Robert Rogers and the 1757 Battle on Snowshoes

An English military unit sent to scout the Champlain Corridor at the height of the French and Indian War spent the afternoon of January 21, 1757, fighting its way out of an ambush in a snow-covered valley near modern-day Ticonderoga, New York. The engagement came to be referred to as the Battle on Snowshoes. That memorable name contributed to the fame of both the unit involved and its leader, Robert Rogers, and his rangers.

This article serves partly as an overview of the Battle on Snowshoes. In addition, it serves to ask the question of whether Rogers’ unit was as unique a force as it has come to be remembered. Rogers is certainly a colorful figure in colonial American military history. But was such a unit as his actually without precedent? To answer that question, some background is in order.

Champlain Corridor

Looking north towards the foot of Lake George. On January 17, 1757, Rogers Rangers traveled over the iced-over lake and towards Lake Champlain and New France. Photo: Flickr

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Defining Characteristics of Ranger Units

While ranger units are capable of performing a variety of tasks, reconnaissance and raiding are their raison d’être. Both require the ability to move quickly, so ranger units are a notch above conventional military units and logistically light.

There are several examples of the reconnaissance function. First, patrols conducted by the mounted ranger units formed by the South Carolina Colony after the outbreak of the Yamasee War in 1715 are one example. Rogers’ Rangers operation in mid-January of 1757 is, of course, another.

Regarding raids, Mosby’s Rangers were a Confederate mounted unit based in Virginia well-known for their raids against Union supply lines during the second half of the Civil War. Moreover, the participation of the 6th Ranger Battalion in the liberation of the prisoners at the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines during WWII is a more recent example of the raiding function of ranger units.

Predecessors of Robert’s Rangers

Apart from the ranger units raised in South Carolina during the Yamasee War, were there any predecessors to Roger Roberts’ Rangers? Indeed there were, and this is clear without looking further at the Southern colonies.

Benjamin Church and his rangers played an important role in Metacomet’s/King Philip’s War in 1675–78 and raided into Acadia 20+ years later. Also, Gorham’s Rangers were renowned for both defensive and offensive operations in the French and Indian War before the existence of Roberts’ Rangers.

I think it should be clear at this point that Robert Rogers did not innovate a new type of military unit. His rangers, in fact, followed in the tradition of several colonial units that existed in the century before his own birth.

Read More: The March of the 104th on Snowshoes

statue of Robert Rogers and plaque

The statue of Major Robert Rogers and plaques inscribed with his Rules of Ranging on Roberts Island. Photo: Flickr

The Battle on Snowshoes

Throughout the late fall and early winter of 1756/57, Rogers and his unit were largely occupied with patrolling in the vicinity of Fort Edward, New York, and the island in the Hudson now home to the museum and monuments created in their honor.

On January 15, 1757, Roberts and some of his men set out for Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George. After two days spent provisioning themselves, they departed across the ice of Lake George to begin their reconnaissance patrol. They left the ice and donned their snowshoes on Jan 19th, beginning their movement into French-controlled territory overland.

All proceeded well for Roberts’ party until Jan 21st when they observed some French sleds in transit. The sleds were between Fort Carillon, at the head of Lake Champlain, and Fort Saint-Frédéric at the choke point now traversed by the Lake Champlain Bridge.

The rangers managed to capture some, but not all, of the French party. Then they quickly decided they should reverse course towards Fort William Henry in anticipation of a party being sent out against them from Fort Carillon.

Roberts and his men fell into the French ambush at about 2 PM that afternoon. Of his 68 men, fourteen were killed, six wounded (including Rogers himself, who was shot through the wrist), and six captured. The rangers and their ammunition held out until nightfall. Then, they were able to resume their journey to Fort William Henry, albeit the worse for wear.

Were you familiar with the Battle on Snowshoes and Robert Rogers’ Rangers? Please share your thoughts and insights in the comments below.

This article was first published on Dec 15, 2013, and most recently updated on May 20, 2021.

Read Next: Winter Recreation Therapy for Injured U.S. Veterans

Sources

Acknowledgment. My thanks to Ken White for answering my queries regarding the defining characteristics of ranger units. Any errors in interpretation are, of course, my own.

Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de. Adventure in the wilderness: the American journals of Louis Antoine De Bougainville, 1756–1760. Translated and edited by Edward Pierce Hamilton. American Exploration and Travel Series 42. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Ivers, Larry E. Colonial Forts of South Carolina, 1670–1775. South Carolina Tricentennial Commission Booklet Number 3. Columbia: Published for the South Carolina Tricentennial Commission, by the University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Journals of Major Robert Rogers. Reprinted from the original edition of 1765. Introduction by Howard Henry Peckham. American Experience Series, AE6. New York: Corinth Books, 1961.

About the author

Matthew Timothy Bradley

Born and bred in Southern Appalachia; currently residing in lovely Southern New England. Follow @MateoTimateo and my blog The Human Family; circle +MatthewTimothyBradley.

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4 Comments

  • No I wasn’t. I did attend the did attend the USMC Mountain Warfare Training in Bridgeport California years ago. The snowshoes we used were obviously the one size fits all and made for carrying lots of gear. Every time I strap on modern snowshoes I am forever thankful for the new innovations. Good article by the way

    • Hi Pat, Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and we’re so glad that you like the article. That’s neat that you had the opportunity to try military snowshoes at the USMC Mountain Warfare Training. Usually, most military snowshoes are about the size of the wooden Huron snowshoe so they are definitely made to support a large amount of gear in deep snow. I imagine that the snowshoes used in the Battle of Snowshoes were similar to the ones you tried, albeit with older materials. It is pretty amazing though to see all the innovations that have happened over the last several decades! -Susan

  • Was R. Roger’s responsible for unmasking Washington’s spy, Nathan Hale the spy school teacher. Can this be fact checked? Also, Washington refused to bring R. Roger’s into his fold because he didn’t trust his loyalty to America’,s cause. Fact check please.

    • Hi Matthew,

      Yes, Robert Rogers has complicated connections to American history. He was honored for his efforts during the French and Indian War (ended 1763) and the Battle on Snowshoes. But upon returning to America at the start of the Revolutionary War (1775), he was seen as a “loyalist spy”. Just recently, it was revealed that Robert Rogers did turn over Nathan Hale in the Revolutionary War and he was distrusted by Washington. This article focused on his work related to the Battle on Snowshoes in the French and Indian War, but you’re right, there is more to Robert Rogers and his influence on American history during the Revolutionary War. Thank you for sharing your insight!