Two hundred and fifty years ago, Major Robert Rogers and his rangers launched a daring wilderness raid against an enemy village, but paid a steep price
Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
As the men pressed ever deeper into the north country that first day, a French bateau patrol chanced upon a British oar floating in Missisquoi Bay—a discovery that, complemented by the Abenaki report, persuaded the French commandant at Ile aux Noix, Francois-Charles de Bourlamaque, to dispatch 40 men under his best partisan leaders, the veteran ensigns La Durantaye and Langy, whose formidable force had nearly annihilated Rogers’s at the desperate Battle on Snowshoes. In short order the French discovered the well-masked whale boats, took tomahawks to most of the hulls, and then burned the remains to ensure that no enemy could reconstruct that means of return.
The discovery spurred Bourlamaque into a frenzy of activity. A sizable party heading north from Missisquoi Bay would have few logical targets—most likely Chambly, Yamaska, or Saint-Francois, Indian villages that acted as a sort of defensive perimeter for Canadian France. He immediately sent a courier to warn the authorities in Montreal and the governor of Trois-Rivieres, 22 miles northeast of Saint-Francois, that Yamaska and Saint-Francois should be reinforced. He then moved nearly 400 men to the whaleboat landing. The trap was baited: the raiders would meet a warm reception in the north if the frontier garrison did not catch them first. Should they attempt to come back by way of Missisquoi Bay, they would be thrusting their heads yet deeper into a noose.
Oblivious to these mounting perils, Rogers and his men crossed the Riviere aux Brochets (near present- day Frelighsburg) and swung northeast. One or two days later, the mud-bespattered and gasping lookouts overtook the column, crying out the password and then articulating Rogers’s worst fears: 200 French and Indians lay in ambush at the whaleboat rendezvous, while another 200 had picked up the trail. All chance of returning via Lake Champlain was gone. “This unlucky circumstance . . . put us into some consternation,” wrote Rogers.
In an officers’council of war, he sketched out a desperate plan, which he acknowledged stood a good chance of failure. After ravaging Saint-Francois, the rangers would pass eastward by way of Lake Memphremagog, and then south to the Connecticut River valley and Fort No. 4, the northernmost British outpost on the river. He calculated that starvation would nevertheless overtake them long before they reached the fort (that way to safety being a good hundred miles longer than the Champlain passage), and so he planned to summon a relief party from No. 4 to rendezvous 60 miles up the Connecticut at the west-bank infall of the Wells River. Hard though the prospect was, the officers voted to push on.
Rogers charged 1st Lt. Andrew McMullen, who had gone lame, to carry an outline of the Wells plan to Amherst, “that being the way I should return, if at all.” McMullen left shortly thereafter at the head of six rangers.
On they struggled north-northeast through the spruce bogs that laced southern Quebec. As the men forded cold, dark water the color of long- steeped tea, each step proved treacherous. Submerged unseen branches, roots, and logs ripped at moccasins and stubbed now-numb toes. Sleep proved difficult because “we had no way to secure ourselves from the water.” They cut saplings and laid them down, overlaid by boughs and leaves “in Form of a raft” or “a kind of hammocks” on which they could grab a few hours of dreamless rest.
For nine days they trudged, beginning before dark and camping well after dusk, gaining less than 10 miles a day however great their effort. In the pervasive wet and cold, toenails dropped off, and despite the best efforts to keep feet dry, the first signs of trench foot became painfully manifest. And the tannin-rich water also induced painful stomach cramps.
Yet Rogers’s plan worked. La Durantaye’s 200 pursuers could not keep going against the bogs and frigid weather with Rogers’s head start. Quitting the drowned lands, they swung westward over dry ground, then drove north, intending to catch the invaders as they emerged from this difficult country.
Between the spruce wetlands and the northward-running Richelieu River flows the Yamaska, a natural water highway and marker through the forest that led directly to the Abenaki village of Saint-Michel d’Yamaska, known to the English as Wigwam Martinique, some half-dozen miles south of where that river falls into the St. Lawrence. None of the French or Indians could imagine that an alien raiding party might venture through this wilderness without keeping to its course—which made Wigwam Martinique the logical target.
Should such a force veer northeast toward Saint-Francois, it would have to cross the river of the same name. And nine days after leaving their boats, Rogers’s exhausted column indeed came upon that treacherous, rain-swollen watercourse, remarkably within a dozen miles of their target. They would have to wade across the several-hundred-yard-wide river—a task, Rogers wrote, that would be “attended with no small difficulty, the water being five feet deep, and the current swift.” Realizing that fires to dry wet clothes, a necessity in the chill fall weather, could announce their presence, Rogers told his lieutenants to have the men strip and bundle their clothes into their packs and carry them as high as possible on their necks and shoulders.
Rogers motioned forward the corps’s tallest man; he would step sideways into the river, facing upstream. Another large man behind him grabbed his waist, and behind him another, forming a human chain. Slowly they sidestepped across the torrent, occasionally losing purchase on the slippery and unsecured rocks. At times the current broke a man’s grip and threatened to send the hard- pressed line spilling downriver behind him. But somehow they held on and made it across.