Watrous, John Charles (1806–1874)

By: Harwood P. Hinton

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: January 1, 1996

John Charles Watrous, attorney and federal judge, son of John Watrous, was born in 1806 in Colchester, Connecticut. After receiving his early education at Bacon Academy in Colchester and graduating from a college in New York state, he moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he studied law. He practiced law in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi before 1837, when he moved to Texas and established connections with several land companies in the capacity of partner, stockholder, and legal adviser. In 1838 he became attorney general of Texas but resigned in 1840 because of conflicts between private professional engagements and public duties. Watrous was attorney for the Peters colony or the Texas Land and Emigration Company from 1841 to May 29, 1846, when he was appointed United States district judge. After the annexation of Texas to the United States, Watrous had actively campaigned for the post, and he was nominated and confirmed because of his old Tennessee connections with President James K. Polk. His appointment, however, was opposed by senators Sam Houston and Thomas J. Rusk as well as many members of the Texas legislature, who favored their own candidate, James Webb. After his appointment to the federal bench, Watrous became the object of severe criticism, in part because his decisions in a number of cases went against the wishes of some members of the legislature and because of his personal connections with land speculation in the state. The alleged relation of Watrous to an attempt to validate forged land certificates resulted in the Texas legislature's passing a resolution in 1848 asking the judge to resign. Impeachment proceedings against him began in the United States House of Representatives in January 1851 with the presentation of three petitions or memorials. The main charges against him were violating Texas statutes punishing those dealing in fraudulent land certificates, misusing his judicial influence, and holding sessions of court improperly. After numerous investigations the case was dropped by a vote of 111 to 97 on December 15, 1858. Memorials continued to be presented to each succeeding Congress; Sam Houston, on February 3, 1859, made a scathing attack on Watrous, and Andrew J. Hamilton prosecuted the impeachment until the adjournment of Congress on March 3, 1861. Watrous was inactive during the Civil War when the district courts in Texas were under the Confederate government, but he resumed his seat at the end of the war and presided until 1869, when he was stricken with paralysis and forced to resign. He moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he practiced law when his health would permit until his death in June 1874.

Roger N. Conger, "The Tomás de la Vega Eleven-League Grant on the Brazos," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 61 (January 1958). Walace Hawkins, The Case of John C. Watrous (Dallas: University Press in Dallas, 1950). Robert Thomas Pritchett, Impeachment Proceedings against John Charles Watrous of Texas, 1857–1861 (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1925).
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Judges
  • Lawyers
  • General Law

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Harwood P. Hinton, “Watrous, John Charles,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/watrous-john-charles.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996