Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

The Fatal Expedition of Colonel Rogers

One of the great needs of the Americans in the war of the Revolution was ammunition. Gun-powder and cannon-balls were hard to get and easy to get rid of, being fired away with the utmost generosity whenever the armies came together, and sought for with the utmost solicitude when the armies were apart. The patriots made what they could and bought what they could, and on one occasion sent as far as New Orleans, on the lower Mississippi, to buy some ammunition which the Spaniards were willing to sell.

But it was one thing to buy this much needed material and another thing to get it where it was needed. In those days it was a long journey to New Orleans and back. Yet the only way to obtain the ammunition was to send for it, and a valiant man, named Colonel David Rogers, a native of Virginia or Maryland, was chosen to go and bring it. His expedition was so full of adventure, and ended in such a tragic way, that it seems well worth telling about.

It was from the Old Red Stone Fort on the Monongahela River, one of the two streams that make up the Ohio, that the expedition was to start, and here Colonel Rogers found the boats and men waiting for him at the end of his ride across the hill country. There were forty men in the party, and embarking with these, Rogers soon floated down past Fort Pitt and entered the Ohio, prepared for a journey of some thousands of miles in length.

It was in the summer of the year 1778 that these bold men set out on a perilous journey from which few of them were to return. But what might come troubled them little. The weather was pleasant, the trees along the stream were charming in their summer foliage, and their hearts were full of hope and joy as they floated and rowed down the "Beautiful River," as it had been named by the Indians and the French.

They needed, indeed, to be alert and watchful, for they knew well that hundreds of hostile savages dwelt in the forest depths on both sides of the stream, eager for blood and scalps. But the rough frontiersmen had little fear of the Indians, with the water beneath them and their good rifles beside them, and they sang their border songs and chatted in jovial tones as they went steadily onward, eating and sleeping in the boats, for it was nowhere safe to land. In this way they reached the mouth of the Ohio in safety and turned their prows into the broader current of the Mississippi.

The first important stopping-point of the expedition was at the spot made historic by De Soto and Marquette, at the mouth of the Arkansas River, or the Ozark, as it was then called. Here stood a Spanish fort, near the locality where La Salle, a century earlier, had spent a pleasant week with the friendly Arkansas Indians. Colonel Rogers had been told about this fort, and advised to stop there and confer with its commander. As he came near them, he notified the Spaniards of his approach by a salvo of rifle shots, firing thirteen guns in honor of the fighting colonies and as a salute to the lords of the stream. The Spanish officer in, command replied with three cannon shots, the woods echoing back their report.

Colonel Rogers now landed and marched at the head of his men to the fort, over them floating the Stars and Stripes, a new-born standard yet to become glorious, and to wave in honor all along that stream on whose banks it was then for the first time displayed. As they came near the fort they were met by the Spanish commandant, Captain Devilie, with his troops drawn up behind him, and the flag of Spain waving as if in salute to the new banner of the United States. The Spaniard met Rogers with dignified courtesy, both of them making low bows and exchanging words of friendly greeting. Devilie invited his guest into the fort, and, by way of entertaining the Americans, put his men through a series of parade movements near the fort. The two officers looked on from the walls, Devilie in his showy Spanish uniform and Rogers gay with his gold-laced hat and silver-hilted sword.

These performances at an end, Colonel Rogers told his host the purpose of his expedition, and was informed by him that the war-material which he was seeking was no longer at New Orleans, but had been removed to a fort farther up the river, near the locality where the city of St. Louis now stands. If the colonel had been advised of this sooner he might have saved himself a long journey. But there was the possibility that the officer at the St. Louis fort would refuse to surrender the ammunition without orders from his superiors. Besides this, he had been directed to go to New Orleans. So, on the whole, he thought it best to obey orders strictly, and to obtain from the Spanish governor an order to the commandant of the fort to deliver the goods. There was one difficulty in the way. The English had a hold on the river at a place called Natchez, where, as Captain Devilie told the colonel, they had built a fort. They might fire on him in passing and sink his boats, or force him to land and hold him prisoner. To escape this peril Colonel Rogers left the bulk of his men at the Spanish fort, taking only a single canoe and a half-dozen men with him. It was his purpose to try and slip past the Natchez fort in the night, and this was successfully done, the canoe gliding past unseen and conveying the small party safely to New Orleans.

Our readers no doubt remember how, a century before this time, the Chevalier La Salle floated down the great river and claimed all the country surrounding it for the king of France. Later on French settlers came there, and in 1718 they laid out the town of New Orleans, which soon became the capital of the province. The settlements here did not grow very fast, and it does not seem that France valued them highly, for in 1763, after the British had taken Canada from the French, all the land west of the Mississippi River was given up by France to Spain. This was to pay that country for the loss of Florida, which was given over to England. That is how the Spaniards came to own New Orleans, and to have forts along the river where French forts had once been.

Colonel Rogers found the Spanish governor at New Orleans as obliging as Captain Devilie had been. He got an order for the ammunition without trouble, and had nothing before him but to go back upstream again. But that was not so easy to do. The river ran so swiftly that he soon found it would be no light matter to row his canoe up against the strong current. There was also the English fort at Natchez to pass, which might be very dangerous when going slowly upstream. So he concluded to let the boat go and travel by land through the forest. This also was a bard task in a land of dense cane-brakes and matted woodland, and the small party had a toilsome time of it in pushing through the woods. At length, however, the Spanish fort on the Ozark was reached, and the men of the expedition were reunited. Bidding farewell to Captain Devilie, they took to their boats again and rowed upstream past the mouth of the Ohio until Fort St. Louis was reached. The colonel was received here with the same courtesy as below, and on presenting his order was given the ammunition without question. It was carefully stowed in the boats, good-by was said to the officer who had hospitably entertained them, the oars were brought into play again, and the expedition started homeward.

So far all had gone well. The journey had been slow and weeks had lengthened into months, but no misadventure had happened, and their hearts were full of hope as the deeply laden craft were rowed into the Ohio and began the toilsome ascent of that stream. It was now the month of October. There was an autumn snap in the air, but this only fitted them the better for their work, and all around them was beautiful as they moved onward with song and jest, joyful in the hope of soon reaching their homes again. They aid not know the fate that awaited them in those dark Ohio woodlands.

The boats made their way upward to a point in the river near where the city of Cincinnati was to be founded a few years later. As they passed this locality they saw a small party of Indians in a canoe crossing the river not far ahead of them. These were the first of the Ohio Indians they had seen, and the sight of them roused the frontier blood of the hardy boatmen. Too many cabins on the border had been burned and their inmates mercilessly slain for a frontiersman to see an Indian without a burning inclination to kill him. The colonel was in the same spirit with his men, and the boats were at once turned towards shore in pursuit of the savages. At the point they had reached the Licking River empties into the Ohio. Rowing into its mouth the men landed and, led by the colonel, climbed up the bank to look for the foe.

They found far more than they had counted on. The canoe-load of savages was but a decoy to lure them ashore, and as they ascended the river-bank a hot fire was opened on them by a large body of Indians hidden in the undergrowth. A trap had been laid for them and they had fallen into it.

The sudden and deadly volley threw the party into confusion, though after a minute they returned the fire and rushed upon the ambushed foe, Colonel Rogers at their head. Following him with cheers and yells, the men were soon engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand conflict, the sound of blows, shots, and war-cries filling the air, as the whites and red men fought obstinately for victory. But the Indians far outnumbered their opponents, and when at length the brave Rogers was seen to stagger and fall all hope left his followers. It was impossible to regain the boats which they had imprudently left, and they broke and fled into the forest, pursued by their savage foes.

Many days later the survivors of the bloody contest, thirteen in all, came straggling wearily into a white settlement on the Kanawha River in Virginia. Of the remainder of their party and their gallant leader nothing was ever heard again. One of the men reported that he had stayed with the wounded colonel during the night after the battle, where he "remained in the woods, in extreme pain and utterly past recovery." In the morning he was obliged to leave him to save his own life, and that was the last known on earth of Colonel Rogers.

As for the ammunition for which he had been sent, and which he had been decoyed by an Indian trick into abandoning, it fell into the hands of the savages, and was probably used in the later war in the service of those against whom it was intended to be employed. Such is the fortune of war.