In this detail-rich account of his family history, Stephen Watts shares what he has learned, but perhaps just as importantly, how he has learned it, about his great-great-grandfather Charles, the man responsible for bringing the Watts family to America.
In December 1835, 23-year-old Charles left England for America, arriving in New York City in
January 1836 after a grueling voyage in steerage. Traveling extensively in search of work, he eventually settled down in Illinois.
The book’s core consists of 22 expressive letters from Charles’ correspondence with his family back in England, particularly his brother Edward, whom he constantly urged and eventually persuaded to join him. That said, he doesn’t sugarcoat frontier life’s privations, reporting that in winter “My house is considered a warm one [but] we sometimes have water frozen in one night ½ an inch thick in the Pail.” But, Charles passionately argues, America is the land of opportunity compared to “the stagnant waters of Europe” still polluted by “feudal despotism and ignorance.”
Readers also read illuminating letters from other family members, most memorably Charles’ son Alfred, a Baptist minister who settled in Florida. His surviving correspondence reveals a less high-flown and sometimes amusingly colloquial voice. Talking about a fellow preacher whom he dislikes, he says the man’s congregation eventually realized “they had a small Elephant on their hands and they didn’t know how to shove him off!!”
Finally, Watts gives a thorough and informative accounting of how he, and before him his father, Wayland, reconstructed their family saga over five decades of work, which involved trawling through documents, writing to archivists and visiting the places where family members lived or were laid to rest. This section may appeal less to general readers, but it’s a helpful how-to for Watts’ fellow amateur genealogists.
Overall, the book is a heartfelt, often-revealing look at one family’s American story. General history buffs will be intrigued by this presentation, while family history buffs, especially, will be delighted.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.