Robert Stobo


Robert Stobo, military officer; born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 7 October 1726, son of William Stobo, a well-to-do merchant; died a bachelor 19 June 1770 at Chatham, England.

          Robert Stobo studied at the University of Glasgow and then, on the, death of his parents, was sent to Virginia at age 16 to learn the trade of a merchant-factor.  He settled in Petersburg and on coming of age converted his estate to cash and set himself up in business there.  As a friend and distant relative of Governor Robert Dinwiddie, he had access to the governor's palace and spent much of his time in pleasurable pursuits in Williamsburg, the capital city.

          Early in April 1754 Dinwiddie sent Colonel George Washington to secure the Forks of the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh) against the advancing French.  Stobo, who had been made a captain on 5 March, followed the small army about a month later in command of a company of Virginia troops.  Perhaps because he had acquired a knowledge of military construction, Stobo was named regimental engineer.  He rode to the frontier supported by ten personal servants, who were mechanics, and a covered wagon carrying a butt of Madeira wine.  In mid-April a French force under Claude-Pierre Pécaudy de Contrecœur, with Indian allies, had paddled down the Allegheny River, driven off a few dozen English who had started a fort at the forks, and there began to build Fort Duquesne.  The killing of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville by the English on 28 May prompted the French to march south to surround Washington's outnumbered army at his improvised "Fort Necessity" (near Farmington, Pennsylvania).  The battle that followed on 3 July marked the start of the last war between the English, French, and Indians in America.  In capitulating to the French, Washington turned over two of his captains as a guarantee that 21 French prisoners he had taken several weeks earlier would be returned.  The two hostages were the Dutch-born Jacob Van Braam and Robert Stobo.

          At Fort Duquesne, Stobo encountered eight members of his regiment who had been taken prisoner by Indians after the battle had ended.  Stobo concluded thereby that the terms of the capitulation were "broke" and that he was released from his obligations as a hostage.  He drew a scale map of Fort Duquesne and on the back wrote a long letter in which he advised Dinwiddie not to return the French prisoners, and urged that Fort Duquesne be taken that fall.  "When we engaged to serve the country," he wrote, "it was expected we were to do it with our lives.  Let them not be disappointed.  Consider the good of the expedition without the least regard to us.  For my part, I would die ten thousand deaths to have the pleasure of possessing this fort but one day, they are so vain of their success at [Fort Necessity], 'tis worse than death to hear them." The letter was safely delivered by a friendly Indian and was given to General Edward Braddock, probably when he arrived at Alexandria, Virginia, the following spring with a large body of British regulars.

          Since Dinwiddie refused to return the French prisoners for whom he was being held hostage, Stobo was taken to Quebec.  There, under the sponsorship of Paul-Joseph Le Moyne de Longueuil, he was free to mingle in the best society and even to engage in some trading ventures in concert with Luc de La Corne, known as La Corne Saint-Luc (younger brother of Jean-Louis de La Corne).  Following the defeat of Braddock's army in July 1755, however, the French found Stobo's letter, signature affixed, among the dead general's effects.  Stobo and Van Braam were tried by a military court in Montreal, Governor General Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil presiding, on the charge that they had violated their parole and had spied for the enemy.  Stobo fought the charge through a trial that lasted 19 days, but at the end broke down and confessed that he had written the letter in evidence.  Van Braam was acquitted of the charge but still held a prisoner.  Stobo was sentenced to be beheaded.

          The court at Versailles, however, had secretly ordered that the sentence be suspended, perhaps because it was not sure of its legal position in trying and condemning a hostage for an act committed in time of peace.  In a 1756 white paper, attributed to the Duc de Choiseul and circulated with éclat throughout Europe, Stobo's letter was cited as evidence of British aggression against French territory in the Ohio country.  The case became a matter of international controversy.

          Stobo, promoted in absentia to the rank of major, escaped twice, in May and July 1757, and was captured twice.  On his third attempt (1 May 1759), he fled down the St. Lawrence River in a canoe with eight other American prisoners – four men, a woman, and her three children.  Thirty-six days later, after a series of hair-raising escapes and hardships, they sailed triumphantly into Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island, in command of a French schooner, which they had taken in the Baie des Chaleurs, and with two captive French sea captains.

          Stobo was received in Louisbourg by Edward Whitmore who sent him on to serve on General Wolfe's staff.  Stobo led the English attack on Pointe-aux-Trembles (Neuville) on 21 July; his "Memoirs" claim that it was he who showed Wolfe the path to the Plains of Abraham at the Anse au Foulon.  The evidence is intriguing but inconclusive.  In any case, he was not present at the fall of the city, for Wolfe had sent him with dispatches to General Jeffery Amherst at Crown Point on Lake Champlain.  When Amherst decided to delay his invasion of Canada until spring of the following year (1760), Stobo returned to Williamsburg carrying a letter from Amherst recommending his preferment.  There he received the accolades of his countrymen, his back pay with interest, a gift of £1,000, and a citation of the House of Burgesses (carried to him by Colonel Washington) containing thanks "for his steady and inviolable attachment to the interest of this country; for his singular bravery and courage exerted on all occasions..."

          Stobo chose to seek next a career in the British army.  He therefore went to London, where he had an audience with William Pitt and was given, without purchase, a commission as captain in Amherst's own 15th Regiment of Foot.  He joined Amherst again at Crown Point and on 11 September 1760, marched at the head of his company into Montreal, the town where he had been condemned to death.

          Stobo served in garrison in Montreal and Quebec until the following spring, when he sailed to the Caribbean with General Robert Monckton's force and participated in the capture of Martinique and Havana.  At the assault on Morro Castle (Cuba) he was struck on the head and seriously wounded by masonry dislodged by a Spanish cannonball.  He rejoined his regiment in Quebec in September 1763, but it is not known if he was present during the mutiny of the 15th Foot (18–21 September).  In 1767 he bought from the heirs of Jacques-Pierre Daneau de Muy a seigneury of 69,000 acres called "aux Loutres," on the east shore of Lake Champlain (Vermont).  His title was questioned, however, and neither he nor his heirs ever took possession of the land.

          Stobo went to England with his regiment in the summer of 1768 and served in barracks at Chatham. Through the recommendation of a fellow Scot, the novelist Tobias Smollett, he became acquainted with another Scot, the philosopher David Hume.  "He seemed to be a man of good sense," Hume wrote to Smollett, "and has surely had the most extraordinary adventures in the world." Suffering from his old head wound, disappointed at lack of promotion, and troubled by his inability to validate his claim to the Lake Champlain lands, Stobo began to drink excessively and his conduct became erratic.  On 19 June 1770 in barracks at Chatham, he killed himself with his pistol.  His Scots-English relatives effectively concealed the story of his suicide, and the date and manner of his death were a mystery, despite a continuing interest in his career, until 1965.

—  Robert C. Alberts, writer;
contributing editor, American Heritage Magazine, New York City

Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Robert Stobo (the original article)

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— Reference:
The Fantastic Adventures of Captain Stobo by Robert C. Alberts
American Heritage Magazine, v14 i5, August 1963
Robert Stobo had a career in which he distinguished himself in the battle that opened one of the longest and bloodiest wars of the eighteenth century; was turned over to the enemy as a hostage for promises that would not be fulfilled; wrote a letter that made him an international figure; was sentenced to have his head cut off; escaped from prison twice and was recaptured twice; escaped a third time to lead a small band through seven hundred miles of enemy territory; was twice captured by pirates; was given an ovation by his government; consorted with the mightiest men of his day; and played a major role in winning one of history's decisive battles...

Stobo's 1754 sketch of Fort Duquesne - Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania
Reproduction of Stobo's 1754 sketch of Fort Duquesne
Historic Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh's Digital Research Library
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania

Stobo's 1754 sketch of Fort Duquesne - detail
Detail of Stobo's 1754 sketch of Fort Duquesne

— Reference:
1754 Chronology - Fort Necessity National Battlefield U.S. National Park Service
Sunday July 28, 1754
Major Robert Stobo, hostage at Fort Duquesne, smuggles out a map of the Fort and a letter.  For the past week and a half, Stobo carefully made measurements of the fort and observed every detail which could possibly aid a British army coming to besiege the fort.  A friendly Mowhawk Indian named Moses the Song offered to take the letter back to the English frontier post of Wills Creek.

Monday July 29, 1754
Stobo sends a second letter back to Virginia via a friendly Delaware Indian, Delaware George.  Like the previous letter, this one also details the strength of Fort Duquesne.  By sending these letters, Stobo is putting his life in peril as a spy...

Friday August 16, 1754
A Delaware Indian, Delaware George arrives at George Croghan's trading post near Wills Creek (present day Cumberland, Maryland).  Delaware George brought with him a letter from Major Robert Stobo imprisoned in the French Fort Duquesne.  In the letter, Stobo detailed the strength of the fort and its garrison.  Croghan, a trader and British Indian agent, made copies for officials in the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia...

Wednesday August 28, 1754
A Mohawk Indian, Moses the Song, brings another letter and a map from Major Robert Stobo to George Croghan.  The map detailed the size of Fort Duquesne.  The letter gave information on how popular and important several French prisoners were that were in prison in Williamsburg Virginia...

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