2009-05-16 / Columnists

A Look at History

Pontiac's Lookout Reflects Shifts in Reputation of Indian Chief
BY FRANK STRAUS

Today, on Mackinac Island, we speak English, but this did not happen without a fight. In 1763, the Ottawa nation of Indians fought back against the British Army, which had invaded the country later known as Michigan Territory. Led by a war chief named Pontiac, these Native Americans (many of their descendants call themselves the "Odawa") besieged the British headquarters at Fort Detroit.

While the assault on Detroit failed, another group of Odawa/ Ottawa, joined by their longtime allies, the Chippewa, captured the smaller Fort Michilimackinac at the northern end of Lake Huron. Six other British forts also fell to the Indians. The war bands led by Chief Pontiac were more successful than any other group of Indians who ever fought against English-speaking Americans. Their war, which lasted from 1763 until 1766, ended in a series of peace treaties in which the British king promised to try to keep white men from crossing, from the king's Eastern provinces, over the Appalachian Mountains into the Indians' land in the interior of the North American continent.

This promise by the British king antagonized American frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone, and land investors such as George Washington, and helped stoke a bitter fire for the king and his army, but that is another war, and another story.

What these Americans, especially those who lived on the frontier in 1763, could not have expected was that in the eyes of Michigan white people, the name of "Pontiac" would, over the next 125 years, advance to become the name of a courageous hero. After the War of 1812, spurred by the (admittedly exploitive) fur trade, newly arrived frontiersmen throughout the upper Great Lakes decided to live with the Native Americans rather than driving them out (as was largely done by the whites of the U.S. southern states).

What happened to whites and Indians in Michigan in the 1800s was not all good and should not be over-sentimentalized. It seemed good at the time (especially to the whites), and they took various actions to celebrate Native American names and culture. One of these moves was the decision by a group of Michigan Territory frontiersmen, in 1820, to name their new settlement "Pontiac." The village was located among a necklace of small glacial lakes and ponds just northwest of Detroit, where local Indians had fished and hunted deer. The village acquired official status when it was incorporated by the new state of Michigan in 1837. Only a few years later, in 1843, the sound of a locomotive steam whistle announced that Pontiac had become the first village in Michigan to enjoy train service to Detroit. Only 23 years old, the growing settlement was already in the orbit of Michigan's largest city.

Meanwhile on Mackinac Island, the memories of the capture of Fort Michilimackinac in 1763 were fading into history. The remains of the old fort were moldering into the sandy soil of "Old Point Mackinaw," and leading Islanders, such as Magdalene Laframboise and Elizabeth Mitchell, had united white and Native American heritage in their own persons. There was no reason to dislike Pontiac's memory on Mackinac Island, and a section of the West Bluff became known and pointed out to visitors as "Pontiac's Lookout." The bluff frontage was readily accessible to carriage and horseback riders, being located close to the farmers' road that the Davenports and Louisignons used to travel back and forth to the Island harbor and village.

There is, it is important to note, not the slightest reason whatever to believe that the real Chief Pontiac ever set foot on Mackinac Island. This, however, did not discourage the enthusiastic freelance writer Mary Hartwell Catherwood, who wrote many magazine stories in the final years of the 19th century that accurately observed Mackinac Island landscapes and fitted them into romantic stories of her imagination. In July 1894, the Atlantic Monthly published Catherwood's short story, "Pontiac's Lookout." This is how this blufftop appeared more than 100 years ago:

"Panting from her long walk, Jenieve came out of the woods upon a grassy open cliff, called by the Islanders Pontiac's Lookout . . . . The cliff down to the beach was clothed with a thick growth which took away the terror of falling, and many a time Jenieve had thrust her bare legs over the edge to sit and enjoy the outlook."

During much of the 1800s, the comparatively level plateau on Mackinac Island's blufftop had remained open and "grassy," its saplings barked and trampled by freeranging livestock. However, the islanders had allowed the Northern white cedar to grow and regrow on the bluff itself, and by 1894 the Pontiac's Lookout bluff was "clothed with the thick growth" that has grown even thicker in the years since. In 1895, the new Mackinac Island State Park acquired much of this bluff, and a strip of easement-land along the bluff-edge, where little Jenieve had sat in Catherwood's story. The trail built along this bluff-edge was named "Pontiac's Lookout," and that is what it is called to this day.

Meanwhile, life was changing in Pontiac, Michigan. Like many other Michigan county-seat towns located in the hardwood belt, it had developed a thriving business as a manufacturing center for carriages, buggies, and farm wagons. One of these wagon shops, the Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works, gave birth to the Pontiac "horseless carriage" in 1906; and after a series of corporate transactions, this and other car lines developed in 1926 into the Pontiac nameplate within General Motors.

As with Pontiac's Lookout on Mackinac Island, the car nameplate and its executives were proud of the name's Native American heritage. Some readers of this column may remember the old Pontiac logo that featured Chief Pontiac's silhouetted head with feathers streaming behind. In the late 1950s, GM expanded the Pontiac's engines (gasoline cost 40¢ per gallon in those days) and replaced the old logo with a stylized red "Indian" arrowhead, pointed downward toward the earth in token of peace. This arrowhead, which is distantly descended from the weapons borne by the great warrior of two centuries ago, would be the face of the Pontiac Division within General Motors for 50 years.

In April 2009, General Motors announced that it was forced by market conditions to shrink its motor vehicle production. This reorganization will force the firm to abolish the Pontiac car and nameplate, effective in 2010. Meanwhile, Pontiac's Lookout on Mackinac Island continues to look out over the waters of old Lake Huron.

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