Commander, 2nd Battalion, King's Royal Yorkers

Major John Ross

Attributed to David Martin, FSA (1737 - 1797)

Lieutenant John Ross of the 34th Foot Grenadier Company, c. 1768

Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches, within gilt, carved and molded frame

Born in Scotland in 1744, John Ross entered the army as a lieutenant in the 34th Regiment of Foot on July 31, 1762. He was at the taking of Havana, Cuba from the Spaniards later that year and thereafter went with his regiment to garrison West Florida.

There is a great deal of conflicting information about his next assignment. One source claims that a detachment drawn from the 22nd and 34th Regiments was sent up the Mississippi to accept the surrender of Fort de Chartres (near Prairie de Rocher, IL,) the last French holdout in North America. Only the year before, Pontiac’s Uprising had engulfed Britain’s western frontier posts north of Fort de Chartres, so it is not surprising that the force beat a retreat after it was attacked by formerly French-allied Indians, who were unimpressed by European peace treaties, or by British power.

In consequence, the British decided to mount an overland expedition from Fort Pitt to accept de Chartres’ surrender, and Ross was ordered in December 1764 to ascend the Mississippi to advise the fort’s commandant, Louis Groston de Saint-Ange et de Bellerive, that the territory had been ceded to Britain, and that a British expedition would soon arrive to accept his surrender.

Although there is nothing to suggest that Ross was well versed in Native diplomacy, he was instructed to meet with the local tribes to determine their attitudes to this news. Ross and an Indian trader named Hugh Crawford, perhaps acting as an interpreter, arrived at the fort on February 18, 1765. At an Indian council on April 4, Ross confirmed the Natives’ strong hostility to a British takeover. The official surrender of Fort de Chartres occurred in October when Captain Thomas Stirling arrived with one hundred Highlanders of the 42nd Regiment.

As an important secondary mission, Ross, who had trained as a field surveyor, was instructed to prepare a map of the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico to Fort de Chartres, which he fulfilled in grand style capturing details of the lands to the immediate east of the Mississippi including numerous tributary rivers, locations of various Native villages, old and abandoned fortifications, trading posts, mineral deposits, and other resources. Set on the meridian of New Orleans, this seminal work was the first British mapping of the Mississippi Valley and of great significance during the Revolutionary War and subsequent American western expansion. The map was published in London and earned the cartographer a considerable measure of fame, and, with later additions, continued in use for decades. Ross’s portrait is believed to have been painted after the 34th Regiment’s return to Britain. By 1771, Ross was the regiment’s captain-lieutenant, and on March 14, 1772, he was promoted to captain. He embarked at Cork on April 9, 1776 with a large contingent from the Irish Establishment sent to raise the siege of Quebec City. By January 1777, Ross had taken command of the 34th’s Grenadier Company and went with Burgoyne’s Expedition serving in the army’s Advance Guard. During the attack on the Continental Army at Hubbardton, Vermont, Ross was seriously wounded and returned to Quebec to convalesce. Ross returned to duty in 1778, and because his Grenadier Company had surrendered with Burgoyne at Saratoga, he found himself a supernumerary officer. An expedition was being organized to recover some fifty Fort Hunter men, women and children who that had been captured during the retreat from Burgoyne’s army and were now held under the malevolent eye of Tryon County rebels. Governor Carleton believed that Regular officers should command all detachments that included Natives, and Ross was appointed to command the effort. Although Carleton’s distaste for Indian raids was pronounced, the avowed purpose of recovering Mohawk families would have met with his approval.

About one hundred Tryon County loyalists, principally Royal Yorkers, formed the European element. Jeptha Simms named a few – the Bowen brothers of the Royal Yorkers who had been with Ensign Crawford on a raid earlier in the year; a fellow named Loucks, of whom there were several in the regiment, and men named Lintz and Sweeny, who do not appear on regimental rolls at this time. Yet, beyond doubt, the primary individuals motivating and directing the raid were the two Fort Hunter war captains, John Deserontyon and Isaac Hill Onoghsokete. The force assembled at Akwesasne, where the two war captains succeeded in recruiting a number of warriors, bringing the Native contingent up to about one hundred warriors. As Deserontyon and Hill had guided Sir John and his followers through the Adirondacks in May 1776, they must have guided the raiders along similar paths southwards. The expedition was successful. The missing Fort Hunters were retrieved; several loyalist families were reunited; six recruits were gained for the Royal Yorkers, and seventeen rebels were taken prisoner. Only a handful of rebels were killed and two gristmills were destroyed. The local militia regiment, the 3rd Tryon, was unable to mount any resistance, as its companies had been sent to relieve neighbouring communities that were also under attack, and the raiders prowled unmolested through many settlement areas in and about Sir John’s estates, such as, Fonda’s Bush, Philadelphia Bush, Tribes Hill, and Fort Johnson. It is unknown what duties Ross performed during the next two years, but it is clear that the new governor, Frederick Haldimand, was aware of his achievements and capabilities as he appointed him to command the newly-formed 2nd battalion, Royal Yorkers as major-commandant on July 21, 1780. When a detachment of the battalion was sent to Carleton Island to experience some ‘real soldiering,’ Ross selected one hundred of the better-trained men for the assignment and coupled them with Captain Robert Leake’s well-seasoned Independent Company as a stiffener, which was later absorbed into the battalion.

The next year, the decision was made to withdraw the heavily-utilized Royal Yorkers’ 1st battalion from active service on the frontiers and to have its duties assumed by the 2nd. In late 1780 and throughout the opening stages of the 1781 campaign, the battalion improved the defences of Fort Haldimand and mounted a series of reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering patrols, and small raids into the Mohawk Valley.

In September, 1781, Ross was given the opportunity to lead a major strike into the Mohawk Valley. There was considerable doubt expressed amongst the British leadership about the wisdom of this effort, as the force would have to penetrate very deeply into rebel territory before reaching any useful targets, but Ross was keen, and the governor permitted the expedition to proceed. The major was supported by some 250 Six Nations and affiliated warriors and a substantial contingent from Fort Niagara in the form of 150 Butler’s Rangers and forty Regulars of the 8th Regiment. From Carleton Island and Oswegatchie, Ross assembled seventy-five line troops and the Light Company of the 34th; about thirty Highlanders of the 84th, and eleven Hanau Jägers. As provincials, he had about one hundred Royal Yorkers with all the battalion’s available combatant officers, and fifty of Leake’s Independent Company.

The raid was marginally successful. Perhaps, its greatest accomplishment was its undetected infiltration across the length the Mohawk Valley from Indian Territory to Fort Hunter at the mouth of the Schoharie Kill. A minor achievement was the destruction of the sprawling farming community of Warrensbush, which had hitherto escaped attention; however, as predicted, the rebels’ reaction was swift and sizeable with many companies of New York and Massachusetts Levies and Tryon militia mounting a well coordinated pursuit. As well, reinforcements were dispatched from the Albany County militia, even though the northern regions of the county were under immediate threat from a second, large British expedition that had taken post at Ticonderoga as a diversion.

Ross quickly realized that he must retreat, but halted long enough near Johnson Hall to gather provisions and rest his weary troops. The rebels caught up with the expedition just as its tail was disappearing into the woods and Ross turned to give fight. See-saw skirmishing took place during which the New York Levies were driven off, but a flanking manoeuvre of Tryon militiamen and Massachusetts Levies struck hard and put an end to what had become a rout.

Ross’s error during this action was not holding his troops together once the New York Levies collapsed, but his men recovered quickly, which allowed an orderly resumption of the retreat. Despite horribly wet, freezing cold weather the troops kept up an incredible pace; however, they were overtaken by fresh rebel troops at a ford in West Canada Creek who inflicted some casualties, including the killing of John Butler’s eldest son Walter. Weather conditions were so extreme that rebel commanders gleefully predicted the expedition would perish in the woods or, at the very least, suffer tremendous casualties; however, Ross’s leadership held again, and the whole force returned to its bases without any further loss.

On February 18, 1782, in response to the Native allies importuning, Governor Haldimand ordered Ross to secretly take post at Oswego as soon as the lake became navigable and rebuild the fort there. For this task, Ross took 370 men of his 2nd battalion, the 34th Regiment, and the 84th Highland Emigrants from Carleton Island and two hundred Butler’s Rangers and 8th Regiment from Niagara. Oswego was successfully occupied without detection and the immediate rebuilding of Fort Ontario was begun to the great satisfaction of the Six Nations and the governor. The fort was firmly established and well on the way to being finished before the rebel command discovered it, which thoroughly shocked and distressed them. So much so, that although a formal peace treaty had been signed, the rebels mounted an unsuccessful, disastrous expedition to capture the fort in the dead of the winter of 1783.

Ross’s final contribution to British North America was the occupation of Cataraqui in 1783 and the rebuilding of Fort Frontenac. For this task, he again had Regulars of the 34th and 84th Regiments and the majority of his 2nd battalion. In addition to military considerations, Ross had a mill built and a town surveyed. The first two houses erected were for Mary Brant’s family and her brother, Joseph. This firm base secured the settlement of the disbanded loyalist troops and their families in townships stretching along Lake Ontario’s shore from the townsite of Cataraqui to Quinte’s Isle.

When Ross returned to the 34th Regiment, he was ranked as a major in the army. It is unknown when he married, but there is speculation that his bride was the sister of Captain John McDonell (Aberchalder) of Butler’s Rangers. Although Ross retired on February 17, 1789, he was recalled to duty during the Napoleonic wars. He had become a very close friend of Stephen Watts (first commander of the Light Company, 1KRR), and, when in 1808 he was appointed an executor of Watts’ will, his rank was shown as lieutenant-colonel.

At some point, Lieutenant-Colonel Ross had transferred to the Coldstream Guards and he was killed at the Battle of Talavera in July 1809.