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Watson Family Papers, 1760-1976

The Watson family came from Virginia to the Ridge area of South Carolina in the eighteenth century before the Revolutionary War. William Watson, Sr., was killed by marauders during the Regulator movement in 1767. His son Michael was killed in a skirmish with Tories at Dean's Swamp in Orangeburg District in 1782. More than a half century after his death, there was still interest in the Revolutionary War exploits of Michael Watson. Joseph Johnson, author of Traditions and Reminiscences, Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South..., thanked Andrew Pickens Butler in a letter of 22 May 1849 for information about "the adventures of Capt. Jas. Ryan" and requested information about Michael Watson's participation in a 1768 engagement with the Cherokee Indians. Johnson explained that he could find no mention of the incident in the Charleston papers. Butler enclosed Johnson's letter about "the bloody affair at the Murder Ponds" when he wrote Tilman Watson and encouraged him to provide all the information that he could—"It will, at all times, afford me pleasure to cooperate with you in doing justice to the memory of your gallant grandfather." Two letters (14 January and March 1850) from Washington attorney Tho[ma]s P. Morgan to Tilman Watson concern his request that Watson gather information for filing a claim for the destruction of Michael Watson's property during the Revolutionary War. There are three affidavits (24, 27, and 30 November 1852) recalling Watson's Revolutionary service. The five hundred forty-four manuscripts and one bound volume in this collection document several generations of the Watson family up to the twentieth century with the remarkable career of Sarah Pressly Watson. The earliest documents are eighteenth-century land papers. The earliest correspondence is that of Adam Marshall (b. 1760) who lived at Greenville (formerly Long Bluff) on the Pee Dee River. Adam Marshall's daughter Sarah married John Kolb McIver (1789-1846) and their daughter Lucy married Robert Briggs Watson.

Adam Marshall's correspondence extends from 1785 through 1802. The earliest of the thirteen letters is dated 12 December 1785. There are two letters bearing this date: one to his uncle James and the other to his mother in County Down, Ireland. His correspondence often gives information about other family members in South Carolina, including his uncle's son who had borrowed money from Adam. Adam advised his uncle not to believe reports of "immense Fortunes [being made] in America...in a short time" for "Times are much alter'd for the worse, & a newcomer here...would be in a Poor Situation for three or four years without the assistance of some Friends." To his mother, he expressed sympathy for his family's plight in Ireland—"The abuse which my Father br[other] John & yourself received from the inhuman Barbarians whom you mention fills my Mind with a degree of horror which I want words to express." He desired to visit his family soon "if I can collect my Debts but money is so amazing scarce in this Country, that I cannot be certain." His plans for visiting Ireland were still uncertain when he wrote his mother in July 1787. He reported on other family members in South Carolina and thanked his mother for her "tender care of me while young, but more especially for the Pious Instruction which you early taught me, & still continue to remind me of, which I hope through the blessing of God have been a mean[s] of preserving me from many heinous offences, which otherwise, I might have committed." In a letter of 27 September 1791 he enclosed a bill of exchange for 20 pounds sterling, advised cousin James Gregg "to stay where he is as this Country is very sickly," and explained that his marriage to Mary Gregg would likely prevent his ever returning to Ireland.

Several letters to his mother and William Marshall in 1801 and 1802 concern family tension and controversy. In a letter of 12 December 1801 he referred to cousin Jane's taking offense at his reference to her marrying a "papist" and advised against emigrating to South Carolina—"At a moderate calculation you could not expect that more than one half of you would get over the Seasoning of the climate." He enclosed a bill of exchange in a letter to his mother, 12 July 1802, expressed regret at Mariah's behavior—"if she continues to repeat her transgression, I will never send her another farthing," and also chastised his brother William who apparently had moved into their mother's house. He expressed his disappointment in stronger terms in a letter to William.

There is very little correspondence for the first two decades of the nineteenth century, but the collection does include deeds and estate papers of Jacob Odom. His widow Martha was administrix. The correspondence resumes in the 1830s when young William Marshall McIver, son of John Kolb and Sarah McIver of Society Hill, enrolled as a student at Mt. Zion Institute. William wrote his mother, 19 September 1835, shortly after his arrival, to describe the campus, living quarters, and food, discussed his studies, and detailed religious activities of the students, including a "wicked" young man who joined the Methodist church. McIver brought with him to Mt. Zion a letter from his pastor, James C. Furman, attesting his membership in Welsh Neck Baptist Church and his exemplary Christian character. His religious faith was apparently of supreme importance to McIver. In a letter of 22 October 1835 he told of his participation in "a praying society" and noted that his next birthday was also the anniversary of "nearly a year professing to follow Christ, but oh! at what a distance! may He forgive my lukewarmness & take me to Himself." One of the distinct advantages of having a cabin to himself was that "I can spend the Sabbath in retirement" (27 October 1835). The same letter related an incident involving a fourteen-year-old student who stuck a knife into the arm of a faculty member and McIver's attendance at a Methodist service where a young man revealed after the sermon—"Some time ago he killed a man. Some time after he joined the Methodist church & he may be a preacher."

William McIver enrolled in South Carolina College in January 1836. Shortly after his arrival, 12 January 1836, he informed his father of his schedule, assured him that he was always prepared for recitations, and reported on the condition of the church—"The Baptist[s] are losing ground fast here & unless we have a godly, faithful minister shortly we may expect to become extinct." McIver intended to organize a Bible class at the college. Fatherly advice in a letter of the 15th included borrowing books from the library rather than purchasing them and caring for his eyes—"bathe your eyes well every morning in cold water, & limit your reading at night if your eyes become painful." As far as his studies were concerned, his father wrote—"Nothing is more in the way of learning, than a superficial habit of study, & being satisfied before we know half, what we ought to know on any subject, we may have to investigate in the course of our studies." A circular (23 January 1836) sent to John K. McIver lists the "Course of Study in the South Carolina College, 1836."

William McIver's sister was in Columbia attending Dr. Marks' school and he often relates visits with her in his letters home. Religion was another subject that was frequently mentioned. In a letter of 6 February 1836, he discusses prayer meetings and chapel services, reports the suspension of Charles Sparks who "threw a knife at Mr. Holmes & other disorderly conduct," notes that the students were eager to go to Florida to fight the Seminoles, and lamented the use of profanity by many students.

William's father was a prominent Baptist layman in the Welsh Neck church, and church affairs and religion were often the most important topics for discussion in his letters. A number of letters between them concerned the case of [Levi J.] Middleton who was excluded from the church after lengthy deliberations. Mr. McIver approved of his son's enrollment in Prof. Nott's French class (10 February 1836)—"I wish you to understand that language & Hebrew also, to assist you in a knowledge of the Old Testament." In response to his son's comment about the use of profanity by the students, his father advised William and others to be "steadfast in their example of good conduct."

In two letters (20 and 27 February 1836) to his mother, William reported that he was encouraged that thirty students attended prayer meeting—"My feelings were indescribable. I felt more encouraged to hope for a revival...[of] religion in the College than I've done yet"—and mentioned religious activities at "the Baptist Lecture room" and college chapel. His son's favorable reports about the religious climate of the college pleased his father and "produce[d] the hope that a new era is dawning on the College. If the hearts of the professors of Religion in the college are engaged in prayer, for a revival, they may confidently expect this result" (10 March 1836). In a letter of 21 March 1836 and in the same vein, he advised—"It is certainly a Christian duty to discharge faithfully all our duties, & the students who are professors of religion, can do good among their fellow students, by their example, in being always at recitation, & in yielding a prompt obedience to all the requirements of College regulations." John McIver was as active as his son in practicing his religion. His letter of 4 April relates his activities in the church and his approval of Brother Walsh's preaching, his plan to organize a Sunday school in Chesterfield "in the midst of ignorance & vice," and anticipates the meeting of the temperance convention—"we hope it may be a time of refreshing & stirring up among Christians."

While he was attending South Carolina College, William McIver was considering a career in the ministry. His father approved of his son's "reading the scriptures & explaining them to the coloured people of the Columbia church" but advised that "to take a regular portion, or text of Scripture, & explain it is preaching, & this cannot be done without a license from the church" (27 April 1836). A year later (5 May 1837) William McIver explained his decision not to enter the ministry and discussed the influences that caused him to make the decision. The subject was mentioned again in a letter (1 February 1838) from his father—"Guard against religious declension. I have endeavored to commit you into the hands of [the] Lord."

William McIver completed his work at South Carolina College in 1837 and began medical studies but died suddenly in 1839 following "a Severe attack of Bilious Pleurisy." His father found a small memorandum book among his son's papers and "determined to record some of my exercises of mind in consequence of his death & such a notice of him, as I hope, with the blessing of God, may be profitable to my younger children."

Two of the children were Cornelia who married Zimmerman Davis and Lucy who married Robert Briggs Watson. A letter, 13 February 1858, from Cornelia in Society Hill to Lucy at South Carolina Female Collegiate Institute in Columbia explains her inability to write on account of illness, mentions family slaves by name, and reports brother John's satisfaction with his new overseer—"I think there will be a complete change among the Negroes—the management before was so slack that it was a great injury to them." Another sister, Mary Furman, sent Lucy some letters of their parents and brother William, commented on the character of their parents, criticized her younger siblings for "following the fashions & styles of the world," and singled out Lucy for attending a "fashionable school" against her guardian's wishes—"This grieves me, dear Lucy, because our Father selected Aunt Caty [Catherine Fort] on account of her Piety, & the influence which He thought she would exert over you & Cornelia." Cornelia informed Lucy, 6 June 1859, that her husband had purchased a "house boy" for her who would remain "until we find a place for him to be hired at. I am afraid he will get idle habits, for there is nothing at all here for him to do." The failure of the firm of Fraser & Co. was much on the minds of the "gentlemen"—"it is quite an affliction to the cotton market."

Lucy McIver apparently met Robert Watson while they were attending school in Greenville. She was advised in a letter of 27 August 1860, that "if this young man is all that you represent him,...no one would object." But she did want to hear from Lucy's sisters "to let me know what they think of this Robert Watson, for love is very blinding sometimes." Lucy was married to Robert by 1861 when she heard from her brother John about a terrible flood on the Pee Dee River which swept away livestock and caused the slaves to spend "several days up in their lofts and in the gin house" (20 February 1861).

Not long after his marriage, Robert Watson was in the Confederate army as a lieutenant in Co. B, Fourteenth South Carolina Infantry. His brother-in-law, Dr. S.H. Pressly, was proud of the patriotism of "old Edgefield" with thirteen companies in the field. A speedy termination of the war was expected after Manassas—"The Yankees thought us to be an insolent ease loving race, too impetuous to stand up against the cool nerves of the Northman, but I think `Manassas' has opened their eyes" (1 August 1861). On 11 October 1861, Cornelia wrote her pregnant sister of the birth of her daughter and mentioned a slave's confession "of killing her mistress or helping. Have they any idea what inclines the negroes to do such a thing." Robert discussed his wife's approaching "confinement" in a letter of 6 November and told of his servant's drunkenness—"It was amusing to see him I assure you. He did act so ridiculous. I would send him to the work house if I knew we would stay here long." But it was not only the slaves who were drinking to excess. Watson attributed incidents of drunkenness and misbehavior among the troops to "Charleston whiskey [which] seems to make the men quite pugnacious."

Watson's company was stationed at Garden's Corner and Tomotley during the winter and spring of 1861-1862. In November 1861 a detachment of "Beaufort troop" was ordered to St. Helena Island "to kill or drive off the negroes." The expedition was abandoned when the Beaufort troop apparently refused to go, and Watson did not fault them "for they know better than the others the danger of such an expedition." He consoled his wife and urged her to be cheerful—"Remember that all of your sex have to suffer pain under similar circumstances." He reported that Capt. West was participating in a court martial of Confederate soldiers "under arrest for disturbing the citizens....They broke open houses, beat the men to get to their wines. Tis said one fellow forced a negro woman. What a disgrace to human nature." In a letter of 27 November, Robert gave an account of Robert E. Lee's visit to Garden's Corner.

Their lengthy encampment at Garden's Corner and Tomotley may have contributed to some of the morale problems that Watson reported; their commanding officer, Col. James Jones, was another problem—"He is one of the most wicked men I ever saw—pays no sort of regard to the Sabbath." Other officers bypassed Jones in granting furloughs. Watson noted that the Rev. Mr. Howe was serving as a private in Tilman [Watson's] company—"He was not made Chap[lain] as he expected so I hear," and another minister was reported drunk at Camp Butler (27 January 1862). Some men were leaving without permission—"I expect they will be severely dealt with" (8 April 1862). A week later, Watson related a report that four Edgefield companies in the 19th Regiment were among units that refused to be sent to Mississippi. Watson praised their fighting ability and stated—"The[y] volunteered with the understanding that they were to remain in the State" (14 April 1862). In a letter the next day, Watson again sympathized with the Edgefield companies—"They were State troops and ought not to have been ordered out of the state till they were consulted."

Late in April 1862, Watson was thoroughly disgusted with their situation at Garden's Corner. The water was unhealthy, and there was "much filth about the place." He longed to be with his wife and child—"Oh! that this horrid war would end and that I might again be with my loved ones." Another cause of his exasperation may have been the vandalism of Confederate soldiers against the civilian population—"Houses are broken open and plundered—they excuse themselves by saying it would fall into the hands of the yankees. Yesterday I saw a good carriage torn to pieces in mischief. Strange to say most of the officers will wink at it. What a scene of desolation is everywhere visible about here....We are a wicked people and God is punishing us severely" (21 April 1862).

Between April and June 1862 Watson's regiment received orders to move to Virginia. The collection contains only a few letters from Virginia in 1862. Robert Watson was wounded at Frazier's Farm and Gettysburg, and apparently he returned home after the latter battle. Following the war, Watson became a successful farmer in the Ridge section. He shipped peaches and pears, and was one of the earliest commercial peach growers in the state. He later began raising asparagus as a commercial crop.

Among the ten children of Robert and Lucy Watson was Sarah Pressly, who was born in 1885. She attended Greenville Woman's College, Hollins Institute, and Columbia University. While enrolled at Hollins, her parents kept her informed about family, friends, and activities in Ridge Spring. Activities included the "young people" organizing a book club in 1903 and a "Musical Recital" presented by Mary Wilkins Scaife in the Ridge Spring Auditorium. The book club met twice a month for "a programme, music & readings." Sarah's mother reported the acquittal of Jim Tillman in a letter of 17 October 1903—"There is great indignation over all the State for it was a foul murder." Other subjects in the letters from home included clothes that various family members were making for her, church and social activities, and reports on the peach, asparagus, and cotton crops.

After graduation from Hollins, Sarah Watson began teaching in Union. A friend and fellow teacher in Greenwood provided the young teacher a lengthy explanation about teaching and disciplining older children (16 September 1906). By 1909 Sarah was pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University but kept in touch with South Carolina friends, most of whom were women. She was teaching history at Greenville Woman's College in 1916 when a friend in Richmond wrote about the presidential election and her sorrow at the prospect of American men going to war (4 July 1916).

Two years later, Sarah Watson was a participant in that war as she sailed to France as an employee of the YWCA. From Paris, on 1 July 1918, she informed her sister Cornelia ("Birdie") that she had a pleasant voyage—"not the slightest submarine scare." This was her first experience outside the United States, and she reveled in describing Paris and the French countryside over which she had passed. Her job was to be in charge of a signal corps unit in the military zone—"That is American girls who are telephone operators and make a house for them. They are not the type we think of as telephone girls, for they have to be expert in French." By 21 July she had arranged to rent a house for the women who "are much like my college girls...as if they had come from there. I find that except for some superficial differences, most people are remarkably alike in their desires and prejudices." She had to move to another house in St. Nazaire the following month and was also continuing her study of French with Madame Dubost who "helps me do many things, so I call her my Aide-de-Camp" (13 August 1918). A letter to Birdie dated 4 September 1918 described the hectic pace of preparing meals for 12 women, social activities, and her presence in Paris at "the Congress of Allied Women on War Service." When her French improved, Sarah hoped "to go into French work"—"While I do not depreciate the work with American girls...when I see the harder work that the nurses have, the greater strain and less recreation, and the much more terrific strain of the French women, I feel that I should rather be with them."

She was doing as she wished in Tours in November 1918 when she wrote Birdie—"It is a new adventure for the Y.W.C.A. in France, a house for French girls." At the foyer, there were classes in English, music, and games, and "on 4 nights a supper is served at the price of one franc (20 cents)." She expected the work to continue after the war and regarded this prospect as "a very wonderful opportunity for us to help change things for the Fr[ench] women and in turn with all the Latin race women." Sarah Watson was clearly not eager to return home to teaching—"I love France and the French, and get on well with them, and there is no reason at present, why I must come back to America."

American troops were departing France to return home in 1919. Sarah witnessed the departure of ships which she related in a letter of 18 June to her father. In her opinion one sad aspect of this scene was "the French brides, waiting to go to the states....There are some Fr[ench] girls that have married negroes, for there is not the feeling against color here that we naturally have in America, and the poor, ignorant girls will have a rude awakening..." From Tours, on 25 July, she gave Birdie an account of the thrill of being in Paris for "le jour de la gloire"—"the greatest parade in the history of the world. It was inexpressibly splendid and touching."

Sarah Watson remained with the YWCA through most of 1920. She managed a foyer in La Rochelle, introduced tennis and volleyball—"all unknown games to the girls," organized classes, and located teachers. In December she informed Birdie that her next position would take her to Paris at the Foyer International des Etudiantes. Relations under her predecessor as Directrice apparently had been less than harmonious. Despite the necessity of dealing with this problem, she remarked—"This is my most interesting place, yet. I was never so happy. I've always longed to travel all over the world & know the people of many lands,—and now I'm in a house of girls that represent 22 countries." Sarah had committed to staying through the summer, "but probably I shall stay on." In fact, she remained there until her death in 1959.

Sarah Watson's sympathies were clearly with the young women who came to Paris to study—"One's heart is torn with the sufferings that many of these girls have had and with their great need now. They come to Paris from everywhere and without enough money to pay their expenses" (25 January 1921). By September 1921 she could report to Birdie that "she had the Foyer self supporting." In addition to her duties she was reading books on "old Paris" and attending the Sorbonne. Visiting Alsace for a rest, she thanked her sister Birdie in a letter of 11 October 1921 "for the attitude toward life and people that you have always had and tried to give us. It's why, tho coming from the simple country life that I had, I can sympathize with and understand a little at least, these girls from all lands. World citizenship is a matter of point of view and not places of residence."

There is no correspondence in the collection between 1922 and the outbreak of World War II in Europe although there is material for this period in a collection of Sarah P. Watson papers previously received by the library. The first revelation of the war is "a uniform message [13 July 1940] that the Germans allowed all Americans to send to one person (only) in the U.S.A., saying I was safe and well." Sarah Watson gave an account of the German invasion, "the most tragic sight I have ever seen," criticized England and the United States for not heeding French warnings about German rearmament—"If only America can wake up before it is too late, if she can realize this is not just another war—it is a new religion that is conquering the world," and referred to her encounter with Germans who came to visit the Foyer. In October 1942 Sarah Watson was interned in a German concentration camp at Vittel, France. She remained there until her release a year later. She was allowed to return to the Foyer International des Etudiantes as Directrice. Upon her death in 1959, funeral services were conducted at the American Cathedral in Paris, and her body was returned to Ridge Spring for burial.

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