In Search of Sarah Spears (1836-1907)

Walker Stewart was married to Sarah “Spear” on 28 April 1850 in DeKalb County, Alabama according to statements in her Civil War widow’s pension file.   An affidavit in the same file by John N. Franklin states that he performed the marriage ceremony on that date near Ft. Payne.   The marriage license in DeKalb County was dated two days earlier.1   The 1850 DeKalb County census shows Walker Stewart, age 29, with his new wife Sarah, aged only 15, and his two year old son John Stewart by a prior marriage.  Sarah consistently gave her birth state as Tennessee in later censuses and in the 1880 and 1890 censuses listed the birthplace of both parents as Tennessee.

The 1900 census, which listed her as Sarah B. Stewart, listed her birth date as July 1836.

The identity of Sarah Spears (she spelled it “Speers” in her pension application) is a mystery.   Edgar Hardman reported to me in 1979 that his mother, a granddaughter of Walker Stewart, called her “Sarah Bethere Susan McHenry Spears.”  (His grandmother’s twin sister, my great-grandmother, called her “Sarah Beth”.)  If that was indeed her name, it may be a clue to her background.  There are no Spears, by any spelling, in DeKalb or any surrounding county in the 1840 census.  In 1850, only a George W. Spears appears in DeKalb County, age 26, with a wife named Adaline and two infant children named Sarah Ann, age 2,  and John H. Spears, age zero.

He is surely the same person enumerated as “J. G. Spears” in the 1860 Bledsoe County, Tennessee census.  That man — who could not otherwise be found in 1850 — was age 36 with a wife named Adaline and children named John (12), Delilah (6), James G. (4), and Samuel (1).   He was enumerated adjacent to John H. Spears and his wife Sarah, both 78 and both born in Tennessee.  Two households away is a J. H. Spears, 48, and his wife Adaline (sic!).

This was the family of John H. Spears (c1785-1860) and his wife Sarah Gallant, whom he had married in Rhea County, Tennessee in 1815.  Among their children was Gen. James Gallant Spears (1816-1869), a Union Army General in the Civil War, who married Adaline Kendrick Brown.  Another son was John G. Spears who married Adaline Cooper.   The latter is the person who seems to have been enumerated as “George” G. Spears in DeKalb County in 1850. (I might note that the census records that exist today are generally not originals but rather the copies that were sent to Washington, and that copying errors are not particularly unusual.)  Indeed his oldest son, John Houston Spears, was born in Alabama on 18 April 1850 according to later records.  The birth states of his children in later censuses suggest that he left Alabama in 1859.

It is surely no coincidence that John G. Spears was in DeKalb County the same year that Sarah Spears married.  She must fit into the family of John H. Spears in some way.

John H. Spears Background

Most of Beldsoe County’s early records were destroyed in a courthouse fire, so we must make do with few enough records that no firm conclusions are possible.

According to an 1886 biography of a grandson, John H. Spears “belonged to General Coffee’s command in the war of 1812 and participated in the battles of New Orleans and Horse Shoe.  [He] was a native of Buckingham County, Va., and as early as 1796 removed to the head of the Sequatchie valley, being among the earliest settlers of that region.  He made his home upon a farm at Grassy Cove, Bledsoe county, and successfully engaged in the practice of medicine until called from life in 1860, at the age of 74 years.” 2

John Holliday Spears was enumerated in the 1830 and 1840 censuses of Beldsoe County, Tennessee with household compositions that suggest he had two sons and three daughters.   That is consistent with the statement in a biography of his son Gen. John G. Spears, written in 1912, that “he was the eldest of five children”.3   In 1830  the household included two possible daughters, one aged 10-15 and one aged 15-20.  In 1840 he had one female 20-30, apparently one of the daughters yet unmarried, and a female 5-10 who may have been Sarah Spears.  Whoever that younger female was, she was not evident in the 1850 Bledsoe census, thus may well have been our Sarah.

A Theory — Sarah Was a Granddaughter of John H. Spears

There are two obvious possibilities:  that Sarah Spears was a late-born daughter of John Holliday Spears, or that she was the illegitimate daughter of an unmarried Spears female.

One of John H. Spears’s daughters was Mary McCanna Spears (c1820-aft1900) who appears to have borne a daughter named Sarah Elizabeth Spears out of wedlock.   Mary was in her father’s household in 1850 (age 26)  and 1860 (age 35) with the daughter Sarah Elizabeth, aged 1 and 12 respectively.   The 1830 and 1840 censuses suggest that Mary was actually five or so years younger than that.  Mary McCanna Spears married late in life to an elderly widower named James Swafford and lived long enough to appear in the 1900 census of Bledsoe County, where she declared that she had borne only one child.  (I note that the 1900 census gives her birth in May 1818, which is consistent with the earliest censuses.)

The other daughter is unknown, at least to me.  She was apparently the older daughter of the 1830 census, aged 15-20.  She either died or married before the 1840 census.  It is entirely plausible that she bore Sarah Spears out of wedlock and then died prior to the 1840 census, with her daughter enumerated in John H. Spear’s household in 1840.  (Sarah Spears Stewart declared in the 1900 census that she was born in July 1836, which should have placed her in the age 0-5 category for the 1840 census, though if she were off by just a year she might have been the female in the 5-10 category.)

This daughter, if she was our Sarah, could have accompanied her young uncle John G. Spears and his new wife to Alabama, and married Walker Stewart there.  Unfortunately, the loss of records in Bledsoe County may make that theory impossible to prove or disprove.

  1. DeKalb County , Alabama, Marriages 1836-1854, Cathrine Cleek Mann (1970). []
  2. Goodspeed’s Biographies of Marion County, Tennessee, “Col. Ashley Lawrence Spears”. []
  3. Notable Men of Tennessee: From 1833 to 1875, Their Times and Their Contemporaries, Oliver Temple Perry (Cosmopolitan Press, 1916), pages 186-7. []