The Silver Senator: William Morris Stewart
Occasionally history reveals an individual who leaves a significant mark on two different communities. Such a person was William Morris Stewart, who was important in two Nevadas – Nevada City and the state of Nevada.
Born in New York, William Morris Stewart (known as Bill to his friends and supporters) caught gold fever during the early days of the California Gold Rush. He moved to San Francisco in 1850 and soon was on his way to the gold fields via Marysville.
His arrival in Nevada City was anything but auspicious, however. As he recounted in his 1908 memoirs, Bill was very sick with a fever but determined to travel to the land of riches. “In the morning two men with a team consisting of 12 oxen were loading supplies for a mining camp known as Deer Creek, afterward Nevada City, about 40 miles up in the mountains,” Stewart recalled, “I asked them to take me on their wagon. They objected at first, [but] finally consented to take me. They loaded me on the wagon … and made me as comfortable as they could. It was a dreary ride, lasting three and a half days. I was racked with pain, and part of the time I was delirious.”
Upon arrival, William Stewart endured eight days of high fever and intense discomfort, but survived. Not a small accomplishment, as he was told that everyone else in the community who suffered the fever had died.
With but $10 in his pocket, Stewart bought a pick and shovel and commenced mining. Soon he discovered a rich claim and he was on his way. In his spare time, Bill studied law. In 1852, he was admitted to the bar. Also in that year, the young lawyer was elected district attorney and wrote a nine-item list of mining rules for Nevada County. Some years later, Stewart’s simple rules would form the basis of one of the most influential federal legislations of the period – the Mining Law of 1872.
Soon Stewart met and married Annie Foote, daughter of former Mississippi governor and U.S. Senator Henry Foote. But … Stewart was embarrassed to bring his Southern belle to a rude mining camp, and to lessen the sting, he constructed a replica of her Mississippi childhood home. Still standing today and located at 416 Zion St. in Nevada City, the beautiful structure has been described as the “only true antebellum Southern Colonial house in California.” It was constructed in 1855.
Stewart was elected California attorney general in 1854. In 1860, the Stewarts moved to Virginia City, where they quickly became early leaders in the development of Nevada Territory. In 1864, Nevada was admitted as a state, and William Morris Stewart was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate. He was one of Nevada’s two original senators. Over the next 40 years, Stewart would be elected senator from Nevada four times, serving a total of 29 years. In one election, he ran as a member of the Silver Party, and came to be known as the “Silver Senator” as a result.
During his many years in the Senate, Stewart drafted or co-authored important legislation, including several mining acts and laws urging land reclamation by irrigation. Most famously, Stewart is given credit for authoring in 1868 the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution protecting voting rights regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant offered Stewart a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Stewart declined.
His official service was not without controversy as he was accused of being the servant of Comstock Lode mining interests.
Interestingly, the Comstock Lode brought Stewart in contact with one of the most famous authors of the time period – Mark Twain. Twain, known by his actual name of Samuel Clemens at the time, was a struggling reporter at the Territorial Enterprise and clerk for the Nevada Territorial Legislature.
Twain’s brother Orion was Secretary of the Nevada Territory and worked closely with Stewart. After William Stewart was elected to the Senate, Twain was employed for short time as Stewart’s personal secretary in 1867. But since Twain was spending more time writing books than preparing official correspondence, Stewart decided Mark had to go. Twain claimed he resigned. Twain exacted his revenge a few years later. He skewered Stewart in his 1872 classic “Roughing It,” accusing William Stewart of cheating him out of mining stock in Virginia City. Twain further lampooned the senator by including a drawing depicting Stewart as a scoundrel with an eye patch.
In his memoirs, Stewart recalled Twain’s secretarial efforts. When written in 1908, Stewart was 81 years old; 40 years had passed since the event; Twain had been world-famous for decades; but, despite his attempt at flippancy, sadness and disappointment in Twain still shone brightly.
“Clemens stayed with me [as secretary] for some time,” Stewart wrote, “He wrote his book in my room, and named it ‘The Innocents Abroad.’ I was confident that he would come to no good end, but I have heard of him from time to time since then, and I understand that he has settled down and become respectable.”
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