- Historic Sites
The Fantastic Adventures Of Captain Stobo
Into seven crucial years of American colonial history, a young Scots-American officer packed more of the stuff that makes heroes than perhaps a dozen more illustrious men. Yet today his name has slipped into almost complete obscurity
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
One of the hostages was Jacob van Braam, about twenty-five, unmarried, whose faulty interpretation of French had caused Washington to sign the confession of murder. Van Braam was wearing, as befitted a gentleman hostage, a superfine broadcloth coat with silver fringe and a fine scarlet waistcoat, fully laced. He had bought them from Washington for £13 that morning after he had volunteered or consented (it is not clear which) to accompany the French. The other hostage, twenty-seven and also unmarried, was Robert Stobo.
Stobo and van Braam had spent the night of July 3-4 under guard in the French camp. Stobo was shocked the next day to observe several Indians loaded with what was obviously pillage from the stores left under guard at Fort Necessity. He was even more indignant when he recognized his own valise and a small box in which he had kept a special ring and other jewelry. With a persuasiveness that was a notable part of his character, he induced a French officer to return with him to Fort Necessity so that he might rescue his other belongings. He found “the fort destroyed, the war arms taken away, the trunks of the English spread everywhere in the fields, broken and pillaged.”
According to his later testimony, Stobo concluded then and there that the terms of the capitulation had been violated and that he in turn was free of his moral obligations as a hostage. That conclusion was confirmed several days after his arrival at Fort Duquesne, when the Indians brought in a number of English soldiers made prisoner after the capitulation. Some of these men were from his own company, and they were offered for sale, even to Stobo himself, for 40 pistoles (£32) each. “I thought,” said Stobo, “that it was in the power of 500 or 600 brave Frenchmen to prevent 80 or 90 Indians from doing what they pleased. I began to think the French closed their eyes to this outrage, not only to gratify the Indians but also to attach the Indians more to their own cause. ”
At Fort Duquesne, Stobo and van Braam were quartered in a room within the stockade and, as hostages, were given the freedom of the grounds. Van Braam spent his days and evenings playing cards and talking with the French officers in their cabins. Stobo began to learn French and to study the customs of the Indians. And he proceeded to examine every detail of his surroundings.
Discovering that the French fort was weakly held, Stobo sat down in his room on July 28 and wrote as much in an 815-word letter addressed to the English commander at Wills Creek (Cumberland, Maryland). The letter was smuggled out by an Indian named Moses, “a worthy fellow” who Stobo had reason to believe could be trusted. It plunged without introduction into an account of French-Indian relations, perhaps in the manner of a man who is making a report which he knows is expected (“This was all I could pick up”). It was signed boldly with Stobo’s full name, perhaps in the manner of a man who is determined to get credit for what he has written.
Garrison consists of 200 Men … a Lieutenant went off some days ago with 200 Men for provisions, he’s daily expected, when he arrives the garrison will then be 400. La Force is greatly wanted here, no scouting now, he certainly must have been an extraordinary Man amongst them, he is so much regretted and wished for; when We engaged to serve the Country 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 wou’d die ten thousand Deaths to have the Pleasure of possessing this Fort but one day, they are so vain of their Success at the Meadows, ‘tis worse than Death to hear them, strike this Fall, as soon as possible make the Indians ours, prevent Intelligence, get the best, and ‘tis done, one hundred trusty Indians might Surprise this fort, they have Access all day and might lodge themselves so that they might secure the guard with their tomahawks, shut the Sally gate and the Fort is ours. None but the Guard and Contrecoeur [the commandant] stays in the Fort at night.
What he wrote next would cost him dearly in the years to come.
For God’s Sake communicate this to but few, and them you can trust. Intelligence comes here unaccountably. If they should know I have wrote, I should at least lose the little liberty I have. I should be glad to hear from you, but take no notice of this in yours. Excuse errors, bad diction, etc. … Pray be kind to this Indian.
On the reverse side of the letter, Stobo made “a draft of the Fort, such as time and opportunity would admit of at this time.” It was a clear and extraordinarily detailed drawing of Fort Duquesne, complete with dimensions and analysis. (“A. Ditch with a breast work thrown up. B. The Earth not dug away in the Lunets. C. The Entrance to the powder room. 5 Cannon mounted on this bastion. In the whole fort 8 Cannon, 4 of which 3 pounders. The prickt [dotted] line represents posts of wood drove in the ground 12 feet high and mortized together with loop holes for small arms.”)