As You Prepare for Fort Ticonderoga’s Battle On Snowshoes Re-enactment: What You May Not Have Known About Bobby and His Buddies…

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Mezzotint “portrait” of Major Robert Rogers, published in London in 1776.

1.  Rogers’ Rangers were a remarkably diverse group

In spite of the French and Indian War’s moniker, not all Native Americans sided with the French. While the majority of them did, numerous tribes remained neutral, backed the British or shifted allegiances as the war progressed.

Robert Rogers had tremendous admiration and respect for the New York Stockbridge Mohican soldiers for their abilities as hunters, warriors and raiders. Thus, he pushed for their inclusion within Ranger companies. By early 1758, the rangers included three all-Indian companies: two of Stockbridge Mohicans, and a third of Natives from Connecticut (mainly Mohegan and Pequot). In fact, Rogers’ Rangers comprised men with several origins. Rogers’ original company was raised in central New Hampshire along the Merrimack River valley, but the rapidly expanding corps started recruiting men from other Northern colonies. Consequently, men of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, Portuguese and Dutch origin made their way into the Rangers. Two companies were recruited from the docks of Boston; Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts remarked in 1756 that “The best of their Men [are] Irish Roman Catholicks, the others mostly Sailors and Spaniards”¹. Among these men was Emanuel la Portgua who was killed at the first Battle on Snowshoes that year.

There are several accounts that illustrate black rangers as well, some of them free men, others servants. One man named Jacob Jones “was in Rogers Rangers three Years, and was at the Battle of Ticonderoga; [and] belonged formerly to one Daniel McCoy, in New York, who lived near the Old-Sly, and that his Master had given his free for serving three Years in the Rangers”².

2.  There is not just one, but three Battles On Snowshoes.

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Rogers’ Rangers during the 1758 Battle on Snowshoes Re-enactment at Fort Ticonderoga.

Every other year here at Fort Ticonderoga, we get the opportunity to witness the re-enactment of a savage battle fought between the British Rangers and French soldiers on March 13, 1758. Major Robert Rogers and his force head out on an extended scout in three feet of snow, wearing snowshoes, leaving behind a conspicuous trace for their French counterparts. The rangers make a brave stand against superior odds, until heavy casualties left them no choice but to retreat and accept their worst defeat.

A prelude to this battle occurred near Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga) on January 21, 1757. Similar circumstances were evident, in which Rogers’ Rangers were ambushed by a mixed troop of French regulars, Canadian militiamen, and Indians during a scouting expedition. Although the British had a distinct advantage due to their snowshoes, they were largely outnumbered, suffered heavy casualties and were forced to retreat under the cover of darkness.

Third time’s the charm, right? The final Battle on Snowshoes occurred on March 7, 1759 directly across from Fort Carillon, beginning with a skirmish line composed of Rogers’ Rangers and a number of Iroquois allies. They successfully ambush a French wood-cutting detail on the eastern shore and leave with five prisoners. This action marked the close of Rogers’ overall expedition to make observations of the French defenses on the Carillon peninsula, and to seize prisoners for the acquisition of information that would assist in General Amherst’s attack later that year.

 

Detail from Thomas Davies' painting “View of the Lines at Lake George.

Detail from Thomas Davies’ painting “View of the Lines at Lake George.

3.  Rogers breaks his own rules

The 28 “Rules of Ranging” are a set of rules and guidelines created by Robert Rogers in 1757, remembered as one of the first written manuals for irregular warfare in North America. Intended to serve as a manual for the Rangers, it seems that Robert Rogers himself was caught making remarkably careless errors on a couple of occasions. One instance of this occurred in 1758 near present day Fort Anne when Major Rogers and a Regular officer were firing at targets upon a wager in enemy territory, which led to their discovery by French troops. They were consequently ambushed, and Isreal Putnam, one of Rogers’ fellow captains, was captured.

But, we have to give credit to Rogers. After all, these rules have been passed down through the centuries to today’s U.S. Army Rangers, with each ranger still being issued an updated version of the “Rules of Ranging”.

 

4.  Rogers may or may not have slid down Rogers’ Rock

A common folklore concerning the life of Robert Rogers pertains to a factitious-esque triumph that he may or may not have performed during his flight from the scene of the near-annihilation of his detachment at the Battle on Snowshoes on March 13, 1758. While reconnoitering near Ticonderoga with nearly two hundred rangers, a surprise force of French and Indians hit them with a relentless counterattack. After 90 minutes of combat, scores of Rangers fell, and Robert Rogers made the necessary order for the small number of survivors to run for their lives. Following his snowshoe tracks southward, Rogers’ reached what is now called Cook’s Bay and proceeded to ascend up Bald Mountain to avoid the swarm of French and Indians gaining on them. However, what goes up must come down. In climbing Bald Mountain to escape his followers, he must also make his way down the other side. During this retreat the legend of Rogers’ Slide was born, of his escaping the pursuing enemies by sliding down the steep naked precipice on the east face of Bald Mountain (today’s Rogers’ Rock).

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Rogers’ Rock, located at the northwest end of Lake George

Now, sliding down any old rock may not seem like quite a feat. But this rock wasn’t named after Robert Rogers for nothing. At a height of nearly eight hundred feet, the east face of Rogers’ Rock is made of steeply sloping (60 degrees) solid rock, grounding itself at the shore of Lake George. Such an incredible exploit could easily be dismissed as impossible, if it weren’t for so many sources that suggest otherwise. It is not certain as to whether Rogers had company during this venture, as there is no clear record of indication.

But of course there are two sides to every story. One tradition describes this event as a solo feat of trickery committed by Robert Rogers. By backtracking in his own snowshoe prints, or reversing his snowshoes, he was able to fool the Indians into thinking he had slid down the rock face, when in fact he had found an alternate route down the mountain. Seeing Rogers walking far below on the ice of the lake toward Fort William Henry with no doubt that the only route he could have taken was down the precipice, they attributed his preservation to the Great Spirit and forbore to fire on him.

 

5.  Choosing silver over survival.

The St. Francis Raid refers to the attack by Rogers’ Rangers on the village of St. Francis, near the southern shore of the Saint Lawrence River, in what was then New France. The raid consisted of a select corps of rangers who rowed under the cover of darkness from Crown Point to the northern shore of Lake Champlain. They hid their whaleboats in the brush at Missisquoi Bay and continued north on foot, marching through spruce bogs and trackless wilderness. After two days, the men are met with unfortunate news detailed from the two breathless men responsible for guarding their boats.

Regrettably for Rogers, his landing had not gone unnoticed. A large force of French and Indians discovered the whaleboats and quickly began to scour the countryside in an attempt to track the rangers down. Several hundred of their men were stationed near the site where the boats were hidden to set up an ambush in the event of Rogers’ return. This left Rogers with a tremendously difficult choice to make. The reserve stores of food intended for the return trip were left with the boats, so to return home without facing an ambush, the corps must find an alternate route south, absent of supply. The only plausible course was via the Connecticut River Valley, east of Lake Champlain. By this route, they would depend on the stores of corn in St. Francis following the raid to get them home.st francis

Dawn of the attack, Rogers ordered his men to burn the village and kill its men, while sparing the women, children, and storehouses of corn. The attack was a success and the years of Indian raids on the frontier were finally indemnified. The rangers, as quickly as they came, left the burning village and returned into the woods for the journey home.

It soon became very apparent that missteps in caching food stores for the expedition’s use existed, as many rangers filled their knapsacks with the silver of the town’s church rather than the corn of the storehouses. Alas, it was too late to turn back as the vengeful war party following them was only hours behind. The rangers proceeded with minimal rations and the weight of silver southeast toward the Connecticut River Valley, which they would follow south to Fort Number 4. Soon enough, the stores of corn were expended and a remarkably cold winter the year before left little game to hunt. Root, bark, and berries became the main course of their diet, which was of little nutritional value to soldiers aiming to outpace their pursuers.

Aware that his command was in jeopardy of either starvation or annihilation by the enemy, Rogers ordered his party to separate into small bands with the conjecture that they would have a more promising chance of locating sustenance and a less promising chance of being located themselves. Unfortunately, many did not make it home. Some bands were overtaken, unable to resist the tomahawk or war club; others simply lost their way in the depths of the wilderness. Several of the men that did survive the expedition were driven to cannibalism. One ranger reportedly had many scalps in his knapsack and was caught eating the skin of his prizes. Another band found the body of a comrade stuck in a brook’s log jam and devoured it raw.

Rogers, what was left of his corps, and a few captives eventually reach home base after quite a few more hurdles and a valuable lesson learned: it may be beneficial to weigh the pros and cons before choosing silver over sustenance.

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French Soldiers during the 1758 Battle on Snowshoes re-enactment at Fort Ticonderoga.

As you can see, Bobby and his Buddies were quite the bunch! The Rangers’ unique military tactics in combination with dedicated persistence has carried their name through history. Here at Fort Ticonderoga, we want to continue this legacy by re-enacting the hectic 1758 Battle on Snowshoes, where the Rangers are faced with the merciless attack by Native American Warriors, French Soldiers and Canadians. On Saturday, February 21, from 10 am – 4 pm, you can immerse yourself in the rich history of an integral and exciting aspect of the French and Indian War.

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1. Zaboly, Gary. American Colonial Ranger The Northern Colonies 1724 – 64. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing, 2004.

2. Todish, Timothy J. The Annotated and Illustrated Journals of Major Robert Rogers. New York: Purple Mountain Press, 2002.

*Details also provided by Joseph Zea, Fort Ticonderoga’s Artificer Tailor.

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