Captain James Ewart

by Frank White

James P. Ewart (pronounced ‘Yart”) was born September 5, 1831, in Balmaghie, Kincardineshire, Scotland.  He was the first of the four children of Robert and Sarah McMillian Ewart.  Not much is known about his childhood, except that he attended Scottish schools which gave him a good education and that one of his playmates was a girl named Jeanette Porter Houston, born in 1832.

Young James was able and ambitious. In Scotland at the time there was not much prosperity or opportunity for advancement, so at age 20 he decided to immigrate to the United States. Settling in Rhode Island, he learned the machinist trade and also re-encountered Jeanette, whose family had immigrated earlier.  This reunion led to romance and in 1854 they were wed. Their marriage lasted more than sixty years and produce ten children.

The couple moved to Logan County, Illinois, where James took up farming. They prospered both financially and in family, with the births of Sarah Jane (1855), Robert (1857), Susan (1858), and Frances (1860).

When the Civil War started James came to the aid of his new country and enlisted as a private in the U.S. Cavalry, bringing his own horse. During the early part of his military career he remained stationed in Illinois, near enough to visit his home. His wife gave birth to daughter Margaret in 1862. Later he took part in several battles and advanced across the South and also saw action in the West, serving with distinction and valor. After the war Ewart mustered out with the rank of Captain.

Another daughter Ada was born in 1866. The family moved to Missouri, where James became a shopkeeper.  Two more children, Ella and James Jr., were born there, although Ella died in infancy.  According to an account from Sarah Jane (Jennie), her mother’s health became uncertain at this point. Hoping a change in climate and a fresh start would help Jeanette and the family as a whole, James sold his business, bought covered wagons, and in 1871 the family began a trek across the country heading for Puget Sound. Their course was deflected when, after several months and a few adventures, they stopped in Waitsburg, Washington Territory, where the couple encountered a visiting businessman named James Perkins.

Perkins had recently started a town that would eventually be named Colfax. He was constantly seeking new settlers for the place. Captain James Ewart and his family were precisely the sort of settlers he wanted. Perkins made such a strong pitch to Ewart that the Captain took a trip to the Palouse to check things out. Liking what he saw, he decided to homestead close to Colfax.  Ewart moved his family several miles down the road and set up his own town, Ewartsville, complete with a sawmill, post office, and stage coach stop. Son Charles was born there in 1873. Also during this time, Ewart was appointed temporary county auditor as Whitman County was formed and in November 1872, after the formation, changed roles when he was elected Clerk of the new county.

James Perkins was a frequent visitor to Ewartsville. It was no surprise in 1873 when he and the Ewart’s daughter Jennie were married. Perkins brought his bride to Colfax. The following year Ewart, Jeanette, and the rest of the Ewart family joined Perkins in Colfax. Captain Ewart’s tremendous energy and ability soon made itself felt in the fledgling town. He became manager of the local Grange store and eventually set up his own general merchandise business. He started the Colfax Masonic Lodge with town co-founder Hezekiah Hollingsworth and built Ewart House, the largest, finest hotel in town and for miles around, which Jeanette ran. After his term as County Clerk ended he became Mayor at least once, and was a frequent member of the Colfax City Council. Ewart became a father for the tenth time with the birth of Eva in 1876.

Not resting on such laurels he began developing businesses interests throughout the area, from Elberton to Idaho. Sometimes this required spending months away from his family. Occasionally all or part of his family would come with him. In 1891 this resulted in tragedy when 15 year old Eva drowned in Lake Chatcolet, where Ewart was operating a drawbridge to facilitate shipping and travel. Eventually he stayed in Colfax and became Postmaster in 1898, a position he held until 1911 when age and ill health
forced him to resign.

In 1904 there was a massive celebration of James’ and Jeanette’s 50th wedding anniversary, with their children and their spouses, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in attendance, as well as numerous well-wishers. Their love story and life continued until April 3, 1915, when Jeanette suddenly passed away. Without his friend and mate Ewart didn’t live much longer. James died on June 24, 1915 – the end of a long and amazing life.