The Pontiac Tree

So. There was this tree. Old-timers knew it as “Pontiac’s Tree.”

With mute eloquence, it tells of the scene of carnage at its base in 1763.

Silas Farmer described it as “like some Rip Van Winkle of the forest.” In 1884, Robert E. Roberts clumsily soliloquized about the bullet-riddled tree (was it really?) that had “not yet been sacrificed to city improvements.” A historical tablet that used to mark the site called the tree “the old monarch.”

No one seems to agree entirely about what the tree had to do with Chief Pontiac, except that it was really old, it was close to the site of the Battle of Bloody Run, and it might have been there on July 31, 1763, when British soldiers tried, and brutally failed, to ambush Pontiac’s camp. Bloody Run — so named because nearby Parent’s Creek allegedly ran red with the blood of fallen British soldiers — was a lopsided Indian victory; British Captain James Dalyell was killed along with as many as 60 of his troops.

Some write that Indians, perhaps Pontiac himself, took cover in the tree during the battle. The ever-entertaining Legends of Le Detroit even places the tree at the heart of a grim romance between Henry Gladwin, commander of Fort Detroit; Captain Dalyell; and the comely Madeleine de Tonnancour, for whose affections both leaders vied (oh, and hey, wasn’t this the spot of another martyrdom by Indians? Foreshadow!):

On [the] sloping banks was a stately oak, within whose hollow trunk a pious hand had placed an image of the Virgin, for the spot was pointed out by tradition as the place where saintly Constantin del Halle had been murdered many years before.

I’ve been thinking about this tree because we just marked the anniversary of the outbreak of the War named, perhaps erroneously, for Pontiac. It was May 7, 1763, when Pontiac attempted a surprise attack on Fort Detroit under the ruse of a peace offering. But Commander Gladwin had been tipped off (though he likely had an informant, I read one rumor that everyone in town knew anyway, because the blacksmiths were so busy making extra guns). His troops were at the ready, so Pontiac didn’t try anything funny.

Two days later, the Chief returned. This time no one was prepared, and his warriors laid siege, killing every British soldier they could find. As days of horrible fighting in Detroit turned into horrible weeks and horrible months, tribal revolts against British forts and settlements spread across the Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley region.

[An imagined portrait of Pontiac by the Detroiter John Mix Stanley — notable for his unfinished attempt to create an atlas of American Indians]

It’s strange to read about Pontiac, especially in the old books that I spend most of my time with. Sometimes he’s a hero, a warrior against British oppression (just like us!) and the mastermind of a thousand-mile-wide conspiracy of noble Indian uprisings. Sometimes he’s a bogeyman lurking at the margins of the settlement, scalping settlers for a laugh, a savage who once served up a slaughtered English soldier to his unsuspecting countrymen at a banquet held in Henry Gladwin’s honor.

His siege of Detroit was ferocious, but ultimately unsuccessful. As his failures to take the Fort compounded, support for his revolt faltered, and Chief Pontiac eventually left Detroit for St. Louis, where he was assassinated by another Indian in 1769.

Today, Bloody Run is mostly enveloped by the municipal sewer system, but a little creek in Elmwood Cemetery is part of the original stream. Plans to “daylight” Bloody Run have been discussed on and off for decades, but John Gallagher’s piece for the Free Press about recent developments is well-worth a read, if the restoration of historical waterways is your thing.

What of Pontiac’s tree? For a time it was on the grounds of the Garland Stove Factory. It died and was cut down on June 2, 1886. The Garland Stove Company replaced it with a giant Garland Stove (now on the State Fair grounds.) From its ancient white wood, many souvenirs were made, including at least one “historic gavel” presented to Dr. H.O. Marcy in 1892.

And while there are many worthy books, articles and resources on the Battle of Bloody Run and Pontiac’s War if you want to learn more, so far my favorite document has been this miniature battle reenactment, complete with puffy cotton-ball clouds of gunsmoke.

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