Kirkus Reviews


May 2, 2023

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. Recommended