Unfriendly to America? The Two Sides of Jacob Rogers

Spot Pond, Stoneham, Massachusetts. Photo by author.

 Jacob Rogers was scared. So scared, in fact, that he—a Loyalist and former lieutenant in the Royal Navy—traveled twelve miles to the Continental Army camp in Cambridge in a frantic bid to gain the protection of Gen. George Washington. In a distressed series of letters, he implored the Committee of Safety and the Massachusetts General Court for permission for him and his family to enter Boston so they could gain passage on the first ship to England.

Of what was Rogers afraid? What caused him— former commander of HMS Halifax[1] and a naval veteran with thirty-two years of service to the King[2]—to leave his wife and two young daughters alone in a rented house in the turbulent Massachusetts countryside in the summer of 1775 and cast himself upon the Patriots in a desperate attempt to gain their protection and support?

Rogers’ fearfulness was due to “licentious persons of the town of Stoneham … [who] have threatened to raise a mob and drive him out … to the great terror of his family.”[3] The townspeople, Rogers claimed, were “daily Insulting me and [my] Family, frequently threatening that if we are not turned out of the house they will burn us out.”[4]

Rogers’ landlord, afraid the “licentious persons” would make good on their threats, warned the Rogers family out of his house. Rogers’ wife and daughters “lived in the greatest terror and apprehension for fear of being burnt in their beds”[5] or “turn’d into the woods.”[6]

Prior to arriving in the Stoneham area, Rogers had been living on the Charlestown peninsula with his American-born wife and two daughters. On April 19, 1775, the King’s Troops—exhausted, bloodied and parched—retreated through Charlestown from Lexington and Concord, the dust kicked up from the battle road still clinging to their red coats.

Sometime after April 19, yet before the Battle of Bunker Hill reduced Charlestown to a pile of smoldering rubble in June, the Rogers family abandoned the town. Amidst a “great flow”[7] of inhabitants from towns near Boston, they sought shelter in the area of Stoneham and Reading, Massachusetts, about twelve miles north. Rogers’ home and most of the family’s possessions left behind in Charlestown were burnt and destroyed in the battle.[8]

Deeply unsettled by the hostility with which his family was greeted upon their arrival in the countryside, Rogers decided to petition General Washington and the Massachusetts General Court for assistance, protection and support. Leaving behind his family—his wife having “taken ill in [his] absence occasioned by the constant terror and apprehension … of being drag’d out of [their] beds every night and exposed to every barbarity”[9]—he traveled to Cambridge and penned a desperate series of messages begging for succor.

Rogers acquainted General Washington with his “disagreeable situation”[10] and informed him that, after the family had arrived in the Stoneham area, a man came to his house and insulted his family “in the grossest manner.”[11] He also claimed that intoxicated townsmen showed up at his house demanding that he come outside and submit to interrogation.[12] Bereft of money and fearful for the safety of himself and his family, he pleaded that he had “no other means left than to crave [General Washington’s] assistance and protection till an opportunity offers of getting home.”[13]

A week after writing to General Washington, Rogers alerted the General Court that a local woman “of turbulent disposition”[14] told his landlady that “if her husband did not kill [Rogers], she would.”[15] The woman’s husband apparently was a “remarkable quarrelsome person [who] on any slight occasion maim[ed] his neighbors’ cattle.”[16] To add to Rogers’ distress, some of his neighbors had informed him that thirty men had plans to drag him and his family out of their house at night and destroy their furniture and everything they owned.[17]

The situation in Stoneham was clearly reaching a fever-pitch; the townspeople grew ever more agitated with the continued presence of the Rogers family. Rogers himself was becoming frustrated with his failure to obtain a permit to enter Boston. He finally offered to put 146 pounds sterling payable at the Navy Office if the General Court would provide “an apartment or two for myself and Wife and two daughters with necessary support, till they with the concurrence of the general will please to suffer us to pass into Boston for passage to London.”[18]

Anxiously, Rogers waited for General Washington and the General Court to approve his application to escape the hostile Massachusetts countryside.

They didn’t.

 

Unfriendly to America?

Earlier in the summer of 1775, Rogers had petitioned the Committee of Safety for help in dealing with his tormentors. In July, the Committee responded to Rogers’ petition by issuing a Resolve that “all inhabitants of this colony be desired … to act peaceably and quietly toward the said Capt. Rogers … [he is] by no means to be proceeded against in any disorderly manner.”[19]

However, the Resolve did little to quell the “licentious persons of Stoneham”[20] as in late September 1775, Rogers glumly informed General Washington that the Resolve was “taken no notice of”[21] and he was still enduring harassment.

The Committee of Safety had based their decision to issue the resolve in part due to some “evidence having appeared of [Jacob Rogers’] good behavior while in Charlestown.”[22] However, in the intervening months between the issuance of the resolve and Rogers’ petition to General Washington and the General Court, Rogers’ “good behavior” at Charlestown on April 19, 1775 had come into question.

Members of the General Court had received word that Rogers had in fact provided refreshments and assistance to the King’s Troops upon their retreat through the town. A representative from Marblehead, Azor Orne, notified Rogers of the dismissal of his petition due to the allegations. “It appeared thereby you were unfriendly to America,” Orne informed Jacobs. “If you can evidence the contrary, would advise you to do it as soon as may be.”[23]

 

Charlestown

In response, Rogers submitted a statement to the General Court declaring that he “never gave the least refreshment or assistance whatever”[24] to the troops during their retreat.

In his account, Rogers described the chaos that gripped Charlestown on April 19. Knowing the only available route back to Boston lay through the town, many townspeople tried to flee from the oncoming soldiers. Rogers recalled “numbers of men, women, and children in this confusion getting out of town … I … put my children in a cart with others then driving out of town who were fired at several times.”[25] Rogers stayed behind.

As the British entered the town, Rogers’ own brother-in-law, fourteen-year-old Edward Barber, younger brother of Rogers’ wife, Anne, was shot and killed by the soldiers as he peered out a window.[26]

Rogers recalled that “all was tumult and confusion nothing but drink called for everywhere.” The soldiers passed through the streets “begging for drink,” which the people were “glad to bring them for fear of their being ill-treated.”[27]

Rogers denied that he himself provided any refreshments to the troops and he maintained that the inhabitants of Charlestown who did provide water were only doing so because they were in fear for their lives. “What refreshments they gave was not from Inclination but for fear of suffering from the Insolence and Barbarity of a licentious soldiery in whose power they were.”[28]

Piqued by Orne’s suggestion that he was “unfriendly to America,” Rogers informed the General Court that he had already been presented with an opportunity to show himself unfriendly to America—and had he truly been so, he could have demonstrated it with withering efficacy. In September 1774, the gunner of HMS Lively—who Rogers knew from his past military service—came to his house and inquired as to the location of cannon that the Americans had recently removed from the Charlestown battery.[29]

In the aftermath of the Powder Alarm, the people of Charlestown had feared that Gen. Thomas Gage would order the removal of the cannon at their battery as he did the provincial gunpowder held in the Powder House. In an effort to protect them, the townspeople successfully removed the cannon from the Charlestown battery and secreted it away from the British.

Sure enough, the British soon came to Charlestown in search of the missing cannon, “peeping every where to find them out.”[30] The Lively’s gunner visited Rogers at his home and asked him if he knew where the guns were hidden. Rogers claimed he told the gunner that “I thought he knew me better than to ask such a question, I was then an Inhabitant of the Town of CharlesTown and beg’d from that time forward he would never come near my house, which he never did.”[31]

Rogers did actually know where the guns were concealed, claiming that some of them were “put under a Dungheap” near his stable.”[32]

Indignant that his cooperative silence about the cannon was overlooked, Rogers couldn’t seem to resist getting in a jab at the Patriots. Had he revealed the location of the cannon, he fumed in a letter to the General Court, he could have been handsomely rewarded for it rather than living in “constant dread and terror of myself and my family being nightly assassinated as we are at present.”[33]

Rogers’ resentment is understandable. How frustrating for the former Royal Navy lieutenant to have maintained his silence concerning the sought-after cannon only to later find himself threatened, insulted, and practically run out of town by those who benefitted from his reticence. It is nearly enough to stir the sympathy of even the most ardent patriot. Until, that is, one reads the memorial Rogers submitted to Parliament in 1783.

 

The Memorial to Parliament

By December 1783, from across the vast expanse of the North Atlantic, the tumult of the war had faded and the accusatory voices of the Stoneham men could no longer reach Rogers’ ears. Now safely ensconced in his home in Lambeth Marsh, London, out of which he presumably was not in fear of being burnt, Rogers submitted a statement to the parliamentary board of commissioners responsible for assessing the losses of the Loyalists in America.

His memorial to Parliament in which he described the actions he took in Charlestown on April 19, 1775 stands in startling contrast with the account he provided to the Massachusetts General Court in October 1775 in which he refuted the charge of providing aid to the retreating British troops.

In his memorial, Rogers stated that he “gave every relief and assistance in his power … to his Majesties’ troops on their retreat to Charles Town in refreshing the Officers and Men [and] procuring surgeons to dress the wounded.”[34] He further claimed that the assistance he provided rendered him so “Obnoxious that as soon as the King’s Troops were withdrawn he was obliged to go off with his family in the Dead of Night to save his life”[35] thus landing in the unfriendly territory of Stoneham and Reading.

This account stands in such naked contradiction to the missives he sent to General Washington and the General Court that it is almost disorienting. And yet the disparities grow even greater.

Rogers told Parliament that he “at the risk of his life discovered to the gunner of His Majesties’ ship the Lively the place where the Ordnance of Charles Town Fort lay.”[36] This revelation would have surprised the General Court, considering he had earlier professed to them that he believed himself as “equally interested in their concealment as any Inhabitant of this colony.”[37]

Rogers then reproached the British for ignoring his disclosure about the cannon, “a proper attention to which, would in all probability have prevented the Slaughter which attended the Memorable Excursion to Lexington and Concord.”[38] However overblown, his comment does suggest that if Rogers had indeed revealed the location of the cannon to the visiting gunner, then he believed that the British didn’t act upon his tip.

The Old Burying Ground, Stoneham, Massachusetts. Photo by author.

But if the British weren’t fully intending to collect the guns, then why would they have gone through all the trouble of “traversing the streets and by-ways … and tampering with the children, to get out of them where the cannon were hid.”[39] In fact, the British seemingly did plan to confiscate the cannon but the Americans unearthed the guns and hurriedly hauled them away “up country” before the British could reach them.[40] So perhaps Rogers kept his neighbors’ secret and didn’t reveal the location of the guns. Or perhaps he did, but his tip was ignored or wasn’t acted upon fast enough. Much like the cannon, it appears that the truth in this instance is hidden.

Even the way Rogers framed the developing conflict between the Americans and the British was carefully crafted to appeal to each audience. In writing to General Washington in September 1775, Rogers indicated that he had “ever lived on the most respectable footing with the principal Gentlemen in this Colony and never breached any principle inimical to the Libertys thereof having been educated in the strictest Principles of the Revolution which I have ever steadily adhered to notwithstanding my Military capacity.”[41]

But later in his statement to Parliament, Rogers indicated that despite taking up residency amongst the Americans in Charlestown, he had “taken every occasion to express an utter detestation of the prevailing spirit of anarchy … also at critical opportunities to demonstrate a firm loyalty to the King.”[42]

Perhaps in an opportunistic fashion, Rogers was simply trying to curry favor with the Crown by overstating his contributions in order to gain a larger pension. Or, in an effort to gain passage to London, he exaggerated the sympathy he felt to the American cause. Either way, as a Loyalist living in Charlestown with an American wife, Rogers probably had to strike a delicate balance between the loyalty and duty he felt to his King and supporting his immediate Charlestown neighbors with whom he lived and socialized day-to-day.

In neither his communications with General Washington nor his memorial to Parliament did Rogers make any specific mention of the harassment by the Stoneham men being derived from the support he allegedly provided to the King’s Troops on April 19. In his letter to General Washington, Rogers vaguely alluded to the torment being related to his service to the King.[43] To Parliament, he ascribed the harassment to the townspeople having learned that he had made seizures of American ships while serving in the Royal Navy.[44]

It is not clear which—if either—account given by Rogers to the Patriot leaders or to Parliament is the complete truth. But whether Rogers said he aided the troops or not, whether he revealed the location of the cannon or didn’t, or whether the conflict that exploded in Massachusetts in 1775 should be characterized as “liberty” or “anarchy” depended entirely on the audience Rogers was addressing—and what he wanted from them.

In the end, Jacob Rogers never did prevail on General Washington or the General Court to permit him and his family to enter Boston. Instead, the Rogers family traveled to New York over land. In January 1776, with the help of Capt. George Vandeput, the family finally gained passage on a merchant ship to London. They settled at No. 16 Lambeth Marsh and Rogers was provided with a stipend of 100 pounds per year.[45]

How exhilarated Rogers must have felt as he sailed back to England, leaving the “licentious persons of Stoneham” far behind, confident that he would neither be burnt out of his bed at night nor assassinated. Once back on English soil, Rogers probably felt secure in the knowledge that, by virtue of being separated by the vast Atlantic, no one would ever discover the contradictions within the two tales he offered to the Patriot leaders of Massachusetts and to Parliament. He must have hoped that no one would ever suspect that there were two sides to Jacob Rogers, that he had invented at least two versions of his activities in America, twisting the truth as it suited him.

However, there is a modern-day punchline to the tale of Jacob Rogers. Two hundred forty two years after residents of Stoneham threatened to raise a mob and beat him out of town, he still is not safe from the inhabitants, the writer of this article herself having grown up in that very town.

 

[1] Jacob Rogers to Navy Office, September 22, 1773, Records of the Admiralty, Navy Board: IN-LETTERS ADM 106/1221/110, The National Archives UK, Kew, England.

[2] Jacob Rogers to the Board of Commissioners Appointed to Enquire into the Losses of American Loyalists, 1783, Ancestry.com. UK, American Loyalist Claims, 1776-1835 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.

[3] The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (“Journals”), (Boston: 1838), 591. https://books.google.com/books?id=iFVMkRsFQh4C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] Jacob Rogers to Gen. George Washington, September 26, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 167, Revolution Petitions, 1775-1776, Massachusetts State Archives (“Mass. Archives”), Boston, Massachusetts.

[5] Ibid., 168.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Town of Reading to Committee of Supply, June 22, 1775, Vol. 193, p. 388., Revolution Letters, 1774-1775, Mass. Archives.

[8] Jacob Rogers to General Washington, September 26, 1775, Vol. 180, p.167, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives.

[9] Jacob Rogers to the Massachusetts Council, October 2, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 169-170, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives.

[10] Jacob Rogers to General Washington, September 26, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 167, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives

[11] Ibid., 168.

[12] Ibid., 167-168.

[13] Ibid., 168.

[14] Ibid., 169.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 170.

[19] Journals, 591.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Jacob Rogers to General Washington, September 26, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 168, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives.

[22] Journals, 591.

[23] Azor Orne to Jacob Rogers, October 7, 1775, Ancestry.com. UK, American Loyalist Claims, 1776-1835 [database on-line].

[24] Jacob Rogers to Massachusetts General Court, October 10, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 195, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives.

[25] Ibid., 196.

[26] Thomas Bellows Wyman and Henry Herbert Edes, The genealogies and estates of Charlestown, 1629-1818, (Boston: 1879), 55. https://archive.org/details/genealogiesestat01wyma

[27] Jacob Rogers to Mass. General Court, October 10, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 197, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives.

[28] Ibid., 195.

[29] Ibid., 195-196.

[30] Ibid., 196.

[31] Ibid., 196.

[32] Ibid., 195-196.

[33] Ibid., 196.

[34] Jacob Rogers to the Board of Commissioners Appointed to Enquire into the Losses of American Loyalists, 1783, Ancestry.com. UK, American Loyalist Claims, 1776-1835 [database on-line].

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Jacob Rogers to Mass. General Court, October 10, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 196, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives.

[38] Jacob Rogers to the Board of Commissioners, 1783, Ancestry.com. UK, American Loyalist Claims, 1776-1835 [database on-line].

[39] John Andrews and Winthrop Sargent, Letters of John Andrews, Esq. of Boston, 1772-1776 (Cambridge: 1866), 46. https://archive.org/details/lettersofjohnand00andr

[40] Ibid., 43.

[41] Jacob Rogers to General Washington, September 26, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 167, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives.

[42] Jacob Rogers to the Board of Commissioners, 1783, Ancestry.com. UK, American Loyalist Claims, 1776-1835 [database on-line].

[43] Jacob Rogers to General Washington, September 26, 1775, Vol. 180, p. 167, Revolution Petitions, Mass. Archives.

[44] Jacob Rogers to the Board of Commissioners, 1783, Ancestry.com. UK, American Loyalist Claims, 1776-1835 [database on-line].

[45] Ibid.

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3 Comments

  • This is a nice story, well told, but my sympathies are entirely with Jacob Rogers – he lied to a mob to protect his wife and daughters. Holger Hoock’s recent book Scars of Independence reminds us that the colonists could also act like thugs when it suited their purpose. If he later lied to the British government that’s excusable, too.

  • Hi Will, thanks for the comment! In the course of my research, I found Jacob Rogers to be a very complex, intelligent, articulate, interesting guy. I think his experiences read kind of like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel. We, the observers, get to decide for ourselves what we think he did or didn’t do and why. It can lead to some fun debates. I guess only Rogers himself knows (or, rather, knew) what really happened.

  • Excellent article. It gives us a glimpse into the convoluted world of an active revolution, (and into a civil war, as it was both). I find these personal, detail-oriented articles using the subject’s own words very revealing and interesting. I can’t blame Rogers for his duplicity, he had a family to protect.

    One look at politics today and you can easily see how situations can escalate from words to deeds. I think of myself as a “Patriot”, but if I were surrounded by loyalists and my family was in peril, I may bend the truth to save them. I’d like to think if my family were safe, I would be the defiant idealist to the end, but one never knows how one will act until that fateful moment is at hand.

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