WMM Westford Colonial Minutemen

Westford and the Battle of Valcour Island

Introduction  ~  Westford's connection to the Battle of Valcour Island 

In 1999, Edwin Scollon extended his arm into the fine silt at the bottom of Lake Champlain and discovered a shattered cannon.  That discovery sparked the formation of the Valcour Bay Research Project (VBRP), whose mission is to systematically search for historical artifacts from the 1776 naval engagement between American Gen. Benedict Arnold’s hastily constructed navy and Sir Guy Carleton’s British fleet.  Tireless research by George Quintal, Jr. led members of the VBRP team to connect the fate of the cannon with that of two Westford revolutionary war soldiers, Lt. Thomas Rogers and Sgt. Jonas Holden.

The "moment in time" when the cannon exploded killed Rogers and injured Holden.  It was Holden's later pension records and a uniquely descriptive and touching memorial stone erected by Rogers' widow, Molly, at Westford's Fairview Cemetery, that would forge the historical link between Westford's patriots and the many important artifacts that have been discovered at the underwater archaeological site.  The remarkable connections between these events span more than two centuries and bring to light the moving stories behind the sacrifice of two Westford patriots and their families.

An exhibit entitled Rediscovering a Moment in Time 
was developed by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM).  Highlighting the efforts to map the underwater battlefield of what may have been the most important naval engagement of the American War for Independence, the exhibit features dozens of artifacts recovered in the summer of 2001, including the shattered cannon.  In recognition of the intimate connection beween the events at Valcour Island and Westford's patriots, the exhibit was offered to the Westford Museum for a six month loan in November of 2004.  Since the end of that tour, the exhibit has been available for viewing at LCMM in Vergennes, Vermont.

The work of the Valcour Bay Research Project is on-going, and the recovery and conservation of additional artifacts cataloged since 2001 is scheduled for the summer of 2006.

Brief Historical Background

During the colonial period, the inland waterways of the Champlain and Hudson valleys provided a transportation route that was vital to the security of the northern colonies.  From the beginning of the Revolutionary War it was recognized that British control of the waterways would be disastrous to New England, effectively cutting them off from their fellow colonies to the West and South. 

Valcour MaIn the summer of 1776, aware of an imminent British naval incursion from Canada, American military leaders appointed Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold to oversee the construction and deployment of a small fleet of armed vessels.  Within two months his men had assembled 13 craft from the vast New York forests.  In addition, the fleet included four larger British vessels captured the previous year.  Eight of the new craft were “gondolas,” or gunboats.  At 54 feet long, these were flat-bottomed craft, propelled by either sails or oars, and armed with up to 3 cannon.  Each gunboat was manned by approximately 43 men. 

The lack of experienced sailors forced Arnold to man his ships with soldiers who volunteered or were drafted from the infantry regiments serving in the Northern Army.  It was from a company commanded by Westford’s Capt. Joshua Parker, Col. Jonathan Reed’s militia regiment, that Lt. Rogers, Sgt. Holden and his cousin, Sartell, of Groton were detached.  They were assigned to the New York, the final gunboat to be built.

An anecdote from Hodgman’s History of Westford describes the scene as a group of 12 Westford soldiers departed for Ft. Ticonderoga that year:  “…one of them, Thomas Rogers, refused to stand up when [the Rev.] Mr. Thaxter spoke to them, …of the twelve all returned but Rogers.” 

The British military, under the command of General Sir Guy Carleton, constructed their own fleet on the upper lake. In contrast to Arnold’s navy, Carleton’s was manned by experienced seamen, and outgunned Arnold by two-to-one.

By October of 1776, Arnold had completed his small navy.  Knowing his limitations, he decided to let the British bring the fight to him, in the waters of his choosing.  On the morning of October 11th, Carleton sailed south to find 15 vessels of Arnold’s fleet lined up in the protected waters behind Valcour Island.  Although restricting his possibilities for retreat, Arnold understood that this would give his men their best chance by forcing the British to engage by sailing against the wind into relatively confined waters.

A five-hour battle ensued.  As the crew of the New York fired her guns, a terrible accident occurred.  A cannon exploded, killing Lt. Rogers and injuring Sgt. Holden in the right arm and side.  By the end of the battle, New York’s only remaining officer was her captain.

The setting sun ended the day’s contest.  For the Americans, 60 were killed or injured, two ships were lost, and 75% of their ammunition was expended.  The British suffered significant, though fewer losses, but were confident of victory the following day.  Fully aware of his low odds of success, Arnold had other plans.  Amidst the fog of that night, while the British burned one of the captured American ships, Arnold organized his boats and made “a very fortunate escape” toward the safety of Ft. Ticonderoga.  By their “great mortification” the British awoke to find the Americans gone. 

The following day Arnold abandoned two severely damaged gunboats as Carleton’s forces pursued.  Finally, on October 13th, the British caught up with what remained of the American flotilla.  After a two hour running fight Arnold chose to abandon and destroy five damaged vessels and save his men by traveling overland to the protection of American held forts.  Of the fifteen vessels to engage the British at Valcour, only four successfully escaped to safety of Fort Ticonderoga.  Of the eight gunboats, only one was able to retreat to safety: The New York.

The looming winter caused the British to suspend their campaign until the following spring. While the Battle of Valcour Island was a clear British victory, the delay in the British advance caused by the construction of Arnold’s fleet provided sufficient time for the Americans to gather the means to win decisively at Saratoga the following year, eliminating the British threat from the north.


Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers was born in 1750, and settled in Westford some time prior to 1774 with his wife Molly. 

Rogers involved himself in town affairs.  In the summer of 1774, along with 206 other Westford men, he expressed his patriot leanings by signing the “Solemn League and Covenant,” an early non-importation pledge against Great Britain.  In early 1775, records show that Rogers was reimbursed for “boarding the school master for seven weeks.”  And by April he had risen to the rank of sergeant in the Westford militia company of Capt. Oliver Bates, with whom he would serve on April 19th on the Battle Road.

Thomas Rogers

The signature of Thomas Rogers from the "Solemn League and Covenant."
Courtesy J.V. Fletcher Library

Rogers remained in the camps at Cambridge during the Siege of Boston, serving as 2nd Lieutenant under Westford’s Capt. Joshua Parker.  He served with that company at Bunker (Breeds) Hill on June 17, 1775.

Tragedy then struck the Rogers family.  Their daughter, Molly, born in May of the previous year, died.   She was one of 23 Westford children who would die in August and September of 1775, most likely the victims of diseases returned from the siege camps of the new American army.

In early 1776, near the end of the Siege of Boston, Rogers joined the regiment of Westford’s Col. John Robinson, formed for three months as reinforcement to the Continental Army.  This time he served as sergeant in Capt. Josiah Warren’s company.

In the summer of 1776 Rogers joined the Northern Army as a lieutenant in the regiment of Col. Jonathan Reed, again under Capt. Joshua Parker.   From there he was detached to the command of General Arnold where, with Sgt. Jonas Holden, he helped man the gunboat New York on Lake Champlain. 

Molly Rogers was pregnant when she learned of her 26-year-old husband’s death and would memorialize his sacrifice for the “caus of Liberty” with a unique stone at Westford’s Fairview Cemetery.   Their second daughter, also called Molly, was born less than three months after her father’s death.  Tragically, like her sister, she would never reach her second birthday. 

In 1783, Molly, the “sorowfull widow,” married William Munroe, owner of the Lexington tavern that stands today as an historic site. 


Jonas Holden

Jonas Holden was born in Groton in 1751, a fifth generation descendant of immigrants who migrated from England in 1634.  Settling for about one year in Chelmsford, Holden moved to Westford prior to the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord, where he served as a private in the militia company of Capt. Oliver Bates.  At Bunker Hill he served with many of his fellow townsmen in a company commanded by Westford’s Capt. Joshua Parker, was injured in the thigh by a musket ball, and had to be carried off the field.  During his recovery, in December of 1775, he married Sarah Read of Littleton. 

Holden next served during the 1776 campaign where he joined the regiment of Col. Jonathan Reed, once again under Capt. Joshua Parker, this time promoted to sergeant.  It was at this time that he was detached to serve under Arnold on the gunboat New York and was injured during the battle of Valcour Island. 

Following subsequent service as an ensign under Col. John Robinson of Westford during the Rhode Island campaign of 1777-78, Holden rose to lieutenant, serving as a recruiting officer.  Marching with new recruits to New Jersey, he would then march to West Point before finally joining Washington’s army for the siege of Yorktown, Virginia.  There he witnessed the final surrender of the British army. 

In total he would serve for over 6 years.

After the war he and his family emigrated from Westford to various locations in New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont.  He served his country once more during the War of 1812 and later finally settled in Wallingford, Vermont where he died on April 19, 1835 at the age of 83, exactly 60 years after his first march from Westford as a revolutionary soldier.

© 2004-2006 - D.P. Lacroix

Thomas Rogers Fairview

The memorial stone of Lt. Thomas Rogers at Westford's  Fairview Cemetery


We gratefully acknowledge Edwin Scollon, George Quintal, Jr., Arthur Cohn, and all the members of the Valcour Bay Research Project for their groundbreaking work and for providing source material.

Many thanks to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum for offering the exhibit, Rediscovering a Moment in Time, to the Westford community during the winter of 2004/05.

Last Updated 21 April, 2006

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