- 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
On the second day they nearly shot right over the roaring White Falls (near today’s Wilder, Vermont), only narrowly escaping by throwing themselves into the water and thrashing ashore. The raft crashed over and broke into pieces, which the current dragged out of reach downriver. The sodden, exhausted crew worked their way around the boiling whitewater. Rogers sent Ogden and the other ranger off after red squirrels, while he and Sabbatis set about building a new raft—a challenging enough task even with adequate tools. The pair built fires around the bases of several pine trees and by sheer application brought them toppling down. Then they renewed the fire to divide the logs into roughly equal lengths.
The hunters returned with a “partridge”—either a ruffed or spruce grouse—and that scrap of sustenance gave them barely enough strength to try again. The following day, the fourth since they had set out, they bound the logs together, probably with spruce roots, again risking the river’s power.
The roar of Ottaquechee Falls, 50 yards of pounding cataracts, alerted the dazed foursome just in time to make it ashore. Rogers and Ogden reviewed the situation. In his journals Rogers put it simply: they would not have been “able to make a third raft in case we had lost this one.” Their only chance—a steep gamble in itself—lay in getting it down the rapids. Rogers stumbled over to a bush, probably beaked hazel, pulled out his long knife, and harvested dozens of thin, wiry stems. By knotting the ends one to another, the men slowly braided a strong rope and hitched one end to the logs.
Ogden, the other ranger, and Sabbatis stared with the nearly total apathy of the starving as their leader crabbed down the embankment to the bottom of the falls. They could no longer hear one another, but Rogers waved his arm, and Ogden pushed the raft out into the current. He kept a drag on the current’s power with the hazel rope while guiding it as best as he could through the tangle of rocks. At the bottom Rogers prepared “to swim in and board it when it came down, and if possible paddle it ashore.” The raft bounced, bumped, and tumbled through the rapids, remarkably without coming apart. As it drew nearer, Rogers built up what head of steam he could and jumped into the icy water, kicking toward it as hard as he could.
“I had the good fortune to succeed,” he later wrote with characteristic understatement. The raft’s worn-out complement then worked their way toward the shivering Rogers as he lay collapsed on the rocky shore beside the crude craft. The next morning they reboarded and once more shot downriver. Near Fort No. 4 they encountered woodcutters, who at first refused to believe that this haggard remnant could be the lead detail of a fine force that only a few weeks before had dared the wilderness. The workmen helped the survivors back to Fort No. 4, where one anonymous observer noted that the major “was scarcely able to walk after his fatigues.”
At Rogers’s steely insistence that a provision canoe must leave immediately, a detachment pushed off upstream within a half-hour. It reached Grant’s party four days later, on exactly the promised tenth day after the rafters had pushed off. Despite his own exhaustion, Rogers coordinated other canoes to probe for survivors along the Ammonoosuc, dispatched couriers to the Suncook and Pena- cook settlements on the Merrimack with instructions to supply provisions to any rangers who might straggle in, and wrote up his report to Amherst.
All told, 63 survivors somehow made their way to Fort No. 4, and another 17 to Crown Point. Dumas’s partisans and the bereft people of Saint-Francois had killed 18 rangers; nearly a dozen known prisoners had disappeared; and starvation had claimed some two dozen more, several during Rogers’s desperate passage of the Connecticut.
Rogers calculated that he had lost three officers and 46 privates. The overall number may have been slightly higher, but clearly about a third of the 142-man command that had struck Saint-Francois had not returned—rather more than 50 percent of the number they had killed.
In April 1760 Rogers, still weak from the ordeal, traveled to Crown Point for the court martial of Lieutenant Stevens for “Neglect of Duty upon a Detachment to Wells’s River in October last,” before which he testified under oath that had Stevens “delayed but a day, or even some hours longer he would have saved the Lives of a Number of his party, who Perished in the Woods.” Rogers’s gaze set grimly on Stevens. By flouting his corps’s prime directive of complete loyalty and never giving up on one’s comrades, this weak-spined subaltern had doomed many good men to slow deaths.
The court found Stevens guilty and cashiered him “a poor reward, however,” wrote Rogers, “for the distresses and anguish thereby occasioned to so many brave men, to some of which it proved fatal.”
The raid’s success lay not in the crude accounting of lives taken but rather in the psychology of two whole societies: it had shifted the balance of terror. None of the Indian villages or French towns along the St. Lawrence could now feel secure against overland attacks. By this time, Britain had prevailed in the French and Indian War west of the Atlantic, but the final outcome of the Seven Years’War on the European continent was still unclear. Events there might force the British to return their Canadian conquests, much as they had had to give back Louisbourg in Nova Scotia in 1745.