Robert Field Stockton



Occupation 1

Naval officer


Naval technology promoter


NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Heroic Age of Sail (1816-1865)








...was born in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of Richard Stockton... Beginning with Robert Stockton's grandfather, Richard Stockton (1730-1781), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, members of four successive generations of the wealthy and influential family served in the Continental Congress or the United States Congress.
Robert F. Stockton first distinguished himself in the U.S. Navy. Withdrawing from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at age sixteen, he accepted appointment as a midshipman in the United States Navy. Before and during the War of 1812, he served under the command of Commodore John Rodgers (1773-1838). Promoted to lieutenant in 1812, Stockton was later mentioned in dispatches for his services, including the defenses of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland (1814). Stockton also saw action against Algiers (1815), whose pirates had preyed on Americans, then served a four-year tour of duty with the navy's powerful Mediterranean Squadron.
Stockton's naval career next took him to the west coast of Africa and then to the Caribbean. Sympathetic to the American Colonization Society, he escorted an agent of that organization to Africa and negotiated with natives a treaty (1821) that yielded a tract of land at Cape Mesurado, which became Liberia, to colonize freed slaves from the United States. (Stockton later helped found and served as president of the New Jersey Colonization Society.) While on duty off Africa, Stockton captured several French slave ships and a Portuguese letter of marque. The latter seizure resulted in litigation that carried to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld his action. During 1822, he took part in a naval expedition against pirates in the West Indies.

...From 1828, when he inherited holdings of his father upon the latter's death, until 1838, Robert F. Stockton remained on inactive naval duty and devoted himself to business affairs and to his family. Stockton's enterprises in New Jersey were the Delaware & Raritan Canal and the Camden & Amboy Railroad, which, as the Joint Companies, were legally separate but financially unified. Ownership was concentrated in a small group, including Stockton, John Potter (Stockton's father-in-law), Robert L. Stevens, Edwin A. Stevens, and John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). The waterway, which ran between Bordentown and New Brunswick, New Jersey, was one of the important "anthracite canals," so named because they transported coal from eastern Pennsylvania to tidewater, in this case with access to the harbor of New York City. The railroad linked terminals on the Delaware River and Raritan Bay, also within striking distance of New York City's harbor. The canal and railroad companies were chartered by the New Jersey state legislature, which also granted them monopoly privileges between Philadelphia and New York City and approved creation of the Joint Companies (1830-1831). In return, the state received a lucrative financial interest in the companies and the right to purchase them when their charters expired. The Camden & Amboy provided free passes to politicians and subsidies in the form of advertising to newspapers to protect its position at the expense of potential competitors and shippers along the route.
Stockton returned to naval duty as a captain in 1838, serving briefly in the Mediterranean and in Europe. Earlier a backer of John Quincy Adams and then of Andrew Jackson, Stockton took leave to campaign for William Henry Harrison for president in 1840. He next supported John Tyler (1790-1862), who had succeeded to the presidency on Harrison's death (1841). Rejecting Tyler's offer of the navy secretaryship, Stockton secured administration support for the construction of a screw propeller-and-sail warship, its screw the idea of John Ericsson, who later designed and built the famous Monitor. Stockton helped oversee building of the USS Princeton, named for his hometown, then assumed command of the vessel. The bursting of one of the warship's largest guns, designed by Stockton, which killed, among others, the secretary of state and the secretary of the navy, almost sank his naval career (1844). An official inquiry, however, cleared him of responsibility for the mishap.

During the crisis of 1845-1846 with Mexico over Texas, Stockton, now a commodore, was assigned first to the Gulf of Mexico, then to the Pacific, arriving off California after the outbreak of war with Mexico. During July 1846, he succeeded Commodore John D. Sloat in command of the Pacific Squadron. Sloat's forces had already captured Monterey and San Francisco; their commander had, without authority, proclaimed the annexation of California. Stockton added to his navy forces Americans who had revolted against Mexican rule, created the short-lived Bear Flag Republic, and, under Lieutenant Colonel John C. Fr�mont, formed a California battalion. In imperious language that fairly assured resistance by Californians, Stockton also declared the annexation of California. Fr�mont occupied San Diego, and Stockton took Los Angeles, following which Stockton improperly declared the creation of a civilian territorial government. A September revolt of Californians retook Los Angeles and most of southern California. Stockton, joined by Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny and his small command, which had arrived overland from New Mexico, recaptured Los Angeles in January 1847. Fighting in southern California ended that same month. Conflict between Stockton and Kearny regarding governance in California was resolved soon after the arrival of Commodore W. Branford Shubrick, who as senior officer assumed command and divided authority with Kearny.

Retiring from the navy in 1850, Stockton again turned to family, business, and political concerns, settling the estate of his father-in-law, serving (as a Democrat) in the U.S. Senate (1851-1853), and holding the presidency of the Delaware & Raritan Canal (1853-1866). He joined the nativistic American (Know-Nothing) party, belonging to the faction that rejected unification with the Republican party. During the secession crisis of 1860-1861, he was a New Jersey delegate to the ill-fated Washington Peace Conference of February 1861. The venerable warrior was called to the colors one final time when Governor Joel Parker (1816-1888) designated him to command New Jersey's militia during Confederate Generral Robert E. Lee's 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. Stockton died in Princeton...

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