Ghosts of Rogers Rangers

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange likes to row on the Connecticut River, where he reflects often on the ghosts of former Valley dwellers – particularly on Halloween.

(Lange) I took my rowboat out onto the Connecticut River yesterday. Probably the last time this year. Dead leaves and brown white pine needles float in mats on the water. A few Canada geese and mallards still hanging around. Time to begin thinking of what comes next — hunting season and, after that, the snow. But this is lovely while it lasts.

The river is trammeled these days by dams all the way from its headwaters in Coos County, New Hampshire, to Enfield, Connecticut. But I like to imagine it as it was, especially on Halloween, and to salute the ghosts of people who died or disappeared along its banks.

About a million years ago several continental ice sheets covered the valley a mile deep. As the last of them retreated, about 10,000 years ago, cold-climate mammals moved in, with the earliest North American hunters right behind them. The dammed-up river where I rowed yesterday was dammed then, too, by glacial till. Lake Hitchcock stretched 170 miles from just south of Hartford, Connecticut, to Lyme, New Hampshire. The natives hunted and fished along its shores, and left only a few clues to their existence.

When Europeans arrived, about 350 years ago, they found the natives growing corn and squash. Trading for furs and then buying land, the settlers moved up the valley, inexorably pushing the natives north. European wars forced them to choose sides, but they were soon overwhelmed. Their bones and the barely discernible remains of their villages lie all up and down the river.

There are other bones here, too. In 1704 a war party from Canada attacked the English settlement at Deerfield and snowshoed back up the valley with about 100 captives, including women and children. They turned west at the White River toward Lake Champlain and Montreal. Those who couldn’t keep up were clubbed and left in the snow.

Fifty-five years later, a party of English Rangers under Robert Rogers, attacked the native village of St. Francis in Quebec. Retreating southward, they reached the Connecticut near what’s now Woodsville. If I’d been here on October 30, 1759, I’d have seen Rogers, two of his men, and a native boy poling down the river on a raft, headed for help at Fort Number Four in Charlestown. I never forget the date because Rogers reached the fort on Halloween, 200 years to the day before Mother and I were married.

During the 19th century, masses of logs clogged the river each spring as the drive came down from the headwaters. Dozens of river drivers perished in those annual events. Many were buried beside the river in salt pork barrels, their spiked boots nailed to a tree beside the rapids where they died.

All these spirits still whisper in the fog that cloaks the river in the early morning. I fancy they look up as they hear my oars in the water. We nod to each other in mutual appreciation of this beautiful valley.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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