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Paper trails and hiding in plain sight

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My grandmother, Marguerite Boulds DeLeon, was a stalwart participant in the U.S. Census. She had good reason to: It was the only legal proof she had of her existence.

She was born in Hempstead, Waller County, Texas, in 1900. Her mother was born in the Hempstead area as well; it was where her grandfather, Alleck Stewart, settled once he’d left Virginia after Emancipation. He had a farm there, and raised a large family. Perhaps there once had been some record of ownership of his land, or of the birth of his children and, later, the grandchildren he didn’t live to see.

Doesn’t matter now. The Waller County courthouse burned down sometime after my grandmother’s birth. She lived well into the Information Age, yet she lacked a simple document many take for granted: her birth certificate.

But she always took part in the census, and ultimately the census stood up for her. Without its official count of her, she would not have drawn Social Security or Medicare, would not have been able to vote.

So she was a big fan of the census. She often said her family believed in the power of documentation. They knew, it seemed, the benefit of the paper trail.

Knowing this, I thought tracing her ancestors — the ones who all were born in admitted states, who didn’t sneak into ports, who didn’t change the spellings of their names — they should be easy. Ha. I grossly underestimated the roadblock known as slavery.

I know from either the 1870 or 1880 census that Alleck Stewart was born in about 1840 in Virginia. He is listed as mulatto, and the lone surviving photo of him confirms this. Look up Stewarts in Virginia, right? Well, yeah. Do it again. And again. I have looked up Stewarts in 1860 Virginia plenty of times, eyes glazing over in despair at the nameless men, women, boys, girls listed in the slave schedules.

The other day, I did it again. And the lightbulb went on: There are only four Stewarts in Virginia — the whole state — who have a male mulatto slave between the ages of 15 and 25 (to give myself some wiggle room). Four, I tell you.

  • Thomas B. Stewart, Fauquier County, Southwest Revenue District; 1 male mulatto, age 21
  • Elizabeth H. Stewart, Appomattox County; 1 male mulatto, age 20
  • William B. Stewart, Stafford County; 1 male mulatto, age 16
  • Sally Stewart, Appomattox County; 1 male mulatto, age 15

Easy? Possibly not. Manageable? I would think so, especially with two being in the same county. And since I found these names in the census slave schedules, clearly these Stewarts also bought into the paper trail of officialdom.

But what next? Which one of these four is my tall, strapping 2nd great-grandfather? How do I connect the dots?

And here’s a bit of complication: Appomattox County was formed in 1845, with pieces cobbled from adjoining counties. Great.

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