In 1843, Edward Gilley (1811-1897) arrived in the Cooksville area from his home in Northumberland County, England and settled on 80 acres of land that he immediately purchased and began to farm just east of the newly established Village of Cooksville (1842). In 1845 he wrote a detailed and expressive letter home, very pleased with his decision.
|Edward Gilley portrait, c.1890s|
Edward had come to America with his brother George Gilley (1819-1888) to begin a new life on the new lands in the Wisconsin Territory that the U.S. government had been selling since 1837. In 1855 a third brother, John Gilley (1817-1856) migrated with his family to Cooksville but he died the following year. All three brothers and several other family members are buried in the old Cooksville Cemetery. A fourth brother, William, remained in England.
A brief biographical sketch of two sentences in the 1879 “History of Rock County, Wisconsin,” describes: “Edward Gilley, retired farmer, Sec.4; P.O. Cooksville; born in Northumberland, England, Feb. 11, 1811; he came to America in 1843, locating in Porter Township, Rock Co., Wis., in May of that year, and purchased of the Government 200 acres of land, on which he has since remained. He married in Porter Township, Rock Co., Wis., April 1, 1854, and his wife died May 28,, 1875.” In the 1889 “Portrait and Biographical Album of Rock County,” both Edward and George Gilley merited longer biographies as significant early pioneer settlers and farmers in southern Wisconsin.
Edward’s letter home in 1845 to his relatives in England, written 171 years ago, reveals as much about himself as the new land he now owned and farmed.
|Edward Gilley Farmstead, east of Cooksville, etching from 1873|
The letter written on September 28, 1845, to his sister Anne (or possibly to his half-sister Jane) in Rothbury, England, appears to have been his first letter sent to his family from Wisconsin. His return address on the letter was “Union [the nearby stagecoach-mail stop], Rock County, Wisconsin Territory, United States, North America.” The envelope had post marks of “Janesville, Wis. Sep 30” and “America-Liverpool Oct. 27, 1845,” and “Morpeth [near Rothbury; no day/month] 1845.”
A transcribed copy of Edward’s letter was recently given to the Cooksville Archives through the combined efforts of Gilley descendents now living in Iowa, North Carolina, Scotland and England. In theisHis letter— a glowing report of his new home on a “smooth prairie” —Edward wrote, “I believe this is going to be the greatest wheat growing country in the world.”
Edward’s sister had apparently written that she was “poorly” and “much fatigued,” and in his letter Edward assured her that “if you were this side of the Atlantic Ocean I could soon put you in to a comfortable way of living. You might make a good living here by keeping a few milk cows.”
|Ellen Pratt Gilley (1860-1944), niece of Edward|
He boosted about the prices of crops and the rich soil and compared the geography and climate of Wisconsin with that of England. He also mentioned a few set-backs in the challenges he faced living on the new American frontier.
“Butter sells now from 8 pence to 9 pence per lb your money, that is from 16 to 18 cts….There are many a thousand acres that wants nothing more than turning over the sward [the grassy soil surface] and sowing the seed—it will produce from 10 to 12 bolls [about 50-60 bushels] an acre and by cross plowing it will produce 16 or18 bolls per acre.”
Edward continued: “Our cattle costs us nothing to keep them, except mowing hay for the winter feed. About 1 half of the land here where we are is clear of timber [and] it grows abundantly of wild grass and weeds where the soil is very rich, the other half is occupied with oak timber not very great size from 5 to 15 yds apart and the soil in general very good… the melons and cucumbers here are so numerous we feed the hoggs with them, likewise onions, cabbage, pease, beans, potatoes and turnips grow abundantly here without manure—in fact, it lacks nothing here for being a good farming country except coals….”
Then Edward explained how he managed to acquire his rich lands: “Dear Sister, I must now turn to giving you some account of my own transactions since I came to Wisconsin and my circumstances now. First move I made I bought 80 acres land 5s. [about $1.25] per acre and claimed another 80 acres calculating to pay for it as soon as I am able as the 80 bought is mostly timber and marsh with a small stream of water running along one side of it, and the other 80 acres is smooth prairie or plough land so the one will not make a good farm without the other… I have got along pretty well except last year one of my horses happened an accident, she broke one of her hind legs—it was a great hindrance to me in getting along with my improvements not being able to buy another to put in her place for some time.”
|Stebbins-Tofsland-Gilley Octagonal Barn, owned by Edward's nephew|
He described his animal stock and his living conditions: “I will also give you a small account of my stock—1 aged work horse, 1 yearling colt which the mare had when or before she died—it is a very fine one now, 3 milk cows, 2 yearling heighers [heifers], 1 calf, 2 yoke of oxen, 1 bull, 2 sows, 10 pigs, 7 shot [young] pigs for pork this fall….and about 2 score hens and chickens together and I have now got my house made pretty comfortable. It contains 3 rooms and a good cellar—building is also rather expensive here, as mechanics wages are high—they charge pretty near 1 dollar a day…”
Edward praised a grain new to him: “There is also another plant called Indian Corn, a very useful thing it is, it is good for either Man or Beast. I like it better than oatmeal made into pottage and it is better than anything else to fatten hoggs with and horses likewise. I think the climate varies a little more here than it does in England. It is a little hotter here in summer and cooler in winter but the air is more clear… Our land is very even with a little decline and well watered.”
But Edward was lonely and needed a helpmate. “And I found when I got settled that I could not get on without a Housekeeper so I got me a wife last January, but she by casting [sic] some clothes in the month of June caught cold which turned to inflammation of the bowels and died in the month of July which causes me to feel very destitute as am living alone with a great deal of care.”
Edward hoped he would have enough money to pay off his additional 80 acres at the Land Office, “and have as much left as will bear my expenses to England and back, I should like to pay you a visit in the Fall and stay all winter and return in April if all go well with us.”
He wrote that his brother George “bought 40 acres of land which is in cultivation and claims another 40…He likes the country very well and has a better prospect than in England but is rather scant of means to build and improve. But if he have his health to put in his crops in the Spring, they will raise considerable of means…”
He hoped he would hear back from his family. “But I must conclude with George joining me in love to you and all inquiring friends, Your affectionate brother, E. Gilley.”
And so ends Edward Gilley’s wonderfully detailed, enthusiastic, newsy letter home to his family and friends in England describing his satisfying, successful life that he began on America’s frontier in the Territory of Wisconsin, United States, North America.
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[Many thanks to Diane Gabrielsen Scholl of Iowa, and all her Gilley relatives including Janet Hancock of North Caroline, Edward Freeborn of Kent, England, and Julia Carter of Scotland, descendents of the Gilley family and distant cousins, for sharing the transcribed copy of Gilley’s letter with me, along with other information. The “Gilley Family” file is part of the Cooksville Archives maintained in Cooksville, Town of Porter, Rock County, State of Wisconsin, United States, North America, the Earth, the Milky Way, the Universe. The Cooksville Archives is available to interested people by appointment with Larry Reed, (608) 873-5066.]