A remarkable immersion in history as it was lived, Searching for Charles offers transcriptions of Charles’ letters back home as he and countless other immigrants built new lives—and a nation. Author Stephen Watts, a descendent, and he writes touchingly of his and his father’s fascination in the letters and the project of family history, though these rich and fascinating letters are of wider interest. The fruits of that research extend beyond the letters themselves, as author Watts offers illuminating context covering family, local, national, and international news. The letters cover Charles’s opinions on hangings in England (“This remnant of feudalism must soon give way to the face of Public Opinion”) and famine in Ireland, as well as local concerns like the developments of canals, the rising costs during the buildup to the Civil War, and much more.
Charles is a dedicated letter writer, one who vows that he “will take time to fill the sheet if it takes me a month,” and his missives capture the textures of life. Backmatter includes a detailed account of the process of research, plus a thorough index and family tree.
Takeaway: Rich, lively letters of American life from a 19th century immigrant from London.
Comparable Titles: David A. Gerber’s Authors of Their Lives, J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
“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.” ~ BlueInk Review
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.
“An exceptional biographical read underpinned by extensive research, Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant's American Adventure is unreservedly recommended.” ~ BookViral Reviews, ★★★★★
The objective of any author should be to hold the reader’s interest. To want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning until the end, and this is what Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure does.
Measured in his prose, Stephen Watts gives us a dense, intricate read but unlike many historical biographies which are sketchy in the way they deal with the world beyond their principal character, Watts adds a compelling element of social texture with the inclusion of Charles Watts’ many letters. In doing this he has made the wise editorial decision not to update, revise, or parenthetically correct the quirky and often fascinating prose of Charles’ letters which are rich with period speech and convey a compelling element of commentary.
But to explore the life of Charles Watts without exploring the wider-reaching machinations of cultural and geopolitical influences that shaped early nineteenth-century America would have given us a far less revelatory history of U.S. immigration, and through Watts’ introductory narratives to Charles’ letters he not only frames them against historical events but adds an element of observation that is by turn illuminating and insightful.
Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American might be an “account of the hidden life of an unhistorical man” but this in no way detracts from its historical significance. Indeed, it is refreshing to read about the lesser-known and often obscure aspects of an Illinois prairie pioneer whose contribution to successive generations of the Watts family and beyond should never be underestimated. In fact, a great deal of the pleasure of reading Stephen Watts’ book comes from his ability to align generations of historical significance with a touching concern for familial factuality.
An exceptional biographical read underpinned by extensive research, Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure is unreservedly recommended.
“An extraordinary man making his way through a new country on the cusp of the industrial age, Charles Watts embodies the image of a self-made man and restless immigrant, constantly finding new opportunities westward and doggedly trying to convince his kin to join in the venture…Searching for Charles is an excellent example of how genealogists can tie together a compelling and rich narrative by using personal papers, archival manuscripts, and in-depth social history research. It is the gold standard of what a genealogist can strive to achieve.” ~ Debra Dudek, The Quarterly Journal of the Illinois State Genealogical Society
Author Stephen Watts is a very lucky man. He was fortunate to have access to a treasured collection of family correspondence which had been compiled over several generations. Some documents were in the possession of his father; others were held by other relatives. A larger collection had been donated to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
Charles Watts, a London-born legal clerk who immigrated to the United States in 1836, is the beating heart of this book. An extraordinary man making his way through a new country on the cusp of the industrial age, Charles Watts embodies the image of a self-made man and restless immigrant, constantly finding new opportunities westward and doggedly trying to convince his kin to join in the venture. While Charles sits at the head of this genealogical tale, subsequent generations are also recognized in a second section of the book, allowing readers to see how the family continued to grow and change after the death of their patriarch.
What sets this book apart from others on the shelf?
- Thorough breakdown of the narrative’s primary people and places
- Thoughtful and compelling narrative
- Clear and concise timeline of events
- Helpful footnotes and source citations
- Manicured family group sheets and impressive photographs
Genealogists will enjoy the chapters set in the 1960s-2020 chronicling the methodology and experiences of researchers. Do not skip over the cemetery restoration photos near the end of the book! This is an excellent section which will inspire readers to clean, repair, and protect burial locations for successive generations.
One of my personal favorite portions of the book is near the back, titled, “Wit and Wisdom of Charles Watts.” These are the humorous, throwaway lines that researchers often run across, but find it difficult to fit into a narrative. The author has parked many of these zingers in the perfect place, separate and easy to read and enjoy after the narrative has been digested. There is one line in particular I will borrow during the summer wedding season: “I send my best wishes to Kitty, who you inform me is married, I wish her all the sweets without the bitters of such a state.”
Overall, Searching for Charles is an excellent example of how genealogists can tie together a compelling and rich narrative by using personal papers, archival manuscripts, and in-depth social history research. It is the gold standard of what a genealogist can strive to achieve. Instead of racing to cram as many ancestors on a page as possible, Watts focuses on the lives of a handful of people and brings them back to life paragraph by paragraph. This is a narrative which can be passed down to future generations, introducing new readers to a familial story that remains relevant and timeless.
“Drawing on his letters home, Searching for Charles vivifies a nineteenth-century English immigrant’s new life on the Illinois prairie . . . The epistolary biography Searching for Charles is rich with details from a nineteenth-century immigrant’s life.” ~ Foreward Clarion Reviews, ★★★
Drawing on his letters home, Searching for Charles vivifies a nineteenth-century English immigrant’s new life on the Illinois prairie.
Stephen Watts’s family biography Searching for Charles makes use of an ancestor’s correspondence, bringing to life a witness to nineteenth-century American history.
Charles Watts was an immigrant to the United States in the 1830s. He wrote letters to his family members who were still living in England, telling them about his new life as a farmer and his daily work. Within those letters, there’s information about the price of wheat and farm animals; and there are opinions on current events, including discussions of the abolition of slavery, the British monarchy, the Great Famine in Ireland, and the Oregon Question. All such issues are personalized and humanized via Charles’s lengthy, interesting commentary.
Later, twenty-two of Charles’s letters home were added to the archives at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Among them are thirteen compelling, informative letters to Charles’s brother Edward, dated from 1836 to 1868, which are included herein. Many of these encourage Edward to himself emigrate to the United States, perhaps prompting Edward’s later move to Illinois (bringing with him his brother’s letters).
An appealing sense of who Charles was as a person comes through. His writing is personable; he expresses admirable values. Embodying the pioneering spirit of early America, he recalls hard work, problem solving, and a penchant for physical labor. Expressions of kindness and tolerance toward others further flesh him out, and his knowledge about social, economic, and political situations in the United States and England results in lively historical context.
Beyond the letters themselves, Stephen Watts, Charles’s great-great-grandson, provides a narrative framework and additional context. He does so across the book’s three interrelated sections, each of which could stand alone as well. The first includes Charles’s correspondence, in order, with some expansions; the second is an extended family history, discussing Charles’s descendants and relatives, based on genealogical research; and the third covers the sources of the genealogical research project themselves, with notes about best practices. Taken as a whole, though, the book’s three sections overlap; there are instances of repetition as well. And some of the transitions between the letters and Stephen Watts’s background work are rough, foregoing sufficient segues. Further, while the book’s insights into American history are of general interest, its family history sections are often too esoteric to be of interest beyond Charles Watts’s descendants themselves.
The epistolary biography Searching for Charles is rich with details from a nineteenth-century immigrant’s life.
“A celebration of an ‘ordinary’ working-class immigrant who journeyed from Britain to build a new life in America offers a window into 19th-Century prairie pioneer living . . . Genealogy lovers will be enthralled by author Stephen Watts’ Searching for Charles, a fascinating, authentic, and epic search to uncover his American family tree.” ~ IndieReader, ★★★
A celebration of an “ordinary” working-class immigrant who journeyed from Britain to build a new life in America offers a window into 19th-Century prairie pioneer living.
SEARCHING FOR CHARLES (The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure) unravels the legacy of Charles Watts, a lawyer’s clerk who set sail from London to New York City in 1835 to find a better future. The book’s 579 pages include reprints of twenty-two archival letters that the pioneer sent to family members between the years 1836 and 1868. Some tell of tragedy while others relate mundane details of daily living. Many contain heartfelt pleas to his brother Edward to join him. Author Stephen Watts, (Charles’s great-great-grandson) decodes the missives, which are immense in scope and detail. Then he follows each with a chapter that expands on his great-great-grandfather’s letters to put their content into historical context. In doing so he creates remarkable snapshots of a working-class British immigrant’s new life.
Though the author calls his great-great-grandfather typical and ordinary, the letters reveal an articulate man with thoughtful observations that resonate with modern-day concerns to a surprising degree. The letters cover everything from the plight of indigenous peoples to the evils of land speculators and include (of course) complaints about the extremes of hot and cold weather in the New World. “The poor Indians are already driven from large tracts of Country that are yet unsurveyed, (sic) and which ought certainly to be in their peaceable possession,” one 1839 letter states. A subsequent 1846 letter decries “. . . the rascally exporters (sic) Merchants (who) acquire their princely fortunes out of the Sweat & blood of the poor producer & consumer! (sic)”
The book is professionally presented and contains intriguing photos that help bring the author’s ancestors to life. The writing style is simple and direct, in contrast to the author’s complex footnoting, genealogy diagrams and maps. The quality and scope of research is the book’s main strength. Author Watts scoured thousands of documents, indexes and historical records regarding births, deaths, marriages, and military service. The main problem is the author’s struggle to organize his unwieldy research. Many of the historical events are recounted from different sources or cobbled together from archival anecdotes and readers may have trouble linking the threads of Charles Watts’s life. As it’s now organized, the book has too much information for most readers and its structure makes the historical narrative confusing, even though the author includes a lengthy explanation relating how to read it.
Genealogy lovers will be enthralled by author Stephen Watts’ Searching for Charles, a fascinating, authentic, and epic search to uncover his American family tree.
“The letters of a 19th-century immigrant and pioneer are transcribed and contextualized by his descendent in this absorbing debut epistolary biography by Watts.” ~ Kirkus Reviews, Recommended
The letters of a 19th-century immigrant and pioneer are transcribed and contextualized by his descendent in this absorbing debut epistolary biography by Watts.
Charles Watts was born in Epping, near London, in 1812. Along with family friend William Abrehart, the 23-year-old boarded the Montreal in late 1835 hoping to escape poverty in a new life. The pair arrived in New York in January 1836, and on arrival, Charles began writing letters to his family in England, many of which were addressed to his brother, Edward. The letters discuss a broad range of matters—details about his new life as a farmer after recognizing the agricultural prospects of relocating to Illinois, and opinions on slavery, the Oregon boundary dispute, and the Irish Potato Famine. Charles eventually convinced Edward to join him in Illinois, and when leaving England, Edward brought his brother’s treasured letters with him. At the turn of the millennium, the letters came into the hands of author Watts, Charles’ great-great-grandson, who began transcribing the documents as part of his genealogical research. Twenty-two of Charles’ letters survived, spanning 1836-68, and are now archived at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The author notes the ways Charles’ lengthy letters revealed the “travails, beliefs, and attitudes of one of the millions of working-class English emigrants” who risked everything for a better life. Divided into three sections, the book first describes Charles’ life, “anchored” by his correspondence, provides deeper background information, and addresses the family’s genealogical quest itself.
Charles’ letters add valuable individual details to our understanding of 19th-century transnational migration. The immigrant eloquently describes his daily struggle to establish himself in the New World, and it’s difficult not to be taken by his openness and tenacity: “It is but little over 5 years since I commenced farming steadily for myself, I had then every thing to learn, every thing to make, every thing to buy, and nothing to buy with—to dig my way inch by inch.” The author’s commentary deftly contextualizes the letters, drawing on well-researched historical detail to elucidate the struggle faced by farmers like Charles: “Nearly impassable roads limited the ability to get what remained to market. Making matters still worse, the 1851 crop was coming to harvest, causing crop prices to plummet.” The study goes marginally awry toward its close, when the author elaborates on particulars that may be of significance to his family alone: “Charles’s letters provide the only hint we have of the bitter relationship that developed between Mary Ann Aland and Anthony Alma’s children from his first two marriages.” The focus broadens to become more of a genealogical study of the Watts family, whereas Charles, his letters, and the immigrant experience provide the true points of interest. The biography would benefit from the omission or abbreviation of the work’s final section, which addresses the research conducted by the author and his family. Still, for those interested in 19th-century American history, this book provides a vital window into the everyday life and concerns of immigrants.
Fascinating correspondence, illuminated by thorough research, despite a later loss of focus.
“A stunning portrait of the past. The story of Charles’ travels is a delicious dive into history, with extensive context and explanation provided by the author before each letter that Charles sent back to England. From sharing painful family drama and stories of monumental risks/rewards to critical analysis of a new nation, the gamut of subject matter is broad and undeniably fascinating. Searching for Charles is an impressive genealogical achievement, an homage to the power of family, and a testament to the importance of our ancestry.” ~ Self-Publishing Review, ★★★★★
Taking readers on a historic journey across the Atlantic and into the burgeoning American continent, Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure by Stephen Watts is a stunning portrait of the past.
In 1835, Charles Watts left the oppressive gloom of Dickensian London in search of a better life in the nascent nation of the United States. What followed were years of curious exploration, keen observation, and diligent letter-writing that captured the energy, emotions, and events of that formative period in American history.
This book serves a number of purposes, and will appeal to a variety of readers for precisely that reason; it is a fascinating account and reflection of life in Victorian England, Canada, and the American frontier more than 150 years ago, as well as a ledger and legacy for the Watts family and the many descendants that followed from Charles’ ambitious journey. History books typically give us generic facts and landmark moments about American development, whereas this type of first-person reporting is intimate, revelatory, and authentic.
The book’s three parts – Charles’ life, letters and records, the legacy of his many descendants, and the five-decade research effort to compile the story – are each intriguing in their own way, though may not appeal equally to all readers. The detailed dissection of the Watts family tree and the book-writing process narrative will be fascinating for genealogy buffs, but perhaps less engaging for those who simply want to read an immigrant tale.
The story of Charles’ travels is a delicious dive into history, with extensive context and explanation provided by the author before each letter that Charles sent back to England. By framing the time, place, and backstory of these letters, readers are given a comprehensive picture of life at that time. From sharing painful family drama and stories of monumental risks/rewards to critical analysis of a new nation through the eyes of an Englishman, the gamut of subject matter is broad and undeniably fascinating.
Having an in-depth glimpse into someone’s daily struggles from the mid-19th century is quite unusual, particularly for someone who was not notably famous, but also led an adventurous life. Aside from being a bold visionary who refused to live an average life, Charles Watts was also an exceptional writer, as evidenced by his entertaining, insightful, and progressive commentary on pioneer America. The self-reflective third section about the author’s efforts to research his family, as well as the efforts of his father, gives a greater picture of Charles’ personality, and there are moments when you can clearly see the connection of the Watts family, particularly their legacy of determination.
The book is quite long, which may discourage some readers, but this account isn’t necessarily meant to be read cover to cover. The technical structure is intuitive for reading in pieces, while the editing is very thorough, and the in-depth referencing adds significant authority to the prose. All told, this book is an impressive genealogical achievement, an homage to the power of family, and a testament to the importance of our ancestry.
Searching for Charles placed second in the history category of the CIPA EVVY awards.
Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant's American Adventure, was selected as a gold medal winner in three categories of the Firebird Book Awards: 1) Biography/Historical, 2) History/United States, and 3) New Nonfiction.
Searching for Charles is an award winning entry in the Florida Authors and Publishers Association awards.
Special Recognition Award for contributions toward honoring Illinois ancestors through the book Searching for Charles.
Searching for Charles made Finalist in two categories in the 2023 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards: Nonfiction: History and Nonfiction: True Story.
Searching for Charles has been selected as a nonfiction semifinalist in the Kindle Book Awards.
Short listed in Journalistic Nonfiction.
Searching for Charles was selected as a finalist in the UK-based Page Turner Awards.
First Place in 1) History Nonfiction, 2) Letters, Journals, Diaries.
Honorable Mention in 1) Biography/Autobiography/Memoir, 2) New Author: Nonfiction.
Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant's American Adventure, was selected as a Finalist in SPR's 2022 Book Awards.