Frederick Watts was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on May 9, 1801. His father was David Watts, a prominent lawyer and member of the first class to graduate from the local Dickinson College. Frederick entered Dickinson with the class of 1819 but did not graduate due to the temporary closing of the College in 1816. The younger Watts went to live with his uncle, William Miles, on his farm in Erie County after the death of David Watts in 1819. His brother, Henry Miller Watts, did graduate from the College in 1824.
He returned to Carlisle to study law under Andrew Carothers, a successful attorney and former student of his father. The two eventually went into practice together. As court reporter for the western division of the State Supreme Court between 1829 and 1845, he was responsible for the publication of twenty-two volumes and thousands of pages of proceedings over twenty years. In 1849 he was appointed as president judge of the Ninth Judicial District Court. His local legal career continued in partnership with John Brown Parker after the death of Carothers in 1836. A Whig and a member of St. John's Episcopal Church, Watts became a community leader, and expanded his interests into the business sphere. He was instrumental in the redevelopment of the Cumberland County Railroad, becoming its president in 1841; he later organized the Carlisle Gas and Water Company in 1854. He served as a member of the Dickinson College Board of Trustees from 1828 to 1833, and again from 1841 to 1844.
He built up a strong reputation as an agricultural reformer, introducing new crops to the county and sponsoring the first demonstration of the McCormick reaper in the state. He established near Carlisle, on the Ritner Highway, an 116 acre farm which remained in operation until 1988. In January 1851, he became a founder and the first president of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society located in Harrisburg. In this capacity he assisted in the legislation of 1854 and 1855 to create a "Farmers’ High School" which was designed to provide a collegiate but practical education for the sons of farmers to learn their family trade. The agricultural college - which developed into the Pennsylvania State College - emerged in Centre County with Watts as the first head of its Board of Trustees. In 1871, President Grant appointed him to the post of United States Commissioner of Agriculture. He served for six years - encouraging the establishment of land grant colleges, developing what would become the Forestry Division, and creating standards for meteorological reporting. He retired from federal service in June 1877 and returned to Carlisle.
Watts married Eliza Cranston in 1827 and the couple had three daughters. After Eliza's death in 1832, he married Henrietta Edge in March 1835. To this union were born five sons and another daughter, all of whom survived him. On August 17, 1889, Frederick Watts died in Carlisle at the age of 88.