Rogers Resurgent 

When I was in college I read Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” probably just to see what all the fuss was about, and came away from the experience understanding why it was a publishing phenomenon in its day and why, despite evoking some controversy, it continues to be read and enjoyed.

On the other hand, the closer I draw to the end of Book One of “Northwest Passage,” the more baffled I become by the enthusiastic reception that greeted Kenneth Roberts’ novel in 1937 (Number two on the charts after “Gone With the Wind”) and by the fact that new editions continue to be printed.  Not that there’s anything wrong with it.  It’s beautifully written, the story is engagingly told, and it’s full of such vivid descriptions of the topography of the primeval woods and waters of the Northeast that I feel as though, turned loose with my blindfold removed at St. Francis, I would recognize much of the landscape while I made my way, scratched, bug-bitten, bedraggled and starving, toward Portsmouth.

Aside from its sliver of a soap opera concerning Miss Elizabeth Browne, “Northwest Passage” is as linear and single-minded as Robert Rogers’ plan of attack on the Abenaki stronghold at St. Francis.  His Rangers make a harrowing trek over boggy terrain, outnumbered by an enemy nipping at their heels, arrive at St. Francis cold, hungry and haggard, annihilate most of an Abenaki village in a surprise attack at dawn, then dash away before they can be trapped by their pursuers, only to make an even more grueling march to a fort where provisions are supposed to be waiting.  That’s the essence of the story:  Marching, hunger, a massacre, a few atrocities, more marching, survivors pressed even closer to the brink of starvation, a flirtation with cannibalism, and finally, in the nick of time, salvation.  

The march on St. Francis must have caught the French and their Indian allies napping because it should have been impossible, and it very nearly was.  Almost as audacious as the raid itself, was the notion of turning the Rangers’ ordeal into a best-selling piece of historical fiction, serialized in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post before being published as a novel.  Then, something even less likely happened.  Someone read the book and thought, “What a great movie this would make!”  Even more improbably, the 1940 movie was adapted as a television series which aired for one season of relatively wholesome entertainment (100% cannibalism-free, I imagine) on NBC.

My chief purpose for creating this website was to make a repository for information that is otherwise difficult to track down on the Internet.  You might remember that I started reading “Northwest Passage” simply to find out what Roberts had to say about Col. Zaccheus Lovewell, the brother of Captain John Lovewell, and post it here for others to see.  I met that goal the day after the package arrived at my doorstep, but kept on turning the pages because even after 75 years, the hefty volume remains a lively account of the life of a Colonial Ranger and the perils and privations he willingly, even eagerly faced.  I’m also reading another book that serves that same purpose, but without Kenneth Roberts’ melodramatic flourishes, Stephen Brumwell’s “White Devil,” a nonfiction treatment of the career of Robert Rogers, centering on his raid on St. Francis.  The title of the book is the English equivalent of the name the Abenakis gave Rogers, apparently with good reason.  

A comprehensive but far more entertaining source is John F. Ross’s “War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier.”  Brumwell’s “White Devil” is certainly enlightening, but it’s also a very scholarly overview of the early conflict over control of North America, the sort of thing that might be required reading for a college survey of 18th century American history.  Even readers not obsessed with Robert Rogers, American history or even family history (Yes, Zaccheus Lovewell does put in a brief appearance) should have great fun leafing through Ross’s “War on the Run,” which as its name suggests, is a down-to-earth read.

Ross firmly anchors Rogers in rough-and-tumble Colonial America, home to stalwart patriots, but also flamboyant rogues who risked a public face-branding and ear-cropping for their petty crimes.  Robert Rogers, as anyone who’s read the outline of his life knows, may have straddled both worlds.  The day before punishment could be meted out to Rogers for holding a cache of counterfeit money, war broke out.  Instead of having an initial seared into his cheek and getting the top of an ear snipped off, the defendant raised a company of men, became their captain, and led them proudly into the frontier where they would all become American heroes.

In one of those quirks of history, as with that earlier celebrated figure from Colonial America, Captain John Lovewell, no likeness of Robert Rogers was ever made by anyone who saw him.  However, we do have Joseph Blackburn's beautiful oil painting of Elizabeth Browne, the Portsmouth girl who married Rogers in 1761 and divorced him in 1778.  There.  I’ve ruined the end of Book One of “Northwest Passage," and possibly, Book Two.

Mrs Robert Rogers (Elizabeth Browne) 1761 by Joseph Blackburn


© Dale Switzer 2023