William Watts: Immigrant Miller – Spring 1969

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

Edited by Charles E. Jones

In 1836 the village of Ypsilanti hardly ten years old, had solid hopes for inclusion on the route of the projected western railroad.

Located on the first high ground west of Detroit, the town had natural advantages as an agricultural processing and trading center, advantages already being exploited by one of its first citizens, Mark Norris, who had arrived in 1828 and built a mill. Shortage of skilled workmen and the relatively stable community which Ypsilanti afforded, made it attractive to European immigrant craftsmen who were able in this context to make quick adjustment to the New World environment.

William Watts, an English miller arriving in the Fall of 1835, immediately found employment with Mark Norris, at that time Democratic appointee as postmaster. Having landed in New York and sailed to Detroit via the new Erie Canal and Lake Erie, William left his family in Detroit while he scouted for work. Mark Norris’ aid in moving and settling Watts’ family and employing him in the mill, plus numerous contacts with fellow Englishmen at the Methodist chapel, resulted in the swift Americanization of William Watts. Within a few weeks after their arrival, however, his wife died as a result of the birth of a son, Benjamin F[ranklin?] Watts.

Early convinced of boundless opportunity in the new country, and impressed by the “hundred million” dollar treasury surplus under President Van Buren, Watts seems to have become a Jacksonian Democrat following the lead of his employer. He wrote the following letter, dated November 9, 1836, to his parents, in an effort to convince them, or some English kinsmen or neighbors, to emigrate. The letter, illuminating the otherwise obscure career of its author who died in 1876, was retrieved by his son, Benjamin F. Watts, an Ann Arbor watchmaker, while on a visit to the family’s ancestral home in England. It was transcribed and deposited with the Michigan Historical Collections, of the University of Michigan, in 1945 by Harry H. Watts, a Kansas City attorney. Minor grammatical and spelling changes have been made without note. Commodity prices were taken from Historical Statistics of the United States (1957).

November 9th, 1836, Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County, Michigan, No. America.

Dear Mother and Father:

“We embrace this opportunity of addressing you to give you an account of our voyage and present situation. This comes with our kind love and our best wishes to you all, hoping that you are all well as this leaves me; thanks be to God for it. The health of my wife since we came here has been as good as could be expected, until her confinement which was on Nov. 4th. [1836] Since then she has been very ill. The children have been except William very unwell, but they are getting better.

We left London on Tuesday, July 12th [1836], at 12 o’clock at noon, and sailed to Gravesend that night; 13th. Sailed to the Downs, near Deale, not far from Dover, 104 miles from London, where we cast anchor, having a strong head wind, the ship rolling about very much and the Passengers in all parts of the ship beginning to be seasick.  The Captain and four of his men fell out about their wages and the men refused to work. The captain went on shore 3 or 4 times at Deale, to the Magistrate, and brought 4 men from Deale and sent the other four to jail.

Typical Ocean sailing vessel in 1836

18th [July, 1836]. Set sail this morning with a strong head wind from the southwest. After sailing 9 or 10 miles the wind forced us to turn back to cast anchor, where we laid until the 22d — 9 o’clock this morning we set sail. Passed the white cliffs of Dover with a strong head wind. The passengers said we might have been sailing all the time we laid at anchor, for the sailors were busy mending their rigging which was very much out of repair. 23d. There has been much sickness in all parts of the ship. The increasing of the head wind . . . caused the ship to pitch very much.

August 2d. After three weeks sailing we have got 700 miles, as the wind has not been so strong against us.

26th [August, 1836]. At 8 o’clock this morning we are on the banks of Newfoundland. The banks are not what I expected; they are a place in the sea where the water is not more than 50 to 60 yards deep, where great numbers of codfish are caught. It is 400 or 500 miles from Newfoundland. We saw four fishing boats. The captain took his boat and went to one of them; they came from Boston in America; they gave the Captain some fine fish, for which he would have given them 4 bottles of Rum which he took with him, but they would not accept it, as very few of the American ships allow spirits to be drunk on board. We have seen large whales near the ship . . . [which] appeared to be as large as the ship and large shoals of porpoise driving past the ship. They appear to be in pursuit of their prey, just like a pack of hounds in a corn field in full cry, pumping out the water three or four feet, as large as fat Pigs of 7 or 8 Stone.

We are all well and hearty except my wife. She is very poorly, having suffered much from seasickness and . . . [eating] but little. The children are getting quite fat. Many of the passengers are getting short of provisions. Some of them have nothing to eat, but we have plenty for 2 or 3 weeks, for I laid in a fresh stock of provisions while we laid at anchor at Deale as I was afraid we should have a long passage, If the wind had been fair we should have been in New York in 28 days.

August 30 [1836]. We have now the best wind we have had since we left London this day 7 weeks [ago]. The wind is blowing from the east, driving us 10 knots an hour. We have sailed 220 miles the last 24 hours. We are yet 500 miles from New York. Sunday, Sept. 5th. Very fine and pleasant forenoon; going 5 knots an hour. The afternoon is a dead calm and very foggy. We are now on St. George’s banks. The passengers are busy and have caught several [fish]. Our children are quite in their element. . . . Tuesday, 7. Fair wind, going 9 knots an hour, and the Captain says we shall see Land by 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.

8th. At 5 o’clock this morning we were in great danger. The ship was in full sail, going very fast. A loud cry was heard, Land ahead, within 100 yards of the ship. Some of the Sailors saw it before, but thought it was a cloud, as it was not light. The Captain was in bed, and dreadfully frightened, as in 2 minutes more [the wind] must have driven us on the shore, but by the help of the passengers (they just tacked the ship in time to save her). We were now about 10 miles too much to the South of the river that runs to New York, but the Captain not knowing the Coast, . . . turned the wrong way and sailed about 60 miles on the coast of New Jersey before he found he was wrong. He thought it had been Long Island. He laid the fault on the Mate and was very sorry and cried like a child . . . [because] the Passengers were very much dissatisfied, as we had to go back against a strong head wind and many of them had nothing to eat but what the others gave them. 9th [Sept. 1836]. Nothing today but complaint against the Captain, as the wind is quite against us, and in the night he had driven out to Sea 40 miles and quite lost sight of land. . . .

11th. This morning at 9 o’clock the Pilot came on board and soon brought us up the river to Staten Island, the place of quarantine, where we cast anchor. The doctor soon came on board and, after looking at us all and finding us all well . . . said we must remain on the ship until Monday, as it was then Saturday afternoon and no business is done on Sunday. The ship was not allowed to enter until Passengers and luggage were all out and the ship was washed all over. Sunday, the 12th. We laid at anchor near the shore, and took the Boat and went and got some fresh provisions which we enjoyed very much. 13th. A schooner from New York came to take us there into which we loaded ourselves and our luggage. Then they took us to a large, wooden house, unloaded all our luggage, then it was examined by the officer and then put on board and about 4 o’clock in the afternoon we came to New York. It is a very fine city.        Some of the passengers were hired before they left the ship, others got work directly. One young man, a linen draper, got 500 dollars a year and board and washing. We took our luggage to the steamboat office at Courtland, where we took our passage to Buffalo at $6.25 per head and ½ price for children, and $1 per hundred for all our luggage. We then went to a boarding house or Tavern, to a Mrs. Smith’s from London, where we feasted on the very best. The beer is very excellent at sixpence per quart. The city was full of fruit. We saw cartloads of fine peaches and apples. We staid in New York 24 hours For 3 meals and beds we paid 25 shillings.

13th. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon we left New York in a large towboat fastened to a large steamer which took us a 160 miles to the city of Albany, where we staid all night on the 14th. Sept. 15. Our luggage was weighed at Albany, after which we mounted a steam coach which took us across the country to a fine town called Schenectady. In the afternoon we went on board another towboat drawn by two horses. They walked fast on the side of the [Erie] canal. We passed through several fine cities, towns and villages We saw large orchards full of fruit on both sides of the canal, and we could buy provisions and fruit most every mile. We bought a quarter of excellent lamb at 2½ cents per pound. Our accommodations were very bad, owing [to] the boat being [so] full of passengers . . . as not to have room to lay our beds.

ERIE – a typical 1836 steamboat.

On the morning of the 22d. We came to Buffalo just in time for a large steamer, which was going to sail for Detroit, the Capital of the State Michigan, 310 miles across Lake Erie. We took our luggage on board directly. They charge $3.00 per head and half per child, and ½ dollar for a Barrel bulk for all our luggage, $5 for luggage and $15 for family, which almost emptied my purse. The steamer was full of passengers, hundreds of which were going to settle in the states of Michigan and Illinois. Our accommodations were very bad. We had no room either to lay or sit. 24th [I] came to Detroit with only a few shillings in my pocket. We could not go to a boarding house for want of money. We went to a small provision house, laid our beds on the floor Here we spent the Sabbath on the 25th in a very comfortable manner. I went to the Methodist Chapel, and saw several Englishmen.1  They gave me great encouragement. After paying my six pence on the Monday I had four shillings and 2 pence left. We took a small room for a week at 3 shillings. I might have had work directly on the new Western Rail Road, which is to run across the state to Illinois, about 228 miles, but I did not like Detroit. ‘Twas wet and unhealthy and no Corn Milk2  nigh. After getting much information from an Englishman (a Mill Stone Manufacturer), he directed me west,  It was 30 miles to the first Corn Miller. . .      [although there were] several further on.

I left my wife and family at Detroit the same day [Monday, Sept. 26, 1836], about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, with a few pence in my pocket, intending to walk all night. But the [bad] roads . . . compelled me to stop at the tavern. They charged 3 d. for my bed,

Mark Norris of Ypsilanti, MI

Tuesday, the 27th. I came to Ypsilanti about noon, 30 miles from Detroit. I went to the house of Mr. Norris the miller. I asked him for work on his mill. He said he did not want a miller at present, but thought he soon should. He offered to engage me for a month at 22 dollars.3 Having no money to travel with I was glad to accept it. He said ‘twould cost near 20 dollars to get my family and luggage to Ypsilanti, in consequence of the roads being almost impassable. He gave me a very excellent supper and bed, and after breakfast he told me he would send his man for my family and Luggage tomorrow. I felt thankful, but had no money to pay expenses on the road. Thursday morning after breakfast I told Mr. Norris I had no money. I offered him my watch which he took and lent me 4 dollars. Friday, 30th [Sept.]. About 8 o’clock this morning I came to Detroit, and . . . met [Norris’] man about noon. We loaded our luggage and traveled about 4 miles that night. We staid at a Tavern where we had an excellent supper and breakfast. They charged 1 shilling for meal and half price for the Children. Oct. 1. We came about 16 miles today, through such a road as you never saw. We staid at a Tavern 10 miles from Ypsilanti. Mr. Norris was on his way to Detroit, and in consequence of the rain he slept at the same place. After paying for the best supper we ever had, 8 d., we laid our beds on the floor. Oct. 2d. This morning I told the landlord we could not take breakfast as our money was all spent. He gave my wife and children some coffee and gave me great encouragement            [He] told me Mr. Norris was an excellent man to work for. Just as we left the Tavern Mr. Norris gave me another Dollar; he said if the wagon broke down we might be another night on the road. We passed several broken wagons that were left in the mud, . . . [but] about 3 o’clock in the afternoon we came to Ypsilanti.

I had engaged a very bad house, the only one I could get, for 3 shillings per week until we could get a better one. Monday the 3d. [Oct.] and two following days I served the brick layer at one of Mr. Norris’ new houses. One Tuesday night another brick layer came to my house and offered me $1.25 per day. I told him I was engaged. He had been all over the town and could not get a man. The next 14 days Mr. Norris set me to work in his Pearl Ash mill. I boiled and baked 18 barrels of Pearl Ash.4 He was very much pleased with it. Said it was almost the best he ever see . . . worth $500. He gave me 6 shillings more than my wages.

Saturday the 22d. [Oct.]. I went to work in . . . [Norris’] Corn Mill where I . . . remain. There are three men beside me, one an Englishman. My wages are $26.00 per month, a house and Garden, and keeping for a Cow as soon as I can get one, but that . . . [will] be some time, . . . Mr. Norris soon provided us with a better house; he emptied his office where he used to do his writing and bought us a cooking Stove, . . . [which] cost 36 Dollars and is the most convenient thing you ever saw. He has begun to build a new house for us in a very pleasant place, not far from the Mills, and a new Rail Road will run quite past,5 and there is near ½ acre of Excellent ground for a garden. I have made one Bedstead and my Master has sent me two Bedsteads and four chairs and he has sold me a Table for 2 dollars.

Mr. Norris is an Excellent man. He has in about 10 years accumulated much property. He came from New York State to Ypsilanti 10 years ago. He told me he was forced to borrow money to pay his Expenses on the Road. Since that time he has done Wonders. He has now one of the finest farms you ever saw. He told me he had a field of wheat last year of 80 acres, the finest Crop he ever saw. It all became ripe at once and all Carted in Excellent Condition. He has also a fine handsome house where he lives and several cottages, beside a Corn Mill and a fine Saw Mill that work night and day. There looks to be timber enough already Cut out to build a town, besides hundreds of large timbers laying around the saw mill. And since I have been with him he has bought a large farm. It lies about a hundred miles to the West, on the Great Illinois Road. He has also several Shares in the New Rail Road. Next summer he intends to build a Store and also a new Water Corn Mill.

Mrs. Norris

Mrs. Norris is an Excellent Woman. She engaged Rachel6 the first day I went to work and she has been there ever since. She is treated as one of the family and likes her place very much. Her Missis is very fond of her. She gives her 3 shillings per week and has bought a handsome dress for her for the winter.

Ypsilanti is a very pleasant place. It stands on a hill on both sides of the [Huron] River. The town is rapidly enlarging and by next Spring we expect the great Western Rail Road from Detroit will be completed which will be an Excellent thing for the town as then goods of all kinds can be brought from all parts with little expense. Then we expect to get Groceries much cheaper. There are in the town 4 Taverns, Several Grocery and Drapery Shops, 3 blacksmith Shops, one Foundry, 3 Corn Mills, 3 Saw [Mills], and 2 Cooper Shops, one close by our Mill. They make all the flour barrels we use — about 50 in a week. There is also a new bank now opened. There are 3 Chapels, one for Baptist, one for the Presbyterians, and one for the Methodists. We joined the [Methodist] Class with four others on Sunday, October 9th. We have 80 members.

Wheat is 5s, Barley 3s, Oats 2s, Indian Corn 4s, Buckwheat 3s, and Potatoes 1S 6d per bushel. Clothing is dear; Shoes are cheap. Tea [is] 3s per pound, Candles 8d, Butter 1s, Cheese 6d, Sugar 8d very good. They are dearer now than ever before was known . . . [because] the Roads . . . [are] so bad. . ..7 We hope [this] will soon be prevented by the Rail Road. Beef and Mutton [are] 3d per pound. [There is] plenty of Wood for the fire. We can have a two-horse load brought to our door for 2d 6d. It is Expected [that] this will be one of the finest towns in the State in a few years. The Wheat is quite Equal to the Wheat in England and makes the finest of Flour. All Trades are in a flourishing State. Farming appears to be the best, as Corn is high and [there are] no tithes, no poor rates and but little expense. . . . They plough the land only once and sow six pecks of wheat on an acre and barrow it in . . .  [they] can sell everything they grow for ready money. We have no poor people compared with England, [and] . . . have no complaining in our streets. Every man appears to be comfortably enjoying the fruit of his labor. Day wages are $1.00 per day. Carpenters and brick layers get $2.00 per day. . . . [There] are many English [people here] . . . several from Norfolk. Two of them from near Swatham told me they often Earned $2.00 per day.

Michigan is reckoned a very fine State, [with] very Excellent and very fine timber. There is plenty of land to sell about 100 miles West [of Ypsilanti]. The price is $1.25 or 5s 2d per acre, the same as in Illinois. . . . Mr. Wilson from England [was] one of the first settlers in Ypsilanti. He lives 3 miles from the town and frequently comes to the mill. He has lived here 11 years and has saved a great deal of money, but cannot save it fast enough. He intends to move to Illinois as soon as he can sell out to an advantage. He says he cannot raise . . . [as] much Cattle nor grow . . . [as] much Corn as in Illinois where the Climate is more temperate. others say Michigan is quite equal to Illinois . . . [but] hundreds have settled there this season. Tell Mr. Charles Cooper of Mattask there is plenty of room for him and his family. We want very much a good shoemaker. Tell him I am glad I am here, I like America. I like Michigan. I like Ypsilanti. I like my Neighbors. They are very friendly. I like my Master and I like my employment For these reasons I am glad I am not in England. I should be very glad if you could send me a few pounds to buy a cow, as the keep [would] cost us nothing. You can pay for it into a bank in London (which I think Mr. Windham will do for you), . . . get their receipt and send [it] to me I can take it at Detroit. If Farnesby comes you had better send it by him if you [can] spare any. I hope I shall see Farnesby and as many of the family as like to come. I will give him a home until he can get one. [I] hope he will leave [as] early in March as possible. I have no doubt [that] if he comes early he will save money enough to buy a farm. He can get employment as A Cooper or a Carpenter. A great deal of building will be [done] next summer, and they are not very particular. He may have 6s per day and his board. Let him bring plenty of Clothing, as ‘tis near double the price here If he can, let him bring some Cuttings of the goosebury and Currents, and some Sweeds and white turnip, seed Cabbage and Cauliflower seed, and what flower seed he can get I have ½ acre of Excellent ground for gardening. . . .

Throughout the sea voyage and the trip to Ypsilanti, Mrs. Watts had suffered continually. Although for a few weeks after Benjamin’s birth she improved markedly, her condition worsened in November. Despite copious medical attention, she died December 24, 1836. A few days later, her husband sent an account of her death to his wife’s parents, from which we now quote:

She died on Saturday morning at half past one, Dec. 24th, and was buried on Christmas day, Sunday the 25th, in the most Respectful manner. The Custom here is to bury the dead the second day. She was taken to the [Methodist] Chapel in a carriage. I and my family followed in Mr. Norris’ carriage, and Mr. N. and Mrs. N. and family, and two other carriages [followed] besides [with] a number of friends on foot. The corpse stood near the pulpit, while one of the traveling preachers preached her funeral sermon. After she was buried, we returned to our homes the same way we went. . . .

My wife and myself had been counting how comfortable we should be in our new situation, but alas, my Expectations are cut off, my hopes are blasted. I should be glad if Elizabeth and Sophia8 would come with Farnesby, as I want some one to guide my Children. I will find them both a good home. I will give them their board for looking after the Children and they may earn a great deal of  money. They can have plenty of work.  They [can] get 6 or 7 shillings for  making a dress. [I] hope they will not be afraid to come. Here is a fruitful country, a very healthy Climate and a very pleasant situation: . . . everything to make them Comfortable. [I] hope I may expect them. I hope for the sake of the dear Children I shall not be disappointed. Let them come from London in the American line of packets.9 It will cost them 5 pounds 4s 6d, but they will Sail on the day appointed and will go in half the time and better accommodation. [Have them] bring plenty of flour and beef suet, Tea and Sugar, Cheese and Butter, and some salt pork for their passage. When they get to New York, let them leave the same afternoon, [and] take their passage in a towboat to Buffalo.

That will Cost them two and one half dollars. Get some provisions for [only] two days, as you can get more on the way. When you get to Buffalo, take passage in a steam boat for Detroit. If the Rail Road is finished that will bring you down to my House, where the Coaches stop; if not, you can come by the stage Coach that runs every day. I shall be glad to see as Many of the family as [should] like to come There are thousands upon thousands of acres of [as good] land [as] you ever saw for 5s 2½ d per acre. Timber land or meadow land [are] all at one price. The Climate is much the same as in England. – . . .

Give my kind love to all the family. Hope I shall one day see them all in America. Government have now one hundred million dollars of Money that they have no use for.10 This is and must remain the finest Country in all the world. Mr. Norris is no Miller himself. He likes me very much. He has spoken very highly of me. I have the Chief care of the Mill. I have an Excellent place, such a one as you cannot find in England Most likely [I] can keep it as long as I like. I could now have two other places and more wages, but I am satisfied. I must Conclude by saying that I hope to see a large part of the family next Spring, that I and all my Children are hearty and well, and that I still remain

Your affectionate son-in-law, Wm. Watts


  1. Repeatedly Watts used the Methodist Chapel as an instrument for meeting other Englishmen. Evidently, he did not find American Methodism markedly different from its British counterpart.
  2. Flour mills.
  3. Although from Watts’ standpoint the wages were more than adequate, a look at the prices being paid for flour at the time shows that Mark Norris must have been operating on a handsome margin. Wholesale flour prices from 1835 to 1839 were better than they had been since the inflationary period after the War of 1812 and better than they would be until 1854. Flour sold wholesale for $5.85 per hundred pounds in 1835, $7.49 in 1836, $9.14 in 1837, $7.95 in 1838, $7.30 in 1839, then dropped to $5.29 in 1840.
  4. Purified potash.
  5. A site on the railroad would have been advantageous to Watts’ milling business.
  6. Watts’ daughter.
  7. Prices for all commodities were higher from 1835 to 1839 than they would be anytime during the 1840’s. The average price (wholesale) index at Philadelphia stood at 90.7 in 1835 and rose to 95.9 by 1839, but dropped to a low of 75.4 in 1843
  8. Sisters?
  9. American transatlantic lines, inaugurated in 1818, early began providing scheduled service.
  10. Reference is to the federal treasury surplus under President Van Buren. Distribution of the surplus was a major factor in initiating a speculative boom which resulted in the Panic of 1837.


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About the Author: Dr. Charles E. Jones is Curator of Manuscripts of the Michigan Historical Collections, University of Michigan, and attained his Ph.D. degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His research interests center around the study of social and intellectual history, particularly the cultural environment of the Puritan and Methodist movements.

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