Did Wathen Whiskey Begin in Maryland?

Did Wathen Whiskey Begin in Maryland?

One of the most interesting Wathens of American history is Henry Hudson Wathen III, who was an early distiller of whiskey in Kentucky. Born in 1766 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, he was one of many Southern Marylanders who left Maryland in the late 1700s to begin a life on the American frontier. His crude distillery along the Rolling Fork River was a success, and his descendants would become some of the most prosperous bourbon distillers in Kentucky, selling brands like Old Grand Dad, Old Crow, and Everglade. Over the past few years, I’ve collected my share of old Wathen whiskey bottles and labels from eBay to pay tribute to this heritage of my Kentucky cousins.

When I was researching for The Wathens of Southern Maryland: Their Genealogy & History, one discrepancy in Henry Hudson’s biography caught my attention: While old Wathen family histories and even whiskey bottles proudly advertise that the family has been selling whiskey since 1788,[i] documents here in Southern Maryland show that Henry Hudson Wathen III worked as the overseer of the Jesuit-owned plantation in Newtown, St. Mary’s County, Maryland from 1794 to 1796.[ii] As overseer or manager of the large plantation, Henry would have been responsible for keeping the tobacco farming running smoothly, so that the Jesuit priests could focus on more spiritual responsibilities. If Henry was still in St. Mary’s County until 1796, then he couldn’t have been selling whiskey in Kentucky in 1788.

The 1788 date that is found on bottles of Wathen whiskey most likely comes from the year when the Rolling Fork Settlement began: A well-respected and often-cited history book called The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky says, “The Catholic settlement designated as that of the Rolling Fork dates from the year 1788.”[iii] The same book lists Henry H. Wathen among those who had settled at Rolling Fork “some time previous to the year 1800.”[iv] My guess is that those who began putting “SINCE 1788” on bottles of Wathen whiskey did so because they thought Henry Hudson Wathen began distilling at Rolling Fork right around the time the settlement began. They were most likely unaware of Henry Hudson’s employment by the Maryland Jesuits in the 1790s.

When I learned that Henry Hudson was an overseer of the Jesuit plantation, I began to wonder if he might have been distilling at Newtown. I’ve heard local stories about the Jesuits themselves distilling at some point, but I haven’t yet found any detailed records about that. Perhaps Henry Hudson Wathen and the Jesuits exchanged some distillation tips in the late 1700s?

The Maryland Province archives at Georgetown University contain old records of the Newtown Jesuits, but finding such specific information within the thousands of pages of hand-written documents is no easy task. I’ve visited the archives several times to review their sacramental records, but I’ve never had the time to really investigate whether Henry Hudson was distilling here in Maryland.

This week, though, I discovered that many of the documents from Newtown have been scanned and placed online. This digitization project has been underway for a long time, and I couldn’t wait to see what information I might be able to review from the comfort of my own home. Logging onto the Georgetown website is a lot easier than making the four hour roundtrip to their onsite library.

After several hours of paging though digital documents, I came across two entries in an account ledger that piqued my curiosity: On August 21, 1794, there is note of a transaction with Hudson Wathen (misspelled Warthing) for “1 qt of whiskey to be returned.”[v] On January 10, 1795, there is a note of a transaction with Henry Hudson Wathen (again misspelled Warthing) for “1 qt of whiskey to be returned.”[vi]

In the context of the account ledger, the phrase “to be returned,” seen in several alcohol transactions, probably means that the quart-sized bottle was to be returned once empty. [vii] The account ledger specifies the amount paid for other items, such as beef, lard, milk, butter, and pork, but no payment is noted for either whiskey transaction. Perhaps they were noted in the account book only as a reminder that the bottle was supposed to be returned.

Although I initially thought that the records provided proof that the Jesuits were getting whiskey from Henry Hudson Wathen, the context of the ledger suggests that Henry was actually getting whiskey from the Jesuits. It's difficult to discern whether Henry had started distilling whiskey himself at this point, though it is possible that he was learning the trade while he was overseer at Newtown.

There is probably more information about Henry Hudson Wathen III to be gleaned from the newly digitized Newtown records. It's exciting to find hints that the Wathen’s alchohol legacy began right here in St. Mary’s County, Maryland! You can read more about Henry Hudson Wathen III and other Wathens in The Wathens of Southern Maryland: Their Genealogy & History.

 [i] “The Manufacture of Whisky in Kentucky: Modes of Distillation, Changes and Improvements During the Past Century As Told by the Following Sketch of the Wathen Family of Noted Distillers,” The Wine and Spirit Bulletin 19 (1905): 22-29; digital images, Google Books (http:// books.Google.com : accessed 24 January 2024).

[ii] Edwin W. Beitzell, The Jesuit Missions of St. Mary’s County, Maryland (Abell, Maryland: self-pub., 1976), 249.

[iii] Benedict Joseph Webb, The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky (Lousville, Kentucky: Charles A. Rogers, 1884), 102; digital images, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/centenaryofcathowebb/ : accessed 24 January 2024).

[iv] Webb, The Centenary of Catholicity of Catholicity in Kentucky, 110.

[v] Jesuits at Newtown, Newtown Account Ledger (1784-1797), p. 18; image copy, Georgetown University, Digital Georgetown (http://hdl.handle.net/10822/1074151 : accessed 26 January 2024), Archives of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, Series 02: Records of the Procurator, Subseries 2.5: Estate Accounts, 1734-1926, “Newtown, Records Book (1 of 2),” image 62 of 222; citing Box 88; Folder 1, Archives of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, Georgetown University Manuscripts, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C.

[vi] “Newtown, Records Book (1 of 2),” image 72 of 222.

[vii] In another entry for the purchase of rum from an unnamed seller, the Jesuits paid separately for the rum and for the cask in which it was stored. See  “Newtown, Records Book (1 of 2),” image 81 of 222.

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