The Quarterly Journal of the Illinois State Genealogical Society

Illinois State Genealogical Society – ISGS Quarterly (

July 1, 2023

A Timeless Narrative

Searching for Charles: The Untold Legacy of an Immigrant’s American Adventure by Stephen Watts. Published 2022 by Houndstooth Press. 579 pages.

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.

Book Review by Debra Dudek, Fountaindale Public Library, Bolingbrook, IL