Setting the Record Straight on Major Robert Stewart

Robert Stewart (1729-1809) of the Virginia Regiment

A rich body of documents in the Library of Congress and elsewhere provides details of Robert Stewart’s service in the Virginia Regiment.   Military records and preserved correspondence mention him literally hundreds of times.   The correspondence of George Washington is especially rich as the men exchanged numerous letters, most of them quite lengthy.

The Virginia Regiment was formed in 1754 at the beginning of the French & Indian War as the first professional militia in the colonies.   Robert Stewart was a Captain commanding its company of light horse under George Washington, who became a close friend.   He participated in the march to Fort Duquesne and at Braddock’s Defeat, and at various times commanded two of the chain of frontier forts, Fort Pitt and Fort Loudoun.  On Washington’s recommendation he was made Brigade Major in 1758.   However, Stewart desired a military career in the regular army.  After his mentor and friend Washington resigned from the Virginia Regiment, Robert Stewart obtained a commission as a Lieutenant in the regular army’s Royal Americans.  His commanders allowed him to retain both commissions and to continue as Major in the Virginia Regiment.  Indeed, It does not appear that he ever actively served in the regular army.  By the time the Virginia Regiment was disbanded in 1762 he was a militia Lt. Colonel and hoping to achieve a higher rank in the Royal Americans than the Lieutenancy he still held.

Unable to transfer his militia rank into the regular army he decided, as was the custom, to purchase a higher rank.  He borrowed £302 from George Washington in 1763 and left for London, never to return.  He was unable to realize his ambition, in part due to an unspecified illness (possibly malaria) contracted during his service, and paid Washington back in 1768, the same year he was appointed controller of customs in Kingston, Jamaica.   His health sufferend in Jamaica and compelled his return to England.  His letter to Washington in January 1769 upon his return to London was the last Washington heard of him for many years.   A letter by Washington to a friend in London in 1774 mentions that he has not heard from Stewart in several years.

Not the same person as Robert Stewart of Augusta County, Virginia

A Robert Stewart purchased 200 acres in the Borden tract of Augusta (now Rockbridge) County on 25 February 1750 adjacent to his presumed brother John Stewart.  He thereafter virtually disappeared from local records, and that near-total absence from records suggests that either died or abandoned his property.   Then on 20 October 1782 James Stewart, representing himself as the heir-at-law of Robert Stewart, sold the 200-acre tract.

It was completely plausible to think that Robert Stewart’s absence from Augusta records could be accounted for by his military service and his subsequent move to England.   And it therefore was plausible that he had died by 1782 when James Stewart sold his land as heir.  That theory was bolstered by Col. Stewart’s letters complaining of poor health, which could account for his death, and a letter in which he called himself a bachelor, which could account for a nephew being his heir.

The theory is false.  These were two different men named Robert Stewart, as Robert Stewart of the Virginia Regiment was still alive in 1782.  Indeed, he lived until 1809.

How the Faulty Legend Got Started

In August 1929 the Stewart Clan Magazine published the claim that Captain, later Major, Robert Stewart of the Virginia Regiment in the French & Indian War was the same Robert Stewart who obtained 200 acres in Augusta County, Virginia in the Borden Tract.1    The same claim was repeated in the same journal in 1940 under the headline “Maj. Robert Stewart of Borden’s Tract”.2   An issue in 1958 covered an alternative, admittedly fictional, genealogy of Robert Stewart under the headline “Maj. Robert Stewart of Augusta County, Va”. 3

The same claim has since been repeated in other publications, including in an otherwise excellent 1981 treatise on the Stewarts of Augusta County by William C. Stewart.4

All of these theories have Robert Stewart dying prior to 1782 in order to explain the sale of his land by his heir James Stewart.  Clearly the Robert Stewart of the Borden tract was dead by 1782.  But Robert Stewart of the Virginia Regiment was not dead, but rather living in England.

Col. Robert Stewart Lived Long Past 1782

Lt. Col. Robert Stewart was alive and well in 1782 when James Stewart sold 200 acres as heir of Robert Stewart.  In fact, he lived until 1809.

  • The authors mentioned above evidently relied on published records of George Washington’s papers, which were incomplete at the time.  The Library of Congress has 121 items of correspondence between the two men some of which are as yet unpublished.   Among the unpublished items is an exchange of letters between Washington and Robert Stewart in 1783.   On 19 April 1783, Lt. Col. Robert Stewart wrote Washington from London asking for a political appointment, perhaps as a military agent in England or France.5  Washington’s response, addressed to Robert Stewart in London and dated 10 August 1783, was polite but discouraging and mentioned that he had not heard from Stewart in nearly fifteen years. 6
  • On 27 January 1785 Stewart produced a broadside making his case for compensation for injuries suffered during his service in America and broken promises by the military.   This document includes details of his service in the Virginia Regiment as Captain, Major, and Lt. Colonel from 1754 through 1760 that make it clear that he was the same man who appears in the military records quoted by the authors above.    See my transcription of this document at The Case of Lt. Col. Robert Stewart.
  • On 4 February 1789 John Polson, a former Ensign in the Virginia Regiment, wrote to George Washington from London, mentioning in passing:  “Your old acquaintance Colo. Robert Stewart is at Bath. He has been much of an Invalid for years past, but has had very bad health since last October.”7

No Relation to the Stewarts of Augusta County

  • Not once in the wealth of correspondence involving Robert Stewart did he suggest that he owned property in America or had any family members there.
  • That he was from Argyleshire is proven by a letter from his superior Gen. John Forbes to Gen. James Abercromby, commander of all British forces in North America, recommending Robert Stewart to fill the vacant Lieutenancy in the Royal American Regiment:  “I therefore take the liberty of recommending to you in the strongest manner Cap. Stewart of the Virginia light horse, as one every way qualified and deserving a much better recompense, having to my knowledge spent five hundred pounds of his own money in the service without any reward…  he is from Argyle shire and his story deserves being taken notice of as he is a Highlander and speaks the language…”8
  • In January 1764 Stewart wrote to Washington that he had joined a consortium to develop St. Johns Island [now Prince Edward Island] in Canada.9   Stewart wrote to Washington in 1765 mentioning that he planned to visit the island, but he apparently never lived there as he was back in London the following year.  He and a partner were granted 20,000 acres in 1767, part of which he later sold to his older brother Peter Stewart.
  • In 1774 he petitioned for the appointment of his brother Peter Stewart as Chief Justice of St. Johns. 10
  • He wrote his will on 12 August 1806 as “Robert Stewart, now residing in Well Walk Hampstead. Middlesex, Lieut. Colonel upon half pay”, leaving legacies to his sister Annabella Stewart, his brother-in-law Dr. George Robertson, his niece Jennet Russel and her husband John Russel and son Robert Russel, his nephew John Stewart, son of his brother Peter Stewart, and John’s own son Henry Stewart, his grand-nephew Peter Stewart, and to several friends.  The remainder of his estate he left to “My Nephew Robert Stewart son of my Brother Peter Stewart.” A codicil adding two additional legacies was dated the following day. 11  He died 11 January 1809 according to a letter written by his executor.12  He was buried at St. James Chapel, Hampstead, Greater London.
  • Robert Stewart was a younger son of Rev. Charles Stewart (c1682-1765) and Annabell Campbell of Kentyre, Argyle, born in 1729 according to parish records.  Although his older brother Peter Stewart was an early settler of Prince Edward Island in Canada, there is no evidence that any other member of his family every set foot in Virginia.  His other two brothers, Charles and Archibald, appear to have died in Scotland.

 

  1. Stewart Clan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 2 (August 1929), page 142. []
  2. Stewart Clan Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 10 (April 1940), page 149. []
  3. Stewart Clan Magazine, Vol. 35, No. 7 (January 1958), pages 233-235. []
  4. William C. Stewart, “A Study of Some Stewart and Allied Families”, The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. II (1981) pages 317-364. []
  5. “To George Washington from Robert Stewart, 19 April 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11115, ver. 2014-05-09). []
  6. “From George Washington to Robert Stewart, 10 August 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11671, ver. 2014-05-09). []
  7. “To George Washington from John Polson, 4 February 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-01-02-0207, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 24 September 1788 – 31 March 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 277–279. []
  8. Writings of General John Forbes relating to his service in North America (Arno Press, 1971). []
  9. The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig.  Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 280–284. []
  10. “The Descendants of Captain Theophile de la Cour DesBrisay and Madeleine Boisrond de St. Leger”, page 105. []
  11. Transcription online at http://www.islandregister.com/wills/1806rstewart.html.   Repeated at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=stewart&GSfn=robert&GSbyrel=all&GSdy=1809&GSdyrel=in&GScntry=5&GSob=n&GRid=52474679&df=all&. []
  12. Ibid. []