Our Family

JJ StewartJ.J. (John James) Stewart (1864-1932) seemed as true a part of the wholesome, traditional rural fabric of Prince Edward Island as you could ever find. A handsome blue-eyed man with dark hair and a neat mustache, he grew up in the Scottish community of Caledonia, in Eastern P.E.I., within sight of the simple white Presbyterian church where his family worshipped, both in English and in Gaelic, every single Sunday. As the second eldest of ten children – four boys and six girls – he would have been expected to take over the family farm. J.J.’s father, James, then about seventy years old, was too old to find work to supplement the farm income and the brothers were too young. His mother, Flora, twenty-five years younger than her husband, had just had a baby girl – posing yet another mouth to feed. The mid-1800’s, however, found P.E.I. in the midst of a severe economic depression. Farm prices were low and jobs were scarce. He followed the wave of tens of thousands of Islanders who left for greener pastures to find work in the United States. Most ventured to the ‘Boston States’ and California. But J.J. Stewart’s path was unorthodox. He left the security of the farm in the late 1800’s – barely in his twenties – in search of work, adventure and romance, finding all three – and more than he bargained for – not in the Boston States or on the Pacific coast, but in the deserts and mountains of Utah and Colorado. By the time he returned home around the turn of the century, he was brandishing a new nickname – Utah Jack – a ‘handle’ as they say on P.E.I. and experiences and stories to last a lifetime.

JJ Stewart & Isabella & FamilyJ.J. probably caught the train in Montague and managed to buy a ticket heading west. No doubt his eyes had been on California, lured by tales of the high wages and quick fortunes to be made in the wake of the gold rush. Instead, he fell under a more potent spell: a smile and a glance from a dark-eyed, exotic young beauty with native blood whom he met by chance in Salt Lake City. Her name was America Alice Ford, a girl orphaned at the age of two and raised by her grandfather in a rough-tough mining town high in the Sawatch mountains of Colorado. John and America were married on Christmas Eve in 1888. He was twenty-four; she was a month shy of her eighteenth birthday. Two years later, a child Norman James was born.

John had no knowledge of a trade other than farming, so a move to one of the numerous gold- and silver-mining towns linked to Salt Lake City by rail was an obvious choice.  Placer mining – mining for gold in stream beds – was rare in Utah. Hard-rock mining for gold and silver was more common. It was hard and precarious work. Accidents were common; hoists were dangerous; there was the constant threat of falling rocks and runaway ore cars; men fell down mine shafts; and there were explosions, poisonous gases and falling timbers. The air was so bad, the candles the miners carried burned at only one-fifth of their normal intensity. Miners became ill and sometimes died from lead poisoning. Many developed lung diseases. Few grew old. They worked ten or twelve hour days, six days a week, for $3 per day.

The typical mining town could hardly have been more different from the world in J.J. had been raised. They were ramshackle colonies of shanties, saloons, gambling dens, dance halls and brothels which had sprung up across the territory at the first rumor of a gold strike. Some of these towns became notorious for vice and crime. Because of the many boom-and-bust cycles in mining, no job was safe for long, and no town was home for long.  J.J. and America lived for a time in Buena Vista, Colorado, a high-desert railway town where he managed a hotel. They eventually traveled to Central City, Colorado, the very heart of gold rush country, once known as The Richest Square Mile on Earth and considered grand in comparison to the mining camps situated the sides of nearby mountains, where rough shacks were thrown up the instant news of a new gold find spread. But J.J. and America’s timing was off; the boom days were over by the time they arrived in Central City. There, America became pregnant a second time, and the family moved again, this time back to Salt Lake City. It was there that their six-month-old daughter, Florence, became ill with cholera and despite John’s best efforts to seek medical care, died in hospital in August 1892. J.J. also fell ill, his Island family becoming so worried that two of his sisters were sent by train to bring him home, where he successfully convalesced. America refused to follow him, vowing she would never set foot in that “God-forsaken place so far from home.” The couple eventually divorced by mail.

Old General StoreLike most people who swarmed to the 19th century gold rush, J.J.’s ventures did not make him rich. But he did have enough resources upon his return home to buy a large, handsome general store in the farming community of Wood Islands, P.E.I., assuming the comparatively quiet life of a country storekeeper. J.J. subliminally brought a part of Utah with him; the front of his store in looked oddly like the façades of the buildings found in typical frontier towns he’d become so familiar with He married again, this time to an Island girl, Isabella MacPhee, and started a second family. He tried to keep in touch with his son, Norman, by mail, although America had also remarried, and discouraged contact between father and son. But as an elderly man, Norman finally traveled to P.E.I. in search of his roots. As fate would have it, Norman James remarkably met his half brother Charles James (from J.J.’s second family) by chance on the Wood Islands Ferry as recently as 1979.  J.J. Stewart’s second son also bore the name James, a name that would continue in the Stewart family for generations. For the rest of his life, this quiet farmer-turned-miner-turned-storekeeper was known to his Island neighbours as ‘Utah Jack.’ Many of J.J. Stewart’s decedents still live in the area, including his granddaughter Heather, who with her husband Thom MacMillan, owns the J.J. Stewart company.