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Private Thomas Watkins Role in Defeating the Elite Tory Army

Ancestor Bio: Thomas Watkins (1751-1854)

This Kentucky family story actually begins in North Carolina during the American Revolution. My sixth great-grandfather, Thomas Watkins, served NC Militia before moving to Floyd County in the early 1800s. Here’s what I know of his story.

In 1751, Thomas Watkins was born in the British American colony of North Carolina. George II ruled Great Britain and the American colonies, making the Watkins family his loyal subjects. Another 25 years would pass before North Carolina would be a state.

Finding the Parents of Thomas Watkins

We don’t know who Watkins’s parents are, but we can gather potential clues by examining his surroundings when he was born. The Watkins family name is English and associated with Wales. It is a shortened form of Walter, a Germanic word roughly translated as ruler of armies.

As detailed in the North Carolina Museum of History timeline, North Carolina was a popular destination in the early 1700s for the Scots-Irish people. With Watkins being an English name, it’s likely his parents were part of this migration.

Between the 1730s and 1760s, many Scots-Irish settlers were claiming land in the Appalachian area. Some were from the British Isles, while others found Pennsylvania becoming crowded and traveled the Great Wagon Road to settle in Rowan County, NC.

In 1750, the newly created Anson County encompassed western North Carolina. Three years later, they divided Anson County to create Rowan County in the northern part and establish the county seat of Salisbury. This action was in response to the growing population. Watkins was actually born in Anson County, but he indicated he considered Rowan County as home.

By him claiming Rowan County as home, it provides a boundary for where he lived his early life. The Rowan County we know today was further divided in the coming years. I believe he left Rowan County in the early 1800s. After 1820, the eastern part of Rowan County was re-organized as Davidson County and later the northern part became Davie County. It is a smaller area to consider when searching for this elusive grandfather.

Early Life in North Carolina

When Watkins was growing up in Rowan County, there were still many conflicts over the land boundaries. Between 1750 and 1770, there are continual conflicts with the Cherokee Indians. With the new settlers moving into the area, the Indians were defending their lines even as they were being edged out of North Carolina. Diseases, such as smallpox and typhus, were common and had a serious toll on the native populations.

In 1776, North Carolina declared independence from Great Britain and joined the Continental Congress. Most colonists were happy for the relationship to end. Many of the residents resisted the taxes imposed by King George III when the colonies had no representation. This event lead to start the Revolutionary War.

Most of the war was fought in the North. By 1779, General Charles Cornwallis brought the battle to North Carolina. The North Carolina Militia drafted the 30-year-old Thomas Watkins into the Wilkes County Regiment to serve for nine months.

On 17 February, 1834, when he applied for his military pension, Watkins recounted his three years of service. The interview for the pension application (W6779) provides us with a vivid view of his military life. Remember: Thomas Watkins was an 83-year-old man when discussing events that had happened 40 years prior. He admitted he did not recall complete details and other events he just didn’t take notice.

Soldier’s Life with the NC Militia

Like many of the men in the troop, Watkins was not a trained soldier. Most likely he was a common laborer or worked on his family farm. Many historians discuss how the militia lacked training, equipment, and supplies. It had to be scary for these men knowing they were facing the world’s most elite fighting force – the Royal Army of Great Britain.

In the interview, Watkins said his troop leadership changed frequently, so it was difficult to know who was in charge. When mustered into service, he states it was with Captain Charles Gordon and served with Colonel Frances Locke of the Rowan County Regiment. He also served under Lt. Colonel James Miller (Rutherford County Regiment) and Col. Francois DeMalmedy (NC Light Dragoons).

There were many battles he mentioned, but these battles may be the most well known:

  • Aug 1780 Battle of Camden (Camden, SC)
    Continental Army lost with 1,900 casualties. With the British win, they were able to move into North Carolina.
  • March 1781 Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Greensboro, NC)
    Continental Army lost with 1,842 casualties. The British won but General Cornwallis was only able to shift his operations to Virginia. This decision would contribute to our independence.
  • May 1781 Siege of Ninety-Six (Ninety Six, SC)
    Continental Army lost with 147 casualties but General Greene was fighting more boldly in South Carolina because Cornwallis was in Virginia. This continued boldness is what contributed to our victory.
  • September 1781 Battle of Eutaw Springs (Eutawville, SC)
    Continental Army lost with 579 casualties but the British lost 882. It was considered a British win but they were showing they would continue to fight.
Significant Battles in the Carolinas During 1870s

As you can see from the locations above, these men marched long distances. These sites are 100 to 200-miles apart. At one point, he states they had to rest for a week after marching to a South Carolina fort.

It must have been difficult to stay motivated. All of these major battles resulted in a loss with many soldiers meeting their end. It is clear the British had a better army.

Second Tour with the South Carolina Militia

After nine months of service, Watkins was discharged while stationed in South Carolina. Like many other North Carolinians, he re-enlisted for eighteen months in the South Carolina Militia. He commented it was too dangerous to return home. There were many Tories (what he called the British soldiers) located through the state who would be likely to take them as prisoners or kill them.

He characterized his remaining service as more skirmishes than battles. Most of his descriptions were guarding prisoners, patrolling the river near Georgetown, SC to prevent the British from causing further mayhem, and long marches through South Carolina. He added the British killed, hung, or jailed Whigs, which were colonists who supported independence.

As the war was winding down, many soldiers were waiting in South Carolina so they could be discharged. During the winter of 1782, he was so ill he spent time in the Charleston hospital. He didn’t say why he was in the hospital but I imagine that long it must have been severe. The war did complete by 1783 and most likely he returned to North Carolina.

Other Genealogical Clues from Interview

In the pension application, he verifies his age is eighty-three. He said that he considered Rowan County, NC home but had since lived in Floyd County, KY. He was asked for neighbors or others who could testify for his service. These are the men he listed, almost all of them appeared in the 1820 Floyd County Census. I looked up these folks and captured what I thought were accurate dates and name spellings.

Other Witnesses

Here’s those he listed as other witnesses:

Rev Wallace Bailey (1802-1885)
Reuben Fraley (1793-1859)
William Marshall (?-?)
Johnson Marshall (1810-?)
Charles Menix (1813-1899)
Rev John Morris (1782-1862)
Esq Robert Patrick (1764-1859)
Hugh Patrick (1779-1845)
Esq Meredith Patrick (1803-1858)
William Prater (1787-1847)
Rev E. (Elijah?) Prater (1795-1839)
Michael Risner (1790-1864)
John Salyer (1803-1865)
Cudbeth Stone (1755-1844)
Francis Whitaker (1794-1863)

Other witnesses were there to validate his character and his service.

Reverend Ezekiel Stone and Reuben Marshall, both of Floyd County, declared Watkins was 83 years old and served in the Revolutionary War.

Revolutionary War veteran, John Hall (Application S30451), of Perry County, who was 79-years-old, served during 1781-82 with Watkins. He stated Watkins was a good and faithful soldier. In 1783, he was aware that Watkins was in Georgetown, SC.

Ezekiel Patrick (Application R7996) said he had known Watkins nearly all his life. They had lived in Rowan County together. Patrick did not serve all the time with Watkins but was able to verify the basic facts of the NC State Militia. They were both “nine-month men” and not in the regular militia. Patrick also mentioned his two brothers were taken prisoner during the war.

Life in Floyd County

In 1834, the US Government granted Watkins $60 a month military pension, which would be about $2,000 in today’s money. He also received $210 as back pay. After his death in 1854, his second wife Elizabeth would be granted his pension and draw $80 a month.

Probably some of his back pay was used toward a land purchase. In 1836, Kentucky offered land $20 per 100 acres. Watkins grabbed 100 acres.

In 1840, the US Census shows that he lives here and his son Thomas Watkins, Jr. lives next door with his wife Lucinda and children. His daughter Mary (Polly) lives nearby with her husband John Salyers.

He remarried in 1845 to a younger woman named Elizabeth Shepherd. In the census records she is listed as deaf. She was also 40 years his junior. It’s possible she was promised his pension if she would take care of him as he aged. He died in 1856 when he was over hundred years old.

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