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Friday, October 9, 2009

October 1759 Rogers Rangers

Robert Rogers, known among the Abenakis as the White Devil was a skilled frontier fighter who led his Rangers against the native village of St Francis in October, 1759.
This Highway Historical Marker on Route 10 south of Woodsville reminds area residents of the wilderness ordeal that took place 250 years ago this month as Rogers and some of this Rangers struggled to reach Fort Number 4 60 miles to the south.

The meadows at the junction of the Waits and Connecticut rivers was the scene of the slaying o f a deer by Capt. Joseph Wait on October 20, 1759. He left a portion for other rangers and carved his name in a tree, thus becoming the first recorded European visitor to Bradford. (Photo: Nancy Jones)
The Connecticut River flows south of its confluence with the Wells and Ammonoosuc rivers between Woodsville and Wells River. In 1759, Rogers' Rangers followed the Wells to its junction with the Connecticut expecting provisions from a relief party, but instead found an abandoned camp with nothing left behind. (Photo: Alex Nuti-de Biasi)

Additional comment, April 2014:  amc channel has premiered a new series about spies during the
American Revolution.  Entitled Turn, it is based on Alexander Rose's book Washington Spies.  Robert Rogers is shown in a decidedly less than favorable role as the leader of a group of Queen's Rangers.  In the opening scenes of the pilot his men are shown celebrating the massacre of a group of young American soldiers.  

As published in the October 7, 2009 Journal Opinion

Two hundred and fifty years ago this month, the White Devil passed through the region.
He was Robert Rogers, known among the Abenakis as Wobomagonda, the White Devil.
With the beleaguered remains of a force that he led against the St Francis Indians,
Rogers was struggling to reach the safety of Fort Number 4 at present-day Charlestown, New Hampshire.

One of his captains named Joseph Wait reportedly killed a deer in the meadow at the junction of the Connecticut and the river that now bears his name, providing much needed food for the starving men. Young ranger Silas Aldrich escaped pursuing Indians and returned to live in Bradford.

What circumstances brought these three men to our area? It was 1759, a pivotal year in the struggle between Britain and France for control of North America. Part of that struggle was for the control of the waterway of Lakes George and Champlain. Throughout those wars, native tribes allied with New France constantly terrorized the English colonists.

The St Francis Indians were among the most terrifying. In his book White Devil, Stephen Brumwell states: “During a half century of warfare, the St Francis Indians had torched countless frontier communities, killed and scalped numerous men, women and children, and herded droves of shocked and bewildered captives back to Canada…they were a devilish crew and their village was a pernicious nest.” Rumors that the English might build a road from Fort No. 4 to our area, then known as the Lower Cohas “incited the Abenakis to threaten Strong War.”

There are many accounts of the attack by Rogers and his Rangers on St Francis. Brumwell’s book and War on the Run by John F. Ross are two, drawing heavily from primary sources and native oral tradition. Some are familiar with the event from Kenneth Roberts’ novel Northwest Passage and the 1940 film of the same title with Spencer Tracy portraying Robert Rogers.

Robert Rogers was born in Massachusetts and from an early age was involved in the militia. In 1753 he joined an expedition to mark out a road to the fertile meadows of the Lower Cohas, perhaps reaching Moose Meadow in Piermont. The venture was aborted. However, his military career was not. Rogers was described as a natural leader, “big, bold and articulate.” Adept at frontier guerilla tactics, he was willing to undertake dangerous scouting assignments.

In 1755 he was selected captain by his New Hampshire men and three years later was commissioned as major with a command of six hundred. This group of independent companies was known as Rogers’ Rangers. John Taplin of Corinth and perhaps even his young son, John Jr. were members of this group. Rogers developed regulations that outlined techniques for warfare in the situations facing his Rangers. Rogers’ Rules for Ranging have been used by US ground troops and Special Forces as well as private paramilitary groups.

In 1759, General Jeffery Amherst assigned Rogers the task of destroying St Francis. Rogers gathered from different companies over two hundred men along with native scouts. On September 13 they departed by whaleboat from Crown Point up Lake Champlain. Ten days later, having skirted French gunboats, they left their boats at Missisquoi Bay and set off for the one-hundred mile trek to St Francis.

It would take them until October 3 to reach their destination. It was a strength-sapping march through spruce marsh, ever mindful of possible attack. From the beginning disease and injuries reduced the force. Members left behind to guard the whaleboats caught up to report that the boats had been discovered by the French, cutting off that route of return. Rogers decided to return by way of the Cohas to Fort. No. 4. He sent word back to Amherst asking that provisions be sent to the Ammonoosuc River on the Cohas.

Luck was on the side of Rogers. His French pursuers turned back. Distracted by the crisis of the fall of Quebec City to the British, the French incorrectly anticipated his target. On the night of October 3, Rogers poised for the attack on the St Francis, having personally conducted a reconnaissance. His command had been reduced to about 142 men, in poor condition and hungry. The village’s 600 residents had also been reduced in number as many warriors were away fighting with the French.

The village was in the midst of a celebration, perhaps of the harvest. Tradition has it that one of Rogers’ Indian scouts warned a young native woman that the village was about to be attacked. Some inhabitants heeded the warning and went into hiding, leaving others behind. At 5 a.m. on October 4th, the Rangers punitive attack began.

With little defense, the occupants were massacred. Amherst’s order to spare women and children was ignored. The village was plundered for food and valuables and put to the torch, burning some inhabitants alive. There is no doubt that the Rangers were incensed by personal memories of Indian attacks and by finding many English scalps hanging in the village. “The St Francis Indians had now been punished for their cruelty.”

Just one of the Rangers was killed and seven wounded. Rogers incorrectly estimated that 200 residents had been killed. He based his estimate on the number of inhabitants he had seen the night before, prior to the warning.

Hearing from the prisoners that there was a large enemy force just a few miles away, the Rangers hastily began the two-hundred mile trek to Fort No.4. Rogers ordered his men to take provisions from the village, but some filled their packs with loot, a mistake they would come to regret.

Both Ross and Brumwell give extensive coverage to the retreat. Assuming pursuit, Rogers pushed his men through the unbroken Appalachian wilderness. Within eight days the party had reached the northern edge of Lake Memphromagog. The party was worn down by unrelenting fatigue, compounded by the hard trek and the fear of ambush. Rogers wrote in his Journal that “provisions began to grow scarce.” Efforts at hunting were unsuccessful. Hunger became so extreme that they roasted the Indian scalps and boiled their leather belts, moccasins and powder horns for what little nourishment they would provide. Loot was abandoned.

Rogers then made what Ross calls as “a devil’s bargain.” He divided his command into smaller groups of approximately 20 men each. One group would strike out overland to Crown Point whereas the others would try alternative routes south and east. Two of the parties fall victim to attack by the pursuers, with many being killed. It is thought that Silas Aldrich was in one of those parties, but managed to escape.

By October 20, the map drawn by Rogers indicated that group was somewhere near present-day Groton on the Wells River. Following the river to the Connecticut, the party came upon a recently abandoned camp. The relief party fearing ambush had, just hours before, retreated to Fort No. 4 leaving no provisions behind.

Rogers recalled “Our distress upon this occasion was truly inexpressible; 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 escape a most miserable death by famine.” Some later recalled that members of the party resorted to cannibalizing the bodies of their dead comrades.

Not all were so unfortunate. The party lead by Captain Joseph Wait missed the rendezvous at the Ammonoosuc and found itself at what is now Bradford. Wait shot a deer on the meadow at the junction of the two rivers. After the party had satisfied their hunger, the remains were hung in a tree for other Rangers who might pass that way. Wait carved his name in a tree, thus becoming the first recorded visitor to Bradford.

Rogers made one last desperate attempt to save his beleaguered party. He, along with two others, undertook a treacherous voyage on a rudely-constructed raft down the Connecticut. Upon reaching Fort No. 4, he had provisions sent north to his party. Of the more than 200 who had set out from Crown Point, 142 were involved in the attack at St Francis and only 63 survivors made it to Fort No.4 and 17 to Crown Point.

What then of Robert Rogers, Joseph Wait and Silas Aldrich? Rogers continued to play a role in the war along the northern frontier from New England to the Great Lakes. Upon return from a short trip to England he was appointed to an official position in the upper Mississippi Valley. Being suspected of trying to create an independent republic in the area, he was unsuccessfully tried for treason. At the outbreak of the American Revolution he offered his services to Washington. Suspicions that he was really loyal to the King caused him to be jailed, a confinement from which he soon escaped.

He spent the remaining years of the Revolution serving the British cause. He organized several ranger-style groups of loyalists. Wells History of Newbury states that in November, 1775, Rogers came to Newbury “under circumstances which exited alarm to all who knew the character and present relations of the man.” Well’s continues: “In May, 1782, Major Robert Rogers came into Coos with a strong force, and encamped among the hills back of where Bradford village now stands, and held communication with certain men of doubtful loyalty to the American cause.” As the Revolution drew to a close, Rogers returned to England where, beset by personal and financial problems, he lived out his life in obscurity.

As the Upper Valley opened to settlement by New Englanders, Joseph Wait moved to Claremont and Windsor. He became active in the Green Mountain Boys against both the British and New York interests. He took part in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. He actively recruited men, including a number from local towns, for Bedel’s Regiment and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel. After being mortally wounded at the Battle of Valcour Island in September 1776, he was buried in Clarendon, Vermont, his grave being marked by a monument erected by his men. Present-day Bradford was unofficially known as Waits Town in his honor until it was chartered as Mooretown in 1770.

Young Silas Aldrich also returned to the area. Drawn by the prospects he saw in the region through which he had travelled on his return from St Francis, he settled in Mooretown sometime before 1774. In that year he married Alice Collins and, according to Silas McKeene’s History of Bradford, they built a log cabin in the northern part of the town and there raised a family. He was described as “a man of even peaceable disposition.” He died in 1811 at age sixty-eight and was buried in Bradford’s Upper Plain Cemetery.

One can imagine the memories that Aldrich carried of Robert Rogers, the Rangers and the Pyrrhic victory that was the attack on St Francis as he lived out his quiet life as a Bradford farmer. Did he, in the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V, on its anniversary “strip his sleeve and show his scars” and remember the feats of the day? If he did, those memories, like many of the details of this wilderness ordeal, were either lost, subject to varied interpretations or changed by their telling.


  1. As a descendant of Gen. Benjamin Wait, brother to Joseph , I find the historical accounts of their activities to be very intersting as well as amazing.

  2. Hi there everyone, it's my first visit at this website, and piece of writing is genuinely fruitful designed for me, keep up posting these types of content.
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  3. I became fascinated with the raid on St. Francis more than 30 years ago, after reading "Northwest Passage"--enough so that I did my best to visit the sites of the beginning and end of the voyage back in fall of 1997. Thank you for a little more background as to the fates of some of the men who survived!

  4. I have always been fascinated by Roger's Rangers, but Roger's himself does not seem to be a man of much integrity - but he must be given credit for his ability to survive in the country and culture he knew so well

  5. Joseph Wait is my 9th Uncle His brother Benjamin Wait of Waitsfield,Vt is my 9th Grandfather who also was with Roger,Benjamin became a Maj.General,My name is Bert Johnson of Dalton,N.H. thank you