Dr. Alexander Stewart, born in 1779 in Perth, Scotland, was a veterinary surgeon who had studied in London and Edinburgh. For 14 years he was a surgeon to the Perth Agriculture Society but always had a desire to live in America. He began reading literature produced by a Mr. Flowers who apparently gave a glowing view of life in the new continent. He and his wife had eight children: four boys and four girls.
In 1817, he finally left with his wife and the four boys. Grandparents on both sides of the family pleaded that his four daughters should be left in Scotland. Once settled, they said, the daughters could follow. The girls were left behind, and it would seven years before they would see them again.
After a journey of seven weeks in crossing of the Atlantic, Dr. Stewart’s family made their way to New Harmony, Indiana, where Robert Owen had established a colony. (Owen was Welsh but in Glasgow he fell in love with and married Caroline Dale.) The colony is an interesting story and we will write about it in the future. It is not known how they traveled but they may have used the rivers until they reached New Harmony. There were no trains. The Stewart family was not interested in being part of the colony, so they moved on. Finally, in White County, Illinois, about a mile from the “Scotch settlement” of Liberty, they took up a homestead of 200 acres in 1825. (I am not sure why, but at some point Liberty changed its name to Burnt Prairie. It is 285 miles south of Chicago and had a population of 58 people in 2000.)
In America, Dr. Stewart began practicing medicine because there was so much “sickness-chill and fever.” He was very kind to the poor and often took them into his home for treatment and care. Now with the family settled, it was time to bring the four daughters to America.
He began a series of letters to a friend and neighbor in Edinburgh, Scotland. He sent money to this friend with instructions on how to reach Liberty, Illinois. They left with the next group of immigrants. After reaching New York, the friend took his family into the city to find lodging. In addition, he took “all their money, letters of introduction and travel instructions.” He never returned.
"After landing in New York, the girls (Jessie, Christina, Martha and
Mary) waited all afternoon. In their great disappointment and, in fear
for what might happen to them, they were all in tears.” They asked the captain of the sailing ship to take them back to Scotland but were told the ship would not sail for two weeks. Toward evening, a gentleman with a tall silk hat and a gold-headed cane came walking toward them from the city. He stopped and they told him their story. The gentleman happened to be a Scot and he could “understand them perfectly.” Not only did he have a “kindly Scotch tongue” but he had been a classmate of Dr. Stewart. He took them home and they “enjoyed a fine supper.”
The four girls ranged in age from 11 to 19, and they had not seen their parents in seven years. They were placed with other Scottish families in the area, except for Mary, the youngest, who stayed with the Doctor. (We only know him by his last name of Ferguson.) “They were all sent to school and given dancing lessons and had the advantages of the wealthy children of that day.” Dr. Ferguson was a kind and caring man.
In Liberty, Illinois, the father could estimate the amount of time it would take to cross the Atlantic and then there would be weeks and perhaps months for them to make the rest of the journey. After a period of time and the girls had not arrived, he concluded that they had been lost at sea or had met with some accident. The girls did not have their father’s address and there was no other method of communication so they wrote to the grandparents in Scotland. Mail traveled very slowly in those days and it took months for the father to get the message about what had happened and where they were.
The oldest daughter had fallen in love with George Dick while crossing the Atlantic and was planning to get married. When word finally reached the father, he began the long journey to New York. He traveled alone “armed with his gun and on foot.” (Google says that is a trip of 918 miles.) I don’t know how long that journey would have taken the good doctor.
After the wedding of Jessie, the oldest daughter, they began the long journey back to Illinois.
At the age of 86, Alexander Stewart died May 5, 1865, and was buried in the Burnt Prairie Cemetery. Many other family members are buried at this cemetery.
This story was written by Isabella Miller, a granddaughter of Dr. Alexander Stewart, and was sent to me in 2000 by Ted Reeves who lived in Merced, California. We communicated several times but have now lost touch. The telephone number I have is no longer correct. He was active in the Stewart Clan Society so perhaps someone can help with new contact information.
I find the story interesting because it illustrates how the world has changed and what the early immigrants faced if they chose to live in America.
Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club
The Highland Games are this weekend in Itasca, Illinois. Click here for full details. The Scottish American History Club and Scottish Heritage Museum will have a tent in the clan area. Come see us!