ROBERTSON, CHARLES, army officer; d. 6 May 1763 at Lake St Clair.
Nothing is known of Charles Robertson’s life until his service with the British forces in North America during the Seven Years’ War. He was commissioned lieutenant in the 77th regiment on 15 Sept. 1758 and may have been among the troops under John Forbes who occupied Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh, Pa.) later that year. At Carillon (Ticonderoga, N.Y.) in March 1760, Robertson led a party that discovered more than a hundred bateaux and whaleboats abandoned by the French in their evacuation of the fort the previous summer.
Perhaps Robertson’s work in reassembling this fleet led Major-General Jeffery Amherst* to consider him an expert on naval matters. In 1761 Amherst placed him in charge of building two armed sailing vessels in a shipyard on the Niagara River. Assuming that the task would be quickly finished, Amherst dispatched Major Henry Gladwin* and 300 men of the 80th regiment with orders to explore lakes Huron and Michigan on Robertson’s ships, examining the former French outposts and estimating the size of garrison each would require. The ships would then be used to maintain communications among the posts. Robertson, however, failed to start the construction early in the season and did not anticipate the difficulty of navigating the Niagara River. He finished only the Huron, a six-gun schooner, in the summer of 1761 and then could not get her through the rapids at the head of the river. In the following summer he had more success. The Huron became the first British sailing vessel on Lake Erie and was probably the first such ship in those waters since René-Robert Cavelier* de La Salle’s Griffon had passed through in 1679. By midsummer Robertson had finished the second ship, the sloop Michigan, and taken both vessels to Detroit. Only then did he discover sand bars blocking the passage through Lake St Clair. Gladwin, in Detroit with a second expedition, convened a court of inquiry to take official note of the added delay, and the ships were laid up for another winter.
Accompanied by Sir Robert Davers, in the spring of 1763 “Captain” Robertson (as he was popularly dubbed) took a party to look for a channel through Lake St Clair. Although warned that Pontiac planned hostilities, they pressed on to the mouth of the St Clair River but were overwhelmed there in a clash with some Indians. Robertson’s body was roasted and eaten in a savage conclusion to the slaughter. His remains, along with those of Davers, were buried near the Indian camp.
Robertson’s ship-building career had important consequences for the British in the west. During the Pontiac uprising Detroit might have fallen to the Indians if the Huron and the Michigan had not been available to bring in men and supplies. The delay in getting ships into the Upper Lakes, however, had made impossible the proper garrisoning and supplying of the forts beyond Detroit, and every one of them fell in the opening days of the war. Some of the delays had been beyond Robertson’s control but others had not, and this military ship captain must bear part of the blame for the early success of the Indian uprising in the Upper Lakes region.
DPL, Burton hist. coll., Porteous papers, John Porteous to his father, 20 Nov. 1763. PRO, WO 34/49, Amherst to Campbell, 27 May 1761; Amherst to Gladwin, 22 June 1761; court of inquiry, 3 Sept. 1762; MacDonald, Journal of the siege of Detroit. Clements Library, Gage papers, American series, Robertson to Gage, 3 March 1760; Sterling letter book, James Sterling to John Duncan, 25 Oct. 1762. Army list, 1759, 131. Johnson papers (Sullivan et al.). [John Rutherford], “Rutherford’s narrative – an episode in the Pontiac War, 1763 – an unpublished manuscript by Lieut. Rutherford of the ‘Black Watch,’” Canadian Institute Trans. (Toronto), III (1891–92), 229–52. British officers serving in America, 1754–1774, comp. W. C. Ford (Boston, 1894), 86. Thomas Mante, The history of the late war in North America and the islands of the West Indies, including the campaigns of MDCCLXIII and MDCCLXIV against His Majesty’s Indian enemies (London, 1772), 482–83. M. M. Quaife, The Royal Navy of the upper lakes (Burton hist. coll. Leaflet, II, [Detroit], 1924), 52.