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Texas | Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"

of Maryland, Kentucky and Texas

Frontier Iron-smelterer and
Military Hero

By W. T. Block
Thomas Deye Owings was the scion of several prominent colonial Baltimore families. He was a colonel and hero of the War of 1812 [and] was Kentucky's original industrialist and iron master, also holding several political offices. He was also commissioned by Stephen F. Austin in Jan. 1836 to raise 2 regiments of Kentuckians to fight for Texas Independence from Mexico, sacrificing as a result the life of one of his sons during the Goliad Massacre. Nevertheless, Owings lived the last 16 years of his life in total obscurity and anonymity at Brenham, Texas, and died there in 1853.
Col. Thomas Deye Owings tombstone, Masonic Cemetery, Brenham, Texas
The new Thomas Deye Owings tombstone in the Masonic Cemetery in Brenham

TE photo, November 12, 2006
Thomas Deye Owings was born at Cockeysville, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, on March 7, 1776. He was the first son born to the John Cockey Owings and wife, Colegate Deye Colegate Owings. His older sister, Cassandra Van Pradelles, was lost at sea c. 1813/1814, and according to her legend, was a victim of Lafitte pirates. T. D. Owings was born into the colonial middle to upper class society, who inhabited a series of 2-story mansions, such as Sherwood or Bellefield; owned many slaves, and generally relied on tobacco culture for export to England. Although not heretofore mentioned, the Owings children are believed to have been educated by private tutors.

Other than tobacco farms, Cockeysville was also surrounded by several deposits of iron ore, probably hematite of about 50% purity, as well as of marble and limestone , which eventually accounted for many small quarries. By 1774 the North Hampton iron furnace was already producing pig iron, later supplying cannon balls and canister shot used by the Continental Army. Thomas' father, many of his uncles, and his future brother-in-law, the French Lieutenant Benedict Van Pradelles, were all veterans of the American Revolution, some of them present at the Battle of Yorktown. Hence, it was probably the fortunes of the North Hampton iron furnace, which created Capt. John C. Owings' interest in iron-smelting in Kentucky.

It is unknown how John Cockey Owings became so interested in territorial Kentucky property, which at one time was part of Virginia, but Christopher Greenup, later one of J. C. Owing's partners and governor of Kentucky, is one possibility. Another possibility was Jacob Meyers, who in 1782 acquired a 10,000-acre tract of Kentucky land, which patent was signed by Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry, and Meyers began building the Slate Creek iron mill (later the Bourbon iron furnace) in 1787. During the late 1780s, John Cockey Owings began making significant land purchases in present-day Bourbon and Bath counties, Kentucky, which eventually included the Meyers tract, and may have reached a total of 70,000 acres. The writer believes that John C. Owings engaged his future son-in-law, Benedict Van Pradelles, to oversee his property in Kentucky, and David Owings reported to the writer that in 1790 Van Pradelles advertised in the Lexington Gazette for recovery of a lost pocketbook, which contained papers written in French. In 1790 Van Pradelles married Owings' oldest daughter Cassandra and left immediately for France.

The Bourbon iron furnace went online (blast) in 1790, and in May 1791, was purchased by John Cockey Owings and Company, a joint stock company, which included Owings, Greenup, Walter Beall and Willis Green. In 1794 additional partners were added. In 1795 John Cockey Owings emerged as sole owner.

In 1795 J. C. Owings sent his 19-year-old son, Thomas Deye Owings, to Kentucky to oversee his lands, and to manage the Bourbon iron furnace and grist mill. Despite his [young] age, T. D. Owings was married before he left Baltimore in 1795.

One article reported that: "...The Slate Furnace, also known as the Bourbon Furnace, was built by Jacob Meyers. It was later bought and operated by a syndicate headed by John Cockey Owings, for whom Owingsville is named. This furnace was built just 16 years after the building of Boonesboro. A fort was constructed for the protection of workers (and manned by 17 Kentucky militiamen). At least one of the early iron workers was killed by hostile (Shawnee) Indians. Incidentally it was the iron furnace, which furnished cannon balls and canister shot used by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans..."

The Bourbon furnace was the first iron-smelting operation built west of Allegheny Mountains. The furnace first began to make 10-gallon pots for boiling out salt at the Salt Lick Springs, but the pioneer needs soon forced the owners to make cut nails, pots and other cooking utensils, horse shoes, axe blades, hoes, stoves, plow shares, pig iron and bar iron.

The blast machinery was energized by a water wheel turning in Slate Creek. The "ore mines," composed of high grade hematite or magnetite ore about 50% pure, were located at Howard Hills and Black Horse Banks, about 2 miles from the furnace, and 3 tons of ore, pulled by oxen, were needed to produce 1 ton of pig iron. Products, which included cannon balls and canister shot, were hauled over the Iron Furnace Pike to Frankfurt on Kentucky River, from whence they were floated to Ohio River and to all points in the Midwest, as well as to New Orleans in time for the battle there in 1815.

Actually, 3 original ledgers and one account book survive between 1796 and 1818 of the Bourbon furnace. One ledger is in chronological order from Jan. 15, 1796 until Nov. 30, 1797. All four items are deposited in the archives of East Library at the University of Kentucky. Originally the location consisted only of the furnace and grist mill. In 1798 the Slate Forge was built on Slate Creek, 3 miles from the furnace. In 1811 a commissary was built at the furnace for the convenience of the iron workers, but in 1814 it was moved into Owingsville.

In 1810 Thomas D. Owings became sole owner of the furnace. And whatever else there is to say, it became obvious by 1812 that Owings was becoming quite wealthy. It seems strange, however, that none of this was reflected in the will of John Cockey Owings in Baltimore, written in Feb. 1810, shortly before his death. The will stated that Owings had left only $1 to his oldest son, Thomas Deye Owings, and nothing at all to is oldest daughter, the widow Cassandra Deye Van Pradelles, who at the time was running a boarding house in New Orleans. Nearly all of his property was left to his younger children.

Following his first wife's death Ca. 1801, Thomas Deye Owings married Mary Nicholas in Lexington on March 17, 1804, the daughter of Col. George Nicholas of Kentucky and Mary Smith of Baltimore. Their progeny included Thomas Cockey Deye, George Nicholas, John Cockey, Colegate Deye, Mary Nicholas, Robert Smith, ( massacred at Goliad, Texas, Mar. 27, 1836), John Cockey 2, Jul 26, 1847 (killed in the Mexican War on July 26, 1847), and Ann Eliza.

The new Owings home was indeed pleasing in appearance, and included kitchen, servants' quarters, and basement. He hired Benjamin Latrobe of Washington to design and build the residence, using hand-carved woodwork and mantels, made from black walnut wood. There was a wide hall in the center of the building from whence a spiral staircase, made of mahogany, was built up to the third floor. The stairway was built in Baltimore, and its parts were hauled across the mountains to Owingsville in ox carts. In 1813 the staircase had cost $10,000, and the entire mansion had cost $60,000, a magnificent sum in that age. Today the "Col. Owings House," the Owings House, or Owingsville Banking Company is occupied by a banking institution, a lawyer, and others. It is listed in the National Register of Historical Places. The surviving stones of the Bourbon furnace are also listed, being now within a highway roadside park, an effort successfully completed jointly by the Owingsville Jaycees and the state Highway Department. The park and iron furnace ruins were dedicated on July 1, 1969.

Thomas Deye Owings exhibited his patriotism during the War of 1812. He raised a regiment of 377 soldiers, and on April 1, 1813, he received a commission as colonel of the 28th U. S. Infantry. He immediately attached his Kentucky regiment to General Shelby's army, which in Sept. 1813 became a part of General W. H. Harrison's army of the Northwest. The latter's troops captured Detroit on Sept. 29th. Gens. Harrison, Shelby and about 3,500 soldiers under their command continued to press British General Proctor and his Shawnee Indian allies. Eventually they defeated them at the Battle of the Thames, northwest of Detroit, during which time the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was killed.

Col. Owings distinguished himself once more in battle when 28 soldiers from his regiment joined Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's fleet as sharpshooters in the rigging of the ships. After Perry lost his flagship Lawrence, he continued the fight aboard the Niagara until he defeated the British fleet at the Battle of Lake Erie, fought on Sept. 10, 1813.Another interesting saga in Thomas D. Owings' life occurred in 1814, when Owings was on a visit to Baltimore and he met Louis Phillipe of France, the son of the Duke of Orleans. Louis Phillipe, although he had been a successful general under Napoleon, had been exiled in 1813 because of a suspected plot against the republic. Owings invited the dapper French aristocrat to visit his home in Kentucky. According to family records, Louis Phillipe remained Owings' guest from July 17, 1814 until July 22, 1815, after which the French nobleman returned to France and reclaimed his estates. Replacing King Charles X on the throne, Louis Phillipe was crowned "King of the French," following a revolution in 1830. He remained on the throne until 1848, when another liberal revolution toppled him, and he fled in exile to England. Actually another account claimed the visitor was an imposter.

Owings studied law under Col. Nicholas between 1797 and 1798. He was elected and served in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1815 until 1818. He also served as Associate Judge of the First Circuit Court in 1811, and years later he was elected state senator in 1823.

It seems logical; too, that Stephen F. Austin of Texas had at least a passing acquaintance with Thomas D. Owings, although the first offer for Kentucky troops passed from Owings to Austin. By Nov. 1835, solicitations for troops to fight in the Texas Revolution against Mexico were published up and down the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys from New Orleans to Cincinnati, and Owings may simply have responded to that request. By 1798 Austin was living at the lead mines in Missouri, and since Austin graduated from Transylvania College and remained in Lexington, Kentucky, until 1810, the probability is great that the two men first met at that point. A few extracts from Austin's letter to T. D. Owings, dated New Orleans, Jan. 18, 1836, follow:
To Col. T. D. Owings

Your offer to furnish one or more regiments, not to exceed 1,500 men, to be in Texas March next, armed and equipped for the service of Texas … your offer is accepted - The Regiment … will be received into the service of Texas on terms…enacted by the Provisional Government by their ordinance of Dec. 5 …The expense of arming and equipping said force … will be refunded to you at the close of the war… On your arrival, you will report yourself to the Governor of Texas or the Commander in Chief of the Army… The bounty lands for the volunteers are to be located under the direction of the government. - S. F. Austin
Actually, long before the date of the foregoing letter, Thomas D. Owings was already active in recruiting Kentucky volunteers for the Texas Army. On Dec. 25, 1835, Robert Smith Owings, T. D. Owings' son, enlisted in Capt. Burr H. Duval's company of "Kentucky Mustangs." By the end of Jan. 1836, Duval's company of Bardstown, the Paducah group of Capt. Peyton S. Wyatt's company, and Capt. Amon B. King's Paduacah Volunteers were already at New Orleans, awaiting shipment to Texas. Both R. S. Owings, Duval and 75 other Kentuckians were murdered at the Goliad Massacre.

On Jan. 20, 1836, Austin wrote Gov. Henry Smith that he had engaged Col. Owings to enlist 1,500 men for service in Texas. On Jan. 24, 1836, while aboard the schooner Tuscarora, Austin wrote Gov. Smith that he (Austin) had directed Texas agent William Bryan to provide $35,000 worth of articles for Col. T. D. Owings' troops. On Jan. 28th, Bryan's report to the governor showed that $5,000 had been deposited for Owings in the Bank of Orleans.

On Feb. 16, 1836 Austin, while soliciting in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote a letter to his cousin, Mary Austin Holley, that Col. T. D. Owings was en route from Kentucky with a regiment of troops for the Texas Army. On March 27, 1836 (the same day that 75 of his Kentuckians, about one-quarter of Col. James Fannin's ill-fated army, were massacred at Goliad) Samuel M. Williams, Austin's secretary at San Felipe, wrote from New Orleans that: "...Col. Owings is on the march with 1,400 men, left Maysville on March 12th, is armed principally with U. S. Yagers (muskets)..." In April, 1836, William Bryan, purchasing agent for Texas, wrote President D. G. Burnett that: "...the $5,000 in the bank for Col. Owings has been used by us,.. Not one dollar of means is now left... and the result will be that Col. Owings will lose the large amount he has expended on us..." From the last letter, it appeared likely the Thomas D. Owings personally paid for the recruitment, arming and transportation for his Kentucky troops with no monetary remuneration from the Republic of Texas. And because of the quick termination of the war, many of Owings troops never experienced any military action. However he later was awarded 4 land grants from the State of Texas, which was probably intended as reimbursement for his expenses during the Revolution. Also Thomas D. Owings drew as sole heir the last pay of his massacred son, Robert S. Owings, although the latter's name was garbled either as Robert G. Owings or Charles Robert Owings in the Revolutionary records.

Thomas Deye Owings never returned to Kentucky to live, except possibly for a couple visits, after 1836, and the last sixteen years of his life again are marked by extensive obscurity. Also, why he chose Brenham, Texas as a place to live is also marked with mystery. In 1838 it was a very sparsely-populated rural community known as Hickory Grove, when it changed its named to Brenham in 1843, and in 1844 became the county seat of Washington County. T. D. Owings lived to have two more of his sons predecease him, the first being Thomas Cockey Deye Owings, who died there in October, 1837, still single. The second son was John Cockey Owings, who also fought during the Texas Revolution, and died at Brenham in July, 1847, also still single. They were the first members of the Owings family to be buried in the Old Masonic Cemetery in Brenham.

During the sixteen or seventeen years of Thomas D. Owings residence in Texas, it would appear that he was neither penniless nor enduring poverty. He was apparently involved considerably in land speculation, and other than his land grants from the State of Texas, he purchased ten tracts of land from private sources. When the 1850 Washington County, Texas census was enumerated, Thomas D. Owings was recorded at residence 200, page 299-A, living in the household of Rebecca and A. G. Compton, who was a Brenham merchant with $8,000 of assets. Perhaps Owings was away at census time, and Mrs. Compton reported several incorrect items. T. D. Owings was listed as being born in Texas rather than Maryland; no assets for him were reported, and the census listed his age as 65 when in fact he was actually age 74. In his article, George Stone reported that Owings died in his home on October 6, 1853, so most likely he allowed the Compton family to live in his home, in return for cooking and care during his geriatric years. T. D. Owings was age 77 at the time of his death, and he was the third Owings family member to be buried in the Old Masonic Cemetery.

This article would be remiss without adding a paragraph about Major John Calvin Mason and his wife Ann Eliza Owings. Mason was born in Mount Sterling, Kentucky in 1802, and he graduated from Mount Sterling Law School and Transylvania College in 1823. From about 1826 until 1838, he owned and operated the Bourbon iron furnace. He served in the Kentucky House of Representatives for 2 terms. In 1846 he enlisted during the Mexican War in Col. Ben McCulloch's Texas Rangers, Worth's Division, under Gen. Zachary Taylor. Mason was wounded at the Battle of Monterrey and he was "appointed quartermaster with the rank of major following gallantry in battle in the field..."

While returning from the war, Mason stopped in Texas long enough to marry Ann Eliza Owings, T. D. Owings' daughter, in San Antonio in 1847; the newlyweds soon returned to Kentucky. Mason was elected to the 31st, 32nd, and 35th U. S. Congresses, and he was an elector to the Democratic National Convention in Charleston in 1860. When Mason found himself so close to the Ohio River while living in a slave state in 1861, he moved his family to Brenham, Texas. Already age 60, Mason served the Confederacy in the Brenham Graybeards of the Texas State Troops in 1863. In 1864 his wife Ann Eliza Mason died, leaving a houseful of infants and children, and she was the last Owings family member to be buried in Brenham. Mason died aboard a steamship at New Orleans in 1865, and Kentucky brought his remains back to the State Cemetery in Frankfurt. Afterward, their oldest daughter brought her siblings back to Kentucky to live. However, all records or markers of 4 Owings burials at Brenham, Texas appear to be lost.
Col. Thomas Deye Owings tombstone marker, Masonic Cemetery, Brenham, Texas
Historical Marker Text (partial) from the 2006 marker placed at the gate of the Masonic Cemetery in Brenham. TE photo, November 12, 2006

Col. Thomas Deye Owings was an American hero in every sense of the word, having distinguished himself in battle in 1813. He was Kentucky's pioneer industrialist, having earned a fortune while operating the first iron smelter, located west of Allegheny Mountains. He was a socialite who built a very exclusive mansion in Owingsville, where Henry Clay, Prince Louis Phillipe, and a host of others were often entertained. The State of Kentucky, the Daughters of the American Revolution and perhaps others have honored him often on several historical markers.

Stephen F. Austin engaged Col. Owings to raise 2 regiments of troops to fight in the Texas Revolution, and 75 of them were brutally slain during the Goliad Massacre. In spite of his Texas Revolutionary achievements, the remains of Thomas Deye Owings rest today in the the Masonic Cemetery in Washington County in total anonymity and oblivion, and no one in Texas bothers to remember who he was.

© W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" November 14, 2006 column
Editor's note: A detailed and illustrated bio of Thomas Deye Owings can be found on the author's website. The above is a condensed version of that article

Editor's Note:
This oversite was corrected on November 11, 2006 with the dedication of a historical marker at the Masonic Cemetery gate as well as an upright marble VA marker within the cemetery grounds.

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