Dec 25, 2019

December 25th: The layered Tale of Louisville's 1st Christmas

Mildred Hill.
Courtesy of the University Of Louisville Photo Archives
On December 25th, Christmas Day, Louisville's first black resident saved Christmas.
Many of you Louisville history buffs will be quite familiar with that remark, as well as the name Cato Watts. It is a story that has been well documented and written about many times since its occurrence in 1778.

The facts we do know about Watts have been heavily researched and written about in journals dating back over 100 years. But what we do not know about Cato Watts is just as curious given the amount of time spent chronicling his life.

What we do know about Watts is that he was both the first black resident, and the first musician of Louisville; given that he was present during the founding of Louisville, standing amidst Col. George Rogers Clark as the settlement was founded, we can be certain these facts are true.

 Watts also carries the title of Louisville's first slave. Accounts overtime on this vary; over the last 100 years the different published accounts of Watts refer to him in different ways: the 1940 account, 'The Negro In Kentucky,' by G. W. Jackson refers to Watts as a 'Negro servant', but written in the 20th century the omission of the word 'slave' was perhaps careful footstepping. The 1896 account,
Music History of Louisville,  by musicologist and famed writer of the melody for 'Happy Birthday', Mildred J. Hill  refers to Watts as a 'negro fiddler', and Reuben Thomas Durrett's work just two years prior to Hill's, in The Romance of the Origin of Louisville, Durrett refers to Watts in several different ways, including the nickname of 'The Old Standby'  before settling on 'slave'.

Watts arrived in the area as the servant of Captain John Donne attached to Col. George Rogers Clark's expedition. They set up a settlement on May 27, 1778 during the Revolutionary War, on Corn island in the Ohio river just across from modern day 12th street. When Clark's militia departed 60 civilian settlers remained behind in 1778 and since that day there has always been a European presence in this area.

Corn Island, on the other hand, is all but gone. In the 1800s The Louisville Cement Company extracted rock for cement and the removal of trees from the island contributed to erosion, which washed much of the island away by 1895. The rest of Corn island is now permanently underwater, although a Louisville family by the name of James has held the deed on Corn Island for generations and still pays an annual land tax.

On December 25th of 1778 the settlement had a Christmas feast and dance on the site that is now 12th street. According to the Filson Club the music was supplied by Jean Nickle, a french fiddler that only played 'French airs', but was unpopular amongst the settlers who wanted more 'lively tunes' to dance to. The settlers soon replaced him with Cato Watts who played the more popular genres of Irish jigs and Virginia reels, thus creating the legend of 'the slave that saved the first Louisville Christmas.'

According to Hill, Watts was well regarded amongst the settlers for his fiddle playing, but the strings on his instrument had long been broken, so when a fresh instrument appeared, as a near Christmas miracle perhaps, the settlers where all to happy to commandeer Nickle's fiddle for Watts' use. Hill, a Louisville native and music reacher specializing in the study of Negro Spirituals, ended her manuscript in a curious note. "Cato's music was certainly the music of the people and.." she wrote, " if a history of Kentucky music is to be written, a large portion should be written about the negro in our state, but the music of the negro in a  city is of little interest because he is so surrounded and influenced by the whites that his own loses its characteristics, and therefore, its interest."

In addition to being Louisville's first black resident, first slave, and first musician, Cato Watts has two more distinctions: the first person to be tried for murder in Louisville and first resident hung to death in Louisville.

According to Durrett's 1893 account, Watts knocked down John Donne that resulted in Donne's death. Watts was tried and convicted in 1787. According to J. Blaine Hudson, in an article in the August 1999 Filson Club Quarterly, "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." Regardless the man who saved Christmas was found guilty and hanged from a large oak tree which stood where the court house now stands, currently surrounded by the city's Light Up Louisville installation, and in view of the city's 40 foot Christmas tree.
 "He killed his owner as he claimed by accident, but was tried and hung for the crime.." wrote Durrett in his 1893 account,  "much to sorrow of the young people who enjoyed his music at their dances."

an artist rendition of Cato Watts defeating Jean Nickle, from 'Stories of Old Kentucky'
 by Martha C. Grassham Purcell, c1915