- 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
Rogers kept flanking parties and a strong rearguard at constant alert, assuming that a well-fed and vengeful pursuit force could not be far behind. And something else bothered him as he urged his ragged rangers along: he had seen precious little game as they threaded through the woods. While their sheer numbers might have scared off some animals, even the good hunters whom he sent out after deer and bear came back empty-handed. The column found only an occasional partridge or red squirrel.
His men weakening by the hour, Rogers reviewed the options. Near present-day Sherbourne his officers urged that the party be split up to make hunting easier. Even though Rogers had envisioned reaching Lake Memphremagog, just a dozen miles to the southwest, from whence they could find an easier way to the Connecticut River, he agreed. The food situation was dire.
Rogers had struck a devil’s bargain. Divided, the rangers lost the advantage of numbers they would have had against almost any force likely on their trail, even while they gained the ability to move faster, more silently, and less obtrusively. Would he regret this decision? All now depended on whether McMullen had made it through to Crown Point and arranged for reprovisioning on the Wells River.
Rogers split his command into “Small Companies,” each of less than 20 men, excepting his own. An experienced officer would direct each group, each carrying a compass. Rogers would take the least effective and sickliest, his group and most of the others heading toward the rendezvous on the Wells. Those led by Capt. Joseph Waite, Ens. Elias Avery, and Lts. Abernathan Cargill and Jacob Farrington charted a course roughly similar to Rogers’s, south and southeast. Ranger George Turner and William Dunbar of the 80th Light Foot decided on the risky but faster Indian war trail leading southeast to the Connecticut. Billy Phillips and Lt. Jenkins of the Massachusetts militia would each lead a party back to Crown Point, southwest through the Green Mountains.
Soon enough Dumas and his Canadians and Abenaki reached the point where Rogers’s force had dispersed. His scouts quickly reviewed the signs and counted three diverging parties, not the 10 at least that had set off. Quickly dividing his own column and surging with the energy of a predator, he began to hunt rangers.
Two days after Rogers broke up his command, Dumas’s men overwhelmed Dunbar and Turner’s group, killing both lieutenants and five men and taking three prisoner. Eight rangers fought their way out as the Indians howled retribution, then scalped, stripped, and horribly mutilated the bodies, pitching the now unrecognizable corpses into a nearby beaver pond. Eventually the shaken survivors fell in with Rogers.
At nearly the same time, Dumas ran down Ensign Avery and his detachment but bided his time, despite his men’s eagerness to strike immediately. He could see that Avery’s group had gone beyond the limit of their resources, the men stumbling along, eyes fixed on the ground in front of their robotically moving feet.
On the evening of the ninth day, Dumas gave the order, and a handful of Indians plunged into the midst of the worn New Englanders. One cried out when he locked eyes with a warrior only two feet away. War whoops rent the air. Completely surprised, Corp. Frederick Curtiss and the others could not even struggle to their feet; Indian hands roughly pulled them up and long knives slashed off their blankets and leggings. The Indians and Frenchmen tied them naked to trees with tumplines, except for Ranger Ballard, whose hands and feet they bound. Then the vengeful, bereaved Indians plunged their knives into him, delighting in his screams until he died.
The French leader, surging with the energy of the predator, began to hunt the rangers
Dumas’s party then scalped Ballard, loosened the legs of the living prisoners, and set out. Sometime that evening two escaped, eventually falling in with Rogers’s party. The next day the others came to a watercourse, probably the Saint-Francois, where their captors built bark canoes. On the evening of the fifth day, Curtiss walked into Saint-Francois and found five of his comrades lying butchered in the village center. An anonymous Frenchman wrote that “some of them fell a victim to the fury of the Indian women, notwithstanding the efforts the Canadians could make to save them.”
Meanwhile Rogers and his party had worked their way southwest between Lakes Magog and Massawippi and shadowed the eastern shore of Lake Memphremagog. At every check Rogers harangued stragglers with prospects of what awaited them at the rendezvous. Soon they broke into the rugged northeastern highlands of Vermont.
Fortune had not entirely abandoned Rogers. In a marathon of their own and suffering from many ailments, McMullen’s team had struggled the 100 or so miles back to Crown Point in nine days, arriving on October 3, the day before Saint- Francois fell. Amherst detailed Samuel Stevens, one of Burbank’s New Hampshire rangers who had risen through the ranks to a lieutenancy five months earlier, to march in all haste to Fort No. 4 with a dispatch ordering its commander to furnish him with whatever was needed in the way of supplies, troops, and watercraft. Stevens would paddle up the Connecticut to the rendezvous and “there Remain with Said party, so long as You shall think there is any probability of Major Rogers returning that way.”