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Major Robert Rogers, Trader

A re-publishing of an edited paper written by Josephine Janes Mayer that was  presented here in Ticonderoga ~ at the Hancock House ~ on September 15, 1933.  From our library archives ~~

“Although to present-day Americans the name of Robert Rogers is practically unknown, during the French and Indian War he was one of the most talked of officers in the Provincial army.  The exploits of his corps of Rangers were not only duly recorded in official military reports and favorably commented upon by his American and English superiors, but were also frequently chronicled in colonial newsletters.  On his visits to “York” he was pointed out as “the” Major Rogers, while to the little groups of merchants, traders and junior officers in Albany and in the various camps on Lake George and Lake Champlain he was familiarly known as “the Major.”  Albany merchants, moreover, writing to their New York correspondents for consignments of “brown beere” and choice Madeira, ruffled shirts and Muscavado sugar, took time to recount the picturesque or horrible details of his various engagements.  One of them, apparently with an eye to publication, was careful to add,  “this acct. is Genuine as I have it from Lt. Crofton, the only officer save one that returned and who was sent here yesterday by the Major with ye accot to the Commanding Officer.”

Albany, NY circa 1758

If any figure of Rogers has survived the one hundred and seventy odd years since his little band, with orders to “distress” the enemy, travelled up Lake George in the dead of winter and lay all night without any fire “by the foot of a Great Mountain,” it is the Robert Rogers of the Journals that remains – “a bold, useful man,” as a contemporary described him.  Yet, quite in keeping with the spirit of the times, Rogers, this New Hampshire man, was trader as well as fighter.  At the height of his military career he was shrewdly laying plans to capitalize his position and his reputation – Sir William Johnson had written to Sir Charles Hardy that his “Bravery and Veracity stands very clear in my Opinion & of all who know him” – and to gain through trade a more satisfying reward for his “substantial services’ than that offered by the slower if more glorious route of military preferment.

Robert Rogers

His opportunity came with the surrender of Canada to the English king.  Four days after the capitulation of Montreal. General (Jeffrey) Amherst appointed Rogers to receive the surrender of the western forts – “Myamis, Fort Detroit, St. Joseph, and Michilimackina.”  The very day he was handed his orders, Rogers sent word to Abraham Douw, merchant and member of the common council of Albany, that the Tour he had undertaken was exceedingly agreeable to him & he expected to make a Fortune by it.”  Douw’s clerk, Paul Burbeen, who had conducted some private business for Rogers in Boston the preceding winter and who had followed Amherst from Oswego to Montreal to have the Albany firm’s accounts certified, relayed this message to his employer.  The state of Rogers’ finances was evidently of particular interest to Abraham Douw.  Rogers, Burbeen went on, “ has with him the French Officer  that commanded at Fort DeTroit who has promised him about three hundred thousand wt of Furs at a very low price – and he desires that if he should have Occasion for any Money before he could see you that you would supply him & he will allow as heretofore.”

Sustained by this comfortable prospect, Rogers with two hundred picked Ranges and with provisions enough to last his force as far as Niagara, started up the St. Lawrence.  The little band threaded the dangerous upper reaches of the river in canoes, and embarked in whaleboats for the hazardous autumn crossing of Lakes Ontario and Erie.  It was an undertaking which made George Croghan, who joined the expedition at Presque Isle, exclaim.”itt is very Late in Ye Sason to Take Such a Journay Butt ye Business we are going on will Make itt agreeable anough.”

Old Fort Niagara Circa early 1900s

At Niagara the Rangers tarried but one day, for speed was imperative and while the weather held fair they must push on.  During this twenty-four hour stay, however, affairs moved briskly.  The leaking whaleboats were repaired and the Major, whose thoughts, evidently, had not been wholly occupied with military affairs on the journey from Montreal, formed the trading firm of Rogers & Co.  His partners were Edward Cole, Nicholas Stevens and Cezar Cormick, the four men being equally concerned in the venture.  Rogers & Co. promptly purchased goods to the value of (English Pounds) 3423 8 (shillings) 7 (pence)., and out of this store the Major stocked the newly caulked boats with provisions.  In the firm’s records this item entered under the list of “Seals” thus – – “To Major Rogers when he left this …(English pounds) 932-10-6.”  Treacherous winds and rough seas augmented the business of the new company, Captain Brewer lost some of his boats and provisions en route to Presque Isle and, to add to this, a supply vessel which was daily expected at that port was believed to have foundered.  The Major decided to send Captain Wait back to Niagara for more food.  A shortage of provisions at Detroit gave Rogers another opportunity of serving Rogers & Co.  From this post, where the commander of the Rangers lowered the fleur-de-lis of France and hoisted the English colors, the greater part of the company were sent back to Niagara with orders on Cole, while Rogers, with a small group, tried to push on the Mackinac.  Meanwhile, for his conferences with the Indians, George Croghan had bought lavishly form Rogers & Co., laying in stroud blankets, pieces of gimp, double bedgowns, coats, shirts, rum, wampum and vermillion as presents for the savages. In his report to Sir William Johnson, Croghan was apologetic concerning the size of his expense account but assured his superior that the “Greatt part of wch is Certifyd by Majer Rogers & Capt. Campble who ordered me to purchase y.  Goods, & See them Delivered.Captain Donald Campbell, with a  small body of soldiers, had accompanied Rogers from Presque Isle to Detroit to take over the command of that post, and he too made use of the Niagara firm.  His account for the Crown, supplies for the garrison, ran to almost (Eng. Pound) 500.  Rogers & Co., at the beginning of the year 1761, seemed to have a fair prospect of reaping a substantial harvest from the opening of this “upper country” to the English.  They were early in the field, they had the prestige of Rogers’ name and position, and they had Edward Cole, friend of Sir William Johnson, as virtual manager of the business.

Cole had served under Johnson at Lake George in 1755.  In the minutes of a council of war held prior to the battle of Lake George he is listed as “Lt. Col. Cole.”  By the spring of 1760, however, he had left the army and was setting up as a trader at Niagara. ”Mr. Cole”, wrote Sir William to Col. Haldimand,  “ye Bearer of this, who came lately from New York, and is now going to Niagra in order to commence a Trade with the Forreign & other Indians in our Alliance; as he is a Gentleman for whom I have a particular regard, I shall take it as a favour done me, any kindness you may shew him.”  Cole left Canajoharie early in May and by the last of the month was settled at Niagara, when, according to the account book of a merchant of the district, he bought three gallons of wine for (Eng. Pds.) 3 which was charged to “Col. Cole, Trader at Niagara.”  Cole did not, as did his partner Robert Rogers, lose the good opinion of Johnson.  When Sir William journeyed to Detroit in the summer of 1761 he “supped with Cole,” and five years later he appointed Edward Cole Commissary for the Illinois.  From Fort de Chartres in 1767 Cole wrote to his friend William Edgar, Detroit merchant, “I hope Detroit is the same happy place it formerly was, this does not suit my constitution.  Neither are the late regulations calculated for this Meridian.  Give my all Friends male and Females.”

Although Cole may have liked the robust life of Detroit, to which the headquarters of Rogers & Co. had speedily been moved, his relations with Rogers did not run smoothly.  When Rogers reached New York on his return from the west via Fort Pitt,  he made over his power of attorney to John Askin “ to ask, demand, and sue for … sums due me by Edward Cole,” and this scarcely six months after Rogers &Co. had been formed.  With this same John Askin of Albany he entered into a separate partnership, describing himself as “Robert Rogers Esq., now Resideing for the army.”  Askin & Rogers were to engage in the Indian trade.  Again Rogers furnished his name while his partner managed the business.

This new partner of Rogers had known the Major during his ranging service; Askin had been sutler to Rogers’ corps.  Askin’s kinsman, John Macomb, had come to American from Belfast in 1757 and by November of that year was settled in Albany in the army supply trade as the agent of Greg & Cunningham, New York merchants.  This firm, through Macomb, contracted to supply Rogers’ troop, furnishing the Rangers with “Short Muskets with Bayouts” Scotch bonnets (“the Rangers who can get them weare nothing else when they go out”), and stout shoes.  Macomb kept the officers of the crops in ready money and fine wines and handled their personal affairs in “Albany with discretion and tact.  Within a few years of his coming to Albany Macomb’s business had grown to such proportions that he took on as clerks his two young relations, John Askin and James Gordon, both lately arrived from the north of Ireland.  These men were sent to the camps on Lake George and Lake Champlain and in 1760 were made sutlers to the Rangers.  In the final campaign of that year they accompanied Rogers, well in advance of Haviland’s army, to Montreal.

Siege of Fort Detroit

James Gordon was given a clerkship in the new firm of Askin & Rogers and in the spring of 1762 was sent to Detroit to collect the debt due Rogers by Cole which amounted to some (English Pound) 2500. 20 Arrived at the frontier post, Gordon found that Cole had left for Philadelphia by way of Sandusky and Fort Pitt.  Gordon, travelling with Captain Prentice of the Philadelphia firm of Prentice and Callendar, followed Cole.  He journeyed to Sandusky by water and from there to Fort Pitt and then on the Philadelphia with Prentice’s pack-horse train.  In the latter town Gordon settled with Cole and returned to Albany by way of New York.  He had travelled upwards of two thousand miles – “a very, fatiguing and disagreeable journey” he described it.

Rogers & Co. was by this time practically inactive.  Its largest volume of business had been done in the first flush of Rogers’ enthusiasm and when his name had carried some weight with the commanders of the western forts.  Now, with the Major at home in New England intent upon other affairs and with Cole more concerned in trade for himself than for a company whose profits had to be split four ways, what little business remained had been put in the hands of John Askin.  From Stevens and Cormick he received the company’s packs of peltry at Detroit (furs brought in by various traders – the Newkirks, Lottridge, Alexander Steele), rode them over the Niagara carry, transported them in bateaux across Oneida Lake and down the Mohawk River and sold them in Albany or New York,  By the end of 1762 it seemed best to have a final settlement of the firm’s accounts and to dissolve the partner-ship.  For this purpose the two principals, Edward Cole and Robert Rogers met with John Askin at Newport, “Rhoad Island,” on March 11 of the following year.  The document signed by these three men for the company shows the share of each partner to have been (English Pounds) 975 17 s. 7 ½ d. clear of all deductions, rather inconsiderable return on the original investment.

Indian Trader at Fort Michilimackinac wgd – photograph

The firm of Askin & Rogers had a more disastrous end than did Rogers & Co.  James Gordon, after his successful collection of Cole’s debt, had been admitted top partnership.  Later in his life he congratulated himself that this fact had never been publicly acknowledged and therefore when the firm failed in 1764 he was not responsible for any of its debts.  It was as a partner, however, that he set out from Albany for Detroit in August 1763 with three boat loads of goods for the Indian trade.  “As rum in this trade was then strictly prohibited my partner Askin who was pretty much of a schemer had fifteen ten gals Cags made as tight as possible, filled with the best of spirits, so that it might be reduced when it arrived at Detroit.  These Cags were made up in Bales of Blankets, and other Coarse Cloths, to elude the discovery of them.”  Evidently Askin & Rogers were more in sympathy with the views of the other Albany merchants of that time than they were with the regulations of Johnson, the Indian Superintendent.  Seventy-two Albany men had petitioned the Lords of Trade that the prohibition on rum be removed since, they said, “when the Indians have nothing further to provide for than bare necessaries, a very small quantity of furs in Trade will abundantly supply that defect, Whereas when the Vent of Liquors is allow’d amongst them, it spurs them on to an unwaried application in hunting in order to supply the Trading Places with Furs and Skins in Exchange for Liquors.”  However the rum so craftily stowed by Askin in the ten gallon kegs was not destined to slake the savages’ thirst.  Gordon and his three boats were halted at Niagara by the news of Pontiac’s uprising and the traders were cooped up for several months on a low point of land between the fort and the lake.  At last late in the fall, Askin, considerably weakened by fever and ague, made his way back to Albany with as much of his unsold merchandise as he was able to transport.

During this border trouble Rogers had taken part in the relief of Detroit, serving under Dalyell when Amherst found it impossible to grant his request for a separate company.  By the end of the year he returned to Niagara and thence down the Mohawk to Albany where the news that met him must have been anything but heartening, for the creditors of Askin & Rogers were beginning to clamor for their long overdue accounts.  Abraham Douw, to whom Rogers had turned so hopefully in the fall of 1760, was one of the merchants principally concerned in the firm’s failure.  Among those who had furnished Askin & Rogers with goods on credit and who were forced in the end to pocket considerable losses were Cornelius Glen, Shipboy and Henry, John DePeyster, and John A. Lansing of Albany and Henry Agnew, Alexander Stewart, and Greg & Cunningham of New York.  As Rogers sailed for England in March 1765 to press his suit for military or civil preferment in person, Askin was left to face the firm’s creditors.  In 1769 when Major Rogers was on trial for mutiny in Montreal, Askin was granted a letter of license which enabled him to transact business for twelve months without molestation by his creditors.  Two years later the “Creditors of John Askin & Robert Rogers Late of the City of Albany in the Province of New York, Copartners” issued a discharge in bankruptcy to Askin reserving the right, however, to prosecute the said Robert Rogers who had “departed the said Province and gone beyond Sea.”

In the four years between his first voyage to England and the flight across sea to which his creditors refer, Rogers had received an appointment from the king as governor of Michilimackinac, had administered his post with a highhanded disregard of his official instructions, had aroused the distrust and animosity of Johnson and (Thomas) Gage, had been removed as governor by the latter, had been taken in irons to Montreal to answer a charge of treasonable negotiations with the French, and had been tried for mutiny and acquitted. Thereupon, shaking the dust of America from his feet, he had turned toward England where he still had some influence in high places and where the public was more favorably disposed toward him than was the case in his native country. He was not to return to these shores until the outbreak of the American Revolution, five years later.

Thomas Gage

The believe that Rogers as governor engaged in trade for his own private advantage is borne out by the letters which William Edgar, merchant of Detroit, that “swan among ravens” as an English officer termed him, received from his associates at Michilimackinac – Isaac Todd, William Maxwell and Benjamin Frobisher.  Men who had known the Major in the heyday of his fame or who had been connected with his ill-starred trading ventures clustered about him in the rude, stockade fort, hoping to either make or recoup their fortunes with the aid of his patronage.  Lottridge of the Indians, the Tom Lottridge of Sir William Johnson’s private journal, who had been a trader for Askin & Rogers, came to Michilimackinac hard on the heels of the convoy which brought Rogers, his wife Elizabeth, and his secretary from Oswego in the summer of 1766.  Tute, formerly a captain in the Rangers, was one of that inner clique of traders with whom Rogers had more or less questionable dealings – Tute, Phineas Atherton, Goddard, Stuart, Stephen Groesbeck and John R. Hanson.  Askin, struggling to work off his indebtedness, was operating in the Michilimackinac area.  Intent upon his own and the Major’s business he loaded his canoes and headed them towards the west.  Beside the Grand Portage he met the traders who had wintered amongst the tribes, a life which one of them described as that “of a down right Exile, no company But a Parcel of drunken infamous fugitives, and no other comfort of life.”

Sir William Johnson’s Council with the Iroquois

Hanson became Rogers’ right hand man, although he had been sent to Michilimackinac by Johnson as assistant to Rogers, the Indian commissary who was Rogers’ chief accuser.  At first under cover and later quite openly he had a share in the Major’s schemes.  He held a letter of attorney which empowered him to recover sums due Rogers “to the same purpose as if myself Was Pirsonally present.”  A note of hand for eight pounds sixteen shillings drawn by Phineas Atherton in favor of “Maddom” Rogers was later assigned to John R. Hanson by Elizabeth Rogers.  Another of Atherton’s notes, one for (Eng. Pounds) 178 13s. 4d., was first made payable to Major and Madam Rogers, by them made over to Hanson and by him endorsed to Rinkin & Edgar of Detroit.  In 1773 Alexander Lowrey, and agent of Rinkin & Edgar, reported to his principals that Hanson and Atherton had “”Gone to the Illinois.”  Hanson, in fact, departed down the river soon after Rogers was taken under guard to Montreal. He owed the soldiers of the garrison, the traders at the post, and the merchants at Detroit.  From Cahokia during 1771 and 1772 he shipped tobacco and slaves to the trading center on the Strait to pay off his debts, and he put in claims for a considerable share of the effects of Rogers and Atherton.  He is, he writes to William Edgar, “in the Greatest pain and Anxiety,” and adds, “the Lord Knows when I shall leave this Miserable Country I call it Miserable for two reasons first as there are no Troops in this Village nor no name of Justice established, every person pays when he pleases, Secondly we are so subjected to the insults of Savages – that you can scarce say your Life is your own…”

Pontiac & Rogers Meeting – 1760

Other trading associates of Rogers were no better off than was Hanson.  Stephen Groesbeck who had been accounted the richest trader of the region was now penniless.  He “has not a Beaver Skin nor Can there be any Payment got from him until he Returns from the Grand Portage to which place he goes in a few Days but Believe thers no Danger of getting it then.”  Tute, erstwhile captain of Rangers, was wintering amongst the tribes. He was reported to have cut off an Indian’s nose on the way out, but, Isaac Todd is careful to add, “not without good reason.”  Askin, still heavily in debt, was vitally concerned with clearing himself in the eyes of Sir William Johnson.  “I had the Honour of Informing you of my intention of living on the Old Farm of the French Priest near this,” he wrote from Michilimackinac, “(I hope) to prevent my living there being look’d upon either detrimental to the Public or Trade.  For should any Malicious means be taken to remove me from there, it would not only very much hurt my Circumstances, but (put) it out of my Power hereafter to do that Justice (to my) Creditors which I always Intended.”

It is a far cry from the hope and confidence which filled the minds of the four partners of Rogers & Co. when the Major, in 1760, turned his whaleboats toward Detroit to the humbleness of Askin’s pleas or the hopelessness expressed by Hanson.  As each new opportunity presented itself Rogers saw a fortune for himself and his friends just around the bend.  Each time, however, the reality was little more than a load of debts and a fresh host of creditors.  Rogers’ abilities were not those conducive to success in trade, and the men who sought prosperity under his banner found rather the reverse.  At a later period, and with Rogers a virtual exile in England, others were to reap from the rich Northwest country the harvest which the Major had hope to garner.

Seeking additional information on Major Rogers?  Two great resources in the Ticonderoga Historical Society’s library collections include the research material compiled by Burt Garfield Loescher on him and his Rangers; and, the multi-volume collection of the “Sir William Johnson Papers.”

The Society is seeking funds to replace this stolen historical marker ~~ can you help us raise the necessary funds to replace it this year?  Any amount is appreciated.

Support the Ticonderoga Historical Society – become a member.

3/11/17 – wgd

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