May 15, 1777. Rolle rides atop his Thoroughbred into St. Augustine, the capital of British East Florida. He tethers his horse in front of the governor's mansion. A British regular of the 14th Regiment of Foot stands at attention by the mansion's entryway. Entering the governor's house, a lieutenant greets Rolle.
"How may I help you?" the lieutenant asked.
"I need to speak with Governor Patrick Tonyn."
"The East Florida Rangers."
"One moment, please." The lieutenant disappeared down a corridor. Rolle could hear low murmuring before the officer reappeared. "The governor is ready to see you now."
Governor Patrick Tonyn was seated at his desk. Maps of the St. Marys and St. Johns Rivers sprawled out before him. He looked up from his papers, "How can I help you?"
"I fled from rebel violence in Pennsylvania." Rolle said.
"You and everybody else." Tonyn replied.
"I hear the East Florida Rangers are taking on interested parties," Rolle continued, "I want you to put me in touch with Thomas Brown."
Tonyn leaned in. "Now why would you want to talk to Thomas Brown?"
"Rebel raiders burned my farm and almost took my life. I'd like to kill every one of those damned sons of bitches."
Tonyn smiled. "Thomas Brown," he said, "is due back in town any minute now." Hyah Hyah! A man shouted somewhere outside Tonyn's open window. "In fact, I think that's Brown now. C'mon, follow me." Tonyn led Rolle outside to the main plaza where a party of East Florida Rangers had just returned from a rustling expedition in southern Georgia. Tonyn approached one of the rangers. "Thomas, how was your trip?"
"Good. Eventful. Who is this?" he asked, looking at Rolle.
"This is Rolle, he wants to speak with you."
"How can I be of service?" Brown asked.
"I want to join the East Florida Rangers." Rolle said. "I have military experience. I was a provincial officer in King George's War."
Brown sized Rolle up. "Any references?"
"None I can contact."
"Why're you here?"
"Those damned rebels." Rolle snarled.
Brown shot a glance at Tonyn and smiled. "That's just the attitude we're looking for around here. You got a musket?"
"The pay isn't great."
"How much is it?"
"One shilling a day and you get a set of clothes."
"I'll take it."
"Good, meet us here in the plaza tomorrow morning at sunrise. Don't be late."
* * *
The next morning, Rolle reached the plaza. A group of rangers, Rolle counted twenty, waited for him. The party left town shortly thereafter on horseback. Through marsh and swampland, Rolle galloped on the King's Road— East Florida's only highway— to Cowford on the St. Johns River. After taking the ferry, the party reached the other side of the river unmolested. Three Seminole warriors awaited them. They reported something to Brown after which he ordered everyone on high alert.
Rolle scanned the forest uneasily.
"The rebels are close." A ranger to Rolle's left said. "They're moving inland."
The rangers linked up with a force of twenty regulars and forty-seven militiamen under the command of Major Mark Prevost. Shortly thereafter, Seminole scouts reported that the rebels established a basecamp at Thomas Creek. At ten o' clock the following morning, Rolle and the East Florida Rangers engaged the rebels from behind tree fire.
Musket fire erupted from the forest. Rebel survivors from the initial volley fled in the opposite direction only to meet Prevost and three columns of regulars marching towards them with fixed bayonets. The rebels scattered.
* * *
But it was too late. British forces closed off most exits. As the smoke cleared, Crown troops captured thirty-one rebels. The Battle of Thomas Creek ended with a smattering of rebel forces retreating through mosquito infested swamps all the way back to Georgia.
Suddenly, a musket went off in the camp followed by a piercing scream. One of the Seminoles had killed a prisoner. Prevost immediately stepped forward. "Hold your fire! Don't shoot!"
Another musket went off. Crack! And another. Crack!
"I order you to stand down!" Prevost shouted.
"In the name of the king, cease-fire!" Prevost shouted. Ignoring him, the Seminoles murdered over a dozen prisoners. Unable to bear witness to the slaughter unfolding before him, Prevost came between the Seminoles and what prisoners remained. "Stop! The battle is over! We won."
The Seminoles backed off, but not until after fifteen rebels lay dead.
* * *
After the Battle of Thomas Creek, the East Florida Rangers returned to St. Augustine. Along the way, Rolle made a friend.
"Where did you say you were from, stranger?"
"Pennsylvania," Rolle replied, "but my father hails from Germany."
"German blood, eh? What part of Germany is your father from?"
"Yes; forgive me, who are you?"
"Johannes Schwalm, at your service."
"Nice to meet you." Rolle replied. They shook. "Name's Rolle."
"Nice to meet you, Rolle."
"Where do you hail from?" Rolle asked.
"Hesse-Cassel, by the Schwalm River."
"Never been there."
"Where are you staying, Rolle?"
"In the refugee district."
"You don't want to stay there." Johannes steadied his horse. "My plantation is on Fort George Island. Come work some of my land. I own thousands of acres north of the St. Johns River— entire islands connected by road to Amelia Island and Egmont's plantation. I'll let you keep whatever crop you raise and once you establish yourself then you can pay me whatever you like."
"You don't want to do that." Captain Brown said, riding up alongside Rolle.
"And why is that, exactly?" Johannes said, slightly offended.
"For security," Brown explained, "Governor Tonyn plans to remove all East Florida settlers south of the St. Johns River. Rebel raiding parties are expected to double this summer."
"With all due respect, Captain Brown," Johannes finally said, "But I do not think the rebels will dare strike us so deep in British territory." A crane landed on a branch on an oak tree draped in Spanish Moss. "Fernandina and Egmont's plantation still stand. Amelia Island is a bastion of hope for local loyalists. Think over my offer, Rolle. The land is good."
Rolle considered and contemplated Johannes' proposal. Johannes informed him that he had business in town and would not leave for his plantation until the following morning. As he rode into St. Augustine, Rolle couldn't help but notice a dozen Indians milling about the plaza in front of the governor's house. Tethering his horse to a nearby post, Rolle approached one of the Seminoles.
"Hello," he said, "my name is Rolle, what is your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Cowkeeper." Rolle noticed all the Seminole's were now staring at him.
"Your English is very good. Where did you learn to speak it?" Rolle asked.
"I speak with the British many times." Cowkeeper replied. "They are good allies to my people. We miss Governor James Grant— he treated us very well."
"Indeed? I have never met him, but his diplomacy and talent for public administration is commendable."
After a short exchange of pleasantries, Rolle bid the Indians farewell. "It is nice meeting you. Where are you going now?"
"I have just finished meeting with Governor Patrick Tonyn. I do not like him as much as I liked Grant. Can you speak to King George and replace Tonyn with someone else?"
Rolle chuckled. "I am afraid I do not have the king's ear. He is too important for someone like me. But if I did know him, I would certainly do whatever I could to help you and your people."
Rolle returned to the refugee district and among the city of white canvas tents, decided he would rather take his chances on the frontier. After stew, Rolle packed his belongings and rode to market. Finding Johannes at the butcher, Rolle informed the German that he was going with him to his plantation on Fort George Island.
* * *
The following evening, Rolle and Johannes reached Fort George Island. A small smattering of mostly unoccupied cabins surrounded by dozens of acres of planted crops hacked out of the Florida woods greeted the weary travelers. Rolle had not yet settled in when two dozen escaped African American slaves from Egmont's plantation arrived after sundown.
"A rebel army attacked Fernandina today," they reported. "Rebel soldiers imprisoned the loyalists and are planning to march on St. Augustine." Johannes fed the slaves as best he could, but they refused his offer to stay for the night. Rebels operated close by, they explained, and the area was not safe. Shortly thereafter, the escapees left. Johannes decided it imperative he scout out Amelia Island himself. Rolle offered to go with him.
* * *
In no time, Rolle and Johannes secured several days' worth of supplies and provisions for their trip. They reached Nassau Sound around noon and took the ferry to Amelia Island. Reaching the island unharmed, the rangers encountered a rebel scouting party in the woods. Taking the rebels by surprise, Rolle sniped the officer. Johannes wounded a second rebel, putting the rest, nine in total, into a panic. Exposed and in hostile territory, the rebels collected their wounded and retreated.
"That was easy." Johannes said.
Rolle reloaded his musket. "What do we do now?"
"Let's go back. I've seen enough."
They were forced to wait while the ferry delivered an Indian war party across Nassau Sound.
"Cowkeeper!" Rolle called out to the Seminole chief as he disembarked from the ferry. "What are you doing here?"
"Rolle," Cowkeeper replied, "it is good to see you. We heard rebels attacked Fernandina."
"What you heard is true," Rolle replied. "We just engaged a rebel scouting party. They're reconnoitering the southern end of the island."
Cowkeeper nodded. "We are scouting the entire island."
"Let us go with you." Rolle said.
"Are you mad?" Johannes hissed.
"You want to come with us?" Cowkeeper asked.
"Yes." Rolle replied. "We are rangers."
Johannes interjected. "Chief Cowkeeper, please allow me and my friend to discuss this matter for a brief moment in private."
"Make it quick," Cowkeeper replied, "we leave soon."
"Have you gone mad?" Johannes said in a low voice. "Talk about danger. Let the Indians do it, don't go."
"I am just scouting the area." Rolle said. "Governor Tonyn may reward me for my efforts. It won't take long."
Johannes sighed, "I will hold the ferry until you get back, but if you're not back in twenty-four hours, I must carry out my orders."
* * *
Rolle and company reached Fernandina undetected sometime after sundown. Hiding in the forest at the edge of town, Rolle watched Continental soldiers and Georgia militia torch the town and slaughter all the cattle at Egmont's plantation. After wreaking their havoc, the rebels withdrew to their longboats. By morning, Fernandina had been leveled and the rebels, taking their loyalist prisoners with them, were gone. Securing sufficient intelligence, Rolle traveled to St. Augustine to report his findings.
* * *
Rolle delivered his intelligence to Brown, who was then at the governor's mansion, before he eventually returned to Fort George Island. While Johannes was away on a rustling mission in south Georgia, Rolle guarded and watched over the German's plantation. On his second night on the island, a rebel raiding party stumbled onto the plantation. Their hoof beats alerted Rolle who coincidentally happened to be awake late in the night. He quickly hid in the woods. From a safe distance away, Rolle watched as the rebels set fire to the cabins. After approximately thirty minutes, the rebels rode off into the night. Destitute, Rolle once again traveled to St. Augustine. On the way to the capital, he met a group of loyalist refugees from North Carolina.
"We are headed for London," the group leader announced, "it is much safer there. We have a private vessel docked in St. Augustine. With the way this war is going, I recommend you leave East Florida as fast as you can."
Rolle considered the North Carolinians' advice carefully. In the end, Rolle could not justify living on East Florida's dangerous frontier. He decided to board the next vessel to London.
* * *
"Sorry son, ain't no ships destined for London coming anywhere near us," the grizzled sailor said. "We're at war." He leaned in, inspecting Rolle's face carefully. "Didn't you know that?"
"But the traveler I met on the road said he has a vessel bound for London." Rolle replied.
"Son, whoever told you that was lyin'. 'Round these parts, they'll kill you and steal yer ship. Only a stupid fool would say anything like that."
Rolle thanked the man and walked away. He proceeded wandering down the docks until he spotted the North Carolina loyalists he had previously met on the road. They had not seen him amid the hustle and bustle of dozens of newcomers— refugees from Virginia and South Carolina. Rolle approached the leader.
"Don't tell anyone about your ship." Rolle said quickly.
"It's you!" the leader said.
"Do you hear me? Do not tell anyone about your ship."
"There are a lot of desperate people around here."
The leader studied Rolle's face. "I believe you," he finally said. "What do you want?"
"Nothing, just be careful." Rolle walked away. Later that evening, while Rolle rested in a room he rented at Mary Evans' tavern, inn, and trade store on St. Francis Street, the North Carolinian paid Rolle a visit. Mary Evans directed Rolle to the living room to greet his visitor.
"How can I help you?" Rolle asked.
Making sure no one was listening; the North Carolinian laid his problem bare. "My stepson died a few hours ago. He was ill. We needed him to work the ship. You helped me so I was wondering— would you work the ship in exchange for passage to London? I don't trust anyone here and you don't seem like a bad person. Am I wrong?"
"No, no. You're not wrong."
"So? What do you say? We could use the help."
"How did you find me?"
"We followed you."
Rolle nodded. "Sure."
"We don't have much time. What do you say? Will you join my crew?"
"When do we leave?"
* * *
Rolle arrived safely in London three months later aboard the H.M.S. Loyalty. He never saw his cousin, Denys Rolle, again. After robbing the family and fleeing to East Florida, Denys Rolle could rot in hell.