*Editor’s Correction: Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure by Stephen Watts is available September 30, 2022, at a discounted price of $1.99 on Amazon Marketplace during launch week only. Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure is currently $9.99.
Hey everybody, and welcome back to another episode of the Author Hour Podcast. I am your host, as always, Gunnar Rogers. I’m super excited for the conversation we have in store on today’s episode. It is with the wonderful Stephen Watts, author of the book, Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure.
I encourage you to go purchase the book before or after this conversation, after, you’re going to want to go buy it. It’s available now today on Amazon, the Kindle version is discounted to 99 cents for one week only.* So make sure you go take advantage of that discount and dive into this incredible book where Stephen documents his journey discovering his genealogy, mapping out his family tree and honing in on the correspondence.
Sixteen letters written by a distant relative in his family tree, Charles Watts. It provides an incredible perspective of America’s history and what the immigrant journey was like in the 1800s and as America was expanding to the West. I won’t waste any more time so right now, without further ado, Stephen Watts.
After a few little technical difficulties, all the way back to, we have Stephen Watts, author of, Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure, on The Author Hour Podcast. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me today.
Stephen Watts: Thank you for having me, Gunnar.
Gunnar Rogers: I said it in the intro, but I have to say it again. In all my years of perusing book stores, of listening to audiobooks, of being a bit of a bookworm, never have I come across a book that, number one, has been so heavily researched by its author but has such a unique historical perspective of the growth of America from the perspective of a relative of yours.
So I must ask, how does it feel to be at this point of the journey? The book is out as of this podcast publishing. It’s been a long time coming; how are you feeling about this whole process?
Stephen Watts: It feels fantastic. It has been quite a long journey, and part of that journey consisted of several years long bouts of procrastination by me, but I am very excited that I finally pulled the entire thing together and we’re at this point of publication, and I’m happy to share it with the world.
Turning Genealogy into a Book
Gunnar Rogers: That is awesome. What point along this journey of documenting your family tree and diving into your genealogy did you have an idea to turn this into a book?
Stephen Watts: It was probably somewhere around 2005 when I had actually visited all the sites. I had transcribed all of the Charles Watts letters, had met descendants of the other three primary families involved in this. I knew that I had enough information to tell a very complete story, and that is one of the advantages that I have that most people who get involved in genealogy are not so fortunate to have occur is, I had these letters, I had the places, I knew the people, and this enabled me to not just fit together the pieces of the puzzle in terms of names, dates, facts, but to tell a story.
Gunnar Rogers: I love that, and did you know that Charles Watts was in your lineage before this process began, or was that something you uncovered along with his letters?
Stephen Watts: His letters came to light in 1975. My father had been researching his family tree since 1965 and, along the way, he discovered that he had an English immigrant ancestor who settled in Bureau County, Illinois, and he went up to visit some people there that he had found, through his own research and through consultation with higher genealogist. By chance, he met a woman in a nursing home who subscribed to the Illinois State Historical Journal and read about the donation to then was called the Illinois State Historical Library of 14 letters from Charles Watts, and she remembered that my father was researching a man by that name.
She contacted the woman who brought my father to the nursing home to visit someone else. So he contacted the library, got copies of the letters, and that’s what really sent us all down this path.
Gunnar Rogers: Man, that’s awesome. What was it like, knowing that there are – and you talk about this a bit in the book — there are historical figures that we read about quite often, the Abraham Lincoln’s, the George Washington’s, the Fredrick Douglas’s. What was it like to bring this into a more personal familial level, diving into a historical figure like Charles Watts?
Stephen Watts: What was absolutely fascinating for me in reading his letters was getting his perspective. He was educated, articulate, very good writer and did a phenomenal job at expressing his opinions, which he had just about everything, and he commented freely on the current events of the day.
I mentioned in the book that he was born the same year as Charles Dickens. He and Charles Dickens both were law larks at one point at Grey’s Inn, one of the four inns of court in Great Britain, and both many years later would describe Grey’s Inn as very dark, depressing place. Charles even referred to them as the dungeons.
But reading his commentary on the things that were going on, he talks about the revolution sweeping through Europe. He talks about what was happening in the United States, how Indians had been pushed out of the area where he lived, how the buffalo that once lived there were gone. So he was cognizant of long-term effects of the rapid growth in the United States, and going through these letters, you just get a sense of being there yourself, you know? Because it just brings these things that happened long ago to the present for us.
Gunnar Rogers: Exactly, and how – getting that perspective and bringing that to a personal level, how is that enhanced, I think is the best word, how has it enhanced your outlook on life and on America’s history in general?
Stephen Watts: On American history in general I would say, for most of us, are familiarity with it comes through what we learned in school, what we read about in books. We have the occasional correspondence available to us of historical figures but very little from, you know, that man on the street perspective, and so this gives us something that to me — and, I think, even to people who were not related to this man — a feeling of authenticity that you may not always get from reading the writings of someone who might have known that they were writing for posterity.
But the perspective that it gives me, along with my other genealogical work, after uncovering all of these details and seeing the repercussions of the actions taken by people, you come to realize that we’re – all of us, every single one of us is the result of decisions made by other people and our actions, the choices that we make today can have very far reaching impacts on those far down the line. And while I realized that, probably like most people, I don’t know that that’s going to drastically change my actions but just having the awareness of that, makes you think about things I think that much differently.
Gunnar Rogers: Definitely, and was there, as you dove into the correspondence and dove into the life of Charles, was there a decision that you read about or an action he took that he wrote about that you do believe maybe has an impact this far down into his family line, like you’ve been down to you?
Stephen Watts: Certainly, he immigrated from England in December of 1835 and arrived in New York in 1836 and made his way to Bureau County, Illinois where he settled over the next several decades. Thirteen other people followed him there. His brother’s daughter had previously immigrated to Australia to find a husband.
She was successful, and after 17 years of pleading, Charles’ brother, Edward, joined him in Bureau County, and then Edward began writing his daughter in Australia trying to convince her to come over. She convinced her husband to leave his job; they came over with their four children.
Again, in all 13 people came over, and that resulted in major changes to their lives and the existence of many of my family’s lives too and, you know, not to give away one of the surprise points in the book, but secret’s no good unless you can share it with somebody else, we did find Charles grave site and had his tombstone and that of an infant son, repaired and reset, and I gave a little talk and a dedication I had there at his grave site after that work was done and one of the couples who came to that, the woman was a descendant of Charles’s brother, Edward.
And her husband’s name was Al, my wife’s name is Corrin, and I mentioned in my talk there that had Charles not come over, his brother Edward would not come over, and I wouldn’t have existed. Edward’s descendant surely would not have existed, and so her husband Al and my wife Corrin would have had married less desirable people than us.
Gunnar Rogers: Exactly, I love that. And, you know, you mentioned a secret’s no good unless you could share it. If you aren’t going to reveal it during this conversation, it was because of my next question that I have written down was, when you finally got to Charles’s grave, what was that moment like?
Because I could imagine, though that may not have felt like the end of the journey, so to speak, that had to have been a pretty, like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’ve gotten to this point, actually finding where this man is buried.” So just walk me through, what was that moment like of finding out where that grave site was and actually coming to it?
Stephen Watts: Finding his gravesite was something that I was after for years before we finally did. I had given up on it and been convinced or tried out of my own to find it again and gave up, but one of the folks who had helped spur me along several tracks trying to track everything down was the current owner of Charles Watts original home that he had built in 1846, and that fellow’s name is Mike Basador. We thought that Charles was buried in a seminary a mile and a half or two miles from Mike’s house, the Charles Watts Homestead.
We could not find any record of it, and I had checked with the local genealogical society. I’ve done everything that I could to find it, I thought, and had given up, and then in a phone conversation, Mike asked me, “Well, did you ever check with the caretaker?” and I thought, caretaker. I’d never even considered that there might be a caretaker that the genealogical society didn’t know about.
So I knew some of the folks in the geological society, they’d helped me on a number of other things. I went down there and they said, “Oh yeah, we know who those folks are.” They gave me the names and phone numbers. I called, and after years of trying to find this man’s grave, in a two-minute phone conversation, the caretakers produced a map and they said, “We know exactly where that family plot is. We can meet you there and show you.”
So they met Mike Basador, the owner of the Charles Watts house and my son and me one day, and Mike brought what he called the stone finder tools. It was actually a metal rod, and so we were, you know, planking and trying to find it and you hear a dink-dink-dink, and we dug it up, and I think this was so fitting. It was Mike, the owner of Charles Watts Farm house, it was Mike who dug out the top half. It was broke in the top half of Charles Watts tombstone.
And my son helped him, and I took some photographs of the moment, but it was almost an out of body experience, because it was almost like the whole thing had been staged, Gunnar, because what came out again, it was the top half that had Charles Watts name across the top and it had been broken.
It had been buried for many decades by that point, and they would pull up the bottom half and then we found he had an infant son that had died and been buried in the family plot there first, and we found the infant son’s tombstone too, also broken in half, but that was just a moment that I had knew would never come and one more question, one more question for Mike is, what led me there? It was a fantastic moment.
Gunnar Rogers: Ah, I’ve got goose bumps over here thinking about that, and I’m also curious; your father sort of started this journey with you, and then you get to share this moment with your son. What was that like to be able to share that with him?
Stephen Watts: My wife and I have three boys, Taylor, Hunter, and Garrett are our younger twins and Taylor was with me there for the discovery of the Charles Watts and his infant son’s tombstone. So it was fantastic, I am just so happy that he was there at that moment and got to experience that and actually helped uncover it. It is something my father and I never really got to do together, and to have that moment with one of my sons was very special.
But the twins also got their moment in the sun, and to give away another little surprise here, but Charles is a very well-read man. He loved poetry and quoted poets often. One of his favorite poets was Charles Cowper, and the epitaph on Charles’s tombstone, which he probably picked out himself, there were a couple of lines from a Charles Cowper poem called Retirement, and it reads: “Far from the world, Oh Lord, I flee from strife and tumbled afar.”
Well, I had given up after several searches trying to find what happened to Maryanne, Charles’ wife. I knew that she had moved to Kansas with children after Charles’ death, but I couldn’t find her, her grave site. One of my sons, Hunter, one day said, “You know, have you ever thought about trying again?” and it had been years since I have tried. I thought, “You know, what the heck? I’ll give it one more shot,” and I ended up finding where she was buried.
A rural cemetery in Kansas, and my twins at the time were learning to drive. They had to get, I think, 50 hours each of driving time, which is a lot to accumulate in one year for one boy, let alone two. So we decided that one long Thanksgiving weekend to make a road trip and get the boys some driving time and go find Maryanne. So she had remarried to a man named Geris Joy, and we knew that.
We knew that his previous wife had died, and then he’d married Maryanne, and I always wondered what her children thought of that, you know? Well, we’ve discovered what they thought of that because when we got to the cemetery and it was extremely cold, extremely windy, and we just had light jackets and so we were racing through the cemetery, trying to find it. Hunter one, found her tombstone, which had fallen over, and it had been reset in concrete next to the first wife’s tombstone.
The tombstones were matching, so Geris was starting a wife collection in the cemetery there appeared, but so looking at these two tombstones and they each have an epitaph on them, I looked at Maryanne’s tombstone and the epitaph on hers reads: “Far from the world, Oh Lord, I flee from strife and tumbled afar.” So her children, probably unbeknownst to Geris, found a way in death to reunite their parents.
Gunnar Rogers: That is crazy. Oh my gosh, man, go pick up this book, anyone who is listening to hear more stories like this and Steve, I was curious as I read through the book, what is a piece of advice or a piece of wisdom that you found or drew out of Charles’s correspondence that you’d like to pass through your family for years and generations to come?
Stephen Watts: There is an entire section of the book, at the end of the book, where I just accumulated quotes from these letters because they were just too good to not get their own section in here, but there is one in particular that I quote to my own kids when they were teenagers; Charles in a letter to a nephew of his back in England, a nephew who had caused some difficulty for his parents, Charles cautioned him.
He said, “You have now arrived in an important period, a period where you would probably feel too confident to take the advice of others and too inexperienced to follow your own inclinations. I noticed too often so, though at a time when you will most need advice as the course you now pursue will probably make or mar you for life.”
Gunnar Rogers: Oh man, how did your sons respond when you first read that to them?
Stephen Watts: They probably dismiss as quickly as I would have when I was their age.
Gunnar Rogers: Well, hopefully they read it or hear it again in their 20s because I can definitely say that is sage advice for anyone at that sort of inflection point in their life. I love that, thank you for finding the exact quote too, that’s amazing. And with that, I was wondering coming into this conversation, after this experience, this years of diving into your genealogy of discovering this correspondence and piecing the correspondence together and having this experience, do you believe everyone should dive deeper into their family history?
Stephen Watts: I only half-jokingly caution people who’s scared of their genealogy, because it’s the way I describe it is, it’s like putting together a puzzle when you don’t know how many pieces you’re missing, and you don’t know if the pieces even fit together properly, and the pieces change shape along the way, but some people don’t really care about their ancestors but for me, it just adds so much to my life.
You know, I have appreciation for the people that came before me. I know how I got to where I am, and if anybody has interest in that, I would encourage them to pursue it at least a little bit. There is so much available to us now that were not available to my father when he started this in the 1960s. The Internet has completely changed genealogy for everyone, and there’s the free Latter Day Saint site that people can access.
There is, of course, ancestry.com, which most people are familiar with, and they can benefit from the research of others who have uploaded their source documentation, and it is out there. It just takes a little bit of time and interest, but it’s been extremely valuable for me. I love what I have been able to pull together and that the same thing is potentially available to everyone.
Gunnar Rogers: Other than a copy of the whole book, you have written this book, you have put it together, what is something you would want to share with your father after gathering all of this information and sort of completing the journey that he has started with you?
Stephen Watts: I would love to have been able to visit these historic locations and the gravesites with my father, to stand at Charles’s grave, to stand at Maryanne Thirsten’s grave, to have met with the descendants of all of the other three families with my dad would have just been a treasure beyond measure. Those are the types of things that I really would have loved. I pulled all of these together, but I was just the lowest common denominator.
I happen to have the information that he had done. I had information from other relatives, help from other relatives, all the people that I met in Bureau County, everybody that I met contributed to this in some way, and I was just kind of the dumping ground for all of this information and without their help, without their advice, without their persistence, I would have never been able to pull this together, and it would have been extremely rewarding to be able to share it with him.
Gunnar Rogers: I love that, and that would have been the most rewarding, but I am glad that you also get the reward of sharing it with anything who gets to purchase a copy. Now that the book is out, I have just a few quick rapid fire questions before I let you go and get back to your day and enjoy being a published author. As you dove into Charles’s correspondence, what was something that surprised you?
As you felt like you were getting to know this member of your family and this part of your lineage, what was something that you read that kind of caught you off-guard or maybe surprised you?
Stephen Watts: One of the things that was very surprising and interesting was the tendency when you are reading something historical like that is to put the person on a bit of a pedestal, you know? He was a human being who had his own difficulties and relationships and everything else and a step-nephew that came over, a person whose descendants that my father and I both met, they are in Bureau County.
The step-nephew came over, and Charles had a falling out with him, and it turned into a bitter family feud between the two, where step-nephew threatened to have his friends beat up Charles, Charles had some very choice words to say to his brother about the step-nephew, but years later in 1906, his brother Edward, Charles brother’s Edward’s son had a 50th wedding anniversary celebration at his house.
A descendant of Edward gave me a copy of the portrait, the photograph that was taken at that celebration. There were several dozen people in the photograph. In that photograph was the wizened old Charles Wiggins, the step-nephew, and his daughter, which told me that the step-nephew didn’t hold the entire Watts clan responsible for that falling he had had with Charles Watts.
Gunnar Rogers: There is still some family love involved at the end of the day, right?
Stephen Watts: Yeah.
Gunnar Rogers: Awesome, and then what is something that as you learned more and got to know the person, Charles Watts, through this correspondence that you see in yourself, like what is like a trait that you see and have learned in Charles that you feel that you have?
Stephen Watts: The one thing that I could probably easily pick out, Charles never gave up on getting his brother over to the United States. He wrote 14 letters that had survived to Edward, and one of those 14 is to his half-brother, but Charles never gave up, and almost every one of those letters, he tried again and again and again to convince Edward to come. It took 17 years, but he finally came over, and so he had persistence like no one else.
I guess I would say that with the help of other people urging me on, it took some persistence on my part as well to be able to pull all of this together, and one of the things I talk about in the book, the day that we found Charles tombstone, my son and I came back home, and my wife’s brother and his wife were very much into wine. They collected wine, and every Christmas for a few years where they were giving us a few nice bottles of wine, and I would tuck those away.
I thought, “You know, I am going to pull out one of those bottles of wine and enjoy it,” and I pulled out one and looked at it and I thought, “Well, let me look at one more,” I pulled out the next bottle and the name of the wine was Persistence.
Gunnar Rogers: Oh, that’s awesome. I got to know, how did it taste? I mean after –
Stephen Watts: It was the best wine I had ever had in my life Gunnar.
Gunnar Rogers: Oh, I bet. Well, I do hope that you crack another bottle of wine today as you are a published author. The book, Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure, is available on Amazon. I highly encourage everybody to go get a copy. Stephen, I encourage you to have another glass of wine. I’m sure it won’t taste as good as finding Charles’s gravesite glass but hopefully it is number two in your book.
Before I let you go, the book is out now, people can get it on Amazon, once they read it where can people find you, how can people engage with you and potentially reach out with our own questions about how to begin their genealogy journey?
Stephen Watts: Certainly, they can contact me on Facebook, just search on Searching for Charles and there is a book website, they can message me through Facebook or just post directly on that site or they can also find me on LinkedIn.
Gunnar Rogers: Awesome. Well Stephen, thank you for your time of course but thank you for your persistence. Thank you for sharing the story of finding Charles and providing this incredible perspective of America’s history, of your familial history and just giving us this incredible window into the life of Charles Watts. I really appreciate you and I appreciate your time sir.
Stephen Watts: Oh certainly and thank you, Gunnar. I have enjoyed it.
Gunnar Rogers: Yes sir.