Probably anyone in the U.S. who has ever researched a family history has, at some point, thought one or more ancestors must have just appeared out of thin air, and dropped into a particular place with no parents! Because the census is only every 10 years and prior to 1850, only the head of household was named, if a person was a young adult by 1850, living away from his or her parents, finding relatives in the U.S. can be a challenge unless you’re lucky enough to have other sources of information.
For a great many years, I was practically convinced that my 3rd great-grandmother Elizabeth “Eliza” Watson in this maternal line was one of these dropped out of nowhere, born in Indiana with an older brother Henry who was born in England. I only knew about Henry because Henry’s wife and Eliza’s husband were siblings also (Castetters). All were married in Ripley Co., Indiana before 1850, and also by then their parents were dead, leaving not a trace on paper of their parents ever being in Ripley County. I’ve already written about my Castetter search (another big challenge!).
You have a grand gift for silence, Watson.*
So, I’ve been years on the trail of Eliza and Henry’s families from Indiana to Iowa and Missouri, piecing together everything I could find on any Watson in their vicinity, even others that lived elsewhere in the country, but had Indiana or English roots. Lucky for me, Eliza had a brother — otherwise, her story may have remained a complete mystery to me. You see, women in those days were rarely named in any county histories and social news, except as they related to the men either as wives or daughters — IF they were fortunate enough to have been recorded as more than Mrs. so and so or as an unnamed daughter of so and so. Even in burial, headstones were seldom inscribed with a woman’s maiden name, and even some in my family were buried under stones inscribed, “Mrs.” so and so, with no first name recorded!
A few years back I found an unsourced tree of a likely sister, Naomi, that pointed to possible parents and maternal grandparents. After investigation, I found infant baptism records for Henry and Naomi, in Kent, England, giving their father’s full name and their mother’s first name. I also found their mother’s birth record in Kent. The tree I found appeared correct, and I could then follow her family back several generations with birth and marriage records, but their father was a different story! A John Watson from somewhere in England is as hard to trace as a John Smith! I also thought he was probably from Kent, as was his wife, but it turns out he was not!
I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life.*
Several days ago, I suddenly received an email from a descendant of another of Eliza and Henry’s sisters that I didn’t even know existed! Sarah Joanna — a sister, also married in Ripley County, Indiana. With all my careful sleuthing, how had I missed her?! The writer of the email found me from contributions I’d made to Find A Grave, thinking I was probably one of Henry’s descendants. She wrote, “Did you know Henry’s parents were John Watson and Mary Glover? The whole family is listed in THE EMIGRANT’S GUIDE by William Cobbett, an English reformer.”
Yes, sometime after January 2009, I had learned their parents’ names, but almost nothing about them, except by knowing she was born in Maidstone, Kent, I had been able to follow her line back in some branches a few generations. I’d never heard at all of the sister Sarah she mentioned, nor of this book; however, I immediately searched for it online and found it. WOW! What a wonderful story of family love and perseverance! Information poured from the book, including details of where and when Eliza was born, all the names and birth dates of her siblings, experiences, and hints of family relationships written in letters from Eliza’s father in New Brunswick, Canada; Seneca, New York; and Dearborn County, Indiana to his parents back in SUSSEX!
As it turns out, the author wrote THE EMIGRANT’S GUIDE in 1829, which included several letters written not only by my ancestor, but also his brother, and other family members back to their parents and relatives in England as examples of what an English emigrant might expect to experience when going to the States. The author also briefly explained their departure from England, saying, “several parishes in the East of Sussex had ‘got rid of’ many families that were a great burden to them, or likely to be,” by shipping them off to Canada and the United States. Since finding out who they were, I’ve discovered several relatives of the family also went to Australia about this same time.
The parties writing the letters, are JOHN WATSON, who went from the parish of SEDLESCOMB (Sedlescombe) near BATTLE; from STEPHEN WATSON, his brother, who went from the same place; from MARY JANE WATSON, a daughter of STEPHEN WATSON;… and I suppress not one single word of them….I begin with the letters from JOHN WATSON to his father STEPHEN WATSON of SEDLESCOMB. This JOHN WATSON, it will be perceived, was carried to our sweet colony of NEW BRUNSWICK; but he soon found that he could not live there; and it will be seen with what wondrous toil and perseverance he removed himself, his wife, and his children, first into LOWER CANADA, then into UPPER CANADA, and then in the UNITED STATES. Let this man’s progress be observed: see the English pauper become a good solid landowner in AMERICA, in the course of only five years; and then come to your decision. JOHN WATSON tells his father, that he was discouraged from going to the UNITED STATES; and that many had come from the STATES to NEW BRUNSWICK! These lies had been stuffed into his head, as into the heads of thousands of others; but they all, if they be able soon quit the miserable colonies, and get to the UNITED STATES. (~Cobbett)
I’ll begin now, and later summarize my tale with the last of John’s letters included in the book. On November 29, 1828, John Watson wrote to his parents, Stephen and Sarah Watson, at Sedlescomb [sic], Sussex, “Old England,” from Aurora, Dearborn, Indiana, USA:
We received your letter November 8th, which gave us great satisfaction that you are well, and we are glad to hear that some of you intend coming to America; and we greatly desire that you would all come to this rich fertile country…. We are highly gratified to think of father and mother coming, and more so shall we be if you all will come. We advise you to come to New York and up the river to Albany, where Stephen lives. There you can get information of the road to my house….
Other letters indicate that another brother William had considered coming to the U.S., but was reluctant to believe things in America were as good as his brothers described, and perhaps could not pay his own passage.
When I finished the letters, I had imagined that his parents and at least some of the rest of the family had made it to the U.S., but when I discovered their father as a widower in Whatlington, Sussex, in the 1841 English census, living with his widowed son James and James’ children, it seems John’s mother, Sarah, had died in Sussex. Even with all the desire for the family to be together in the U.S., and with all the encouragement from sons John and Stephen, they never made the journey. Whether brother William or other immediate family members ever did, is yet unknown. By 1851, Stephen, about age 84, was residing with his next younger brother, Thomas, in Goudhurst, Kent; both born in Ewhurst, Sussex according to the census. By 1861, Stephen was no where to be found and had probably died in England.
All letters, beginning in 1819 and on, from sons John and his brother Stephen, Jr. to their parents and from Stephen Jr.’s daughter Mary Jane to her grandparents were addressed to them in “Sedlescomb” [sic], with most adding “near Battle” to the address, but a letter in 1827 also adds “to Footland” (Footlands). Stephen Watson, the father, appears to have been employed by Tilden Smith of Vinehall in Mountfield, Gentleman, owner of Footlands Farm in Sedlescombe (aka: Sedlescomb and Siddlescombe), part of the Vinehall estate in Mountfield, Whatlington, Sedlescombe and Ewhurst, that was originally owned by Lord Ashton. At least some of the John’s children were born on this estate, and John, in 1825, writing of his satisfaction with his life in the U.S., said he would never wish to go back to Mr. Tilden’s farm.
As I find no criminal records for them, John and Stephen Watson from Sedlescombe, were apparently among those considered at least financially burdensome to their parish, and “run off”; however, John, the first of the family to leave, did not initially go to the United States, but to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. John wrote on 15 Oct 1819 from Queensbury, New Brunswick to his father:
Dear Father,— I arrived in St. John the 16th of June, after a disagreeable passage….
Arrival records for the brig “Wellington” are actually dated 15 June, which agree with the date he gave in a subsequent letter in 1822. In his letter of October 1819, however, John continued:
I am now situated 120 miles up the river St. John. The gentleman in whose employ I am, has built me a house in which I now live. I am to have it, and 10 or 12 acres of land, rent free for three years. I expect to be able to maintain my family on this until I get land from Government. Every married man is entitled to 200 acres, and every single man 100…. We are a free people; free from rates and taxes.
The first winter in New Brunswick was severe, and when John did not receive what was promised him, he found that his family could not live there. With “wondrous toil and perseverance he removed himself, his wife, and his children, first into Lower Canada, then into Upper Canada, and then in the United States” (~Cobbett), even after he was discouraged from going to the states. Apparently, King George did not reimburse the parish of Sedlescombe for their passage, nor did John receive any government land and pocket-money for initial expenses, as promised.
On either the 8th or 15th of Mar 1820, they left New Brunwick and went toward Quebec, which was still “an entire wilderness.” From Quebec they proceeded up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and on to Kingston, Ontario, then up the lake to Niagara, where they crossed over from Fort George into the U.S. Once in America, they traveled east into New York where John found the little land still available too expensive for his means. They stayed in Seneca and Geneva, Ontario, New York only through the summer, where John was employed by Robert Watson from Northumberland, England, who was not related to him. After a few months working, they planned to follow the Allegheny and Ohio rivers into Ohio. Years later, accounts from his son, Rev. James V. Watson, say they had scanty provisions as they passed through Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, noting the iron works, and then settled for a time near Cincinnati, Ohio.
By his letter of 15 Jun 1822, John wrote to his parents that he was “perfectly settled” in Aurora, Dearborn, Indiana and wishing their family in England could be with them. In this letter he described their journey from Canada to New York, and finally to Indiana:
I, therefore, with my wife, got a hand-sleigh, in which I placed the children, and drew them on the ice up the St. John’s river, about 360 miles, Mary and myself walking, drawing the children after us. You must also recollect that 100 miles of this was not settled, being all wood. We arrived at the head of St. John’s river. We travelled on in the same manner, across snow and ice, to the great river St. Laurence, about 180 miles below Quebec; there we found the country, along the bank, thickly settled. I then built myself a light waggon, and had all our family provisioned during the time of making the waggon for ‘I thank you’ the good people, who were French Canadians, wishing us very much to stay with them. In this waggon our children were drawn by myself for upwards of 400 miles to Kingston, at the mouth of the lake Ontario. There (as every other place, we met with uncommon kindness) a gentleman, quite a stranger, not only sent us by the steam-boat, free of all expense, to Fort George, but put six or seven dollars in our pockets besides. From Fort George we crossed into the United States, and passed the summer at Geneva, Ontario County, New York state. Hearing a more favourable account of the State of Indiana, I once more started on a ramble, and, travelling across the State of New York, I came to O’Lean (Olean) Point, on the Alleghany river; which river, a very rapid one, I came down in a flat boat to Pittsburgh; here I staid two days, and passing on, after begin detained by head winds, and the water being very low, landed at Aurora, situated at the mouth of Hogan Creek. Here I found myself a stranger, without friends, acquaintance, utensils of any kind, or money, having spent our last dollar a day or two before; added to which, myself and all our family were caught by illness for six or eight weeks, without the power of doing any thing. But no sooner was our situation known, that we had plenty of provisions brought to us, and, as our strength recovered, I obtained work at digging, &c. My wife took in sewing, and by degrees, we have worked it to that I have 2 cows, 2 calves, 9 pigs, and 1 calf expected in August. James is now in school, and I intend to send two in the winter. I have joined with a farmer in cropping; that is, I received one-half of the produce, and had the team found me. I now am working for an English gentleman, named Harris, who is building in Aurora, and owns four quarter sections up the Creek. Much good land can be bought, far distant, for one dollar and a quarter per acre, and improved land for not much more; indeed, so good is the prospect for a man who must live by industry, that I wish all my friends and acquaintance were here with me. I can safely say, I would not, nor would my Mary, return to England on any account whatever. We are now all in good health, and are very desirous of hearing from you.
On April 26, 1823, from Aurora, John wrote after receiving a letter from his parents, that they were sad to receive news of “sister” passing, “who could not have been expected to remain long, having been ill so long.” The name of the sister was not mentioned. He also wrote to his father, “you should have mentioned who my brother James married; we suppose it must be Henry Freeland’s sister.” Records show, however, that James married Hannah Martin, and it was another brother, Edward, who married Harriot (or Harriet) Freeland, sister of Henry, Jr. and daughter of Henry Freeland, Sr. It was evident in this letter that John’s brother Stephen had previously inquired from England about employment in America. John mentioned he was still working for Mr. Harris and expected to be for some time. Quite fortunately for his descendants, John also listed his children in this letter, giving their birth dates:
John, born April 22nd, 1809; James, October 18th, 1813; Naomi, February 7th, 1815; Henry, April 11th, 1818; Eliza Anne, born January 21st, 1821, in Langley township, on Hogan Creek, Dearborn County, Indiana.
He also mentioned his sister Sarah, along with another mention of his brother William and his brother-in-law, William Glover.
In his letter of March 9, 1825 from Aurora, John wrote:
It is two years since we heard from you, excepting a letter from brother Stephen, saying you were all well. We are longing to hear what you are all doing; the particulars of all the family; when you sent the letter, you did not say any thing about William and Sarah, neither who James and Ann was married to…. We should be very glad to hear from all our friends; we think they would do a great deal better here than in England; we cannot think what makes so many of them go back, for we would not come back again for Mr. Tilden Smith’s farm and all he has got.
By this letter, we read that his brother Stephen had arrived in America, but had not come to Indiana, and John was wondering if he had gone back to England. We later learn he had not. John also relayed more news of his children:
We have another little daughter, named Sarah Joanna; she was born on the 29th of February, 1824; the other children are all well; John is grown very much lately; he is almost like a man; he has just been out a month, and earned himself a summer’s suit of clothes, though he is employed at home on the farm. I let him have his wish; he sends his best respects to his grandmother.
In the biographical information written by Rev. E. Q. Fuller regarding Stephen and Sarah’s grandson, Rev. James V. Watson, D.D., we learn that James’ father, John Watson (son of Stephen) was an industrious and moral laborer of the Methodist faith. John Watson’s wife, Mary Glover, affectionately referred by him in letters to his parents as “my Mary,” was of a higher social class, very pious and educated, but her family at some point before her marriage had suffered pecuniary misfortune.
John’s brother Stephen departed London on the ship “Hudson,” and with his family and relative (apparently his cousin), John Gardiner, arrived 4 Sep 1823 in New York City after a 7 weeks-long voyage and 16 days of sea-sickness. They remained in New York City about a week and then sailed about 144 miles on the Hudson River to Albany, where they were well settled by October 5th. He reported in a letter to his father that he did not have enough money to go 1400 more miles to where his brother John was living. Stephen traveled alone to scout out the town of Utica, but found it no better than Albany so decided to remain there, sending some of his children out to live with others so they could attend school. The captain of the Hudson took Mary Jane with him to Connecticut for schooling and Stephen Thomas went to live with a Mr. William Fisher. Naomi was going to live with a Mr. Moulton at Utica and James was going to the same place. In his letter to his parents 5 Oct 1823, he reported that by then his cousin John Gardiner had found his brothers who had come before. The Gardiner brothers’ mother was referred by Mary Jane as her aunt in her later letters. John Gardiner’s brothers were William and James, and at least by 1825, they were all living in Utica, New York. Stephen was unhappy and discouraged about staying in America in September 1823, saying if he couldn’t get enough work they might return to England in the spring, but by 27 Oct 1823, his wife, Elizabeth, wrote home saying she knew they were well off to stay. Stephen was by then sawing with Richard Fuller and they were also living with him, and their son William had found work filling wagons with goods that came in on the canal.
On March 29, 1824, Stephen wrote to his parents again, saying he no longer had any reason to complain of America, his wife liked it very much, and there were so many English people in Albany that it seemed much like home. He also reported again that Captain Champlin was sending Mary Jane to school in Connecticut where she was learning to read and write quite well, and that people paid according to their abilities for the “free school” there in Albany, where 400 “scholars are taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, &c., &c.”
By October 27, 1825, Mary Jane was back with her family in Albany and writing for the first time to her grandparents in Sedlescombe and Rye, saying:
I don’t wish to return to England again. I like America much the best; it is a very plentiful country. A person may get a very good living here if they are industrious. My father is doing very well, and is very well satisfied to stay in this country. He has got a cow of his own, and nine hogs. My mother has been lately confined of a daughter; she is very hearty; her name is Sarah Anne. Little Myram (aka: Miriam) is a very pretty child; we think very much of her; I think she is indulged too much in having her own way. Thomas and Naomi are living out. Thomas is living in the country with Mr. Fisher. I have spent two years out to the eastward with the captain I came over with. I took much comfort and consolation with them in the two years. But now I am returned home to my parents. I like living in Albany better than I did to the east. I have been very fortunate. I have got good clothes, and I can dress as well as any lady in Sedlescomb…. The girls here that go out to doing house-work, dress as well as any lady in Sedlescomb.
She continued by describing the current ladies’ fashion in Albany. She also once again encouraged her Uncle William to come to America if the parish would send him, was sorry to hear that the parish said they would not send any more, and wrote that they were surprised to hear of Uncle Edward’s marriage. In addition, she said her father had a good summer’s work sawing and working in the malt-house for the winter.
On April 11, 1826, Mary Jane wrote relaying messages from her Uncle John in Indiana:
Tell William we are astonished at him doubting the truths of our letters; we can assure him the letters don’t get altered before they reach him. America is as good as we have stated before; and he would find it so if he had heart enough to come….
She had messages for Aunt Gardiner regarding her sons, John, James, and William, and also wrote:
Give my love to Thomas and grandmother (Mary Green), at Rye; and ask her if she will come over here if I come over for her. Father and mother send their kind love to you and grandfather (Watson), and aunt and uncle Lawrence; tell them we wish they was here. Our love to aunt and uncle Freeland; tell them,—will not promise them,—I think if I can get a chance with the captain I came over with, I shall come back to England to visit them all in a year or two. Mother and father wish to be remembered to all their sisters and brother…. Aunt Mary has sent a letter to her brother John, and has received no answer.
Cobbett included one more letter that Mary Jane wrote again to her Watson grandparents 27 Dec 1827, this time addressed to them in “Footland,” (Footlands) to tell them she was “married on the 13th of November last, to a man in good circumstances” and that she was very comfortably situated. She neglected to name her husband, but called herself Mary Jane Coulson. Her husband, from records, was Thomas Coulson. She again enclosed messages from her Uncle John, that he had moved down river as low as the falls of Ohio, where they lived a year and a half, but were not satisfied with the country there, so returned to Aurora, Indiana in August 1827, and purchased 75 acres, a house and orchard.
Of the last of John’s letters transcribed for his book, Cobbett wrote:
That finishes the account of his progress; and there we find this English ‘pauper,’ of whom the Parish of Sedlescomb thought itself happy to get rid, seated firmly down on a piece of land of 75 acres, in a comfortable dwelling house, and having a good orchard of apples and peaches, having earned the money to make the purchase, and maintained his numerous family at the same time.
With respect to Mary Jane’s letters, Cobbett says she “does so much honour to her heart as well as her head,” and that her letters are “worthy of universal admiration.”
You know my methods, Watson. There was not one of them which I did not apply to the inquiry. And it ended by my discovering traces, but very different ones from those which I had expected.*
* ~Sherlock Holmes (character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)