Did Robert Stewart, Covenanter, (1655-1714) have a son named Alexander?
By Jared Linn Olar
We have received several queries from descendants of an Alexander Stewart (who married Mary Baily circa 1708 in Chester County, Pennsylvania) who have been led to believe that their ancestor Alexander was a son, or the eldest son, of Robert the Covenanter (identified in the Merrell Bible as a son of Walter Stewart, 7th. of Gartnafuaran). One woman researching her genealogy told us that in Elbridge Amos Stuart's book, Stuart & Allied Families, this Alexander is claimed as Robert's eldest son.
In the past, I have occasionally seen on the internet that some have attached an Alexander to the family of Robert Stewart, Covenanter, as Robert’s son or eldest son. (See, for example, http://www.geocities.com/heartland/meadows/4386/peugh.htm and http://home.flash.net/~dietz/Genealogy/d2.htm#P505 ) However, there is no evidence that I am aware of that Robert ever had a son named Alexander, whether eldest or not. In fact, in a letter written in 1818 to his son John, Robert’s own grandson Joseph Stewart explicitly described his father John as Robert’s “eldest” son:
“My Father was John the eldest son of Robert my Grandfather, who was
obliged to fly to Ireland when they were newly married. My Granny was
sent to Edinburgh and he was born there. . . . My Grandfather’s family’s
names was John and Robert and their sister’s name was Juleyan, Samuel,
Here is an excerpt from a letter written in 1991 by the late Philip B. Stewart II (a male-line descendant of Robert Stewart, Covenanter) to Muriel Walker of the Stewart Society in Edinburgh:
“In passing I call your attention to the references to John as ‘the eldest son
of Robert – .’ Tomlinson simply would not give any credence to this and
maintained his ancestor was really the oldest son. And, if you will recall,
we have had two other people claiming ‘eldest sons’ of Robert and Janette.”
Alexander Stewart of Chester County, Penn., was born about 1680 to 1685. His purported parents, Robert and Janette, were married not terribly long after the Battle of Bothwell Brigg, say 1679-80. Their son John was born in 1682. If John wasn’t the eldest son of Robert and Janette, there could be space for just one other child born in 1681, but it could be squeezing things in pretty tightly – especially when we consider that Robert was an outlaw on the run and often not at home with Janette from 1679 until circa 1690. Much of Robert’s adult life was one of violence and upheaval and outlawry, which may explain why Janette apparently didn’t conceive many children – or at least only four are known to have survived infancy. All of these considerations taken together make it very unlikely that there was any child born to Robert and Janette before John's birth in 1682 – not one that survived infancy, at any rate.
Another consideration is the evidence of onomastics – that is, the naming of Scottish children during this period in history. The eldest son would usually be named after his paternal grandfather, the second son after his maternal grandfather, and the third son after his father. This wasn’t an absolutely hard-and-fast rule, but it was very, very common. Robert was son of Walter, son of Andrew. Robert’s known children were John, Robert, Juleyan (Julianne), and Samuel. If we look at the naming customs of those days, we would expect Robert’s eldest son to be named “Walter” (after Robert’s father), not “Alexander” or “John.” Indeed, although Robert’s older brother was named Alexander, we shouldn’t expect to find any son named Alexander in Robert’s family. The fact that John’s son Joseph described John as “eldest” means either that Robert ignored the naming custom when he named his eldest son, or else perhaps there was a baby boy who Joseph Stewart never knew about, presumably named Walter, who died in infancy. But that would still rule out an eldest son Alexander who lived to adulthood and had issue. Admittedly, one possibility is that Robert had children born out of wedlock, and that Alexander was a bastard son. The trouble with that hypothesis is that it cannot be proven. There is no record of Robert having any illegitimate children, just as there is no record that he ever had a son named Alexander. Robert was a Covenanting Presbyterian, and he and his family took their faith very seriously, so sexual misconduct, while not impossible, would seem to be very out of character for Robert the Covenanter.
What is known of Alexander’s life also provides clear indications that Alexander was not Robert’s son. Alexander is said to have had a brother named John, and is known to have had just one son, who was named Robert. If Alexander followed the prevalent Scottish naming customs, his son Robert would have been named after Alexander’s father.
Alexander came to Pennsylvania as a servant boy, and he later married Mary Baily circa 1708 in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In fact, the first known reference to Alexander is in a record of the Orphans Court Proceedings of 1697 (Futhey and Cope, pp.430-431), which include this entry:
“Francis Chadsey brought a boy whose name was Alexander Stewart,
who was adjudged to serve 8 years from Sept. 14 of last year to be
taught to read and write or else to serve but 7 years.”
That Alexander’s indentured servitude was arranged in the Orphans Court indicates that he was an orphan by 1697. That is a further indication that Alexander’s parents were not Robert the Covenanter and Janette Forsyth, because Robert died in 1714 and his widow was still alive circa 1750. Indeed, in 1697 Alexander still needed to be taught to read and write. It’s quite possible that he didn’t know who his birth parents were.
But if Alexander was not an orphan, and was the eldest son of Robert the Covenanter, how do we explain his becoming separated from his mother and siblings, who were living in Aghadowey in Ulster in 1718 when they came to Massachusetts and New Hampshire? Not only did this supposed eldest son of Robert become separated from his family, he somehow became a servant boy in Pennsylvania. Why didn't he stay with his mother and come to America with her, as his supposed siblings did? In addition, Alexander died in 1714, the same year that his purported father Robert died, four years before Robert’s surviving family came to America. Chronologically and geographically, we have a significant separation of Alexander and Robert's family.
So, when we look at the evidence, we must conclude that we simply have no reason to link this Alexander to the family of Robert Stewart the Covenanter, and little reason to believe that Robert had a son before John, who was described by his son Joseph as “eldest.”
Also, click here to see Ryk Brown’s web page on the Stewarts of Gartnafuaran.