STEWART, THOMAS ALEXANDER, settler, jp, mill owner, and politician; b. 10 June 1786 in County Antrim (Northern Ireland), son of William Stewart; m. 17 Dec. 1816 Frances Browne*, and they had five daughters and six sons; d. 6 Sept. 1847 in Douro Township, Upper Canada.
Thomas Alexander Stewart was born and raised at Wilmont, the Stewart home near Belfast, in the comfortable circumstances of a landed family. In his youth he suffered an accident which left him permanently lame. He met Frances Browne at Wilmont in the summer of 1816 and they were married in Dublin six months later. For the next six years they lived in County Antrim, where Stewart was a partner in a textile firm. After it went bankrupt, he and Robert Reid, a brother-in-law and former partner, decided to emigrate to Upper Canada in search of a new life.
In June 1822 both families and their servants left Belfast for Quebec. Their careful planning was to ensure a welcome reception in Upper Canada. At York (Toronto) the following September, Stewart noted in a petition for land that he had been employed in the “Linen, Flour and cotton Business” and intended establishing himself as an “Agriculturist combined with any application of machinery he might find for his advantage.” He was subsequently granted 1,200 acres in the unsettled township of Douro in the Newcastle District, about 30 miles north of the long-established front of settlement along Lake Ontario. In addition, he and Reid were empowered in April 1823 to supervise the development of a tract of 10,000 acres. They were unable to attract settlers, however, and released the land in 1825 for the use of the Irish immigrants brought in by Peter Robinson.
In the winter of 1822–23 the Stewarts thrust themselves into a harsh, backwoods environment which required all their fortitude to overcome. Unused to even simple household tasks, they were obliged to perform many jobs on their own, particularly after the unexpected departure of their servants. They faced extreme isolation and the slow development of the area was disheartening. Stewart considered moving to a cleared farm near Cobourg. He was further discomfited by the failure of his applications for employment by the Canada Company and for official positions, though in 1823 he did become a justice of the peace.
Stewart’s fortunes were rescued by the rapid growth that occurred after 1825, when the Peterborough area was settled by Robinson’s immigrants. Suddenly Stewart found several hundred people within a few miles of his farm. The stimulus provided by this colonization led to widespread progress in the area. He applied, unsuccessfully, in 1826 for permission to open a private land office in Peterborough. Stewart subsequently appears to have thrown himself into the role of community leader. He petitioned for local projects such as the bridging of the Otonabee River, the opening of the Trent water-way for navigation, and the creation of a new administrative district. In 1831 his farm was well established, with 54 acres cleared. Financial worries were still present, however, for no buyers appeared three years later when he advertised land for sale at $12 per acre. In 1834 his construction of a sawmill on the Otonabee, opposite his farm, and his contribution to the erection of St John’s Church (Anglican) in Peterborough clearly reflected his interest in the community.
Stewart’s conservative upbringing suited his appointment in 1833 to the Legislative Council, a post he held until the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841. He attended council sporadically, generally when matters pertaining to the Peterborough area were being discussed. His allegiance to the crown was evident from his role in mustering pro-government forces during the rebellion of 1837–38.
In his 50s, Stewart became increasingly interested in domestic affairs. He employed a manager on his farm in 1840, by which year 70 acres had been cleared. A new frame dwelling was occupied in late 1842, replacing, at last, the original log house. The Stewarts’ large family must have been a source of considerable comfort to them, although the boys had been too young to be of much assistance during the critical years when the farm was being established. An inability to find cash may be reflected by Stewart’s much delayed payment of fees, and the patenting of his original land, in 1843 – 21 years after settlement. His religious interests appear to have been strong and he drew great solace from reflection and prayer; he delighted in discussing such interests with his wife and with his sister who dwelt near by he was alert to more than merely local affairs. By 1847 he was assisting immigrants fleeing from the Irish famine.
In September of that year Stewart died of typhus. He was survived by his wife. Her letters home to Ireland, published in 1889, tell much of their Canadian experiences. Of the surviving ten children, several established themselves in the Peterborough community.
Thomas Alexander Stewart is the author of a letter sent to Basil Hall and printed anonymously in Hall’s Travels in North America, in the years 1827 and 1828 . . . (3v., Edinburgh, 1829), 1: 307–23. The letter is reprinted in The valley of the Trent, ed. and intro. E. C. Guillet (Toronto, 1957), 345–52. There is a portrait of Stewart in the Peterborough Centennial Museum and Arch. (Peterborough, Ont.).
AO, RG 1, A-1-6, 7, 14; RG 21, United Counties of Northumberland and Durham, Douro Township, assessment records, 1831, 1840 (mfm. at Trent Univ. Arch., Peterborough). PAC, RG 1, L3, 461: S13/106; RG 5, A1: 62903–5, 80133–36; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 452, 670. Peterborough Land Registry Office, Abstract index to deeds, Douro Township, concession 9, lots 3–4; concession 11, lots 1, 3; concession 12, lots 1–3; concession 13, lot 1 (mfm. at AO). Trent Univ. Arch., B-74-1005 (Frances [Browne] Stewart letters); B-74-1006 (Frances [Browne] Stewart coll.); B–78–008 (Frances [Browne] Stewart papers). Frances [Browne] Stewart, Our forest home, being extracts from the correspondence of the late Frances Stewart, ed. E. S. [Stewart] Dunlop (Toronto, 1889). A. G. Brunger, “Early settlement in contrasting areas of Peterborough County, Ontario,” Perspectives on landscape and settlement in nineteenth century Ontario, ed. J. D. Wood (Toronto, 1975), 141–58. J. C. Lewis, “The letters of Frances Stewart,” Kawartha heritage: proceedings of the Kawartha Conference, 1981, ed. A. O. C. and J. M. Cole (Peterborough, 1981), 83–92. Through the years in Douro (Peterborough County – Canada), 1822–1967, ed. J. A. Edmison (Peterborough, 1967).