holly Quan.


My list of of interesting books about Canada (to date). You can add your favourites, too. Just send me a note with your choice, title and author, to gerrybbooks@yahoo.ca


If you would like to learn more about any of my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.


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Sharon Temple

“The children of Peace”

sharon templeIn the Upper Canada of the 1820s, in the Village of Sharon, a small community known as the Children of Peace crafted, with simple tools but consummate skill and artistry, a dramatic architectural testament to its vision of a society founded on the values of peace, equality and social justice.This plain folk of former Quakers led the country’s first farmers’ co-operative, built its first shelter for the homeless, and played a key role in the development of democracy by ensuring the elections of William Lyon Mackenzie, and both fathers of responsible government – Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine – in the formative years before Canadian confederation.

The center piece of their activity was The Temple. Completed in 1832 and restored in 2011, it is now part of the Sharon National Historic Site, which encompasses nine historic buildings in a park like setting.

Sharon_Temple_interiorThe architectural elements of the Temple combine to express a singular vision of the most striking beauty. Its three tiers, four-fold symmetry, lanterns and pinnacles were inspired by the old testament from the Bible. Jacob’s Ladder, a gently curved staircase, leads to the musicians’ gallery above. The four central pillars even bear names: Faith, Hope, Love and Charity.

Known for their pageantry, the Children of Peace integrated a unique social vision with distinctive artistic and architectural works and an unparalleled musical tradition: they formed the first civilian band in Canada and commissioned the first organ built in Ontario.


The St. John Riots

orange day riotsToday is July 12th, “Orangemen’s Day” as it is also known. It is the day (mistakenly) marking the defeat of Catholic James II of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne River in 1690. The battle actually took place on July 1st under the old calendar, which is the equivalent of July 11th under the Gregorian calendar, but it is celebrated on the 12th.

In addition, at least one historian has posited that William was funded in part by the then Pope, on account of his dispute with King Charles of France.

As with most things having to do with religion, the “Glorious Twelfth” has been marked by sectarian violence; including bloodshed, and Canada is no exception.

The first recorded incident took place in St. John, New Brunswick, in 1840. During the 1840s Saint John, Portland (a separate town now amalgamated with Saint John), Fredericton and Woodstock all experienced ethnic and/or sectarian violence, stemming from tensions between Irish Catholics (many of them immigrants) and the Protestant majority.

In 1847 at Woodstock, Carleton county, tensions between Irish Catholics and area members of the Loyal Orange Association (LOA) left at least ten dead.

Expecting an armed Orange church parade to return to the town, Catholics gathered with guns, axes, clubs and scythes. In the aftermath of the fighting at Woodstock, no Protestants were arrested and nearly ninety Catholics were charged. Of forty-nine men tried, thirty-five were convicted.

On July 12, 1849 a parade of Orangemen, many of them from surrounding rural counties, attempted to march through the largely Catholic immigrant waterfront neighbour of York Point. At its head was an Orangeman mounted on a white horse, representing King William of Orange, who had defeated the Stuart forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

They were returning from the Indiantown area of Portland where they met brethren from upriver. The Orangemen carried swords, pistols and muskets. The mayor feared serious violence if the parade reached Dock Street where Catholics had erected a green arch of tree boughs. At this time Saint John lacked a professional police force.

Unable (or unwilling) to separate the two sides, the civic authorities and the small garrison of British soldiers waited south of the Catholic ‘line of battle.’ A serious riot developed in which with rocks, bricks and firearms were used. Up to a dozen were killed and many more wounded, making the York Point riot the most serious outbreak of collective violence in New Brunswick’s history.

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Shootout at Fortier’s Café

Canada’s wild, wild west…

gunfight2Thanks to the dime store novels and Hollywood larger-than-life approach to frontier history, most of the gunfights we know about are American. However, Canada has had its share of shootouts, too. Take the shootout outside Fortier’s Cafe in the gold mining community of Fisherville, British Columbia, in 1864.

Ironically, the dispute began between two factions who each wanted to be the law in Fisherville, and after much threatening talk the two agree to meet to talk things over. The players were a group of Americans under the leadership of William “Yeast Powder Bill” Denniston (a.k.a. Bill Burmeister); Robert “Overland Bob” Evans; and Neil Dougherty. The opposing side, mostly Canadians, was lead by a hot-tempered, mouthy Irishman named Thomas Walker. His lieutenants were William “Dancing Bill” Latham, John “Black Jack” Smyth and “Paddy” Skie.

The talk started peacefully enough but within a few minutes the two [walker and Dinniston] began shouting. Tom Walker, his temper boiling over, pulled his revolver from its holster, levelled it at Yeast Powder Bill and squeezed the trigger.

The range was point blank when the heavy pistol roared but, unfortunately for Walker, his hand was unsteady. The .45 slug missed Bill’s expansive chest by ripped away the thumb from his right hand. Walker tried to fire a second shot but his gun jammed. Yeast Powder Bill, howling in shock and pain, drew the pistol from his left holster and shot Walker through the heart. Walker died where he stood. It was his great bad luck that Bill was ambidextrous.

When Walker’s gun fired, Overland Bob Evans commenced shooting. This brought immediate return fire from Walker’s friends. Within seconds the shooting had become general and Evans lay prone in the dust with at least two bullets in his body. Although Evans was down his companions, thinking him dead, continued shooting.

cemetery, fishervilleWalker was dead, there was no doubt about that, and his friends, intent on avenging him, kept up a steady barrage of fire into the ranks of the Americans. For several minutes the scene was one of sheer chaos. The men who were armed with clubs closed and began to beat on each other. When the shooting finally stopped the air was heavy with the acrid smell of gun smoke. Both sides retreated to count casualties.”

Amazingly, Evens recovered from his wounds so Walker was the only actual casualty from the fracas.

Source: Wild Canadian West, by E.C. (Ted) Meyers

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My list of of interesting books about Canada (to date). You can add your favourites, too. Just send me a note with your choice, title and author, to gerrybbooks@yahoo.ca


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The Great St. Hilaire Train Disaster

Canada’s worst recorded train disaster.

St. Hilaire train disasterOn June 29, 1864 a Grand Trunk train carrying between 354 and 475 passengers, many of them German and Polish immigrants, were travelling from Quebec City to Montreal.

At around 1:20 a.m. local time the train was approaching a swing bridge known as the Beloeil Bridge on the Richelieu River. The swing bridge had been opened to allow the passage of five barges and a steamer ship. A red light a mile ahead of the bridge signalled to the train that the crossing was open and it needed to slow down. However the light was not acknowledged by the conductor, Thomas Finn, or the engineer, William Burnie, and the train continued towards the bridge.

At 1:20 a.m. the train came onto the bridge and fell through an open gap. The engine and eleven coaches fell through the gap one after another on top of each other crushing a passing barge. The train sank into an area of the river with a depth of 10 feet. 99 people aboard the train were killed and 100 more were injured. Among the dead was Thomas Finn and the fireman aboard the train. The engineer was slightly hurt in the accident but was able to escape the wreck. The disaster was blamed on the conductor and engineer for failing to follow the standing order to stop before crossing the bridge. The engineer, who had only recently been hired, claimed that he was not familiar with the route and that he did not see the signal.

Source: World History Project

Martha Purdy-Black

“First lady of the Yukon”

martha purdy black2In 1898, Martha Purdy lived a comfortable life as a Chicago socialite with two small sons. Then gold-fever struck and her life changed forever.  Leaving her children with relatives, Purdy, her husband and her brother George joined the stampede of would-be prospectors to the Yukon. The Klondike Gold Rush was underway. “To me it was a quest that had all the allure of a ‘Treasure Island’ or ‘Aladdin’s Lamp,’ she wrote in her memoir. “I had only to go to the world-famed goldfields … and collect the gold. I pictured myself and my children living in luxury the rest of my days.” Marthas husband traveled with her to San Fransisco and went no further. Shortly afterwards, Martha discovered she was pregnant. Purdy and her brother continued up the West Coast by boat to the Alaska panhandle, then trekked to the treacherous Chilkoot Pass, at the border between Alaska and the Yukon.

martha purdy black“As I looked directly before me at the fearful mountain pass … I thought of my New England forebears, women who had bravely faced the hardships of pioneering, … Once again I knew that my path lay ahead, that there was no turning back now.”

Purdy was four months pregnant when she arrived in Dawson City in the Yukon – a booming outpost near the gold fields.  Filled with prospectors, the city overflowed with dance halls, theatres and saloons. Men outnumbered women 25 to one and it was said that “even an angel couldnt keep good in Dawson.” Purdy found a cabin overlooking the city.

“While I did not enter into the gaiety, I did have what sporting editors would call a ringside seat. We did not know when we squatted … that we had established ourselves above the red light district.”

While entertainment was everywhere, gold was not. By the time most prospectors arrived in the Klondike, the rich goldfields had already been staked out. By the summer of 1899, prospectors had panned most of the gold out of the territory. martha Pudy Black - MPDawson half emptied when rumours spread that gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska. But Purdy remained..

“I could not shake the lure of the Klondyke. My thoughts were continually of that vast new rugged country … Its stark and splendid mountains, its lordly Yukon River … its midnight sun.”

Purdy gave birth to a son Lyman, brought her other children north, and married a lawyer named George Black. Martha Black became know as the “First Lady of the Yukon” and was the second woman elected to the Canadian Parliament in 1935 at age 70.


My list of of interesting books about Canada (to date). You can add your favourites, too. Just send me a note with your choice, title and author, to gerrybbooks@yahoo.ca


If you would like to learn more about any of my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.