Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Jonas Plumer Stewart, Sr.

In 1856, young J.P. Stewart set out from Chesterfield, S.C. in a covered wagon to explore the western territory. He settled down with his young bride, Jane, in Poinsett Co., Arkansas, just across the Missouri state line. Shortly after he learned the lay of the land, he built a grist mill at the small community of Old Chalk Bluff, site of the Battle of Chalk Bluff.

An outspoken Southern sympathizer and Democrat, Stewart was captured by Union forces after the Battle of Chalk Bluff. He was forced to stay at Old Four Mile, 4 miles north of Campbell, Missouri, where the Union battalion was camped. The general in charge of the battalion released Stewart and urged him to take a yoke of oxen and return home. However, during his time as a prisoner, Stewart grew fond of Missouri's Crowley's Ridge and vowed to return to the area of his imprisonment with his family.

Despite his capture by Union soldiers, Stewart remained a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. In 1863, after Little Rock fell to the Union, Stewart moved to Missouri where he could keep his slaves. He moved to Campbell and subsequently joined Gen. Sterling Price's army. When the war ended, Stewart finally saw his dream come true: he moved his family to a small farm on the eastern slope of Crowley's Ridge.

Carpetbaggers were rampant in southeast Missouri after the war, but Stewart took his chances and built a new grist mill a few miles north of Campbell. Soon after, he built a cotton gin and a flour mill. The nearest market for his milled items was Cape Girardeau. One night, on his return home from the market, Stewart's wagon overturned and his 14 year old son, Virgil, was killed instantly. Stewart brought Virgil back to the homestead and found a nice, quiet place in the woods to bury him.

By 1874, Stewart owned several hundred wooded acres and began to harvest lumber for the construction of the Texas and St. Louis Railroad that joined Mississippi Co. to Jonesboro, Arkansas. All of the timber coming out of southeast Missouri would travel by train along the only high ground in the area, Crowley's Ridge.

By the 1890s, Stewart realized the possibility of fruit production on the Ridge. He was the first to plant the peach trees that gives Campbell the esteemed reputation of Missouri's Peach Capital. In fact, Stewart's original peach plantation has been in production continuously, next to Stewart's woods (now protected as a state park), since the late 1800s.

Stewart's grist mill, the first mill in Dunklin Co., was robbed an then burned down in the early 1900s by a local bandit named Wiley Jones. Late in life, after his mill burned, Stewart returned to promoting the educational causes that he practiced as a young man in South Carolina. He was recorded as the first citizen of Dunklin Co. to insist that his children attend college (Normal College at Cape Girardeau). Stewart became a biblical scholar but retained his convictions on slavery; these beliefs earned him the title "radical" by locals.

J.P. Stewart Sr. died in 1916 in his home on Crowley's Ridge. He and his three wives and multiple children are buried deep in the state park, away from any trails or signs of human disturbance. Genealogy websites indicate that the Stewarts are buried 15 miles away from their actual resting place in an official Dunklin Co. cemetery. Based on his rich life and his affinity for the land, he'd probably prefer his true resting place, his own Crowley's Ridge woods.

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