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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
The young major was equipped by background and education to conduct himself properly in the polite society of New France. Born in 1727 in Glasgow, he was the only son of William Stobo, a Glasgow merchant who had become well-to-do by instituting ship- ment of Scottish goods to English markets. His father died when he was thirteen, leaving him and his two sisters in the care of their mother but under the legal guardianship of friends.
Stobo had been “so prodigiously delicate in his constitution, that when a boy … he was nursed two spring seasons on breast milk.” As a young man he was described as “rather slender than robust, and graceful in his whole deportment.” He was five feet, ten inches tall and “of a dark brown complexion, a penetrating eye, an aquiline nose, round face, [and] a good cheerful countenance.”
In 1742 his guardians sent young Stobo to Virginia to work and learn the business in a store owned by some merchants of Glasgow. Five years later, at twenty, he returned to Glasgow, sold some of his real estate, and went back to Virginia with a small fortune in merchandise with which to set himself up as an independent merchant and “factor.” As an eligible young bachelor and the protégé of Governor Dinwiddie (also Glasgow-born), he had entre into the best Virginia homes. When Dinwiddie appointed him to his captaincy in February, 1754, Stobo had (like Jacob van Braam) no dependents and no other attachments. This, it may be assumed, was the reason why these two were chosen from Washington’s five captains to serve as hostages.
The French, however, had suddenly come to a quite different conclusion about the reason for that service. They had been given two pieces of solid evidence on what they had theretofore suspected but could not prove.
First, in Stobo’s own words, “a paragraph of a News Paper from London dated January 1755 mentioned a letter I had wrote from Fort Duquesne to the Commander at Wills Creek giving information of the state of the place appearing.” This news item, of course, had come to the attention of the French and, in a matter of months, had arrived in Canada.
And then, on July 9, 1755, a few miles from Fort Duquesne, General Edward Braddock and his forces were routed with great loss. In his inventory of what was left on the field of battle, Contrecoeur listed a stunning array of booty and ended his list with the words, “A lot of papers which have not been translated for want of time; among others, a plan of Fort Duquesne with its exact proportions.” This was Stobo’s signed map and letter, given to General Braddock at Wills Creek and carried by him to his defeat and death.
Meanwhile Stobo, unaware of impending disaster, had become commercially active in Canada. With his credit and the capital received from Williamsburg, he undertook certain business enterprises with a St. Luc de la Corne. Apparently these had to do with Indian trade goods, for La Corne was superintendent of French Indian affairs, and Stobo obtained special permission to travel back and forth among the native villages. He was, in fact, given “the honor of the Mississago Indian nation” in a ceremony in which he was tattooed with fish bones dipped in a black dye “on the foresides of both thighs, immediately above the garter, in form something like a diadem.”
It was at a gathering in La Corne’s house in Montreal, a few weeks before Braddock’s defeat, that Stobo first learned of his misfortune. La Corne greeted him with the words, “Devil of an Englishman, you have written letters. Contrecoeur is furious with you, and he is right.” Stobo replied, “They never asked me for my word of honor not to write letters. I am too honest a man to break my word, if they had asked me.”
One of those present reported van Braam as saying to Stobo, “You have done wrong. We’re lucky we fell into the hands of French people who have been good to us.”
Both men were taken before the Marquis de Vaudreuil, who in a few weeks would replace Duquesne as governor general of New France. On Vaudreuil’s desk lay a copy of the London newspaper. The Governorelect questioned both and then sent them back to Quebec, where they were placed together in a cell in the artillery barracks.
To Machault, the Minister of Marine and Colonies, Vaudreuil wrote querulously and at length on July 24 (still unaware of the great French victory at Fort Duquesne) of “the sad condition” in which Duquesne had left the colony. “I add that the two English captains who are here as hostages have had as much liberty as if they had been invited to learn thoroughly our situation. … They have even advised their Governors of our forces and plans. I have had them confined.” Within a few days, Vaudreuil received from Fort Duquesne the undeniable evidence of Stobo’s guilt.
The Governor-designate sent Stobo’s captured letter and map to Versailles for instructions. Months passed. The French government published and widely distributed a “white paper” which cited the letter as evidence that Stobo and van Braam “were two very crafty spies” and charged rather wildly that the continued detention of La Force and the other French prisoners was part of a plot to make sure that the two hostages would be held longer by the French, so they could obtain as much information as possible. In May-June, 1756, almost as an afterthought, England and France formally declared war on each other. Eventually a ship arrived in Canada with a “commission” for the Governor to try both men by a war council of colonial officers for violating the known laws of nations, for breach of faith, and for treasonable practices against the government that sheltered them.