Thomas S. Watson Sr.: Miller, Ironmaster, and Business Partner of Andrew Jackson

by Steve Watson.

Few people who look at President Andrew Jackson’s portrait on a twenty-dollar bill think of him as a maker and purveyor of liquor, yet Jackson and his partner Thomas Watson owned two stills in 1802, producing 499.5 gallons of Tennessee corn whiskey from December 1802 through February 1803. Most of this whiskey was delivered to stores co-owned by Jackson, Watson, and John Hutchings, but Jackson kept 82.25 gallons for his personal use.

Birthplace of Andrew Jackson

This and other business relationships between Andrew Jackson and Thomas S. Watson Sr. did not last long. Although their families continued to be associated for the remainder of their lives, the two men were no longer partners after 1803. Consequently, few people know of Thomas S. Watson Sr. What follows is a brief sketch that illuminates this relatively obscure business partner and neighbor of our former President from Nashville.

Thomas S. Watson Sr., born in Virginia about 1758, was the son of John Watson and Elizabeth Ann Jones of Prince Edward County, Virginia. His father was High Sheriff and later became a magistrate of Prince Edward County; his uncle was Revolutionary War General Joseph Jones; and his wife was Sally Sanders, daughter of Thomas Sanders and Mary Mitchell. Watson and his wife moved to Davidson County after selling their Prince Edward County lands in 1796.

The first evidence of Thomas Watson in Tennessee is a 1798 indenture recorded in Davidson County, in which he signs his name as a witness to the purchase of 300 acres on Stoner’s Creek by John Watson of Prince Edward County, Virginia, from John Donelson of Davidson County, Tennessee. It was John Donelson’s sister Rachel who had married Andrew Jackson in 1791.

Before coming to Tennessee, Thomas S. Watson Sr. and his brother Augustus had built a “merchant mill” on Falling Creek in Prince Edward County, Virginia. By 1802 Thomas owned another mill, near Nashville, which was used to grind the corn for the aforementioned whiskey. He became owner of Barker’s Mill on the West Fork of the Red River in Christian County, Kentucky, by 1815, and about 1816 he also built what later became known as Peacher’s Mill in Montgomery County, Tennessee.

These milling activities notwithstanding, Thomas S. Watson’s primary business interest was iron-making, and he and his brother-in-law/business partner, Peter Guerrant Moseley, were acknowledged as ironmasters. The firm of Watson and Moseley operated the Yellow Creek Iron Works in Montgomery County, Tennessee, where the smelting furnace appears to have been in existence as early as 1802 and probably reached its zenith in the 1820s, after its purchase by Thomas S. Watson Sr. and his son-in-law. The 1820 federal census of Montgomery County shows a total of 71 persons employed at the iron works: 30 free whites, 40 slaves, and one free colored person. A smelting furnace like the Yellow Creek Furnace was undoubtedly a hot, dirty, and dangerous place in 1820. Consequently, Thomas S. Watson Sr. maintained an estate in Wilson County, Tennessee, for his wife and younger children, and in the 1820 federal census he was enumerated there as well as in Montgomery County.

Perhaps the most famous of the early Tennessee ironmasters was Montgomery Bell, after whom the renowned academy in Nashville is named. The fact that Thomas S. Watson Sr. and his son-in-law, John Hartwell Marable, acquired 2,476 acres on Yellow Creek from Montgomery Bell in 1819 suggests that Watson and Moseley’s earlier association with Yellow Creek may have developed through some type of relationship with Bell. John Hartwell Marable represented the Clarksville area of Tennessee in the United States Congress from 1825 through 1829.

Thomas S. Watson Sr. founded the Red River Forge in Montgomery County around 1816 or 1817, along with the dam and facilities later known as Peacher’s Mill. Two Montgomery County post offices were associated with these early iron works: the Red River Forge post office operated from 1826 through 1829, and the Yellow Creek Furnace post office operated from 1825 through 1866. Thomas S. Watson Sr. and Peter Moseley returned to the Nashville area before 1830, settling near the confluence of Drakes Creek and the Cumberland River, at the point where Davidson, Sumner, and Wilson Counties meet. Peter Moseley eventually moved westward and died in Yazoo, Mississippi.

At the age of 82 Thomas S. Watson Sr. was living in Sumner County, Tennessee, where he was enumerated in the 1850 federal census as a member of the household of his son Thomas S. Watson Jr. The younger Watson operated, in Saundersville, a public tavern and hotel, which was later known as the Wayside Inn, and he was a superintendent of Sumner County School District #7. The date of death and place of burial of Thomas S. Watson Sr. are not known.

A third Thomas Watson was associated with this family: Thomas Tennessee Watson was the nephew of Thomas S. Watson Sr. and a son of Sarah Branch Jones and LTC Augustus Watson. Thomas Tennessee Watson was nine years old in 1815 when his father died at Camp Carter in Albemarle County, Virginia, during the War of 1812. Thomas later came to Tennessee, assisted in founding the Tennessee Medical Society, and became a noted ironmaster himself. His tombstone stands near the remains of the Central Furnace in the Land Between the Lakes recreation area near Cadiz, Kentucky. Genealogists should be advised that some researchers have confused Thomas Tennessee Watson with his cousin, Thomas S. Watson Jr. and have erroneously concluded that Thomas Tennessee Watson was a son of Thomas S. Watson Sr.

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