And a lawyer of 60 years active practice
By Margaret Cline Harmon
How would you like to meet the Commanding General of the Missouri State Guard’s First Division from the Civil War? Or would you like to meet the half brother of Henry Clay? Well, you are in luck because General Nathaniel Watkins is buried on his former plantation, Beechwood, just south of Benton in Scott County, Missouri. His tall obelisk-shaped headstone awaits your visit. The Missouri State Guard was the first Confederate unit to serve in Missouri during the American Civil War. Missouri Governor Jackson favored the Confederate cause and appointed Nathaniel Watkins Brigadier General and Commander of the first military district of Missouri. The district consisted of the southeast section of Missouri. General Watkins organized the Missouri State Guard in that district. He was a soldier in three American Wars, that of 1812, the Mexican War and the Civil War. Being a great man of character, he also became a leading statesman in Missouri.
In 1862, newspaper articles record General Watkins’ property at Jackson was burned by federal troops and they drove him from Cape Girardeau County. Watkins at this time, at the age of 67, resigned from military service and took residence in Scott County, near Morley, Missouri. I have been unable to prove exactly when his home on Beechwood was built but I found several references to the details of this “southern style” plantation in print. The Sikeston Standard, in a January 1940 issue, described Mrs. Lutie Price Leslie of Morley recounting how she knew General and Mrs. Watkins and that she visited them in their beautiful home at Beechland estate often. She related that the home was a large two-story house and she recalled two things in particular about the home; namely, the large magnolia trees that stood in the front yard and the lovely flower garden that Mrs. Watkins developed
Scott County tax records revealed that Gen. Watkins had 42 slaves at an assessed value of $30,000 in 1861. This was outlined in Edison Shrum’s History of Southeast Missouri. Cape Girardeau County 1860 tax records listed the Watkins family with four slaves, valued at $2,000. Beyond the 780-acre estate in Scott County, he also owned lots in Morley and Jackson, plus land in Cape Girardeau, Mississippi and Stoddard Counties for a total of 1, 709.62 acres of land in Missouri, not counting city lots.
In 1931, the State Historical Society compiled a sketch on the life of Gen. Nathaniel Watkins and they published it in various newspapers throughout Missouri. Much of the following information is from that sketch. Gen. Watkins was born January 28, 1796 in Woodford County, Kentucky, and was the son of Capt. Henry Watkins, who married the widow of Rev. John Clay, the father of Henry Clay, the famous statesman and U. S. Senator from Kentucky, the author of the “Missouri Compromise.” Gen. Watkins was the half-brother of Henry Clay and was said to have resembled him a good deal.
Their mother, Elizabeth Hudson Clay Watkins nurtured Henry and Nathaniel during their early years and obviously affected her sons’ development into statesmen. According to Henry Watkins of Henrico County His Descendants and Their Allied Families, her grandson, Thomas Bodley Watkins, in his letter of 19 September 1894, described her as a woman of great determination, industrious and economical. The same source says that Elizabeth lived with each of her husbands on her father’s plantation. One newspaper article shared by Dorris Minner Roberts of McMullin reads: “R. E. Bailey of Sikeston suggested that “Great men come from great mothers,” recognizing General Watkins and Henry Clay, half-brothers, had the same mother.
Gen. Watkins studied law at the university at Lexington and in the office of Judge Henry Davidge of Gallatin County, Kentucky. When twenty-three years of age, he went west to seek his fortune in Missouri. The year was 1819 and he selected Jackson, Missouri to call home.
The young Kentuckian soon became one of the best and most noted lawyers in Southeast Missouri. He was an orator and exercised very great influence over juries. No attorney in Southeast Missouri had a larger practice. He traveled on horseback every spring and fall from one county seat to another in Southeast Missouri. They held few cases of any important in any of these counties in which Watkins did not appear on one side or the other.
He took part in the organization of the old Southeast Missouri District Agricultural Society, and was its first president, which they organized for holding district fairs. He served Cape Girardeau County as representative to the state legislature in 1834, 1846 and in 1850; he was elected the speaker of the house. In 1856, he was elected to the state senate, and was a delegate to the St. Louis convention of 1861.
After the Civil War Watkins continued the practice, of law and in 1875, he was elected as delegate from the 25th district to the state constitutional convention and as vice-president of that, body performed his last public service.
As to his personal life, on the 5th of May 1828, at New Madrid, Missouri, Nathaniel W. Watkins of Jackson married Miss Eliza Margaret, eldest daughter of Robert G. Watson, Esq. merchant of New Madrid, and sister to Amanda Watson Hunter who owned and operated the Hunter estate in New Madrid. (Today it is the Hunter-Dawson home.) They listed him as “General Nathaniel W. Watkins” in the June 20, 1828 new Madrid newspaper article announcing the wedding. This suggests that he had risen to the status of General in the War of 1812, although I have yet proven this true.
Nathaniel & Eliza Watkins had seven children between 1833 and 1854. Those children buried in the Watkins cemetery are: John C. Watkins, born Aug. 4, 1833 and died Oct. 1, 1897; William B. Watkins, born May 28, 1839 and died Jul. 23, 1926; Richard “Dick” J. Watkins born Jun. 19, 1843 and died Nov. 4, 1913, along with his wife Eliza J. Harrison Watkins born Jan 13, 1846 and who died earlier the same year on Jan 20, 1913; Nathaniel “Nat” W. Watkins born Jan 5, 1848 and died Nov. 10, 1879. The youngest child, Amanda J. Watkins Wilson, born in 1854 and died in 1916, along the side of her husband George R. Wilson born in 1844 and died in 1931. They did not bury their son Washington Lewis Watkins, born in 1840, in the cemetery nor their daughter Elizabeth Watkins born ten years later in 1850. At this time, it is not known where they bury these two children. They also buried several grandchildren in the cemetery.
General Watkins was a man of great personal magnetism, easy and polite in manners, and made friends wherever he went. Mrs. Lutie Price Leslie remembered that Mrs. Watkins was a lovely, gracious and sympathetic lady. The Watkins’ were, like their plantation mansion, towering pillars of public and social life within Scott County and Southeast Missouri. We are fortunate that today we can walk on a small section of Beechwood Plantation and visit the Watkins Cemetery right here in Scott County. You can visit the Commanding General of the Missouri State Guard’s First Division, and so much more, anytime you wish. The cemetery is located one mile north of Morley on the west side of Highway 61. Turn left into the General Watkins Conservation Area on a gravel road in Township 28N, Range 13E, Section 27. Continue on that road approximately one-quarter mile to the Watkins Cemetery. It is fenced now, for protection, but you can see the headstones easily. If you visit the cemetery in the late evening, you might catch a glimpse of blue and gray shadows at a distance that hint of the once proud Beechwood Plantation.
Many thanks are owed to Mrs. Dorris Minner Roberts of McMullin for sharing with me many newspaper articles from the mid 1800s to mid 1900s relating to this very interesting family. Mrs. Roberts is the daughter of Harvey H. and Eula Page Minner, the granddaughter of George and Effie Margaret Watkins Page, a great granddaughter of William B. and Sallie Grisham Watkins and the great-great granddaughter of Gen. Nathaniel & Eliza Watson Watkins. Other descendants also are living in Southeast Missouri. The scrapbook with news articles, letters and poems was originally that of Effie Margaret Watson Page who died December 13, 1967 in Dexter, Missouri.
The General’s great-grandson Nat C. Watkins of Farmington was also helpful in giving me pictures and articles of the Nathaniel W. Watkins. He is blessed in possessing several personal effects of General Watkins which I enjoyed viewing.
Another thanks you go to Conrad Hudson, formerly of Morley, for his sharing the article he wrote on Elizabeth Hudson, mother of Nathaniel Watkins and Henry Clay. His contribution helped in a more thorough picture of this great man.
to gather vital statistics and a sense of history in the stories the eadstones tell. This is the 10th in a series. You
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