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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
In a 670-word letter written the following day, also signed, given to an Indian runner named Delaware George, Stobo repeated some of the information of the first letter, again urged an attack, reported that the Indians had taken and were selling English prisoners, and gave an account by name and company of twelve deserters and prisoners, one of them an informer, lately held at the Fort. The letters were delivered (the second one first) to George Croghan, frontier trader and Indian interpreter, who indiscreetly opened both before sending them on to Colonel James Innés, commander at Wills Creek. The letters were copied several times and were carelessly circulated and talked about. Despite the intelligence they conveyed, the British were in no position to make an immediate assault on the French stronghold.
On August 22, Governor Dinwiddie sent Commissary La Force and the twenty other prisoners under guard toward Wills Creek with orders to Colonel Innés to exchange them for Captains Stobo and van Braam. On reading Captain Stobo’s letters, however, with their information about the merits of the much-wanted M. La Force, Dinwiddie changed his mind and sent an express rider to overtake and turn back the column. To Thomas, Lord Fairfax, Virginia’s first landowner, he wrote that, because of information received from Captain Stobo, he would return La Force and seventeen other French prisoners to Alexandria. To Colonel Innés at Wills Creek he gave orders to exchange, “if you can,” the remaining officer and two cadets for the two English hostages. A year later, after the French ambassador had protested this action to the British government and the case had become a celebrated one in Europe, Dinwiddie was still writing long letters to his home minister to justify his conduct.
In dogged and much-blotted French, Colonel Innés wrote out an offer of exchange and gave it to a young artillery lieutenant named Lewis Lyon to carry under a flag of truce to Fort Duquesne.
In the meantime, Commandant Contrecoeur, through intelligence received from the English settlements, had learned that someone had sent letters and a map of his fort to the English—a violation of his security he was careful not to impart to his superiors in Canada. He suspected his hostages, and when young Lieutenant Lyon appeared with his flag of truce (red, according to French custom), Contrecoeur refused to accept the proffered exchange, concluding that Stobo and van Braam knew far too much to be traded back to the enemy. He charged Lyon with being on a spying mission, kept him confined in a small room where he could see nothing, refused to let him talk to Stobo or van Braam, and turned him out of the camp at two o’clock in the morning. That same day, under guard, the two hostages were started “under good and sure guard” on the journey to French Canada.
The trip was made by canoe, bateaux, and portages, and (assuming it followed the usual route) proceeded by way of the rivers to Fort Presque Isle (at present-day Erie, Pennsylvania), across Lake Erie, down the Niagara River, around the great Falls and the gorge to Fort Niagara, across Lake Ontario to Fort Frontenac (where Kingston, Ontario, now stands), and down the St. Lawrence to Quebec.
After thirty-nine days and some 650 miles of travel, the hostages reached Quebec on October 26, where they were interrogated by the Marquis Duquesne, governor general of New France.
To his minister at Versailles Duquesne wrote: “The two hostage captains arrived here five days ago. They told me they were greatly shocked by the proceedings of their governor, who has abandoned them. That is all I could get from them. Their good conduct at Fort Duquesne won them politeness from me and freedom to walk in the city, on their parole.” Contrecoeur’s failure to report the violation of security served Stobo well.
He used his freedom to perfect his French, to make friends, and, presumably, to make a careful study of the key French fortress in the New World. He was given a room in the ramparts of the Citadel and, as an officer, received a small daily allowance for his subsistence. Though he had left Fort Necessity “with only the clothes on my back and three or four shirts,” he had retained his money and his credit was good, and now he bought himself a new wardrobe. Among his purchases were a suit of red satin trimmed in blue; a wool suit trimmed with gold lace; a scarlet, blue, and gold vest faced with white satin; shirts bedecked with Rouen lace; a diamond neck buckle; a snuff box; a beaver greatcoat; a pair of otter’s-hair mittens; and a hat set off with a plume.
Such purchases were expensive in New France, but Captain Stobo’s resources were strengthened in the spring of 1755, when Governor Dinwiddie supplied the two hostages with a credit of £50 through a merchant in Albany. With the money, Stobo received word that he had been promoted to major. A year later the Virginia House of Burgesses ordered that £300 be sent to Robert Stobo “in consideration of his services to the country, and his sufferings in his confinement as a hostage at Quebec.” Van Braam, who was under a cloud because of his blunder in translating the capitulation papers, was ignored.
The unknown author of The Memoirs of Robert Stobo (written during the subject’s lifetime but not published until 1800) said of this period: His manner was open, free and easy, which gained him ready access into all their company: nay, indeed, they never thought any company complete unless Monsieur Stobo made one of it. … As he had very little other employment at that time, he endeavored to make himself as agreeable as he could with the ladies, and found himself much in their good graces.