John Watts, Jr. monument
Photo: Colin Winterbottom

John Watts, Jr. and Trinity

Every year the number of visitors to Trinity Church Wall Street goes up, and along with them, we clock an increase in the frequency of one particular question: Who is John Watts, Jr.?

It’s an understandable inquiry. The man is  memorialized by a 15-foot-high bronze sculpture that towers over the south churchyard, a far larger presence than the monument to Alexander Hamilton sitting just to the south.

But despite the clear lack of familiarity with the name, Watts is a man worth knowing.

Born in 1749, Watts, Jr. was one of seven children of John Watts, Sr., a Scottish immigrant. The Watts family was active in Trinity Church and many members, including Watts, Jr., are interred in a family vault in the south churchyard, a few yards west of the monument.

Watts Jr. graduated from King’s College (now Columbia University) a school built on land provided by Trinity Church. At age 19, Watts gave the “valedictory oration” at commencement ceremonies inside the first Trinity church building, which stood from 1697 to 1776. A few years later, he was appointed Royal Recorder of New York, a colonial post. Watts Jr. would be New York’s last Royal Recorder.

John Watts, Jr. monument
John Watts, Jr.'s record of civic engagement is documented on the monument in Trinity's south churchyard.

In 1791, John Watts, Jr. was elected to the New York State Assembly where he served as speaker. In 1793, he was elected to the United States Congress. He is the only Crown official in New York who held elected state or federal office after the Revolution.

Watts experienced considerable tragedy in his long life.  “Mr. Watts was a monument of affliction, in that he had seen his wife, six handsome, gifted, and gallant sons, and four daughters precede him to the grave. One childless daughter survived him and three grandchildren,” wrote John Watts DePeyster, his grandson and the man who commissioned the monument in 1893, almost six decades after the death of John Watts, Jr. in 1836 at the age of 87.

Two of these untimely deaths would leave another, lasting legacy. In 1793, the only child of his younger sister, Margaret Watts Leake, died at the age of 8. The boy was the favorite and planned heir of his childless paternal uncle, John George Leake. John George Leake and Watts Jr. were friends, and at some point it was decided that Watts’ son Robert would be Leake’s heir, provided the young man took the surname Leake. When Leake died, Robert took the name.

Robert J. Watts Leake inherited the fortune, and promptly passed away, leaving no wife or children. Watts Jr. inherited Leake’s fortune from his own son.

Leake & Watts Orphan House
Leake and Watts Orphan House moved uptown in 1843.

He decided to use the inheritance to create and endow the Leake and Watts Orphan Home, to “foster, educate, and protect orphans.” The home was one of the country’s first private charitable institutions dedicated to child welfare. 

The Leake and Watts Orphan House was founded in lower Manhattan on Trinity-owned land in 1831. In 1843, it moved to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and, eventually to Yonkers, where it now operates as Rising Ground.

And Trinity remains involved. Since 1831 and still today, priests or parishioners from Trinity serve on the Board of Directors of Rising Ground, the greatest and ongoing legacy of the man whose monument in Trinity’s south churchyard keeps eliciting that question: Who is John Watts, Jr.?

This article is based on an earlier story published in January 2014.

Rising Ground: The Legacy of John Watts, Jr.

Ask Trinity Archives
April 27, 2021

Rising Ground is a non-profit human services organization dedicated to helping children, adults, and families rise above adversity. Rising Ground, formerly known as Leake & Watts, includes a history with strong connections to Trinity Church Wall Street.

Changemakers in the Churchyard

John Watts is one of many changemakers buried in the Trinity Churchyard. We remember their lives of service because of the impact they had on those around them in their time. Today, there are also many opportunities to get involved and make the world better. Here are a few ways to volunteer, get involved, and learn through our Trinity community. You can also subscribe for weekly updates.

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