- Historic Sites
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
The northern shore, soft but firm underfoot, proved a godsend to the shivering force. After several hours of marching with the sun drawing close to the horizon, Rogers shinnied up a tree and spotted smoke from cooking fires to the northwest, only five or six miles distant. That evening they closed to within two and a half miles of Saint-Francois.
As the gray light began to kiss the tall riverbank pines half an hour before sunrise, shadowy figures filed silently to crouch by front doors and alongside the embankment paths leading to the water. The struggling dawn revealed the grisly presence of some 600 or 700 scalps swaying in the light breeze atop trophy poles; some even hung above the white-painted Jesuit church.
Almost predictably, a musket discharged by accident, precipitating the attack. Yet Rogers’s men worked with grim efficiency, bursting down doors, and “shot some as they lay in bed, while others attempting to flee by back Ways, were tomahawked or run thro’ with Bayonets,” reported the Boston Gazette with dispassionate relish. The tribe’s tradition says that some warriors defended the thick-walled council house to the death. “The major, who was never known to be idle in such an Affair, was in every Part of the Engagement encouraging his Men and giving Directions,” declared the New-York Gazette .
Some dozen villagers fled down the embankment toward their beached canoes, but “about forty of my people pursued them, who destroyed such as attempted to make their escape that way, and sunk both them and their boats.” Oral tradition reports that the early sun caught the hat ornament of Abenaki elder Obomsawin just short of the farther shore, and a sharpshooter struck him dead. The disorienting fusillade and clamoring burst upon the Indians as though their winged spirit Bmola had swept through the village on an ill wind.
In a quarter of an hour or so the action ended, the attack “done with so much alacrity by both the officers and men, that the enemy had not time to recover themselves, or take arms for their own defense, till they were chiefly destroyed.” A chief’s two young sons had fallen to their knees crying “Quarter!” the only word they knew in English. The clamor subsided, and a handful of rangers stood with hot gun barrels and bloody bayonets and tomahawks, half incredulous at their success and braced against a counterattack that never came. Several emerged from the French church, one brandishing a 10- pound silver statue of the Madonna over his head in triumph. Inside they had torn tapestries from the walls and trampled the Host underfoot.
A little after sunrise, Rogers ordered all but three corncribs torched. Now some of the villagers hiding in the cellars or lofts streamed out, the women and children joining a small huddle of terrified prisoners; but others chose to die in the flames. The rangers heard fierce death chants from within.
The prisoners claimed that a 300- man enemy party lay in wait only four miles distant. Rogers ordered his men to stuff their packs with corn and warned against filling valuable space with loot, but many did not listen. They would pay for their greed.
In the afternoon of October 5, the day after Saint-Francois burned, 38-year old Jean-Daniel Dumas and 60 French Canadian militiamen from Trois-Rivieres, 16 miles to the northeast, dogtrotted into the ruined town. Some of the dead lay prepared for burial, rolled full-length in bark bound with cord. A wild-eyed figure in a heavy black wool cassock ran up to the belated rescuers. The settlement’s cure, Father Pierre-Joseph-Antoine Roubaud, could barely contain his fury at those who had defiled his church and burnt his parsonage. One detail of Roubaud’s tirade stopped Dumas short. The priest repeated that the rangers had carried off Nanamaghemet, or Marie-Jeanne Gill, the wife of the white chief Jean-Louis Gill of Saint- Francois, and their two sons, Antoine and Sabbatis.
This complicated matters. While his own small force could catch up fairly easily with Rogers, Dumas now had to move with unusual care for fear of putting the hostages at grave risk.
Dumas was no stranger to battle or strategic raiding; his savvy leadership and quick thinking had turned certain defeat into a stunning victory when Braddock’s army had knocked into them outside Fort Duquesne in 1755. A skilled orchestrator of Indian warfare, Dumas had long bedeviled British settlements. The bitter surviving Abenaki braves needed little encouragement to go with Dumas. The women were already at work grinding dried corn and forming the flour into bear-grease cakes. Unlike barely digestible raw dried corn, sagamite was a perfect food for traveling.
Rogers’s party, now swelled by six Abenaki women and boys and five newly unbound prisoners, had pushed southeast, paralleling the river but this time a mile more distant, so as to avoid hunting parties returning home. The men packed their cheeks with kernels of dried corn, letting their saliva soften the hard grain, the better to chew and digest it. At their infrequent halts they spat the mulch into their canteens for further soaking.
By the third or fourth day, after plodding some 30 miles, the strained command found the topography beginning to grow uneven and rugged as they entered the western flanks of the Appalachians. Rogers kept off game trails, so the going proved hard—clipping into ravines, negotiating the canopies of large blowdowns, pushing up steep inclines. Three weeks on the march with only a few hours’respite at Saint-Francois were starting to take their toll on speed and fitness. Long drenching downpours did little to improve morale.