Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Fiddling with Cato

"What about the women?" asked my [then] wife, after being subjected to a long, drawn out depiction of ancestral exploits. Subsequently sensitive to the fact that the dominant culture - keepers of the record - leaves many persons' histories unrecorded, I find it particularly rewarding when I encounter documentation left by people of color.

Reading 'The Negro In Kentucky,' written by G. W. Jackson and published in 1940 by the Negro Educational Association Journal, I assumed I'd discovered a non-white voice declaiming the merits of my subject, Monk Estill.
"In accounts of Indian raids, slaves are reported as loyal and daring. In the battle of Little Mountain, when pioneers fought with the Wyandotte Indians in 1782, the bravery of Colonel William [Captain James - RDH] Estill's slave Monk, inspired the pioneer warriors as nothing else in the battle did. He was an expert in making gunpowder and such an interesting preacher that the whites and blacks from Shelby and surrounding counties flocked to his meetings."
I leave aside reference to loyalty, and the author's statistics demonstrating that, "The Kentucky Negro has done his bit in the wars of the nation," while America prepared to enter World War II. It's true, but historical timing seems to drive this emphasis on fighting and preaching for the Lord.

I'll also leave aside the frustrations of Ted Franklin Belue, who contributed the entry concerning Monk in the 1992 Kentucky Encyclopedia, and who wrote me that editors reported Monk being a Baptist preacher ... despite his objection as a subject matter expert, and absent any proof on the editors' part.

Jackson's article referenced one of Monk's contemporaries, and my interest was piqued:
"The first Christmas party in Kentucky would have ended in dismal failure but for the fiddling of Cato Watts, a Negro servant who had come to Louisville with one of the families in the George Rogers Clark expedition."
Interesting, the term 'servant:' Cato was a slave. It also seemed odd that - when describing African American 'contributions' to Kentucky history - Jackson would leap past the sacrifice of Twetty's slave, killed by Native warriors before Boone's party ever cut their way to the future site of Boonesborough.

Nevertheless, since false (or at least unsupported) accounts abound ... of Monk in possession of musical talent ... I was keen to research Cato Watts.

From Reuben Thomas Durrett, attributed to his 1894 work, The Romance of the Origin of Louisville, I draw the version I call 'Uncle Cato,' where we are encouraged to see slaves as indolent, and gentle in their acceptance of forced subservience.
"A source of pleasure to the islanders was a fiddle in the hands of Cato Watts, a slave who belonged to Captain John Donne. Cato would play for hours in the shade of the trees while young and old joined in the Virginia Reel, the Irish Jig, and the Highland Fling. When Sunday came, however, the fiddle was silent and all joined in the singing of hymns."
Again with the emphasis on Christianity: this historian wants us to know the value the group placed on religion. It is true, that slaves worshiped with whites. Thirty-one years later, in 1809, Giles preceded by four years my 3x-gr-grandfather, Capt. Whitfield Early (1777-1865) into a Baptist congregation in Boone County, Kentucky. Giles, slave to Early, transferred his membership from a Virginia church.

Mildred J. Hill, in her History of Music in Louisville, gives an 1896 depiction of the Christmas party (on Corn Island, a crude settlement at the Falls of the Ohio, as Louisville was not yet in existence):
"This is the first mention of music of any kind in Louisville; and, as it is a story of happiness, contentment and good-fellowship, it makes a pleasant starting point for a pleasant subject."
The most recent account I discovered, of 'Cato Watts - the first Slave in Louisville,' shocked me. In observation of Black History Month, 2013, examiner.com posted this account of Cato's life:

... he was hanged.

The article - calling us to mind our history - runs but two paragraphs. Basically, "Little was known about Watts ... he was hanged." No fiddle playing. No birth or death dates, but their reporting does hyperlink Cato Watts to the illustrious slave-owner George Rogers Clark.

At family history sites, presumably-white descendants of Capt. John Donne have preserved an historical record of their ancestor's demise (no mention of fiddle playing discovered). They report that "Cato claimed the death was an accident." It might seem reasonable for descendants to then declare, "Cato was charged in the murder of John Donne and hung for the offence," except that Virginia law (then in effect in what is now known as Kentucky) prevented people of color - free or not - from testifying against whites. Or testifying at all in such cases.

J. Blaine Hudson, in a 1999 paper for the august, Louisville-based Filson Club Historical Quarterly, looked further into the historical record than examiner.com or Donne descendants. In his pre-trial hearing, "The above named Cato Watts was led to the Bar, and upon Examination says that he knocked the said Donne down but that it was not with the intention to kill him."

Uniquely, Hudson combined histories of Cato's status as first black resident, his fiddle playing, and the subsequent homicide. Though 'first slave in Louisville' accounts are often linked to his execution, my assessment is that Cato Watts is best remembered for saving Christmas ... with a particularly sentimental, fictionalized 2003 account here.

In a 1976 article by Robert A. Burnett, in another issue of the Filson Club Historical Quarterly, something poignant comes to light about that festive occasion in primitive conditions on Corn Island:
"Jean Nickle, a Frenchman ... entertained the party with his fiddle, playing dances then the rage in Paris, but these were too sophisticated [described as too 'scientific' in an 1893 account] for pioneers unaccustomed to the music of a Paris salon. The evening was saved when Nickle gave the slave, Cato Watts, some strings to replace the worn ones on his fiddle and Watts enlivened the party with popular tunes of the frontier."
Folklore depicting the first celebration of the birth of Christ in Kentucky could be used to indicate that pioneers lacked sophistication. In this story line, the rough justice subsequently handed out to Cato Watts would be reinforced for its barbarism.

In a sentence following how the Frenchman Nickle yielded fiddle playing to Cato "who soon had himself and the dancers in a paroxysm of joy," Durrett's 1893 account declares Monk's contemporary was, in addition to being the first slave in what is now Louisville ... in addition to being the man who saved the first Christmas in those environs ... Cato Watts, property of John Donne, was also the first man ever hung in Louisville.
"He killed his owner as he claimed by accident, but was tried and hung for the crime. He was hanged to the limb of a large oak tree which stood on ... the public square on which the court house now stands. The hanging was in 1787, and much to the sorrow of the young people who enjoyed his music at their dances."
Monsieur Nickle graced Louisville with a dancing school in 1786. In 2012, an Electronica/Worldbeat/Jamba band was performing in Louisville under the name of Cato Watts.

Cato Watts, from Stories of Old Kentucky
by Martha C. Grassham Purcell, pg 114; c1915


  1. Very good account, and your wife shows a similiar compassion to my own heart. "What about the women?" We dance to the rhythm of the fiddles hum and cry at the last beat of the hearts drum.

  2. Roger, thanks for sending me the link to this blog post from CTTT. It makes me wonder whether there is any connection between my wife's family Cato name and Cato Watts. It may be tenuous, but I will email you a summary of what I found.


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