Nathaniel Howcott – from Edenton to Memphis


Nathaniel Howcott was a man of many parts – clockmaker, minister, dentist, banker, freemason, inventor and slaveholder. His story reflects the expansion of the United States during the early 19th century both in a southern and a western direction.


He was a son of Nathaniel and Sarah (Norcom) Howcott and probably spent his early years at their plantation on the west side of Greenhall Road, about five miles north of Edenton. The year of Nathaniel’s birth is not certain. His mother's will, which was made in 1823, gave her sons Nathaniel and John bequests that were to be paid as soon as Nathaniel arrived at the age of 21 years - this establishes that Nathaniel must have been born after 1801. The 1850 census gave his age as 45, pointing to the years 1804 or 1805, but his death record indicates that he was born in 1806 or 1807.


Nathaniel’s father died between signing his will on 13 May 1820 and June of the same year, when it was proved. In addition to a share of the proceeds of sales that are set out in the text of the will, the bequests to Nathaniel were as follows:

“Item. I give and bequeath to my two Sons Nathaniel Howcutt and John Howcutt Six Negroes, to be divided equally between then when they shall arrive to lawful age, namely, Wallace, young Daniel, Toney, Hardy, Fan & Charlotte to them and their heirs forever.”


On 12 March 1821, James Howcott was appointed guardian to his younger brothers Nathaniel, John and Charles. [1] On 14 December 1824, James Hoskins was appointed to the same guardianship. [2] During the 1820s, James Hoskins made various payments to H. Wills for Nathaniel’s tuition. [3] H. Wills was probably Henry Wills, a noted printer and newspaper editor at Edenton who also dealt in school books, or his son of the same name. [4]


Nathaniel’s mother made her will on 15 March 1823 but did not die until 23 August 1827. It left a gun to Nathaniel and the residue of her estate was to be shared between him and his brothers John and Charles. Sarah’s specific bequests included:

“Item, I give and bequeath to my two sons Nathaniel Howcott & John Howcott four Negroes viz Negroe woman Pleasant, Girl Maria, Boys Freeman and Donalson to be equally divided as soon as Nathaniel Howcott arrives to the age of Twenty One years.”


Scanned copies of original records for the administration of the estates of Nathaniel Howcott senior (120 images) and his widow Sarah Howcott (5 images) are freely available online. These include confirmation that on 10 March 1828, five of the slaves mentioned in his parents’ wills were allocated to Nathaniel, i.e. two men named Toney and Hardy, a boy named Freeman and a girl Charlotte & child. [5]


At some stage before Nathaniel married Adaline Meredith, he lived at Raleigh, about 140 miles to the west of Edenton. Their marriage licence was issued in Chowan county on 14 April 1828, following a bond that had been posted ten days previously. [6] The marriage of “Mr Nathaniel Howcott, late of this city (i.e. Raleigh) to Miss Adeline Meredith” took place at Edenton on 15 April 1828. [7] These children of the marriage have been identified:






Mary L


John C Lanier 1852




Hattie Kerby 1865


Estelle Avery


Robert Williams Joyner 1865


Emma M


John Walker Hardaway 1866



James Iredell jr. house, West King Street, Edenton

The first record found of Nathaniel’s business activities is when N Howcott was hired to work on the Edenton Court House clock for $1 in October 1828. [8] His clock-making shop was in part of the James Iredell junior house which still stands in West King Street.


The household of Nathaniel Hocut appears in the 1830 census of the town of Edenton. This source does not feature the names of the individuals listed. Among the free white members, the one male and one female were both in the 20-30 age range and would be Nathaniel and Adaline. The one female aged under 5 was presumably a daughter. A male aged between 15 and 20 was also resident; it is not clear who this person was but he may well have been Nathaniel's brother John. The household also included two male and four female slaves.


The 1850 census of Memphis states that Mary Howcott, who was then aged 17, had been born in North Carolina, so Nathaniel and his family were probably still living at Edenton in 1833.


During the following four years, Nathaniel moved almost 1,000 miles to Copiah county, Mississippi. Nathaniel resided in or near Gallatin, which is a few miles to the west of Hazelhurst, about 60 miles south of Canton where Nathaniel’s brother John B Howcott has moved in 1835. Returns from the Gallatin masonic Lodge No. 25 record Nathaniel’s admission in 1837, as a member in 1839 and 1840 and being suspended in 1841. [9] These dates accord well with an advertisement published in “The Daily Appeal” on 7 February 1852 where Nathaniel said he had been in Memphis for 12 years, indicating he arrived there in 1839 or 1840.


Memphis in the mid-1850s

Nathaniel has not been located anywhere in the 1840 census but he was definitely in the vicinity of Memphis, some 250 miles north of Gallatin, by 5 September 1841, when "N Hawcott" witnessed the will of Dudley Dann of Shelby county.


Although it had been founded as early as 1819, Memphis still had an extremely small population when the Howcotts arrived; only 1,799 people lived there at the time of the 1840 census. However, enjoying a key position for trade and transportation, Memphis grew rapidly during the following decades. There were 8,841 inhabitants in 1850, a figure that ten years later had risen to 22,623.


In 1843, Nathan Howcott and John Brown organised the society that formed Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Memphis. [10] N Howcott was also recorded in December 1851 as a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. [11] That denomination was formed following a conference in 1844 of the Methodist Episcopal Church, as a result of which it split over the issue of whether ministers should be allowed to hold slaves. [12]


Nathaniel evidently combined his christian ministry with dental work, as the 1849 edition of Twyman's directory of Memphis includes Rev. N. Howcott, dentist at Main Street, between Washington and Poplar. The 1850 census recorded N. Howcott and his family in the 2nd Ward of Memphis. He was described as a dentist, aged 45 and born in North Carolina, owning real estate valued at $4,000. The census named the various members of the family but did not state their relationship. Nathaniel’s wife was included as "Ad.", aged 36 and born in Pennsylvania. The following Howcott children were listed in the household and presumably all were their offspring:







North Carolina

Jo. (male)










A student, Thomas Coleman, was also then living with the family, as were Robert and Grace Sneed, who were both free mulattos, born in North Carolina. Nathaniel was recorded in that census as owning one black female slave who was aged 30. She was presumably the “negress of Dr Howcott” who died of enteritis on 3 June 1852 at the age of 30.


N Howcott was elected a director of the Farmers and Merchants’ Bank of Memphis on 27 January 1851. [13]


Early in 1852, Nathaniel placed the following advertisement in a local newspaper, aptly illustrated with a set of false teeth:


Twelve Years in Memphis

During which time I have been constantly engaged in the practice of Dentistry. By this time the community are prepared to judge of my claims in the line of my profession. After returning my thanks to those who have heretofore favored me with their patronage, I would respectfully say to them and to the public generally, who may require any attention in my line, that I have recently associated with me as a partner Dr E H Leake, who has long been my student, and is fully prepared to perform any and all operations in the profession, creditably to himself and satisfactorily to the patient.

In thus tendering their services to the citizens of Memphis and the public, they do not pretend, nor will they promise to equal nature – nor have they leisure or inclination to write a book (they know all about some books!) but in all that pertains to practical dentistry they have entire confidence in their ability to give general satisfaction to such as may favor them with their patronage. [14]


Mary L Howcott married John C Lanier at Shelby county, Tennessee on 15 December 1852.   The 1850 census indicates that she would have been aged 19 or 20 at the time of the marriage.


In 1855, Rainey's Directory "M." Howcott, dentist" is recorded at "52 Adams, residence on north side of Beal, near Washington". B. Howcott also appears in this source at 52 Adams.


Nathaniel’s invention

Whilst he was at Memphis, Nathaniel invented at least one item of dental equipment – a machine for winding gold wire. [15]


Nathaniel was already in feeble health when he made his will on 8 October 1856. His dental equipment was left to his nephew Benjamin Howcott. Nathaniel named his wife Adeline as residual legatee and executrix, providing that if she did not leave a will the things he had bequeathed to her should pass to his daughters, Estelle Howcott and Emma Howcott. Nathaniel's will was proved in the December Term of 1856 and recorded on the 6th day of that month. He died of dropsy on 8 November 1856, his death being registered at Shelby county as that of "Dr. W Howcott”. Obituary notices for Doctor N Howcott appear in “The Daily Appeal”. [16]


Adeline did not survive her husband for long. “The Commercial Appeal” includes obituary notices for Mrs A Howcott, aged 46, who died of inflammation of the bowels on 31 March 1857. Her funeral was held on the following day at South Memphis Methodist church, Hernando Street. [17]


On 2 October 1860, John C Lanier was appointed guardian of Estella Howcott and Emma Howcott, the minor heirs of N Howcott, deceased. He along with James E Pitts and Sylvester Bailey entered into a bond with the state of Tennessee that John would fulfil his duties in that role. [18] Some details of the later lives of the two daughters are:


  • Estelle Avery Howcott married Robert Williams Joyner at Hernando, Mississippi on 19 January 1865. She died on 15 February 1925. [19]
  • Emma M Howcott married John Walker Hardaway. The marriage took place at Shelby county on 20 November 1866. [20]


Benjamin Howcott


The Memphis City Guide and Business Mirror (1860) includes B. Howcott, dentist at 133 Main, Woodruff Buildings. B Howcott (male, aged 27) also appears at Shelby county in the index to the 1860 census, but the reference given is to a part that has not been filmed legibly. [21] Benjamin was presumably the B Howcott who married Mrs. Sue A Speckernagle at Shelby county on 31 December 1860.


It is not certain which of Nathaniel’s brothers was Benjamin's father. Benjamin does not appear in the wills of Nathaniel's brothers Frederick and Charles, so they are unlikely to have been his father. He might have been a son of John B Howcott, but this is unlikely, as no suitable young male was living in John’s household in the 1840 census. It is much more probable that Benjamin was a son of James Howcott, as James had married in 1818 and would have had ample time in which to produce a son old enough to set up in business as a dentist by 1856.


"B. Howcott" served as a private in the Confederate Army during the Civil War in these units:

  • 5 Battery, Arkansas Light Artillery
  • Co. C, 3 Battalion Tennessee Infantry (Memphis Battalion) local defence troops.


No later record has been found of Benjamin - maybe he was a wartime casualty whose death does not appear in the indexed records.




TDA = “The Daily Appeal” - a newspaper at Memphis.


[1]    "North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), Chowan County > H > Howcott, Nathaniel (1820) > image 14 of 120; State Archives, Raleigh.

[2]    "North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), Chowan County > H > Howcott, Nathaniel (1820) > image 20 of 120; State Archives, Raleigh.

[3]    North Carolina State Archives: C.R.024.510.2 – Chowan county guardian accounts.

[4]    Henry Wills 91764-1827) is the subject of an article in “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography”, 6 volumes edited by William S. Powell, the text of which can be seen at NCpedia.

[5]    "North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), Chowan County > H > Howcott, Nathaniel (1820) > image 7 of 120; State Archives, Raleigh.

[7]    From a newspaper account included in “Abstract of Vital Records from Raleigh NC newspapers 1820-1829”, compiled by Lois Smithers Neal (Spartenburg, SC, 1980).

[6]    "North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Register", Vol. 1, page 560.

[8]    "The Courthouse at Edenton" by Marc D Brodsky (Edenton NC, 1989) page 43.

[9]    “Abstradex of Annual Returns – Mississippi Free and Accepted Masons, 1819-1849” by Jeanne Hand Henry (New Market, Alabama, 1969).

[10] "History of the City of Memphis & Shelby County, Tennessee" by O F Vedler, Vol. II, pages 125-126 (Syracuse, NY, 1888).

[11] “Shelby county marriage bonds and licences, 1850-1865”, compiled by Bettie B Davis (Memphis, 1983).

[12] History of the Great Secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the Year 1845: eventuating in the organization of the new church, entitled the Methodist Episcopal Church, South" by Charles Elliott. Swormstedt & Poe, for the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1855.

[13] TDA, 30 January 1851.

[14] TDA, 7 February 1852.

[15] The principles and practices of dental surgery” by Chapin Aaron Harris & Philip Hiss Austen, page 700 (Philadelphia, 1858).

[16] TDA - 9 November 1856, p.3, col.2 and 16 November 1856, p.3, col.1.

[17] TDA, 1 April 1857, p.3, col.2 and 5 April 1857, p.3, col.1.

[18] Bond dated 2 October 1860.

[19] "Bible Records of Early Edgecombe" by R S Williams & M G Griffin (Rocky Mount, NC, 1958), page 143.

[20] "Tennessee, County Marriages, 1790-1950," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 20 July 2016), Shelby > Marriage bonds, 1866-1871, vol 5-6, D7 > image 179 of 942; citing Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville and county clerk offices from various counties.

[21]  The index reference is that a handwritten number = “17”; number stamped on upper right hand Fcorner of schedule = “70”.