In Which I Do Some Detective Work

Map of Tennessee Counties

We wrote a bit here about some discoveries in our family tree as we started digging back into our ancestry a few weeks ago. Much more on that soon. I’ve discovered so much mind-blowing stuff! Meantime, this:

Ironically, we have amazing info on nearly every one of our important family lines going back for centuries… with the ironic exception of one important one: our main patrilineal line of Stewart.

Here we go back as far as one William Campbell Stewart, (Tennessee, c. 1803-1881)… and then the record just stops.

There are many gaps in record-keeping in the region (which was still the frontier at that time). Later, several courthouse fires wiped out crucial documents — what there were to begin with. I hope to solve the question by taking a DNA test; I’m hoping that I’ll closely match someone else who has a clearer picture of which Stewart line they are from and that’ll answer the question. (I also want to see if the family legend that we are part Cherokee is true, and the test will hopefully answer that. I’ve already found a Powhatan ancestor).

Meantime, I’ve been researching many possibilities but have no hard evidence for any of them yet, though deductive reasoning has caused me to favor one scenario over the others. It’s very much like a mystery, and mysteries are kind of fun! So I thought I’d share all the different theories and my reasoning behind them. Then, when I get the results of the blood test, I’ll share the answer. Hopefully there will BE an answer!



The region was thinly populated at this time. Tennessee didn’t become a state until 1796. Settlement of the area that became Tennessee didn’t really start until around 1780. Indian Wars didn’t stop until around 1795. The 1800 census for the entire state gives a population of 106,000; only 345 people lived in Nashville at the time, a third of them African American. So if we are looking for a needle in a haystack…there aren’t that many pieces of hay. Still by this time, there were ALREADY many Stewarts in the region, and Stewart was such a common name in both Scotland and the U.S. by that time that these are quite different families with quite different histories, people who don’t even know one another, whose fates have been separate for centuries. And so there are also many William Stewarts in the region even at that early date. And while we might take the middle name of Campbell as a possible clue, there are also already many Campbells in the area. Creeks and towns and counties were already being named after Stewarts and Campbells all over the place.

What we know about William Campbell Stewart. Some documents reveal much. According to a census that was taken in 1850, he was a farmer with 50 acres and he was illiterate. (Judging by many documents he was also inarticulate; his name is often rendered as “Cammel”. Documents prove he was our guy though. It is a tradition in my family to be called by the middle name. My grandfather was, my father was, my uncle was, and I am. My full name is “Donald Travis Stewart”). Campbell eventually settled in Lincoln County, Tennessee, where his descendants stayed until the time of my father.  Previous to that he lived in nearby Marshall and Cannon counties. Where he was born is uncertain. The more likely source says merely “Tennessee”; another source says “South Carolina”, but that looks like an error to me for various reasons, though I won’t rule it out.

We also know that he married Mary Hannah Hale (1807-1870) in Tennessee in 1827, although we don’t know in what part of the state. To guide me back further, I am going with a theory that Campbell’s family must have lived for a time at least in close proximity to his wife’s family. Mary Hannah Hale’s parents were both from Baltimore. The father died in Jefferson City (in Jefferson County), Tennessee; the mother died in Sullivan County. And this makes sense, the pioneers working their way into the state from the east. (see map above).

Other possible clues about their past: the names of their children. People (especially back then) often name their children after older relatives and other admired figures.


William Carrol

Campbell Stewart’s sons were named William Carrol, James Calvin, Polk Lafayette and Thomas Perry.  The oldest (William Carrol) seems to be named after the Governor at the time, who’d also won renown as an Indian fighter and soldier in the War of 1812. Had my ancestor served with him? Sounds possible, maybe even likely.


William Campbell

To draw this line of thinking out one further, it’s a distinct possibility that William Campbell Stewart was named after Revolutionary War General William Campbell (1745-1781), who led American troops in the nearby Battle of King’s Mountain, in which many Tennessee frontiersmen, known as the “Overmountain Men“, served. The idea that William Campbell Stewart’s father (or grandfather) was one of these Overmountain Men and served with Campbell seems plausible to me. The middle name of the third son — Lafayette, after another Revolutionary War hero – – reinforces that theory (his first name “Polk” is obviously after the President at the time, who also came from Tennessee).  And Campbell’s wife Mary’s grandfather John Haile had fought at the same Battle. As had at least one William Stewart and at least one James Stewart.

Why is the latter name significant? The name of Campbell’s second son (my great-great grandfather) was James Calvin Stewart . I’m assuming the middle name to be a religious gesture. But James is my close second (after William) for the possible name of Campbell’s father.

The existence of a James and a William Stewart still don’t mean much yet. We would still need to link the names with my ancestor with proof, and we still don’t even know who those guys are. Like we said, there were a bunch of guys with those names running around. And as for the significance of the name of Campbell’s youngest son, Thomas Perry – – well, a Thomas Stewart also served in the same battle.

The daughter’s names are Sarah Jane, Martha, Mary (known as “Polly”), Elizabeth Jane, Rebecca Elizabeth, and Nancy. Again, perhaps these can be clues that might match up with names Campbell’s female relatives.

One other clue, strictly from my gut. There seems to be very little Scottish cultural survival in my family, not just in my generation, but going back a ways. My line of Stewarts have long since ceased to be Presbyterians, for example. From what I know of my family and their direct Stewart ancestors…there are no characteristic, distinctive Scottish survivals (e.g., names we think of as characteristally Scottish, such as “Alexander”). This leads me to suspect that the family has been in America a very long time, and probably had been even by Campbell’s day. (And as I said, most of my ancestors go back in the US to the 1600s). I also feel that we can’t have been closely related to anyone important or famous within the last couple of centuries (e.g. Civil War general A.P. Stewart, whom I initially suspected might have been a cousin) because that would have gotten remembered down to my own generation. I also suspect that for at least a couple of generations these Stewarts aren’t just poor — they have no rich relations. Who else vanishes without a trace?

So given all that, here are a half dozen theories. Should there be more than that? I mean, how many “William Stewarts” or “James Stewarts” might there be in one generation in a state of 106,000 people? I don’t know. Statisticians, help me out.


Theory one

So far this my lead theory…it just kind of fits and feels right. 

The narrative goes like this:

One David Stewart, a native of Fife, Scotland and a Royalist, fights in support of Charles I as an “Engager” in the English Civil War. (As he would, being a fellow Stuart!) In 1649, his side is defeated, and David Stewart either flees to Maryland, or is transported there as a prisoner and forced work off a sentence as an indentured servant. (There was also a witch hunt that year. Many reasons that year to flee Scotland) David’s descendants will live in Charles County, Maryland for many generations. One of his descendants, William Steward II (sic — as with most of these old surnames, many spellings were used back then), was a Revolutionary war soldier from Maryland in 1777. In 1818, then living in White County, TN, he applied for a soldier’s pension.

Apart from the Maryland connection (recall that the Hales were also from Maryland), what I like about this scenario is that after this William Stewart died in in 1829, six years later (1835) another William Stewart (his son, presumably) sold this White County land. And a few months later in 1836, William Campbell Stewart shows up in Lincoln, County, just a few counties away. It’s really just the timing I like. It was common then to sell your parcel of land as prices went up, and then buy some cheaper land a little farther west. I also like the geography of it — White County is midway on the journey from those eastern counties where he probably spent the earlier part of his life, to Lincoln County, where he spent his last years. There are several sexier theories as you’ll see below, but this one feels the most all around plausible to me.


Theory Two 

Not only do I want this theory to be true, but it has a numerical advantage. It begins with Dr. John Stewart (a surgeon, farmer and craftsman) and his wife Elizabeth Alberti, who start a family on Long Island in the 1680s. I like this one for two reasons. One is that it gives me this big new stake in local New York history I hadn’t had before. The other is that would make me a descendant of America’s first Italian American (Elizabeth’s father was Pietro Cesare Alberti). That would just about make me do cartwheels of joy. But I learned only this morning though that I definitely have that stake in New York history anyway after all (an ancestor named Howell lived in Long Island City at around the same time. And he had a Dutch wife). So either way, I’m good. But I’m from Rhode Island – – I wanna be Italian!

Long story short, this branch of the Stewarts were fruitful and multiplied BIG TIME. The generations tended to move together, and you can watch this whole family migrate…to New Jersey….to Delaware…to North Carolina…to Tennessee. I can’t even count the number of William Stewarts and James Stewarts who descend from this mighty tribe. And some were Revolutionary War veterans. I haven’t yet found any that match up right timewise. But there are so blasted many of them. My scheme would be to see if a DNA test revealed a relation to anyone connected with this family — that would be close enough to connect me back to Dr. John.

Jonesborough area house, circa 1777

Jonesborough area house, built circa 1777


A surveyor named James Stewart arrived in what is now Washington County, Tennessee around 1770. If you’ll refer to the map above you’ll see that this area is strategically placed right on the approach to the rest of the state from the east. Stewart built a log cabin that was to be the first inn and stage coach stop in the area, and was one of the men who laid out what was to become the town of Jonesborough. This is another theory spun off the presumption of a Stewart proximity to the Hale family (whom we know lived in nearby Sullivan and Jefferson Counties). Among other things this town has adjacent neighborhoods named “Hale” and “Stewart Hill.” (Nearby Rogersville is also home to an area called “Hale Springs”, which also intrigues.) Today Jonesborough is known as “The Birthplace of Tennessee” (many crucial political developments occurred there which some of my other ancestors are known to have been involved in. More on that subsequently). It was also the capital of the short-lived State of Franklin, and today is known for being the home of the National Storytelling Festival. You can’t blame me for wanting to be associated with this cool little town!



In 1739 brothers Patrick and William Stewart departed with over 300 Highland Scotsmen from CampeltownArgyl (Campbell! That name again!), bound for Cape Fear, North Carolina. They took the river up into the interior and took over parcels of land in Bladen County for which they had obtained grants. There are many Jameses and Williamses among the next generation, one of whom could be the father of our William Campbell Stewart. Also of this generation of this branch of the Stewart family is Duncan Stewart, a hero of the American Revolution, for whom Stewart County in Tennessee is named. (We should have mentioned above that many veterans of the American Revolution got Tennessee land grants for their service. Thus the big influx of pioneers in these years.) At any rate, my Stewart might come off this tree, though I must say I’m not feeling it! Fewer pieces seem to click into place. Their arrival is so recent, and other versions get us close to the Hales. And many other reasons. We’ll see.

“Capture of Boone and Stuart”, Cecil B. Hartley, 1859


In 1770, Daniel Boone and his brother-in-law, traveling companion and best friend John Stewart went on an exploratory excursion into the Cumberland Gap. The two got separated, and Stewart was never seen again…until five years later when Boone came upon the murdered Stewart’s remains and belongings. This one is a fantasy. All American Stewarts dream of being descended from this guy. I’ve had the fantasy since I was a very young child, picturing Daniel Boone as played by Fess Parker. John Stewart is a shadowy, semi-legendary figure, something like Robert Johnson. He is known to have been the father of daughters, but there is no evidence of him having had the son he’d need to have had in order to have been the grandfather of William Campbell Stewart. This one isn’t really a theory — we just can’t bear to take it out of the running.



This one may be less likely, but is entirely possible. I came upon a source that listed “Stewart” as one of the free families of color in White County, TN in the early 19th century. I have come across references to “mullatoes” named James Stewart and William Stewart during the slavery period throughout the region and there was plenty of breeding between the races during those times. There have been over two centuries of time to erase visual evidence of such a heritage, but a DNA test could tell for sure. I for one would love to learn that there is a dash of cinnamon in the vanilla, and since I also just learned of a slave-owning ancestor, I’d dearly (and selfishly) love to balance the scales with at least one more ancestor whom I can be sure wasn’t an accomplice in our national shame.


It’s just possible, though I do not consider it probable, that the mystery ancestors were completely off the radar and I’ll never learn a thing. The ancestors in question would have to have gone into Indian country in the early years and totally eluded every single exponent of civilization, which even then in those days I consider unlikely. In such case the most recent ancestor I know for sure before William Campbell was this dude, which I’d just have to live with, though it would kind of make me crazy.

Anyway, we’ll let you know what I’ve learned in a few weeks!

UPDATE: read here about my Eureka moment and the conclusion I finally came to. 

3 Responses to “In Which I Do Some Detective Work”

  1. Dan Stipe Says:

    I might be your missing link. Waiting on DNA results.

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