Essay by Tiya Miles, Harvard professor of history, excerpted from the anthology “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619‒2019,” edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain.
The resolution of armed conflict between British troops and a multitribal Indigenous fighting force in May 1763 depended, in part, on the ownership of one Black boy. Did the child believe his chances for staying alive and perhaps gaining freedom were greater in his current condition, as the property of a British officer? Or did he think he might fare better under the authority of the Indigenous political and military leader who sought to obtain him? Did he even know that his life was on the trading floor, as officials in the besieged fort town of Detroit negotiated a potential cease-fire in the altercation known as Pontiac’s War? Only a few words exist in the colonial archive to distinguish this child from any other in history: He was “a Negroe boy belonging to James [Kinchen]” desired as “a Valet de Chambre to Marshal Pontiac.”
Pontiac, the Ottawa-Ojibwe military strategist for whom this conflict was named, had risen as a leader of his people in the wake of the French and Indian War. This prolonged battle between Britain and France had erupted in 1754 over control of land and trade on the North American mainland. After the French scored several victories, the British finally prevailed, forcing the French into a surrender following the decisive Battle of Quebec in 1759. France and Great Britain negotiated a peace treaty in Paris that officially ended the conflict in 1763, or so those representing these imperial powers thought.
French and British negotiators had failed to include members of the multiple Indigenous nations who occupied the Saint Lawrence River Valley, Great Lakes, and Ohio River Valley lands that they had contested. The new geopolitical order hampered Native American negotiating power, increased British settler presence, weakened Native traders’ economic position, and contributed to the subsequent loss of Indigenous lands and lives. The British now controlled the region’s military forts as well as the European side of the lucrative fur trade, and they treated Native trading partners with far less respect than had the French.