Solving Mysteries in Watkins’s Family Tree

26 Jun 2017

Posted by amy

Although Harry Watkins provides an astonishing amount of information about his professional life in his diary, he is practically silent about his family background. So, we have been working hard to piece together his ancestry -- which has led to several remarkable discoveries.

Over the past two years, I have spent hundreds of hours conducting genealogical research on the Watkins family. Today, I know much more about Harry Watkins and his relations than my own family! It's been a fascinating journey, one that is still ongoing.

Luckily, the diary offers some clues about Watkins's mother and brothers. Watkins frequently mentions his beloved mother, Elizabeth Young Watkins Bloss (who lived in New York City most of her life), as well as one brother, George Washington Watkins (who was born in NYC but relocated to Georgia as a young adult). Harry enjoyed a warm relationship with George throughout his life. In contrast, he rarely writes about his eldest brothers, James Young Watkins and Osmer S. Watkins -- successful businessmen who were many years older than he. Indeed, several entries in the diary suggest that Harry’s relationships with James and Osmer were quite strained.

Using these clues in the diary as a foundation, we consulted a wide range of sources to learn more about the Watkins family: data from US and New York State Censuses, vital records at NYC's Municipal Archives, dozens of NYC almanacs and directories, military registries, and much more. Fortunately, we found many helpful sources through web sites such as,,, and In addition, Naomi and I have made dozens of visits to libraries and archives to look at material that is not yet digitized.

As a result, we've learned many fascinating things about Watkins and his family -- much more than I can include in this short blog post. But I will tease you with a few highlights. His maternal grandfather, James Young, was a pilot on the Long Island Sound; tragically, he drowned on the job in 1806. When he died, his daughter Elizabeth was just a few weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday. It seems she married quickly after his death, to a mariner named Osmer (or Hosmer) Watkins. Their first son, James Y. Watkins, was christened at Christ Episcopal Church in Manhattan in 1807. Their second son (Osmer Jr.) was born a year or two later, eventually followed by George in 1817. Mysteriously, around the time of George's birth, Osmer the mariner disappears from the New York City directories, and in 1818, Elizabeth Watkins appears on her own, listing herself as a "tailoress" -- a common trade for single women and widows during the early nineteenth century. In 1820, she adds the word "widow" to her directory listing. Interestingly, Harry Watkins was born several years into Elizabeth's "widowhood" (in 1825). In essence, we have no conclusive evidence of who Harry Watkins's father was. He never writes about his father in his diary, and to date, we haven't found other sources (such as newspaper articles) in which he discusses his paternal relatives. So, it seems that he was brought up exclusively by Elizabeth -- a single, working mother -- and his brother George, who was about eight years old when Harry was born.

I was moved to write this post because, recently, we had the tremendous pleasure of learning more about the Watkins family from a couple of George Watkins's living descendants, who contacted us through our Facebook page! We were excited to tell them that Harry Watkins's diary survives in the Harvard Theatre collection, and that we are working to make the diary more accessible to students, scholars, and other readers through our critical and digital editions. And they loved to learn that Harry tweets a bit of his diary every day on Twitter. These relatives kindly shared with us several family photos from the 1800s, and have offered to show us some correspondence and other materials that have been passed down through the generations. We will keep you posted as our genealogical adventure continues to unfold.