William Scholes Goes Back to the Land (Wisconsin, 1849)

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Marquette, Wisconsin, United States
Year range
1849 - 1849

William Scholes came from England to America because he won a lottery on New Year’s Day 1849. The Potters’ Emigration Society sought to make more jobs for its members by paying to help randomly selected members leave England. Originally based in Staffordshire to help unemployed potters there, the society expanded its reach, allowing non-potters like William — who worked in a cotton factory — to join.

William and his family were thus enabled to leave the “dark satanic mills” of the Manchester area for rural Wisconsin. He wrote the following letter five months after they arrived. Writing at length, he enthusiastically promotes Wisconsin and his return to the land, and defends the Potters’ Emigration Society against criticism.

Historical accuracy compels us to note that the society went bankrupt late in 1850, making the new settlers’ lives even more difficult than usual. How exactly this affected the Scholes family isn’t clear, but it can’t have been good, especially since William appears to have had no farming background and no sons of an age to help.

I received this letter through the good offices of Roger G. Bentley, 4874 Parkinson Blvd., Pierretends, Quebec H8Y 2Z3, Canada, who is researching the history of the Potters’ Emigration Society in England and America. Spelling has been retained exactly as published in “The Potters’ Examiner, and Emigrants’ Advocate,” Volume IX, No. 74 (November 1849), pages 587-588. Some paragraphing added for readability.

Fox River, Winnebago, [Wisconsin] September 23rd, 1849.

DEAR SIR, — I take this opportunity of writing these few lines to you, and to all our friends of the Branch [the Oldham branch of the Potters’ Emigration Society], hoping they may find you all in good health, as they leave me and family at present. I promised when I left you that I would write, and give you some account, and that a correct one, of the land and of our future prospects, as far as I was able to judge, and I am now about fulfil that promise to the best of my abilities.

We arrived hear on the 19th of May, and found Mr. Twigg at his post, where he ever is, and he received us very kindly, and he set us to work immediately, and have been at it ever since, with little intermission.

The land is rather of a sandy nature throughout Wisconsin. As far as I am able to learn, it is so on this settlement; some parts are more so than others, some of the bluffs or small hills are sandy, but the low flat lands are of the finest black mould; some people said that it was too sandy to produce anything, but I only wish I had it in my power to send you a sample of some potatoes that have been got up this week, and I think the most prejudiced would admit that finer potatoes were never grown, they have not had one particle of manure, the sets were put under the sod; and that is all they have had, except hoeing up, and the crop is a surprising one; and Twigg has sown near 100 acres of fall wheat; on the third day after sowing, it was up, and at this time is four inches high, and looks beautiful, in fact, the land will produce anything and in abundance, but there are some men that would grumble even if Manna were to come down from heaven.

I have got five acres of fall wheat sown and it looks very well; I have also got a cow, and a young stear, that will soon be ready for the yoke, with poultry and pigs, I think this is no bad beginning for so short a time, but any man may get on here if he will work, and if he will not work he had better stay at home.

James Grey has left here for England, after a stay of three months, during which time he has saved 40 dollars, besides paying his board, but he was never content, he was ever grumbling about something, and never content; he was afraid that the winter would be too cold for him, and he could not live; he owed me some money, and he agreed that his shares in the Branch should be transferred to Samuel Mills, of Bow street, my brother-in-law, and enclosed is the document, signed by himself, and witnessed by the store-keeper and Twigg, and there are more besides Grey that have left here. There is a man from Birmingham named Farmer, who only used the axe one hour, when he threw it down and would work no more, and he is telling the most pitiful tales about the settlement.

I could say with Sterne, “alas! poor Yorick,” there has come a set of men out who would rather grumble than work, but I hope our friends will not be discouraged by such men, men who are not content to work any where; heed them not, for their statements are false; they have gone to Milwaukee, and told people that we had nothing to eat, and were starving, and numbers believed them, when nothing could be more false.

We have had plenty of food ever since I came, plenty of the necessaries, and many of the luxuries of life, and that is something, considering the distance from any town or market; we are ten miles from the post office, and about 120 miles from Milwaukee, about the same from Galena, but in a few years we shall have a market of our own, and every thing requisite to make man comfortable. I expect next year to have 10 acres of wheat with my yoke of oxen and plough, which, together with my labour for others in a few years will render my work much easier, and my family out of the reach of want.

How many of our friends in Oldham can say the same? Not many, I think. For my part, I would not come back for the best shop and two pounds per week in Oldham, for I think I can do much better here; I am only sorry that I did not come sooner, but perhaps I might if the Potters’ Emigration Society had come into existence sooner, but I shall always feel thankful that ever I heard of it, and so will thousands besides me, for I assure you that the exchange to the back woods, from the stinking factory is greatly in favour of the former, and I often wish that more of our hard working townsmen would leave their sickly toil and come to one of the healthiest spots on the earth.

Some of our grumblers complain that there is too much marsh to be healthy. There are four of us from Oldham here, and we have all better health than at home. Any marsh, or the greatest part of them are quite dry at this time; we can go over them without the least wet, except where there are springs. We have some Yankees here who say that this part is the most healthy.

So much for the marshes. But what can people know who come and go back the same week; but go who may, or come who may, there is a goodly number here that are determined to stay and carry out the plans of our society, in spite of all our enimes, for you will see that we are not without opposition here. There are men not far from this, who are doing all that they can to upset the concern, but they will fail in their diabolical attempts.

As we were coming about 10 miles from this, we met with Pickering, [Editor’s note in original: This man owes the society upwards of £70; and left the Pottersville estate to get a more comfortable living by preaching the gospel. To escape his debt, he has done all he could to break up the society, and to defame the characters of its managers.] who told us some dismal tales. He said it was a pity that we had come, and we asked him why we could not do as well as him, and he said it was not a pity that we had come into this country, but it was a pity that we were going to the Indian land to be starved to death; and there are others who complain that there is no company.

Why, there is as much company as any one could expect in the Back Woods, but it is the wrong sort; there is not the jerry shop — there is not the swill bowl to bezzle in, in which some men delight so much — there are no fairs and wakes — there are no such amusements as these, and some people cannot endure it; but it is as the Indians say chop, chop, chop, and make the Dear Puckagee, that is, run away ten miles back. If men must come here, they must ply the axe or the plough; and if they come with a determination to do that, they need not fear.

I have got 35 acres of first-rate ploughing land, and six acres of marsh land for the cattle. We mow our hay from the marshes, which some people grumble about so much, indeed, the marsh land is very good; and now, sir, you may assure our friends that they have nothing to fear in coming here, but every thing to hope for the best.

There has been some talk about Twigg leaving here. I hope the society will keep him here another year, at all events, for such another man cannot be sent out, and get through the affairs of this place as he can. I assure you that he has the confidence of all well-meaning men, and if he were to leave us at present, I fear the worst, as the Colony is in its infancy, and he is just the man to carry it through; he deserves well of the society, and long as he does his duty with the same activity as at present, they cannot be better served.

Henry Matley is living with me, and has got his forty acres of land, and cow and calf, and is in very good health; he thinks it strange that he should not hear from his family since he came here, as he wrote to them, and sent several newspapers since he landed at New York, from there and Buffalo.

John Goulding is also with me, and in good health, and with me he deprecates and contradicts the false statements that have been circulated by designing men, for if we were so bad off as some of them say, we should not stay here, for we can, any of us, get away when we think proper. Ask James Grey how he got away from here after a stay of three months, for he had not a cent when he came, but he was indebted to others for getting up at all, so that he must have had something somewhere from somebody to bring him back again to Oldham.

There are a many coming out this fall; they are coming in crowds, so much so, that I fear some inconvenience will be felt for want of houses, as every one cannot have a house all at once; and we are all busy getting in the seed, and attend to the new comers.

Mr. Haslam has arrived here, and is at present with me for a few days, until his house is ready. William Hallam is also here, and is working for the society at present, till such time as he gets on his land. He is in good health, and getting on; and now I think that sufficient has been written to put you and all our friends on your guard against designing men, and frightened old woman, who have no business from home without some one to look after them, and to take care of them, and to keep them warm in winter, and see that all their wants are supplied in summer. Poor things! I despise the former, but I can but pity the latter. The former may spit his venom, it falls quite harmless, and hurts no one but himself and the latter; but I will soil no more paper with them, for if our friends at home do their duty, we will do ours, and we shall prosper in spite of them all.

Please to remember me to the Branch, and to all friends of the society. I must now conclude with my respects to you all, and hope that our friends will not be led away by the false statements of men coming from here, for there no is one comes out but may do as well as I have done if they will, if they wont, they have no right to go up and down the country crying the society down, and striving to injure those that injure them not. J. Goulding wishes you to remember him to friend Cole, and all our Temperance friends, and to all inquiring friends — Mallam and Mately the same.

I should be very happy to hear from you when you can make it convenient to write, as we hear nothing from Oldham concerning the state of the society, and the affairs of the town and neighourhood, and newspapers sent from England scarcely ever reach here, not one in twelve coming to hand, except sent by some one coming direct here. Please remember me to all our friends and relations, and to all inquiring friends, I remain, yours respectfully,


born 14 December 1814 in or near Oldham, Lancashire

married Ann Mills 20 April 1835 Prestwich, Lancashire

died 13 October 1864 in Vicksburg, Mississippi

ANCESTORS: We’re still looking for William’s parents; his baptism has yet to appear in or near Oldham at the time he is said to have been born.

COUSINS: Probably lots if we could identify his birth family for sure! Family tradition has it that he was the youngest of thirteen, and that at least two married and had children and emigrated separately.