(HOST) It was just 246 years ago this week that a secret military expedition was making its way up Lake Champlain. Recently commentator Willem Lange had the opportunity to learn more about the men involved and what they were up to.
(LANGE) September 13, 1759…”You are this night to set out with the detachment as ordered yesterday, specifically of 200 men, which you will take under your command, and proceed to Missisquoi Bay, from whence you will march and attack the enemy’s settlement on the south side of the River St. Lawrence, in such a manner as you shall judge most effectual to disgrace the enemy, and for the success and honour of his Majesty’s arms….
When you have executed your intended service, you will return with your detachment to camp or join me wherever the army may be. Your’s, &c. Jeff. Amherst.”
That order was issued to Robert Rogers, a colonial major in the British Army Rangers. Raffish, rugged, and much romanticized, the rangers performed as scouts and rear guards, skulking and sneaking in earth-tone clothing while the regulars marched in formations of scarlet and white. This expedition was the Rangers’ most notorious exploit – mostly because of Rogers’ gift for journalism and self-promotion.
Almost 245 years later, twenty-one of us drove to the ruins of Fort Crown Point to begin an Elderhostel titled “In the Footsteps of Rogers’ Rangers.” We would retrace Rogers’ route to and from the First Nation Reserve at Odanak, Qu bec.
We carried two books. The first was Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War, an examination of the Seven Years’ War that ended with England in control of the North American continent. The second was The Journals of Major Robert Rogers, describing the perils of French-dominated Lake Champlain, the march north from Missisquoi, the attack, and the retreat to the Connecticut River.
We visited a ranger campsite near the mouth of Otter Creek. At the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum a reenactor demonstrated his clothing, equipment, and weapons. Everything we heard agreed with our preconceptions. We’d forgotten that history depends upon who’s telling it.
A hint of dissonance emerged a day later, as a UVM professor argued that the Abenaki were not savages, but well-organized and communistic societies being pushed from their ancestral lands. Their notorious raids were attempts to reverse the spread of English settlements.
After a few days, we reached Odanak. The chief greeted us. We toured the modern village and ended at the spot Rogers attacked that long-ago October morning. His journals say he found 600 English scalps, killed 200 Indian warriors, and injured no others. Our guide, standing by the river landing, claimed mainly women and children were killed, and challenged other details of Rogers’ account. A plaque to the memory of the dead underscored his story.
We journeyed from one culture to another; from one set of beliefs to another; from implicit trust of historical accounts to frank distrust of any. In the end, we found ourselves straddling several versions of reality, which we agreed beats self-assurance any day.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. he spoke from our studio in Norwich.