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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
Seeing no chance of being exchanged, Stevens joined with Major Stobo in the fall of 1758 in a plan to escape. They recruited one Elijah Denbo, a prisoner who had been a servant to a New Jersey captain; Oliver Lakin, who was a prisoner of the Indians but was allowed to come into Quebec to work; and William Clark, a ship’s carpenter who, with his family, had been a prisoner of the Indians and was now living at Quebec in the character of a deserter from the English. After six months of delay and frustration, the escape plan was set. The group was to paddle down the St. Lawrence River in a canoe, despite the notorious difficulty of navigating it, and cross the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The goal was Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, the second city of New France, which had been taken by Lord Jeffery Amherst the year before. It was almost one thousand miles away.
On the night of Tuesday, May 1, 1759, Robert Stobo, dressed as a peasant, left his lodging as soon as darkness fell and went to Clark’s house. There the plotters had stored guns, ammunition and powder, provisions, and (in Stevens’ words) homemade “knapsacks, Indian stockings, and morgasons [moccasins].” Stevens and Lakin crossed the River St. Charles in a small boat and brought back a large birch-bark canoe, but with only two paddles.
The men loaded the provisions in the canoe and, about ten o’clock, started to paddle quietly down the St. Charles. There were nine of them altogether: Stobo, Stevens, Denbo, Lakin, Clark, and, incredible as it seems, Clark’s wife and three children. (The ages and the sex of the children are not known, but at least one of them appears to have been a grown girl.) Of the nine, only Clark had any experience as a seaman.
What happened to this strange company over the next twenty-six days is so improbable that the narrative, if it depended on Stobo’s Memoirs alone, would have to be almost completely discounted. The story, however, is validated by at least five other contemporary accounts, including a day-to-day journal kept by Lieutenant Stevens and published in Boston within the year.
The fugitives paddled until dawn, reaching the Isle Madame, about twenty-one miles below Quebec, where they pulled their canoe into a thicket, refreshed themselves, and set about making more paddles. During the next three days they made good progress; on Saturday, they came upon and took captive an Indian and his squaw. Stevens wrote: “I took hold of the Indian and march’d forward; but before we march’d far, the Indian sprang from me with a Design to make his Escape; upon which Clark being the next behind me, shot him dead. I then gave Orders to Denbo to kill the Squaw, who immediately obeyed my Orders.” Clark took the scalps of each (worth£24 in New York), tied stones to their feet, and sank them in a pool. Into their canoe they loaded the Indians’ possessions: a half bushel of corn, thirty weight of dried beaver fur, two hundred pounds of maple sugar, and two guns.
Meantime, back in Quebec, the alarm had been sounded. Montcalm wrote in his journal: The arrival of a special messenger … informed of the escape of Robert Stobo. … He has gone with an officer of New England and three or four English. They have promised 1,000 écus (silver crowns) reward to those who bring him back; they should have allowed him less liberty, especially after having attempted to escape twice.
By Wednesday, May 9, the fugitives were some two hundred miles below Quebec near Isle Verte. They woke to find a shallop (a large two-masted, four-oared boat) landing near their camp. They promptly captured the crew of four on firing several shots. Said Stevens: “We then examined the boat, and found to our great joy, about 40 bushels of wheat, a barrel of sturgeon, and about a hundred weight of sugar. We hove out about one-half of the wheat, and put in our own stores, and set sail with a fair wind, with our canoe at the stern.” They impressed the four prisoners as oarsmen.
That same afternoon they were challenged by a French sloop and ordered to come to. There was no wind, and a strong tide was against them, but they continued rowing. Stobo, at the tiller, promised “with a sacred oath” to kill the first prisoner “who offered anything to stop the shallop’s way, by slighting of his oar, or otherwise.” They were fired upon and pursued by boat, but were then favored by a rising wind. In Stevens’ words, “By good Fortune no Person was hurt, but very wonderfully escaped.”
At the River Metis on the following afternoon, having gone without sleep or rest since capturing the shallop, they elected to set their four prisoners ashore, giving them all but four bushels of their wheat and one gun with some powder and shot. “We watered and refreshed ourselves; and having a fine breeze of wind, continued on our course all night.”
They emerged from the wide mouth of the St. Lawrence, turned south around the Gaspé Peninsula, and then, in the Bay Chaleur, suffered a catastrophe. A severe storm forced them to shore and “drove in one Plank” of the shallop. Stevens wrote, “By this disaster we lost what little wheat we had, and eight cod; our condition was very deplorable, having a shattered boat, and almost deficient of all necessaries (except fish).”
The party held “a consultation.” Some were for going on foot through the woods to Fort Cumberland (formerly the French Fort Beauséjour, on the Chignecto Peninsula), well over a hundred miles away, but changed their minds when they found snow drifts four feet deep. Clark spent the next several days trying to get the boat up on land and made seaworthy again.