The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844) 

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

At War with Pontiac, or, The Totem of the Bear was written by Kirk Munroe (1850-1930), a traveler and author of adult and juvenile adventure novels.

At War with Pontiac begins on the American frontier in the 1740s. By virtue of his wounds in combat Major Graham Hester wins an honorable retirement from the English army. With his wife and a handful of retainers Hester goes to western New York state and builds a large house there. He impresses the local tribes with his rectitude and honesty and quickly earns their respect. But when Hester’s son Donald is two years old, in 1743, the local peace is disrupted. A wounded native, pursued by another native, falls in front of the Hesters. Donald crawls across the fallen native, and before the pursuing native can kill his enemy, Graham jumps between them. The fallen native is Songa, the threatening native is Mahng, and Graham informs Mahng that under no circumstances will he be allowed to kill Songa. When Mahng tries, Graham knocks him down, and Graham’s retainers, hurrying up, drive off Mahng’s men. Songa is the best fighter of the Ottawa tribe, the allies of the French and enemies of the British. Mahng is one of the Ojibway, and Songa and Mahng had fought over a beautiful young woman, who eventually chose Songa as her husband. Truman Flagg, an experienced white frontiersman, explains to Graham that the local English military commander will demand that Songa be turned over to the Ojibway, something Graham regrets but, as a English citizen, will be forced to acquiesce to. That night Flagg helps Songa escape. The local Seneca tribes demand an apology from Graham for his treatment of Mahng, something Graham willingly provides, but Mahng rejects Graham’s personal overtures. One day not long after this Donald is kidnapped. He appears three days later in the spot from which he disappeared, now bearing “the tattooed mark of an Indian totem.”1

Fifteen years later Donald is a young soldier, well-liked by the other English officers. Both he and his sister Edith have spent time in New York City and were educated there, but both prefer the frontier. Donald has no girlfriend, but he had, a short time earlier, been rescued from the river by a beautiful Indian girl, and he remembers her. Donald is given a mission to carry a message to the English commander in Detroit, a long overland journey away. After Donald leaves, Graham is warned by some friendly French traders about upcoming attacks on the English settlers by Pontiac and his allies. Graham tells his commander about the attack but is mocked for his troubles. Graham is warned that Pontiac plans to demand a meeting with the ranking English officers and kill them during the meeting, which will be the signal for the general native uprising to begin. Graham arranges for a huge bodyguard of British troops to be guarding the officers during the meeting. This prevents Pontiac from assassinating them, but despite this the war breaks out soon after the meeting. Graham travels to Pontiac’s camp to confront him, man to man, and is taken prisoner by Pontiac’s men. To his surprise Graham is given good treatment by Pontiac, who reveals that he used to be Songa, the man whose life Graham saved, and that because of that blood debt Pontiac will not kill Graham.

Donald delivers his message to Detroit, and on hearing that the war has begun to the East he gathers together some English troops, including Christie, who has eyes for Edith (and she for him), and begins the return trip home. Edith is captured by the Indians, but Ah-mo, the Indian woman who rescued Donald from the river, saves Edith and brings her to Pontiac’s village. Ah-mo is Pontiac’s daughter, and Pontiac, on hearing that Edith is Graham’s daughter, places her with Graham. Donald is captured by the natives and is about to be burned alive when his tattoo is glimpsed. The tattoo is the mark of an Indian secret society, and no one will offend them by killing a man who bears their mark. The natives keep Graham prisoner, but he eventually escapes and resumes the trip East. He hears that his sister has been kidnapped and goes looking for her. Donald helps a besieged group of English troops at a small fort escape. After being captured and escaping several times more Donald is taken by Pontiac. Graham is eventually murdered by Mahng, who Pontiac declares outlawed. Mahng then kidnaps Edith and Ah-mo. Donald and Pontiac’s son Atoka pursue Mahng for months; when he is found he throws himself over a waterfall rather than face their anger. Eventually both Ah-mo and Edith are rescued, and the novel ends with Donald marrying Ah-mo and Edith marrying Christie.

At War with Pontiac labors heavily under the influence of James Fenimore Cooper (see: The Last of the Mohicans), down to the character of Truman Flagg, who was undoubtedly meant as a homage to Last of the Mohicans' Hawkeye. But Munroe’s approach is more muddled than Cooper’s. Munroe seems to have intended At War with Pontiac to be at least partially a rebuttal to decades of Anglo histories of the frontier. On page six Graham Hester lectures his wife about how

...if the time ever comes when those nations which we call civilized give over fighting, then even the red Indians may be persuaded to follow their example. As for their methods of warfare, they are but the counterparts of those practised by our own savage ancestors a few centuries ago; while in their torture of captives they are only reproducing the acts of civilized Romans, medieval knights, and the Holy Inquisition...the torture of New England witches is recent history, while the dismal record of devilish tortures inflicted by white men upon Indian captives is unbroken from the days of Columbus.2

Munroe repeatedly returns to this point throughout the novel. He is clearly making an attempt to inform white American readers about what their ancestors had done to the natives during the previous century, and that, contrary to what those readers had been told by a century’s worth of fiction and history books, both sides had committed atrocities, not just the natives.

But Munroe’s portrayal of the natives is not particularly enlightened. He does differentiate between different tribes, so that it is clear from the beginning that the Seneca are a different people from the Ottawa. Munroe’s statements about the folkways and customs of the various native tribes indicates that he did his research before writing the novel. But he continually refers to the natives as “savages,” has them saying “Ugh” in place of something more coherent or tribally appropriate, and ascribes to them a love of torture. In theory Munroe acknowledges that different native peoples had different cultures; in practice all of Munroe’s natives act the same. The combination of a condemnation of white injustices and a racist portrayal of native Americans reads not as a plague-on-both-your-houses pose but rather as a confusion of intent on Munroe’s part.

(On the other hand, Munroe does have his hero marry Ah-mo, a woman of the Ottawa. Such marriages were common on the frontier in real life3 and were sometimes seen in fiction–only of white men with native women, the reverse would not have been accepted by the reading audience–but are uncommon enough to be notable. Interracial marriage is hardly proof of benignity toward other ethnicities, of course, and there are all sorts of unpalatable symbolisms beneath the surface of most white-man-marries-native-woman pairings–distasteful symbolisms which are to be found in At War with Pontiac).

There is also an out-of-place moment late in the novel when Graham Hester, on being told about the secret society of the Metai, is convinced that the Metai are Freemasons and that “if the mighty brotherhood that encircles the world has indeed penetrated the American wilderness, then will we settle this useless war in short order.”4 The modern reader may not be aware that “a significant proportion of the Native American political and literary figures over time have been directly involved with the Masonic fraternity in one form or another,”5 dating back to the American Revolution and including the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant/Thayendanegea (1743-1807), the Seneca orator Red Jacket/Sagoyewatha (c. 1750-1830), and the Shawnee prophet Tecumseh (1768-1813).6

At War with Pontiac is hardly unreadable. It is competently written with some enjoyable action sequences, a good explanation of the historical background of the novel’s events, and enough romantic content to satisfy those readers who want their heroes to have suitable mates. But the melodramatic dialogue, more than occasional lecturing, and textual racism are likely to put off most modern readers.

Recommended Edition

Print: Kirk Munroe, At War With Pontiac. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.



1 Kirk Munroe, At War with Pontiac (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), 35.

2 Munroe, At War with Pontiac, 6.

3 “The 1700s census of France’s North American subjects shows that 50% of marriages were interracial. The most typical examples of interracial marriage in this period occurred between Indian women and White men.” Kaarin Mann, “Interracial Marriage in Early America: Motivation and the Colonial Project,” Michigan Journal of History 5, no. 1 (Fall, 2007), accessed Jan. 23, 2019,

4 Munroe, At War with Pontiac, 283.

5 Joy Porter, Native American Freemasonry: Associationalism and Performance in America (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), xv.

6 Those interested in the history of Native American Freemasonry should consult Porter’s Native American Freemasonry for much more on this fascinating subject.

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