Researching Downeast Maine and Maritime Canada Families Together
NOTE: This article previously appeared in the newsletter of the St. Croix Historical Society: Fall 2017 and Spring 2018. I am posting it here with a few minor editorial changes.
When you have a common last name like Rogers, it’s not unusual to find yourself going on a genealogical wild goose chase now and then. Still, some wild goose chases are pretty darned interesting, as is the case with Archibald Rogers. His life story is so compelling, I couldn’t help but investigate it. And though I’m still not sure if he’s in my family line, I’m happy to share it here with fellow local history enthusiasts.
The life of Archibald Rogers (ca. 1845-1887) began and ended in the St. Croix Valley. In the years in between, Archibald sailed the seas, saw the world, and quite likely felt like he’d been to hell and back. Let me explain.
Archibald was born in Calais, Maine, the son of Irish immigrants, Hugh (born ca. 1815) and Hannah (born ca. 1812) Rogers or Rodgers (the spelling varied). His family was in crisis when he was young. The 1850 census in Calais indicates that Hugh was blind and that he and his wife were paupers. Their two oldest daughters, Margaret and Mary, were pre-teens living in other households at the time.
I was unable to locate any records of Archibald or his family in Maine or New Brunswick in the 1860s, but in the 1870s, documents indicate that he was a sailor, serving on vessels to England, Ireland, and Panama.
Archibald's obituary reported that he worked on “De Lesseppe’s Canal,” better known to us as the Suez Canal, a massive project that began in 1859. It is unclear exactly when he was engaged in this work - whether as a young adult or in middle age. Though it was fairly common at this time for working class boys to begin careers in a trade or to join the military in their early teens, it is unlikely that Archibald joined the labor force at Suez in the earliest phases of the project. In the first years of canal construction, a million or more local Egyptian workers toiled under slave-like conditions to dig, haul, and relocate soil and stone using only hand-held tools, muscle, and beasts of burden. After a few years, however, England was prompted by a mix of humanitarian concern and practical necessity to use steam-powered machines to complete the project. A workforce that had experience working with this machinery was brought in from Britain and North America at this stage, and the local Egyptian workers were dismissed.
Archibald is likely to have joined the project at about 20 years old - when skilled western workers were brought in. If he worked at the canal toward the end of his life — whether as a returning employee or a new hire — he’d have been involved, not in construction, but in maintenance and/or day-to-day operations. Either way, for a man who had a taste for adventure and wanted to see the world, work at the Suez Canal would have been an amazing opportunity.
But one afternoon in April 1875, Archibald's life took a terribly bad turn. He was spending time with friends at Woodworth’s Tavern on Sheffield Street in St. John when an argument broke out. Tempers flared, and the proprietor ordered the combatants — Archibald and another mariner named Linus Seely — to leave. Friends and acquaintances joined them as the confrontation left the confines of the tavern and continued to escalate. Reportedly, Seely drew a knife, and Archibald drew a gun. He fired - once, twice, perhaps (reports varied) - promptly ending Seely’s life.
On May 11, 1875, Archibald was arrested for the murder of Linus Seely, and a trial took place in the first week of June, with nearly thirty witnesses testifying.
Newspapers reminded readers that Linus Seely had been involved in “The Chesapeake Affair” during the US Civil War, a piracy scheme, which itself is an interesting bit of history.* Sixteen armed sailors from the maritime provinces — Seely among them — seized the Chesapeake, planning to sell its cargo for profit and use the vessel to disrupt American shipping efforts. When the plot was discovered, both Canada and Great Britain forcefully denounced the action and tried the participants in court. Only the masterminds of the affair were convicted; lower-level players, like Seely, were acquitted.
In popular opinion, Linus Seely’s association with the Chesapeake scheme was enough to implicate him in the conflict with Archibald Rogers. In the courtroom, witnesses said Seely was the aggressor and Archibald had no choice but to shoot in self-defense.
On June 7th, a jury found Archibald Rogers guilty of manslaughter, but urged for mercy. Judge William Johnston Ritchie was not swayed by the jury’s plea, delivering his sentence the next day: Archibald was to be hanged July 31, 1875. A flood of public sympathy ensued. In fact, over 800 people signed a petition urging for a more lenient sentence. Just over a month later, the judge seems to have been convinced. On July 12th Archibald’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Ultimately, Archibald Rogers was incarcerated only five years. As the St. John Daily News reported on July 2, 1880, he was pardoned and released due to his “exemplary conduct and [the] mitigating circumstances” surrounding the case. Yet, the paper also informed readers that he’d been “broken down" and "consumption . . . [had] fastened its fangs upon him” - i.e., he’d contracted tuberculosis and was seriously ill. After his release, he went to live with a sister in St. Stephen.
On September 15, 1887, the St. John Globe announced the death of Archibald Rogers. I have been unable to document his presence in New Brunswick — or anywhere else in Canada or the US — between 1880 and 1887. If, as his death notice indicated, he was supervising a work crew at the Suez Canal at his time of death, his absence from Canadian and US census records makes sense. At the same time, it is hard to believe that in the late nineteenth century a man who was roughly fifty years old and had a serious illness would sail off to Egypt. So perhaps a chronological error crept into his obituary and he worked on the canal only during his younger years, in the 1860s. Though I’ve scoured online sources, no official death certificates or cemetery records have surfaced to verify the date and cause of his death. Other questions about Archibald also remain:
Date of Birth
According to Calais vital records, Archibald was born on June 17, 1845. But other records suggest he was born in 1847, 48, or 50. For those who seek to learn more about Archibald, it may be helpful to know that there were others with this name who traveled to and from New Brunswick: two in England (born in 1841 and 1843/44), the first of whom was also a mariner; one in Australia (1841); and one in Ireland (1849). There were also a number of other Archibald Rogerses in Ontario and in the south and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States.
There were also several Hugh Rogerses in the northeast, three of whom may have had links to Archibald.
I investigated them in as much detail as online sources would allow.
Hugh and Hannah Rogers in Calais, Maine - 1850.
A birth record and a census record establish that these are the parents of an Archibald Rogers (age 3).
Again, they were listed as paupers, and this Hugh was listed as blind.
Hugh and Hannah Rogers in Lowell, Massachusetts - 1860 thru 1886.
This couple were both born in Ireland, and their years of birth correspond with the Calais couple, yet . . .
a) This Hugh emigrated to Maine in 1836, but became a US citizen in Lowell in 1844/45 - when our original Hugh and Hannah were in Calais, where all six children were born between 1837 and 1845.
b) The names and dates for the children of each couple - in Calais and Lowell - do not correspond. Archibald (who'd have been 15 in 1860) does not appear in any records in Lowell.
c) This Hugh worked as an “operator” in a mill, and there is no indication he was blind.
Hugh and Susan Rodgers in St. John, New Brunswick - 1871.
An Archibald Rodgers (age 21), who was a seaman, lived in the household of Hugh (age 80) and Susan (age 70) in 1871. (Our other Hughs and Hannahs would have been in their mid-50s.) The Hugh in this 1871 record is listed as blind, which leads one to wonder: Could there have been two Hughs in the Calais household in 1850, with only the younger of the two listed and mistakenly identified as blind?
In this, as in many cases, genealogical discoveries simply lead to more questions. One thing we do know is that Archibald Rogers lived an adventurous, but difficult, life. I hope this account of it has been interesting and is helpful to those who are researching this or other Rogers family lines in the region.
* For information about the Chesapeake Affair, see R.H. McDonald's article, “The Second Chesapeake Affair,” by R.H. McDonald, Dalhousie Review (Winter 1974-75).