- 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 wreck of Rogers’s command passed through great groves of American beech trees whose light gray trunks resembled elephant legs. The men grew irritable, agonizingly sensitive to cold, depressed, and simultaneously apathetic and easily offended. Game proved ever more elusive. Every so often they killed a partridge, but such small prizes could provide but little relief. The group took longer and longer breaks between marches. Many fell into listlessness, responding only mechanically to the major’s still astoundingly effective commands to get up and move along. By now he was pulling out all his tricks, harvesting oyster and chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms. The men scraped the exterior bark off black birch trees and ate the mildly sweet, wintergreen-tasting inside pulp.
As hunger gnawed at their guts, they doubled over on the march to find what little ease they could. Want bit so deeply home that they resorted to roasting the Indian scalps so recently taken as trophies and boiling their leather belts and straps, chewing the tough material for any ghost of nourishment. Some ate their moccasins and the nubs of candles they carried. They boiled their powder horns and drank the thin broth.
Some of the men in Lt. George Campbell’s group lost their minds and “attempted to eat their own excrements,” he later told a contemporary historian. After many foodless days, the spectral column, crossing a small river, came upon the horribly mutilated bodies of Dunbar and Turner’s hapless party, piled up floating among a tangle of logs in a stream running off a pond. “This was not a season for distinctions,” wrote Campbell, and the men waded into the water, so ridden by hunger that they tore into the raw and rotting flesh as though it were the finest dinner they had ever eaten. Their cravings somewhat assuaged, “they carefully collected the fragments, and carried them off.”
How far Rogers’s own struggling band broke the last taboo remains unclear. One rarely reliable source claimed that he killed an Indian woman and cut her into pieces, although killing so useful a forager does not square with his practicality. Another ranger, one named Woods, claimed that a black soldier who had died was cut up; he himself ate the man’s hand along with a trout he had caught, which “made a very good breakfast.”
For all these incommunicable privations, a map that Rogers drew indicates that he had kept a clear head. On October 20, some eight days after the groups divided, he and his party encountered the steep-descending Wells River somewhere near present- day Groton. The distance from the dispersal point was some 80 miles as the crow flies, but they had been compelled to travel considerably more ground as their actual course had pulled them first southwest, then southeast. Five weeks had passed since they had left Crown Point.
On a tongue of flat alluvial grassland, formed by the Wells’s confluence with the main river and cleared by generations of Indian farmers, they came upon a deserted camp, its fire still burning. The survivors, who had given everything to get here, looked at one another with incredulous eyes. McMullen had clearly gotten back with Rogers’s request for resupply, but the relief—with their provisions—had decamped at most only a couple of hours before. Rogers’s men fired their muskets in the air and hallooed with all the strength they could muster, but the wilderness quiet swallowed all noise, and they collapsed.
By cruel fate, the relief party—Lt. Samuel Stevens and five other men— had only just given up waiting after several days. What had prompted Stevens to abandon hope after so brief a vigil? The party did not lack for provisions. Perhaps they feared enemy patrols, or perhaps the still vastness awakened ancient terrors. Most likely, however, was that Stevens did not believe that even the great major could have pulled off so demanding a journey through such treacherous terrain, a bleak judgment so absolute that he had decided not even to cache provisions.
“Our distress upon this occasion was truly inexpressible,” wrote Rogers, “our spirits, greatly depressed by the hunger and fatigues we had already suffered, now almost entirely sunk within us, seeing no resource left, nor any reasonable ground to hope that we should have escaped a most miserable death by famine.” Still he pushed off to hunt, but with little effect, hampered by his own diminishing strength. The Connecticut, cold and fast, reminded the survivors hourly of the abundant food just 60 miles downriver.
After six days Rogers, rested but weakening further, decided to “push as fast as possible toward No. 4, leaving the remains of my party, now unable to march further.” A day or two earlier, he had gotten his men to fell uniformly sized pine trees with their tomahawks, then cut them to length to form a craft capable of supporting three men and a boy. Others of the unit dug up stringy but tough spruce roots, with which he bound the logs together near the water’s edge. He selected Captain Ogden, an unnamed ranger, and the part-Indian boy Sabbatis, taken from Saint-Francois.
He left a Lieutenant Grant in command of the withering remnant, reiterating the importance of keeping the men somehow occupied. He had already taught Grant where to look for groundnuts (Apios americana), a climbing perennial vine that carries large starchy tubers, which boiled or roasted taste like potatoes. Indians often planted them in wet ground near their settlements, and thus a good many of the Saint- Francois raiders probably owed their lives to the people they had set out to kill.
Solemnly pledging to return within 10 days, the major gathered his three companions and pushed off with makeshift paddles that “we had made out of small trees, or spires split and hewed.” The current bore them swiftly away; at first they spun in circles, fast learning how to keep in the midline of the river and avoid obstacles.