STEWART, WILLIAM, businessman, militia officer, politician, and farmer; baptized 24 July 1803 in Carbost, near Loch Harport, Isle of Skye, Scotland, son of Ranald Stewart and Isabella McLeod; m. 16 April 1838 Catherine Stewart of Cuidrach, Isle of Skye, and they had four sons and five daughters; d. 21 March 1856 in Toronto.
William Stewart was 13 when he arrived at Quebec in 1816 with his nine brothers and sisters, his widowed mother, his maternal grandmother, and his uncle. The family proceeded to Upper Canada and settled in Lancaster Township, Glengarry County, where William’s education was rounded out under the tutelage of army doctor Roderick Macleod. Stewart’s first employment was with a Montreal merchant, whom he represented at the sale of timber rafts at Quebec in 1825. He spent the next two years at Longueuil before moving in March 1827 to Bytown (Ottawa), then a construction camp. There, in partnership with John G. McIntosh, Stewart acquired property adjoining the projected route of the Rideau Canal and opened a store carrying dry goods and supplies for timber shanties on the upper Ottawa River. Though a teetotaller, he added a taproom to the store, ownership of which he assumed in 1830 upon the death of his partner. Community-minded, Stewart was elected one of the original councillors for Bytown in 1828. During the cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1834 he made door-to-door surveys for the board of health and later was one of the founders of the County of Carleton General Protestant Hospital. He helped form the Bytown Association for the Preservation of the Peace during the Shiner riots [see Peter Aylen*] and was active in the local militia.
In the mid 1830s Stewart supervised, staffed, and equipped his own timber shanties on the upper Ottawa and its tributaries and sold rafts of red and white pine at Quebec. As a broker, he also financed small operators and sold timber on their behalf. Fluent in English and Gaelic and with a working knowledge of French, Stewart, a founding member of the Ottawa Lumber Association, quickly became a spokesman for lumberers operating above Bytown, especially on the need for appointing timber cullers independent of both buyers and sellers. While in London in 1835, he presented a memorial to the British government on behalf of Montreal merchants and Bytown residents seeking improvements to navigation on the Ottawa. In London again in 1838, he was examined by a committee of the House of Commons on the feasibility of Charles Shirreff*’s proposed water route to Lake Huron via the Ottawa, and later that year he had an interview with Lord Durham [Lambton*] at Quebec on the matter. In 1839, acting as agent for Louis-Théodore Besserer*, Stewart sold lots in what is now the Sandy Hill district of Ottawa.
Upon the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841, Stewart ran for election for Bytown against Stewart Derbishire*. Apparently at the suggestion of Governor Lord Sydenham [Thomson*], who was backing Derbishire, James Johnston*, Alexander James Christie*, and Robert Shirreff withdrew their candidacies, but Stewart refused to retire. Though defeated he harboured no grudge and assisted Derbishire in furthering local concerns. In 1843 Stewart was returned for nearby Russell in a colourful by-election campaign during which he was escorted from Bytown by a uniformed volunteer fire brigade. Intensely loyal to the crown, Stewart won the 1844 general election in Bytown on a pledge to support “the course pursued by the illustrious Individual at the head of the Government,” Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe*.
During his years in the Legislative Assembly (1843–47), Stewart shepherded through legislation regulating the culling and measurement of timber and introduced a resolution calling for a start on a project to be known as the Georgian Bay ship canal, an undertaking which his son McLeod would urge at a future date but without success. In 1845 Stewart chaired the committee that secured the return from the Board of Ordnance of land belonging to Nicholas Sparks*, and the following year he drafted the bill to incorporate Bytown. The boundaries in the bill, which Stewart later claimed reflected those sanctioned by Lord Sydenham in 1841, left his farm outside the town limits and thus subject to a lower tax rate. Stewart was also accused of arranging the wards in Bytown so as to favour conservative ascendancy. In the general election of 1847–48, the conservatives of Bytown for unknown reasons abandoned “sweet William,” as the reform Bytown Packet dubbed him, for John Bower Lewis*. But John A. Macdonald* had not lost confidence in Stewart and, in the spring of 1849, urged him to “organize at once for Bytown, Russell, Prescott, and Carleton,” should Lord Elgin [Bruce*] call a snap election during the upheaval caused by the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill. He became the candidate of the British American League [see George Moffatt*] for Bytown but there was to be no election until 1851, when he was defeated by reformer Daniel McLachlin*. He ran for the last time in 1854 for Russell, again unsuccessfully.
In the late 1840s Stewart had suffered financial set-backs. Reported to be worth £20,000 in 1846, he had invested heavily in lumber; losses sustained as a result of a glutted market and tight credit during 1847–48 forced him to sell his crown timber permits to John Egan and give up his lumber business. By 1850 he had given up his store as well and thereafter devoted his time to his duties as superintendent of common schools for Bytown and to his farm. The latter ran west of the Rideau River for two miles and adjoined the Bytown parcel owned by the heirs of Lieutenant-Colonel John By*. Stewart won prizes for his saddle horses and field crops and used the hustings to lecture farmers on methods of fertilizing. In March 1856, while representing the city of Ottawa as a special agent in Toronto, then the seat of government, he suddenly took ill and died a few days later. With him at the end were Robert Bell* and John Sandfield Macdonald*. The latter prepared Stewart’s bedside will.
Stewart is best remembered for the wide range of his community activities, including the following: he was a founding member of St Andrew’s (Presbyterian) Church; vice-president of the Highland Society of Canada; director of the Bytown Emigration Society; president of the Agricultural Society of Carleton County; a member of the original Bytown board of trade; and a director of the Bank of British North America. An ambitious businessman, Stewart accumulated property in Bytown and in Carleton and Renfrew counties despite his chronic complaint of financial difficulties. His letter-books reveal the man: deeply religious, philanthropic, impatient with the shortcomings of others yet a person to whom friends turned for advice. For poet William Pittman Lett, Stewart was “a man among old Bytown’s men.”
AO, MU 1729. BLHU, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 13: 247. Ottawa, Hist. Soc., Bytown Museum Arch. (Ottawa), AMIS, no.6. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 224: 754; MG 24, D101; I9, 19, 22; MG 55/24, no.304. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1843–47; Statutes, 1843–47. Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser (Bytown [Ottawa]), 1836–54, especially 10 Oct. 1844. Ottawa Citizen, 1854. Ottawa Tribune, 1854. Packet, 1844–51, especially 27 Nov. 1847. M. S. Cross, “The dark druidical groves: the lumber community and the commercial frontier in British North America, to 1854” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1968). W. P. Lett, Recollections of old Bytown, ed. Edwin Welch (Ottawa, 1979). Michael Newton, Lower Town, Ottawa (2v., Can., National Capital Commission, Manuscript report, nos.104, 106, Ottawa, 1979–81).
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Cite This Article
R. Forbes Hirsch, “STEWART, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 10, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_william_8E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||R. Forbes Hirsch|
|Title of Article:||STEWART, WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||June 10, 2023|