Americans As Guerrilla Fighters: Robert Rogers And His Rangers

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As the fourth ice age of the Pleistocene epoch receded some eleven thousand years ago, an almost impenetrable forest of oak, elm, birch, maple, and pine trees sprang up between the coast of New England and the shores of the Mississippi. So fertile was the soil and so thick did the green canopy become that sunlight seldom penetrated to the forest floor, where ferocious beasts prowled and decaying tree trunks littered the primordial gloom. It was in this great arboreal cavern, stretching from Maine to Missouri, that Robert Rogers found himself at home. He learned the haunts of its game, the pattern of its mountain ranges, and the run of its streams and rivers.

Such knowledge, combined with a breezy contempt for conventional military doctrine, became invaluable to the British colonial authorities at the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754. With a band of carefully chosen New Hampshire foresters known as Rangers, Rogers was to evolve the basic principles of modern irregular warfare and give native Americans an unconquerable confidence in their own military prowess. ”… though it was the fashion of the day to sneer at the efforts of provincial troops,” wrote the historian Francis Parkman of the French and Indian War, “the name of Rogers’s Rangers was never mentioned but with honor.” Indeed, most historians concede that without a hard backbone of highly disciplined Ranger veterans, Massachusetts men would not have triumphed at the Battle of Concord in 1775, nor would the colonies have survived the first year of their struggle for independence.

The man chiefly responsible for their accomplishments was a powerfully built, ugly individual with goggle eyes and a strangely effeminate mouth. Through his mastery of the leaf-dark forests Robert Rogers—an unlettered son of the New Hampshire frontier— was to become one of the great romantic legends of the eighteenth century; yet in many ways the plain facts of his turbulent career overshadow the fiction that grew un about his exploits.

His parents, James and Mary Rogers, were Scottish Presbyterians from Ulster who probably left northern Ireland sometime in the late i72o’s. At the time of Robert’s birth on November 18, 1731, his family owned a primitive farm on the banks of the Merrimack, which separated Massachusetts and the virgin territory that was shortly to become New Hampshire.

When Robert was seven, the family moved beyond the existing line of settlements to a fertile new tract of land close by what is now Dunbarton, New Hampshire. But the newcomers were not left in peace for long. In 1744 France declared war on England, and the outlying farms and villages became constant targets for marauding Indians allied to the French. In the summer of 1746, at the age of fourteen, Robert Rogers joined the militia. He signed up again for the 1747 campaign, returning to his family with the winter. As the snow melted the following spring, Indian raiders once more cut deep into New Hampshire. In April they burned the Rogers farm to the ground. Though the family escaped, all the cattle were killed, and most of the fruit trees, tenderly nurtured through years of toil, were cut down by the Indians.

Young Rogers himself attempted to farm for a while, but between 1743 and 1755, he later declared in his Journals , “my manner of life was such as led me to a general acquaintance both with the British and French settlements in North America, and especially with the unculticated desart, the mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and several passes that lay between and contiguous to the said sei dements.”

Rogers’ purpose in making such long trips between New England and Canada is not clear, though some historians surmise that he was probably engaged in some aspect of the smuggling trade. In any event he enjoyed an easy familiarity with the American wilderness.

Perhaps it was on one of his smuggling ventures through this wilderness that Rogers met a convicted forger named Owen Sullivan. Court records show that in January, 1755, Rogers was arrested and imprisoned with eighteen others on charges of disbursing counterfeit money printed by Sullivan. The case, however, came to nothing, because the war drums were again beating throughout New England. Indians, led by French officers, once more terrorized English frontier settlements in an effort to deter further westward migration. As incentive the savages received sixty livres for every scalp.

Rogers came out of jail on bond and enlisted with the New Hampshire militia. Since he brought more than fifty men in with him, he was promptly commissioned captain and placed in command of Company One.

After patrolling the New Hampshire frontiers the militia was eventually posted to Albany, New York. Its objective was the great stone fortress of St. Frederick, built by the French at the southern end of Eake Champlain (at Crown Point) and a major mustering point for invading Indian war parties. By capturing Crown Point the British would dominate Eake Champlain, whose waters thrust like a gleaming bayonet to the very heart of French Canada. Thus, in a single successful siege, the British planned to move from the defensive to the offensive in the struggle for North America.