Recently Bryan Flack of Macclesfield contacted me about his great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Gidley, daughter of Samuel Gidley and his wife, nee Susanna Mann. Elizabeth’s baptism has seemingly not been recorded anywhere, but in a much later census she said she was born in Blackawton in about 1805.This places her on the tree of the Buckfastleigh Gidleys. Bryan offered to forward to me some letters that had survived in his family, which related to William Mann Gidley, Elizabeth’s brother, who emigrated with other family members, including their mother, to the United States in 1842. They were to join William’s father, Samuel Gidley, who had been in Madison County, New York State since 1834.
It seems the family stayed in New York State for a little while after arriving in 1842, and one of William’s sisters, Ann Maria Gidley, died there later that year, but by 1848 they had joined the great move westwards, and by 1850 were well established in Drury precinct, Rock Island County, Illinois.
What was happening in Devon in the early part of the 19th century to make it attractive to go so far from home? I’ve only done a little research into the background, but it does seem as though conditions in the countryside were far from being a rural idyll. The depression in agriculture after the Napoleonic Wars is well documented nationally, as are the Luddites and the Swing Riots. Riots in Devon took place in 1795, and 1800 – 1801. Thomas Campion of Ilsington was hanged at Bovey Tracey in 1797 as a ringleader of a mob which damaged machinery at Bellamarsh Mill, near Chudleigh, and Henry Penney from Harberton was a leader of the 1795 riot (was he the inspiration behind the name of Henry Penny Gidley born in 1869?) . Wages remained low whilst prices rose, and inflation meant that starvation was a real possibility. Crops failed because of the weather in 1846 and 1847; the price of wheat soared, and bread riots continued in Devon right up until 1854 in Exeter, when the Rifle Volunteers and coastguards were brought in to subdue the mob, and 1867 in Torquay. The woollen industry in Devon was also decaying, as it couldn’t compete with the mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and those who depended on the wool trade were also poverty stricken.
In 1850 William Mann Gidley, now settled in the Mid West, writes to inform his uncle, William Mann of Down Broadhempston in Devon, that his father, Samuel Gidley, has died, and adds details of life in the Mid West, which he obviously prefers to England:
“I will try to give you some account of this part of the country. I bought 160 acres of land here two years ago. I sold 80 again, one eighty being as much as I can farm. The land is good; all the timber on it is Oak or Hickory. Hickory is wild wall nut [walnut]. We live 3 and a half miles from the Mississippi River which is here almost a mile wide and we are 1650 miles above the mouth. Land can be bought in lots of 40 or 80 or of 160 or of 320 acres and so on upwards for five shillings and sixpence an acre of English money. The buyers can pick his lot where he chooses. This part is fruitfull in wheat, barley, oats, rye, potato, apples, and so forth and is one of the best countries in the world for Indian Corn. Some of our farmers this year have 70 bushels to the acre, but 50 is more general. We have neither King, Church nor Poor Tax to pay to. The poor are generally supported by their friends though there is a good law for their support. My whole Taxes do not amount to 15 shillings a year. To you the prices of the Produce of Farms will seem low, yet industrious farmers do well. Wheat is at present 4 and sixpence a bag, barley 3 shillings, potatoes 2 shillings. There is no Cider made here yet. This country has not been settled more than 12 or 13 years, yet the town of Muscatine contains 4 thousand inhabitants. It is on the opposite bank of the River in state of Iowa.”
The following year, 1851, William is writing home again, as the family back in Devon is being remiss in forwarding his mother’s marriage deed. This would entitle her to her late husband’s rents from three fields “known as part of late Endecottes at Wotton in the parish of Buckfastleigh”. She also requested an advance on a year’s rent from those same fields, although she thought it wouldn’t be a great deal “as it has been sacked out”. William Gidley, now recently married, is obviously still enamoured of his American way of life:
“I like this country and know that it is much better for an industrious person than England, very little taxes to pay, no tithe. The system of renting farms here is extremely favourable – the landowner provides horses, wagons or carts, ploughs, harrows, seeds of all kinds and in return he gets in the sheaf but gets nothing from cows nor stock cattle pigs nor sheep because they range through the wild land and receive nothing from the farm. The above is one rule, there is another, when the tenant finds utensils and horse and seed, the owner receives one third of the crop. In all cases the owner pays the land tax and is bound to keep the fences up and gets no benefit from the garden, dairy or poultry. Yet under these circumstances, money invested in farms pays good interest.”
The following year, 1852, William Gidley is now settling his mother’s affairs following her death, and writes home again to his Mann relatives in Devon. His address in Illinois is now Copper Creek. He instructs his cousin not to wait for any rise in the price of land, blaming “the free trade in corn” for depressing the price, but to sell his mother’s fields immediately “in order to have done with it” and to pay off the legacies to his brother and sisters.
The letters give a good picture of life in the newly settled Mid West of the United States, and certainly extended my knowledge of this particular family, mentioning several so far unknown members, such as another of William’s brothers, Samuel Gidley, again with no known baptismal entry, who was in 1842 apparently a coastguard in “Ballycollon, County Tyrone” (this place hasn’t been identified with any certainty yet). It seems there was yet another brother, Nicholas Gidley, whose baptism in England was also unrecorded, and the only reference I had to him was in the 1850 American census where he was a miller in Bath, Greene County, Ohio. According to William in one of the 1852 letters, “brother Nicholas made me a visit last March and liked the country so well that he has concluded to settle here. We are going to build a grist mill in partnership, we have bought the land and water right and are now getting the materials to commence building”. But later American censuses have no further trace of this Nicholas Gidley. Incidentally, in this letter William warns his English family that “It is known that I am expecting money in letters from England, and of the two last I had from you one was broken and the other torn so much that someone had tried to open and read it”.
The end of the story: was the emigration worth it?
By the 1860 census William Mann Gidley’s real estate in Drury, Rock island, Illinois, is valued at $1960 and his personal estate at $125; by the 1870 census this has risen to $3010, and $800 respectively.
So, yes, it probably was worth it. William Mann Gidley’s family was not amongst the poorest in Devon, as they were landowners in a small way, and the small injection of cash from the sale of his mother’s land at Endecotte’s may well have contributed to his successful life in the US.
William Mann Gidley died in 1886, by which time he had moved his family to Dodge, Guthrie County in Iowa. Although he had two sons, I can only find female descendants for him.
Many thanks to Bryan Flack for permission to publish the letters