George R. Stewart Finds Treasure Island

When I was a boy, the folks bought a record player and a recorded version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  Dad said I wore the record out, especially the beginning with its stirring lines:  “If ever a boy loved adventure, Jim Hawkins was his name.”

When George R. Stewart was a boy, wandering through the treasures in the family attic in Indiana, Pennsylvania, he found a copy of the book, Treasure Island.  He took it downstairs, opened it and began to read. It changed his life.

He became fascinated with maps and mapping, inspired by the map to pirate’s treasure.  Years later, he may have learned that Stevenson was similarly in love with maps; and he often mapped a story out first and then let the tale unfold as the map directed. Like Stevenson, Stewart would become an author of place, of geography, and of maps.

Stevenson’s book stayed with Stewart.  When he was at UC Berkeley, working on his Master’s Degree, two fine professors helped him discover his style of writing and his subject – the geography and history of the west.  He decided to write a Master’s Thesis which would combine the two.  Treasure Island came to mind.

There was some evidence that “Treasure Island” was, in fact, located in the landscapes and history of the greater Bay Area.  (One giveaway was the presence of rattlesnakes among Coast Live Oaks in the novel.)  Stewart decided to use the internal evidence from the novel, research into Stevenson’s writings, and field research to see if he could discover where the Island was located.

Stewart found Treasure Island.  The wave-swept beaches were the shores of Monterey Bay.  The Coast Live Oak forests backed the Bay.   The flat-topped mountain, Spyglass Hill, was Mount St. Helena, where Stevenson and his bride Fanny spent their honeymoon.

And the abandoned mine where the Stevensons spent their honeymoon gave Robert Louis Stevenson the name for one of his characters – one of the great characters of English literature.

Robert and Fanny stayed at the “old Juan Silverado mine.”

In English, roughly translated, that’s “old John of the Silver.”

“Long John Silver.”

Stewart had discovered not only the landscapes; he’d found Long John Silver himself.

If you visit the Napa wine country of California, it’s a short but winding drive north from Calistoga to “Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.”  Hike the short Memorial Trail to find a plaque memorializing the Stevensons’ honeymoon – placed where the mine cabin, the Old Juan Silverado mine cabin, stood.


Or you can choose longer hikes which wind around and up and down Mount Saint Helena.


Afterward, visit one of those fine Napa Valley wineries and raise a glass of  the wine Stevenson described as “bottled poetry” to celebrate your discovery of Treasure Island, and your meeting with Long John Silver himself.

For more information about Stevenson’s time in California, visit the pages of the Robert Louis Stevenson Organization.

Before you visit the park, review this page from the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.   And read The Silverado Squatters, Stevenson’s record of the California years.  If you read the version edited by James Hart, From Scotland to Silverado, you’ll find George R. Stewart honored in the “Introduction” for his re-discovery of Treasure Island .  As at Donner Lake, Stewart’s research and writing were the foundation for a California state park.


After Robert Louis Stevenson died, his widow, Fanny Stevenson, built a beautiful home on Hyde Street, near winding Lombard Street, on that long stretch of hill made famous by the Powell-Hyde Cable Car.  The house eventually went to Noel Sullivan, a member of the family of Mayor James D. Phelan.  Sullivan turned the place into a center of learning and the arts, holding frequent gatherings that included many members of what Ansel Adams once called “The Northern California Enlightenment” [or words to that effect].  Robert Louis Stevenson would have found that use most satisfying.



George R. Stewart’s works: The early books

Although it took years for George R. Stewart to write a best-seller, his early works are still used by scholars of literature, history, ecological thought, and so on. Since I’ll be doing brief reviews of his books over the next few weeks or months, it seems best to begin with work most people — even the most passionate Stewart fans — know little about.

His first work, [Robert Louis] Stevenson in California: A Critical Study, was Stewart’s thesis for his Berkeley Master’s in English. Stewart was as interested in California and western history as he was in English, especially after taking the excellent class offered by Herbert Bolton. But in those days, it was expected that an English MA would be about the work of a distinguished European author.  As a boy, Stewart had been greatly influenced by Treasure Island. He knew, from his informal study of the book that the Island was actually based on California scenery. So Stewart set out, into the field with the book in hand, and into the manuscripts of Stevenson’s work, to find out exactly what of California is in  Treasure Island. He found what he was looking for and wrote it up; then saw his thesis become a standard reference work for Stevenson scholars.

So where is Treasure Island? If you read Jim Hawkin’s descriptions of the place, you’ll be reading about Monterey Bay and shoreline, Mt. St. Helena near Napa, and an abandoned mine on the mountain that was called “The Old Juan Silverado Mine.” Since it’s now a California state park, you can hike to the location of the mine buildings, where Stevenson and his bride Fanny spent their honeymoon; and, like them, you can look down from the place that would be immortalized as “Long John Silver,” over the broad Napa valley.

Working on the thesis, Stewart also found a newspaper story which he was able to ascribe to Stevenson. His article about the story gave him his first national publication, in Scribner’s Magazine. It was a good preparation for his next work, his PhD. dissertation, which would be an exhaustive study of meter in ballads. More about that in the next entry.

By the way, the GRS bio is now at the printer’s, and should be out soon.