Last updated: June 10, 2020
Sir William Drummond Stewart was born in 1795, the second son of Scottish nobleman Sir George Stewart. As a young man, he joined the military, participated in combat in the Waterloo campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, and retired from service in 1820 as a captain.
Seeking adventure and interested in the American West, Stewart came to America in 1832. In May 1833, Stewart departed from St. Louis, Missouri, with a party of mountain men on their way to the annual Horse Creek Rendezvous in Wyoming. On this journey, Stewart met famed western mountain men and explorers like Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick. He also met Antoine Clément, a Métis fur trapper and hunter with whom he would share a decade long, on-again-off-again relationship.
Stewart remained in the west for the next year. At the rendezvous of 1834, he met American businessman Nathaniel Wyeth, who was traveling with naturalists John Kirk Townsend and Thomas Nuttall. Townsend wrote of the encounter on July 2, 1834: "We were joined at the rendezvous by a Captain Stewart, an English gentleman of noble family, who is travelling for amusement, and in search of adventure." Stewart also met the missionaries Daniel and Jason Lee, who had traveled to the Pacific Northwest with the intention of establishing a Christian mission to minister to the Flathead and Nez Perce people.
That summer, Stewart traveled west with Wyeth, Townsend, Nuttall, and the Lees, hunting buffalo, sleeping under the stars, and surviving close encounters with grizzly bears. Wyeth, who was himself an experienced traveler in Western North America, was impressed by Stewart. Later that fall, he wrote a letter of introduction on behalf of Stewart that emphasized Stewart's knowledge of the rugged American West.
Along the way, the group encountered Thomas McKay, an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company and the son of Marguerite McLoughlin and her first husband. McKay traveled with them to American Fort Hall in present-day southern Idaho, and from there Stewart and the missionaries continued with McKay on his journey to the Pacific Northwest.
On September 2, Stewart and the Lees reached the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Nez Perces, near modern Walla Walla, Washington. Here they were reunited with Wyeth, Townsend, and Nuttall. The two groups traveled separately down the Columbia River - Stewart, Wyeth, and the Lees hired a large barge to travel down the river to The Dalles, while Townsend and Nuttall journeyed by horse.
On September 16, they reached Fort Vancouver, where they were welcomed by Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin. On their arrival, Jason Lee wrote a description of the fort: "Arrived at Fort Vancouver at 3 o'clock, found the governor and other gentlemen connected with the fort on shore awaiting our arrival, and conducted us to the fort and gave us food, which was very acceptable, as we had eaten our last for breakfast. We received every attention from these gentlemen. Our baggage was brought and put into a spacious room without consulting us and the room assigned for our use, and we had the pleasure of sleeping again within the walls of a house after a long and fatiguing journey, replete with mercies, deprivations, toil and prosperity. I have been much delighted today in viewing the improvements of the farm, etc. The dinner was very good and served in as good style as in any gentleman's house in the east. Fine muskmelons and water melons and apples were set before us which were, indeed, a luxury after the dry living we have had for some time. After dinner took a turn in the garden and was astonished to find it in such a high state of cultivation. The orchard is young, but the quantity of fruit is so great that many of the branches [would] break if they were not prevented by props."
On November 18, 1834, McLoughlin mentioned the travelers in his report to his superiors at the Hudson's Bay Company. He wrote: "Captain Stewart is an Officer of the British army...he says he intends (according to the means of conveyance he may find) to go to Canada or St. Louis on the Mississippi next spring."
William Drummond Stewart spent the winter of 1834-1835 at the fort. In early February, Stewart joined Hudson's Bay Company fur trader Francis Ermatinger, Fort Vancouver Clerk William Glen Rae, and Wyeth in three heavily-loaded canoes, heading up the Columbia River. The group visited the Hudson Bay Company's Fort Colvile, located in present-day northeastern Washington, and delivered goods at Fort Hall. Then, Stewart continued on to that summer's rendezvous in Wyoming.
At the rendezvous of 1835, Stewart was reunited with Clément - who had not joined him on his travels in the Northwest - and the two resumed their relationship. He also met Dr. Marcus Whitman and Reverand Samuel Parker. Stewart provided the missionaries with an update on Lee's settlement on the Willamette River, and offered ideas about where to set up their mission. After the rendezvous, Stewart and Clément traveled east with Whitman, who was on his way to Boston to gather supplies for his mission.
Stewart was impressed by Whitman during this trip, and later wrote that he was "a most excellent man, a curious divine...a most bold operator." In 1836, Stewart met Whitman again, this time with his new bride, Narcissa, and Samuel and Eliza Spalding, as the missionaries returned west. For part of their journey, they traveled with Stewart and his partner at the time, Adolph Sillem. In a letter dated June 3, 1836, Narcissa Whitman wrote of her efforts to recreate the kind of society she was accustomed to in the east, and Stewart and Sillem's participation in it: "There are several gentlemen in the company who are going over the mountains for pleasure. Capt. Steward [sic]...is an Englishman and Mr. Celam [Sillem]. We had a few of them to tea with us last Monday evening, Capt. Fitzpatrick, Stewart, Major Harris, and [Sillem]." The Whitmans went on to establish a mission near Walla Walla, a site that is now managed by the National Park Service as Whitman Mission National Historic Site.
Through the 1830s and 40s, Stewart traveled extensively throughout Western America, often with Clément. In the course of his time on the continent, the people he met or traveled with included a host of famous figures - in addition to those mentioned above, he crossed paths with Kit Carson, John James Audubon, Joe Meek, Daniel Boone, artist Alfred Jacob Miller, Benjamin Bonneville, William Clark, and Baptiste Charbonneau, son of Sacagawea.
Upon the death of his father and older brother, Stewart inherited his family's estate, becoming the Laird of Grandtully and the Baronet of Murthly and Blair. He lived out his later life at Murthly Castle in Scotland among a vast collection of artifacts he had collected during his American travels, and died in 1871.
Benneman, William. Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
McDonald, Lois Halliday. Fur Trade Letters of Francis Ermatinger. Northwest Historical Series, Vol. 15. Arthur H. Clark, Pub., 1980.
Rich, E.E. (Ed.). The Letters of Dr. John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, First Series, 1825-1838. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1941.
Whitman, Narcissa. The Letters of Narcissa Whitman, 1836-1847. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 2002.
Young, F.G. (Ed.). The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-6. Eugene, OR: University Press, 1899.