The Stewart Brothers

Brothers Daniel and William Stewart travelled from Nova Scotia to California in the hope of making their fortunes in mining, but their stories ended in tragedy.

Gravestones in California, engraved in the same style and perhaps by the same hand, tell us most of what little is known about the two men from Mount Thom, Pictou County.

Daniel died in a California town called Copperopolis on January 22, 1863, “Of injuries received by falling into a shaft 115 feet deep. Aged 26 yrs, 2 mo’s 13 days.”

His older brother William died half a year before Daniel: “was drowned in the middle Fork of Feather River July 25, A. D. 1862. Aged 27 yrs 8 mo’s 19 days.”

Pre-Confederation Nova Scotia census records do not make clear when Daniel and William each left Nova Scotia for California. However, the 1860 United States census says a William Stewart from Nova Scotia was living in Sierra County, California, that year with another Nova Scotian, Alexander Logan. Both men were working as miners.

Daniel is not listed in the US 1860 census, so he perhaps followed his brother to California sometime after it was done.

A number of Nova Scotians went to California during the California Gold Rush, which started in 1848. Gold was first discovered in Calaveras County, where Copperopolis is located, in 1849. Gold mining took place in the county intermittently for the next century.

The fact that Daniel died in Copperopolis suggests that he may have been involved in copper mining at the time of his death. Several copper deposits were discovered there in 1860 and the town was founded the next year. The area was transformed almost overnight into a booming community due to the extraordinary need for copper for munitions and shell casings for the American Civil War, which started in 1861.

Copperopolis became the second-most important copper district in the United States and by 1861 there were over 28 business establishments in town, a number that grew to over 90 advertised in the Copperopolis Courier in the period from 1865-1867.

California’s Gold Rush petered out in 1860 so the discoveries in Copperopolis likely caused many miners in the area to switch their focus from gold to copper.

Given that Copperopolis owed its existence to the Civil War, it is not surprising that most of its streets were named for its affiliation with the North’s Union army. Street names included Union (now Main), Lincoln, Grant and Sherman. The town also had the Union Hotel, Union Mine, and Union Bridge.

Copperopolis’ population in 1863 was over 10,000 people, but it plummeted to just a couple hundred after the Civil War ended in 1865 and the price of copper fell from a war-time high of 55 cents per pound to just 19 cents. The rudimentary science of the day made mining the area’s deposits too expensive after the initial rush extracted the most accessible ore.

The town’s mines were reopened intermittently as increased copper demand temporarily made them viable again, but they closed permanently after World War Two. Today, Copperopolis’ population is about 3500.

While historical records leave us with few details about the Stewart brothers, it is easy to imagine them as strong, smiling young men, heading off on what they thought would be the adventure of a lifetime.