William Stewart was the most prominent lawyer in the early years of the Comstock, and he represented Nevada as an important, controversial United States senator for twenty-eight years. Born in rural New York State, he briefly attended Yale before leaving for the California gold fields in 1850. His attempts at mining were not particularly successful, so he studied law and entered politics, serving for a time as Acting Attorney General of California.
In 1860, lured by the Comstock discoveries, he moved to Nevada, and soon became involved in mining litigation as to whether the lode was comprised of one ledge (a single continuous vein of ore extending through the lode's entire length) or multi-ledged (with broken up veins of ore). He was a one-ledger, and the stakes were enormous—at issue was the possible control of the Comstock. According to Stewart, up to 1865 the total cost of litigation over the matter was $10,000,000. It was estimated that Stewart himself received some $500,000 for his efforts.
Stewart became the best known of all the lawyers on the Comstock, with a reputation as a shrewd, occasionally ruthless advocate for his clients, using all possible means for victory. To achieve his ends, he was successful in his efforts to oust the territorial judges who opposed him, including political rival John W. North.
Stewart was a proponent of statehood for Nevada and he took a prominent role in the first Constitutional Convention of 1863. He was elected, as a Republican, to the United States Senate in 1865, and he was re-elected in 1869. Stewart was a principal author of the 1866 National Mining Act which recognized the priority of local mining laws in regard to mining claims, and which permitted free access by miners and mining companies to the public domain. He also managed the 1872 National Mining Act through the Senate which reaffirmed these principles and remains in force to the present.
On Reconstruction issues, Stewart initially supported the re-entry of southern states on moderate principles, but because of his detestation of President Andrew Johnson, soon advocated more radical policies. He was one of the principal authors of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave voting rights to the recently emancipated freedman.
Stewart was on the secret dole of the Central Pacific Railroad and was a relentless spokesman for its interests. In his memoirs, dictated as an old man, he claimed to have been privately offered an appointment to the United States Supreme Court by President Ulysses Grant, which he refused, although this tale is totally unsubstantiated.
Away from the Senate after 1875 he busily pursued various unsuccessful mining ventures and represented William Sharon and his estate in the suit brought by Sharon's mistress Sarah Althea Hill. In 1887, Stewart's corporate financial masters called him back to the United States Senate, and he was subsequently re-elected in 1893 and 1899.
Stewart became one of the most forceful and articulate champions of the remonitization of silver which became the dominant political issue of the 1890s. His views led him to cease being a Republican in 1892 so he could help form the Silver Party in Nevada. He also strongly advocated irrigation projects for Nevada and the West, and he proposed unsuccessfully extending Nevada boundaries to the east and north, at the expense of Utah and Idaho territories and with the disenfranchisement of the Mormons in the area.
Although generally unfriendly to Native American interests, Stewart was instrumental in the establishment of the Stewart Indian School in Carson City which opened in 1890. He returned to the Republican fold in 1900. After retiring from the Senate in 1905 he set up legal practice in the Bullfrog Mining District, unsuccessfully chasing various mining bubbles until his death in 1909.
Stewart had a lengthy and remarkable career. Extraordinarily capable and articulate, he was the most visible of nineteenth century Nevada senators. He was a skilled politician. Never beloved, he was respected for his intelligence and mastery of detail, and feared for his often ruthless determination and occasional lack of scruples in attaining his desired ends. His interests focused on national as well as local issues, and he fit in quite comfortably with the venal culture of his times.