Captain Stephen Watts

first commander of the Light Infantry Company

Major Stephen Watts, 3rd Battalion, Royal Veterans Regiment Courtesy of Janeen Soderling, New Zealand

Stephen Watts was born in New York City in 1754, a son of John Watts, a prominent city politician of Scottish birth. Stephen was a brother of Anne, the wife of Captain Archibald Kennedy, RN, the 11th Earl of Cassillis; Mary (Polly), the wife of Sir John Johnson, the lieutenant-colonel of the King's Royal Regiment of New York, and Margaret, the wife of Robert Leake, a major of the 2nd battalion, King's Royal Yorkers.

His older brothers - Robert, who married a daughter of William Alexander (Lord Stirling), and John, who married a DeLancey cousin - remained in the United States after the Revolution.

In 1775, Stephen had been visiting with Sir John and Polly at Johnstown in the Mohawk Valley when a captain of the Royal Highland Emigrants arrived and received the baronet's blessing to recruit amongst his tenants. Stephen tendered his services and, when the Emigrants' commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Allan Maclean, appeared shortly after to collect his recruits, he went with him to Oswego. Maclean took his recruits to Montreal, arriving at the city when rumours of a coming rebel invasion of Quebec Province were rampant. Governor Carleton enthusiastically received Maclean and gave him permission to recruit widely throughout the province.

During the defence of Quebec City, Stephen served as a lieutenant in Captain Malcolm Fraser's Company. When reinforcements arrived from Britain in the spring, the Emigrants were part of the force that drove the rebels from their siege lines outside the city and pursued them upriver. Stephen must have been with the Emigrants during the successful defence of Trois Rivières, and during the drive south on the Richelieu River following the rebel army as it scrambled to escape.

In May 1776, Sir John Johnson escaped imminent arrest and trekked north through the Adirondacks wilderness to Akwesasne with 180 recruits. After a brief period of recovery, he assembled Natives and Canadiens to join with his own men, and marched to Montreal to confront the rebels. His little 500-man army arrived just after the city had been relieved by British Regulars, and the baronet crossed the St. Lawrence to chase the rebels south. When he arrived near Chambly on June 19, he met with Governor Carleton and was given a beating order to raise the King's Royal Regiment of New York. Stephen and a Johnson family friend, Patrick Daly, transferred from the Emigrants to the new regiment. Daly was promoted to captain and given command of a line infantry company. Stephen was also made captain and given command of the Light Infantry.

The Royal Yorkers went on their first expedition in July 1777 under the command of Brevet Brigadier St. Leger. His goal was to reduce Fort Stanwix in the upper Mohawk Valley and then subdue to Valley during his march to Albany to join General John Burgoyne's grand army, which would have advanced from Quebec via the Lake Champlain route.

St. Leger's army had just arrived at Fort Stanwix when word came from the lower Valley that the Tryon County militia brigade was marching to relieve the fort's garrison. The brigadier dispatched Sir John Johnson with Watts's Light Company; a company of German riflemen; a party of Indian Department rangers, and the majority of the Native auxiliaries. The Six Nations' War Captains devised a classic Native ambush and the Tryon Militia blundered into it early in the morning of August 6. During an early phase of the action, Sir John ordered Watts's company to break the outer crust of the militia's position with a bayonet charge, but the tactic had little success. In the afternoon, a reinforcement of Royal Yorker line troops employed a ruse-de-guerre to penetrate the militia's defensive perimeter. During the ensuing melee, Stephen Watts was grievously wounded, and, when the Royal Yorkers and Natives withdrew to the Stanwix camps, he could not be found.

Three days later, Watts was discovered by a Native patrol and brought to the camps. A leg was shattered below the knee and his throat was badly gashed. Although he had managed to staunch the bleeding, he had lost a great deal of blood and was very weak with fly-blown wounds. Despite the squalor of a campaign camp, the regimental surgeon cleaned Watts's wounds and successfully removed his lower leg. When St. Leger's expedition retraced its steps to Montreal weeks later, Stephen was left there to recover.

Watts was young, strong and resilient and, when he had healed sufficiently, he purchased a captaincy in the 8th (King's) Regiment on March 8, 1778 and was put in command of the hospital at Montreal; however, his knee was not regaining the flexibility necessary for the fitting of an artificial leg and it was recommended that he go to England for hot baths. This remedy was successful and, by December 12, 1781, Watts was in command of an invalid company on the Isle of Jersey, where he met Sarah Nugent and married her on November 17, 1788 at St. Hellier. They were to have a fruitful marriage; Sarah bore fourteen children.

In April 1796, Stephen was noted as the island's barrack master, another step up in his career; however, in November of that year, he quarreled with Dr. Sanderson, the regiment's paymaster, concerning officers' lodging funds. The argument must have been extremely heated, as it led to a pistol duel in which Watts fired the first shot and grazed Sanderson's neck. Sanderson's ball struck the thumb of Watts' extended pistol hand and deflected up his nose to lodge in his cheek. The wound was so severe, he was not expected to live.

The ball could not be extracted, which, coupled with the discomfort of his earlier amputation, must have caused much discomfort. As duels had been declared illegal, his second, a fellow captain, had to flee the island. Sanderson and his second were arrested, but Watts appears to have escaped punishment because of his wounds.

In 1799, he was returned as a major and the island's assistant barrack master and, in a military census of 1806, he was again noted as a major and barrack master. His household included four boys and five girls.

Three years later, a newspaper article reported that "Captain Stephen Watts on the retired list, and late of the 3rd Royal Veterans Battalion is dismissed from his Majesty's Service." This dishonor apparently led to the final tragedy, for Watts took his life with a pistol on January 20, 1810 in London. He had slept in a club called The Hummums in Covent Garden for seventeen nights. An officer-acquaintance reported that Watts was afflicted with occasional fits of insanity, suggesting the lead ball had affected his brain. An inquest declared a verdict of lunacy; a common finding in cases of suicide.

Watts was buried at St. Olaves in London near his father, John. His wife Sarah died in 1841 and was given a second burial in Ripple Church, Deal, Kent where a plaque to her and Stephen was erected in 1860 presumably by their eight surviving children.

Stephen's will of 1808 appointed as executors: his wife Sarah; his sister Margaret Leake, and his friend Lieutenant-Colonel John Ross, the original major of 2KRR. The will was altered in 1809 when Lieutenant-Colonel John Ross of the Coldstream Guards was killed at the Battle of Talavera.

The names John and Ross continued in the Watts family for generations. John Ross Watts emigrated to New Zealand and the family there continues this tradition.

(Research by Les de Belin, Sydney, Australia, and Cruikshank and Watt, KRR NY, 331.)

Additional Information:

From the William A. Smy collection of papers.


Sorel 1 October 1778

The bearer, Captain Watts of the 8th Regiment, returns to England for the benefit of the hot baths to recover the flexibility of the joint of his knee to enable him to use an artificial leg. The Regiment being to send home an officer for their additional company in the room of those who came to Canada last year, I have proposed to Your Lordship in my public dispatch of the 27th Ultimo that he should serve in that company for the Captain, which will prevent the Regiment from being obliged to send another also.

Captain Watts served in Sir John Johnson's Corps at the action last summer on the Mohawk River where the rebels were defeated with so great a slaughter by the Five Nations and a part of that Corps commanded by Sir John Johnson in person.

Captain Watts received three dangerous wounds and lay some days in the woods without assistance, was discovered only by accident, and has recovered after a tedious and painful confinement with the loss of a leg cut off below the knee, which he is not yet able to support himself upon.

Sir Guy Carleton, in consideration of Captain Watts being of a family in New York which has suffered much in these troubles, and brother-in-law of Sir John Johnson whose merits must be known to Your Lordship, but principally on account of his gallantry at the action above mentioned, and his fortitude in the suffering he underwent, allowed him at his earnest instance to purchase a company which was to be sold in the 8th Regiment, which circumstances I thought merited to be made known to Your Lordship.

British Library. Sloane and Additional Manuscripts, Add MSS 21722, Register of Letters to Various Persons, 1778;
National Archives of Canada, Haldimand Collection, microfilm reel number A-663.

The King's Royal Yorkers