STOBO, ROBERT, military officer; b. in Glasgow, Scotland, on 7 Oct. 1726, son of William Stobo, a well-to-do merchant; d. 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, Pa.). 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. 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 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 Sept. 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. 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.
[Stobo’s birth is recorded in the General Register Office (Edinburgh), Register of births and baptisms for the City of Glasgow. For a full-length biography of Stobo, with complete documentation of his career, see: R. C. Alberts, The most extraordinary adventures of Major Robert Stobo (Boston, 1965); Stobo’s “Memoirs,” which do not seem to have been written by Stobo himself, are discussed on pp.345–49. A manuscript copy of the memoirs, dated 1760, can be found in the Harvard College Library, MS Can 45 (44M-382). The memoirs were first printed in London in 1800: Memoirs of Major Robert Stobo, of the Virginia regiment, and were reprinted, with notes by N. B. Craig, Pittsburgh, 1854. See also: PRO, Adm 1/307. Wis. State Hist. Soc. (Madison), Draper mss, 12 U 73–76, 77, 80, 88–89.
For copies of documents concerning Stobo’s trial, see: “Procès de Robert Stobo et de Jaco Wambram pour crime de haute trahison,” APQ Rapport, 1922–23, 299–347. See also: “L’évasion de Stobo et de Van Braam de la prison de Québec en mai 1757,” BRH, XIV (1908), 147–54, 175–82. Papiers Contrecœur (Grenier). [Simon Stevens], A journal of Lieutenant Simon Stevens . . . with an account of his escape from Quebec . . . (Boston, 1760). Westminster Journal, or New Weekly Miscellany (London), 23 June 1770. R. J. Jones, A history of the 15th (East Yorkshire) regiment . . . (Beverly, Eng., 1958). Gilbert Parker, The seats of the mighty; being the memoirs of Captain Robert Moray . . . (New York, 1897), is a romanticized account of Stobo’s career. r.c.a.].