Monday, March 20, 2017

Amanuensis Monday: Spotlight on Samuel Watts, Sr. of Halifax County, Virginia

 On the 18th day of July 1810, Samuel Watts Sr. of Halifax County, Virginia “for consideration of the natural love and goodwill which he hath for his daughter Polly Shaw at present the wife of Joseph Shaw as also all the children she may have” conveyed slaves he owned to James Eastham and John T. Palmer. These slaves were described as: "a woman named Nancy, a girl named Beckey, a girl named Jane and a boy named Burwell together with their future increase." In the deed, Samuel first reserved the use of those slaves so long as he lived and directed that after his death Eastham and Palmer were to dispose of said slaves for the use and benefit of Polly Shaw and her children. At her death, Eastham and Palmer were authorized to “deliver up such of the aforesaid slaves as may be then remaining in their possession together with their increase and to divide the same equally among all the children of the aforesaid Polly Shaw and their heirs begotten of their body.” This was recorded in Halifax County Deed Book 22, page 340 and witnessed by Nathaniel Barksdale, Laban Palmer and Benjamin Conner.

This transaction created a lot of controversy in ensuing years by the descendants of Samuel Watts, Sr. Seven different chancery cases were brought before the court stemming from this one transaction. The details of these chancery cases are quite interesting. I will talk about just a couple of them in this post as follows.

First, in the regular county court records, a suit was brought against Joseph Shaw and Polly his wife, Betsy and Moses Shaw, James Eastham and John T. Palmer twice in the year 1812. The plaintiffs were listed as Thomas Watts, Joseph Watts and William Watts the heirs and children of Samuel Watts Sr. and Sally Watts, the widow of Samuel Watts the younger as well as the children of Samuel Watts the younger. The first suit was dismissed by the plaintiffs attorney (Halifax County, Virginia Index to Court Orders).

In the chancery court index for Halifax County, we find that on 28 January 1812, a summons was issued to these defendants to appear before the justices at the courthouse in Halifax County to answer a bill in chancery by the fourth Monday in March. There is nothing else in this digital record but the cover of that summons and the index page.

The next chancery record spells out the complaint of the plaintiffs. The essence of which being that Samuel Watts the elder, deceased, had, "a considerable time before his death due to the effects of disease and his great age," become greatly impaired so that he was incapable either of managing in disbursing his estate with understanding and was easily influenced to do acts which were indiscreet and irrational, that great influence was frequently made over the said decedent by one Joseph Shaw and Polly Shaw the daughter of the said Samuel and a short time before his death when his intellect was greatly impaired the said Joseph Shaw and Polly Shaw did prevail upon him to execute a deed whereby he conveyed he whole of his slaves and personal estate to one John T. Palmer and James Eastham as trustees.

On November 23, 1812, the trustees John T. Palmer and James Eastham answered saying that Samuel Watts the elder did convey to them in trust several slaves as appears by deed recorded at the county clerk's office but that these respondents were not present at the executing of said deed and therefore are not able to say whether the said Samuel Watts was of a sound disposing mind or not but supposed he was weak like most other men of his age but further answer they prayed that if the aforesaid conveyance be considered good and sufficient that the court supply their places by appointing other trustees in their places.

On November 26, 1812 defendants Joseph Shaw and Polly Shaw answered that they never exercised any influence or used any artifice by persuading Samuel Watts the decedent to execute the deed of trust mentioned, that the conveyance was made after much reflection and deliberation and was an act founded in reason, that the said Samuel Watts the elder lived with these defendants two years before the execution of the said deed of trust [1808] and three years afterwards until his death that the said Samuel Watts the elder never murmured or repined for having made the said deed of trust, but in his life time always said that it was just and reasonable that he should secure the property mentioned to his daughter Polly and her children as a reward for her unremitted [sic] attention, kindness and affection to him in his old age when he was neglected, ill treated and deserted by the rest of his children. These defendants further answering say that Samuel Watts dec'd was aged and infirm many years before his death but was not incapable of managing and disposing of his estate with understanding and discretion and at the time of making the said deed of trust and afterwards was sane, rational and in every respect competent to dispose of his property. They further reported that the said Samuel Watts used great precaution to prevent the defendant Joseph Shaw from possessing any part of his estate as the said Samuel Watts would often declare that the said Joseph Shaw was so idle, careless and extravagant that he would in a short time waste the whole property and the said Samuel Watts frequently expressed much concern to have his negroes conveyed to the defendant Polly and her children, denying all confirmation they pray to be here dismissed.

On March 20, 1813 Thomas Seamore gave deposition that he had been a “nigh neighbor” of Samuel Watts for some time before his death and it was his impression that the old man's mind was rather unsound at the time of his death and had been so for some time before, that he was extremely forgetful and uncertain in his movements. He always, though, understood that the old man intended to give the negro woman and her increase to Mrs. Shaw his daughter and he had been a neighbor of Watts for four years.

Laban Palmer gave deposition at the tavern of James Mullins May 21, 1814 that he has known the old man Samuel Watts for 7 or 8 years and that he was witness to the deed of gift from the old man to Joseph Shaw's family, that he saw no deficiency in the intellect of the old man and that he appeared to be as much in his senses at the time of signing the deed as he was before since the deponent knew him.

On the same day and place, Nathaniel Barksdale gave deposition that he was employed to write a deed of gift from old Samuel Watts to Joseph Shaw's family – the old man while deponent was employed in doing the writing seemed to act as if he was in his senses – he gave directions, he freely of his own accord, undirected [sic] by any other – this deponent after he had finished the deed had not pleased the old man whereupon the matter was suspended for about ten days when he was again called upon to again draw up a deed, which finally gave satisfaction to the old man – at both meetings the old man appeared to this deponent as being the same thing as to his senses and appeared at both times as if he was in his senses.

On the same day and place, Jeffery Palmer gave deposition that he had known and been acquainted with old Mr. Samuel Watts for 45 years [1769] before Watts death and that the old man was at his house [emphasis added] when he executed the deed of gift to Joseph Shaw's family that the deponent believed the old man then was as much in his senses as he ever had been and continued to as far as the deponent believed until his death – in fact he saw no change in the old man's senses of any consequence from the time he first became acquainted with him until his death.

Mrs. Patsy Oaks on the same day and place gave deposition that she had been intimately acquainted with old Mr. Samuel Watts for twenty or twenty-five years [1790s]. She saw the old man a few days before he executed the deed of gift to Joseph Shaw's family. He conversed with her a good deal on the subject in which his intention was clearly expressed to give the property to his daughter. The old man seemed to talk as much in his senses as he ever had done before since the deponent knew him. She could not discern any alteration in him more than old age generally produces. She signed "Martha Oaks, her mark X."

Lewis Hardwick gave deposition at the same place on the 20th of March 1813 that he was at Halifax Court at the time he understood old Mr. Watts intended to record his will. He saw old Mr. Watts and he is convinced the old man on that day was out of his head but he believed it proceeded from intoxication.

Littleberry Owen gave deposition at the same place and same day that he had been a neighbor for several years of old Samuel Watts. His impression and belief was that the old man was out of his mind at his death and had been so for some time before his death. Particulars he was unable to give, only his general opinion.

John Nichols Sr. gave deposition same place, same day that he had known old Samuel Watts for he believed 20 years [1793]. His impression was that the old man for some time before his death was at times not exactly right in his mind. The particulars he was unable to give but his general opinion was that the old man was rather deranged.

Benjamin Conner gave deposition on May 21, 1814 at the same place that he had been acquainted with old Mr. Samuel Watts for he supposed twenty years. He saw the old man a few days before he executed the deed to Joseph Shaw's family, that he had a good deal of conversation with him on the subject in all of which the old man appeared to be as much in his senses as he ever had before quite as much as he appeared to deponent to be sufficient to dispose of his estate understandingly. In the course of his conversation he took occasion particularly to express his intention of giving the property to his daughter Polly and her children, giving his reason that he had given the rest of his children of their just properties [?]

William B. Banks gave deposition at the store house of Clark and Bailey that one time five or ten years application was made by an old man named Watts to enter into a deed of gift to one of his children (the name he cannot remember) that some person whom he supposed to be children or near relation of the said Watts were present at the time. That the deponent was ready to have proceeded to write the paper but for some reason was declined. The deponent well remembered that the said Watts was a very old man, the – of his understanding from the effects of old age he thought to be considerably impaired and perhaps owing to that circumstance the deed of gift was not written. March 28, 1814.

Capt. William Bailey gave deposition at the store house of Clark and Bailey that he was well acquainted with Sam'l Watts dec'd for three or four years before his death, that about 4 years before his death he applied to this deponent to write his will which he declined doing. At the time he said he wished to give his property to Wm. Watts and Joseph. That some twelve months afterward he again applied to this deponent to write his will which to gratify him he did. he then gave it to Thomas Watts and Polly Shaw and this deponent believed from the state of his mind at the time that if he had requested him he would have given him any part of his estate that he appeared then to be completely in his late age and continued until his death as far as this deponent knew or believed that he saw him frequently in his latter days and saw no change in him. 23rd May 1814.

28 March 1814 at the store house of Clark and Bailey, Elisha Palmer gave deposition saying that some 3 or 4 years before the death of Saml Watts, he applied to deponent to write his will. Deponent thought at the time that his mental faculties were so feeble apparently from old age as to be incapable of making a will but to gratify the old man told him if he would come another day he would write it but he did not come according to appointments. Deponent frequently saw him at other times until his death and always thought his mind worse that he believed he gradually declined until the day of his death.

Finding these chancery records have been quite a boon. It is taking some time to transcribe the records and then process the information and compare to what has previously known about these Wattses in Halifax County. I have researched this particular family for all of my adult life and rarely does so much new information come to light. I still have yet been unable to identify any further generations back from the first Samuel and still cannot get out of Halifax County, but the knowledge that I have gleaned is helpful nonetheless to have a fuller picture of these early lives.

The information given in the depositions, etc. over the chancery suit about Samuel's conveyance of slaves to his daughter Polly Shaw shed more light on who Samuel was and how the family interacted. These records show clearly that Samuel was an elderly man before he died around the year 1812 (I put his age at about 74 which was quite old back then). It also indicates that his wife was more than likely dead by then as well. She was not a party to the original transaction wherein Samuel conveyed those slaves in trust for his daughter in 1810. Indeed, the daughter mentioning that Samuel lived with her and her family about two years before that transaction took place (1808 by inference) may indicate that Samuel's wife was already gone by then and Samuel needed someone to take care of him.

Stay tuned as I share more from these old chancery records to shed more light on the lives of these long ago ancestors.

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