Bread is higher (dearer) here than in England. Brother George was bid 5 dollars per week and Board at New York, and after the first week or two he would give him 6 dollars. 6 dollars is the regular price but baking is so different to what it is in England. Cousin Wm Voce would do a great deal better here than in England: Butchers meat is low (cheap).
We are going cross the Lake Erie this afternoon for Detroit when we shall go a few miles in the country and then look araound us. We are verry tired of travelling: we have come 550 miles from New York and it is 370 up the lake. Mother and father, Brothers and Sisters unite with me in kind love to you and all our kind relations and neighbours. I remain your affectionate
September 20th 1834 Direct Rolling Prarie County of Laport state of Indiana North America
Dear Grandfather and Grandmother I now take my pen to write you a letter from America which I believe you have expected for some time first I intended to write before now but we have been very busy in harvest
This is all that exists of the second letter. Below is an explanation of the Belshaw letters provided by Bob Hammond. He also provided the photo above of the original Belshaw Homestead in England. The Old Timer would like to thank him for this look at one of our first families from over the pond.
William Belshaw senior, grandfather of the letter-writer, first appears in the Keyworth land tax returns in 1785, as one of the leading farmers (but not landowners) in the parish. He had succeeded George Belshaw (his father?) as tenant on land belonging to Mrs. Tibson in that year. But he is also named in Bunny's parish register of 1774 as a resident of Keyworth marrying Elizabeth Woodroffe of Bunny; and in the Keyworth Independent Church accounts from 17762 as an annual subscriber of one guinea for a double seat in the then recently built chapel (now known as The Hall, on Nottingham Road). He was buried in Keyworth church in 1830 at the age of 84, so he was born in 1745/6. There is no record of his baptism in Keyworth, suggesting he was either born elsewhere or his parents were dissenters - his own son had his children basptised at the Independent church, whose register goes back to 1790 - not early enough to record William's baptism. The grandfather and grandmother to whom the second letter is addressed were presumably the writer's maternal grandparents.
As a leading farmer William senior enjoyed a relatively high status in the village, and his son George served as a church warden on a number of occasions3 in the 1820s (while having his children baptised at the Independent Chapel - see below). After enclosure he occupied the farm belonging to Samuel Smith M.P., which subsequently became known as Shaw's Farm, named after the family who succeeded the Belshaws as tenants in 1834 on the death of Smith, and who occupied it for the next 90 years. It was based on what is now 36, Main Street.
William Belshaw's son, George, took over the farm some time in the 1820s. He had at least ten children whose baptisms are recorded in the Independent church register between 1812 and 1833. A daughter - Elizabeth - died in infancy, but, with one exception, the rest are named in the letter and therefore survived long enough to embark on the voyage to America with their parents. George's eldest son, William Junior, the writer of the letter, also refers to "father" and "mother" (George and Elizabeth) who, by 1834, were probably in their forties. So the writer's party consisted of at least eleven - the parents and nine children ranging in age from 22 (Mary) to 1 (Edward). One cannot be sure because baby Edward is not named in the letter, while Charles, who is, does not appear in the baptismal register. In addition, they took with them Frank Attenborough - presumably a young family friend - as far as Buffalo. What is certain is that the whole Belshaw family left Keyworth: there is no more mention of them in the registers after 1834, neither is the name found under Keyworth in later directories or in the 1841 and subsequent censuses.
The Belshaws continued to have family connections in the locality, however. The first letter is addressed to a cousin called John Savidge of Bunny, and the Keyworth marriage register records Ann Belshaw - almost certainly a sister of George - marrying a man of this name in 1794. From the Bunny register we also learn of the baptism of their son, John, in 1795. It is he to whom the letter was addressed 39 years later as Cousin John. (The Bunny register also notes that baby John's father was an innkeeper, while the letter locates the inn "on the London Road", which suggests it was the Rancliffe Arms.) Three other Belshaw brides of about the same period - probably sisters of Ann - were married to John Voce of Bradmore (a relation of whom is mentioned in the letter), John Eggleston of Keyworth and John Shepparson of Keyworth.
One can only speculate on the reason for the family emigrating. The father, George, was running a fairly large farm and his older children were by 1834 able to be useful about the house or on the farm. But they were fairly well educated for the time (evinced by the vocabulary, syntax and spelling of the letter), and were perhaps ambitious. Seven of the children were boys and opportunities for acquiring tenancies, let alone land-ownership, were limited for people of their means. The main alternative to farming in Keyworth was framework knitting, a notoriously insecure and unremunerative occupation; while towns were at their most squalid, with life-expectancy little more than half that of rural areas before conditions were ameliorated by the introduction of municipal water supply, sewage disposal and housing by-laws. The mid-west of the United States, on the other hand, was just opening up to settlers with offers of large tracts of land at nominal prices - indeed much virgin land was acquired by settlers at that time by squatting with no payment at all.4 It offered the prospect of both economic advancement and healthy living for those with skill and energy who were prepared to cut their ties with their homeland, endure the discomfort and danger of a lengthy sea voyage and overland trek, and venture into the unknown with all their possessions at risk. The following extract from a letter to England by an earlier settler gives an idea of what drew people like George Belshaw to the mid-west:
"Our soil appears to be rich, a fine black mould, inclining to sand, from one to three or four feet deep; so easy of tillage as to reduce the expense of cultivation below that of the land I have been accustomed to in England........We are not called upon, after receiving our money for produce, to refund a portion of it for rent, another portion for tithe, a third for poor rates and a fourth for taxes; which latter are here so light as scarcely to be brought into the nicest calculation.5"
It is unlikely that George saw this letter, but there were many others like it, and there were advertising companies, like the Erie Canal Company, anxious to encourage settlers who would ultimately become clients and boost their profits. George must have felt that here was the opportunity he was looking for: his own farm experience and his children's labour (four of his sons were already teenagers or older when they set out) would provide the skill and energy to bring such a promising wilderness under cultivation.
Most of the completed letter describes the journey. The 36-day trans-Atlantic crossing was by sailing boat, where the main pre-occupation was the strength and direction of the wind. The writer also mentions fellow passengers - Irish outnumbered English and 'Scotch' combined, which was normal even before the Irish potato famine of the mid-1840s - and refers to both living and cooking arrangements, which were clearly very basic. They then travelled by steam boat from New York up the Hudson river to Albany, by horse-drawn barge along the Erie Canal (completed in 1825) to Buffalo - the canal was too shallow for the paddle steamers of the time; and then along Lake Erie, again by steam boat, to Detroit. It seems that the first letter was posted from here, though, if this is correct, the writer's estimates of distances travelled are not very accurate: Detroit is over 600 miles from New York by the route taken (he makes it 550), of which the journey along Lake Erie is only 280 miles (he says 370).
The second letter is from Laporte County in the state of Indiana, which is immediately south of Lake Michigan, about 50 miles from Chicago, and over 200 miles west of Detroit (from where the writer had said they were going "a few miles into the country and then look around", presumably for work or for land or both). There seems to have been a change of plan: they either trecked overland for more than a few miles from Detroit to Laporte, or travelled most of the way via Lakes Huron and Michigan, a more comfortable, but much longer journey of 600 miles.
We do not know how long the whole journey from New York took: they set out soon after May 21 and the letter from Laporte is dated September 20 of the same year - i.e., four months later. But they must have been in Laporte some time because they had been "very busy in harvest", presumably working on an already established farm to earn some money until they acquired their own land.
Whether they stayed in Laporte or moved on to Illinois (the state immediately west of Indiana) we cannot tell, but the first letter implies that Illinois (if that is what is meant by "the state of Illoneis") is where they are making for. Perhaps they had responded to an advertisement, newspaper article or letter from an acquaintance, proclaiming Illinois as the promised land. Unlike the plot occupied by the Pikes in South Africa, both Indiana and Illinois really were 'promised land', capable of yielding rich harvests of crops and livestock, where the Belshaws should have prospered. A search for Belshaws living in either Indiana or Illinois today might be the next step in resolving where George and his family eventually settled, and how they fared.
1 This suggests that the Belshaws were not the first from the Keyworth district to emigrate to America. Perhaps Mr. Bradiswell had encouraged them to follow in his footsteps - migrants are often drawn towards places where there is some personal link or recommendation.
2 In Nottinghamshire Archives IR3/6/1
3 See Churchwardens' Accounts in Nottinghamshire Archives PR1141
4 In 1809 land had been acquired by the U.S. government in Indiana and Illinois from indigenous Indians, who were then removed further west, using dubious means and at nominal cost - 3 million acres, or about the size of East Anglia, for $7,000 and annuities of $1750. (M.Ridge & R.A. Billington: America's Frontier Story, p. 256).
5 Morris Birkbeck, Letters from Illinois (London, 1818) quoted in Ridge & Billington, op. cit., p.280. Tithes in Keyworth had been abolished at enclosure in 1799, but the other deductions mentioned would still have applied.
To view the lives and adventures of the Belshaw Family in Lake County Indiana, go to the following links for past columns in the Lowell Public Library site:
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