ROBERTS, BENJAMIN, army officer and Indian department official; fl. 1758–75.
Commissioned ensign in the 46th Foot on 23 July 1758, Benjamin Roberts served in North America during the Seven Years’ War. He was present at the sieges of Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga, N.Y.), Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.), and Havana, Cuba. In 1765 he appears to have been stationed at Fort Ontario (Oswego, N.Y.). On 12 Sept. 1762 Roberts had received his lieutenancy, but in 1766 he exchanged with a half-pay officer and was appointed an Indian department commissary by Sir William Johnson.
The post-war years were hectic for the department of northern Indians, since its responsibilities now extended into Canada. A series of Indian uprisings linked with Pontiac* occurred, and rumours of French intrigues and pan-Indian unions were rife. Wandering independent traders dealing mostly in whisky and the attendant ills of this commerce further complicated the delicate frontier situation. The British government, with Johnson’s advice, reacted by imposing new regulations on the Indian trade. After 1764 white traders had to be licensed, trading was confined to designated posts, and new restrictions limited the liquor traffic. These changes expanded the role of the Indian department. The supervision of trading at the posts was its responsibility, and Johnson staffed forts along the perimeter of the Great Lakes with commissaries who were, he wrote, to have “ye. sole managemt. of the Trade & Indian affairs.” The relationship of these commissaries to the commandants of the posts was not easy because the limits of their respective jurisdictions were unclear. Moreover some of the commissaries who were half-pay officers could not resist flaunting their semi-independent authority before men of superior military rank. Benjamin Roberts seems to have been prey to such official vanity.
Noted for his egocentricity, Roberts quarrelled violently in July 1766 with Captain Jonathan Rogers of Fort Ontario. Later that year he had a bitter dispute with Captain John Brown of Fort Niagara, where he had been stationed. In March 1767 Johnson appointed him commissary at Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.), the most important trading post on the Upper Lakes. Rumours were circulating that its commandant, Robert Rogers, had been involved with the French and Spaniards in planning a Bourbon coup d’état in the west, and Gage, the commander-in-chief, ordered Johnson to have the Indian department interpreters and commissaries keep a close watch on him.
Roberts arrived at Michilimackinac early in the summer of 1767 and soon had a stormy scene with Rogers over control of some confiscated rum. He appears to have had justification for his actions. According to the traders Jean-Baptiste Cadot* and Alexander Henry* the elder, who wrote to Johnson in support of Roberts, Rogers was “permitting Rum to go out of this Garrison at midnight in order to carry on a Contraband trade.” A clash over the provision of quarters for the Indian department’s blacksmith ended with Rogers ordering Roberts to Detroit early in October, but Roberts had already been talking with Rogers’ former secretary, Nathaniel Potter. Potter had left for Montreal at the end of August and there swore out an affidavit accusing Rogers of treason. Gage had Rogers arrested in December 1767 and brought to Montreal for trial the following spring; Roberts corroborated the charges, but a court martial acquitted Rogers. Bitter animosity between the two did not dissipate. In May 1769, when they encountered one another on the street in Montreal, Rogers proposed that they meet alone for a duel. Roberts, by his own account, “said I could not trust myself to such a man, who I heard had neither honor or Courage. . . . He told me he’d blow my brains out.”
Roberts’ position was by then unenviable. No evidence had been produced to substantiate the charges against Rogers. The post of commissary had been abolished after the new structure for the Indian department that Johnson had begun setting up was rejected by a cost-conscious British government. By the end of 1769 Roberts had decided to seek an appointment in Britain. Johnson wrote him a glowing letter of reference, and John Blackburn, one of Johnson’s London correspondents, prevailed on Lord Hillsborough, the secretary of state for the American Colonies, to find him a position. Experience, however, had not improved Roberts’ judgement; he lived extravagantly and from 1772 until at least 1774 he was in debtors’ prison. By June 1775 he had been released and was writing to Lord Dartmouth, Hillsborough’s successor. He had, observed Blackburn, “an astonishing tincture of Vanity in all He did.”
Clements Library, Thomas Gage papers, American series. PRO, CO 5/70, ff.39–41, 125; CO 323/30. G.B., Hist. mss Commission, The manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth (3v., London, 1887–96). Johnson papers (Sullivan et al.). G.B., WO, Army list, 1758–75. J. R. Cuneo, Robert Rogers of the rangers (New York, 1959), 209–11, 223, 232–33, 248. R. S. Allen, “The British Indian department and the frontier in North America, 1755–1830,” Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History (Ottawa), no. 14 (1975), 5–125.