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British Rule

Although the war was a military disaster for France, French military activity led to a modest growth of the Detroit community. By 1760 the settlement had about five to six hundred French residents. The British military who occupied Detroit were understandably concerned about the loyalty of the community's French residents. The matter resolved itself in 1764, when a significant number of the habitants migrated to the newly-formed French community of St. Louis. In the short run the British garrison found that its French inhabitants accepted of British rule, even if they were not always happy to be under its jurisdiction. This was not, however, the case with France's Indian allies.

The Indians in the Detroit area, like most of the tribes in the Northwest, initially acquiesced in the war's outcome. This acceptance might be explained in part by the loss of a steady flow of weapons from the French, but it also might have been due to the British practice of selling goods at cheaper prices than the French. Assuming that this policy would continue, the Indians might have concluded that, regardless of the possible long term problem of British settlers, in the short term there were no British settlers in Detroit and the Indians would obtain more goods for their furs. The peace between the Indians and the newly arrived British was fragile. The Detroit tribes in particular made it clear that although the French had been defeated, the Indians had not. They had, for the moment, chosen voluntarily to cease their conflict with the British.

The British military badly bungled the delicate situation between the British and the Indians around Detroit and throughout French Canada. In Howard Peckham's words, the now victorious British army, rather than working to maintain peaceful relations with the tribes, instead considered the Indians "an expensive nuisance" (Peckham, Pontiac and the Indian Uprising, p. 319). They sought ways to economize on past practices such as gift giving rather than placating and eventually building trust among what were still potent adversaries.

English traders who arrived in the spring of 1761 compounded the British government's blunders. Freed of French competition, they reversed their past practices and charged more than the French for goods of lesser quality. In an effort to conceal their new practices, the traders made free use of liquor. The abuse of alcohol became so blatant that the British commander at Detroit banned the sale of rum. Although the British government seems not to have understood the causes of newly resurgent Indian hostility toward the British, it surely understood that Detroit and England's other newly acquired French outposts were in grave danger from an Indian uprising. To deal with this, England reinforced the garrison in Detroit and sent William Johnson, its principal Indian agent for all tribes north of the Carolinas, to the city in hopes of reaching a negotiated solution.

When he arrived in Detroit in 1761, Johnson had already demonstrated that he was an able administrator and a skilled negotiator. In September 1761 he held a grand council in Detroit where he papered over problems and managed to obtain a peace treaty. But Johnson realized the situation was dangerous. In order to obtain the treaty he deliberately held back information he knew would further inflame Indian sentiments. In particular Johnson chose not to inform the assembled tribal leaders that General Jeffrey Amherst, commander of all British forces in North America, had decided to stop the practice of giving annual gifts to the Indians in order to save money. Instead Johnson distributed the gifts he had brought, as the Indians fully expected he would, ended the superficially successful meeting with a huge ox roast, and quickly returned to the East.

After his return Johnson discretely shared his fears with the general, who chose to ignore him. In a move that he might have thought would help matters but appeared to the Indians as another example of British arrogance, Amherst banned liquor sales to Indians as well as gifts. More important, although Amherst did not explicitly approve the actions, he made no serious effort to stop British settlers from moving into western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Native Americans throughout the Great Lakes region understood that British agricultural settlements would have a devastating impact on the Indian way of life. The French had lived in a few sparsely populated trading settlements that left the land largely unchanged. British settlers, in contrast, sought to own the land, farm it, and drive away any Indians who challenged their settlements.

With alcohol sales officially banned, annual gift giving ended, higher prices being charged for shoddy goods, and British settlers pouring into the land, it is hardly surprising that the Indians' discontent grew. Nowhere was this discontent more sharply felt than in Detroit, where the Indians believed that their decision not to fight the British entitled them to special consideration. Instead, they faced new government economies, inflated prices, and a long term threat to their culture. In the summer of 1762 the Indians of the Northwest held a secret war council in the Ottawa village outside Detroit. In the East the Seneca were also conspiring against the British and war belts passed between them and the Indians in Detroit.