North Molton, Devonshire, England to Devonshire Hollow, Lafayette County, Wisconsin

On the 26th of March, 1851, a group of 12 people left North Molton, Devonshire, England headed for Plymouth Harbor to take ship for North America.  The group consisted of three generations of an extended family, as well as some friends, all going to start a new life in America that they hoped would hold more opportunity than the difficult lives they led in the mines, sheep pastures and wool manufacturing factories of mid-19th century England.

Travel Route taken by the North Molton emigrants

Travel Route taken by the North Molton emigrants

Uniquely, one member of the group, John Cockings, kept a travel diary of their journey, and many letters have survived that were sent both from the migrants and those left behind.  These primary sources provide fascinating insights into the complicated decision about whether to migrate, a glimpse of what life was like for the pioneers, as well as those who remained in England, and an idea of what the physical journey of migration was like at the time.

Migration and the Migrants

Migration wasn’t an easy choice for many.  They had questions about what they would find and how much it would cost – were the benefits worth the risks?  Those who had already made the journey often encouraged others to come, though they considered who would do well in the new world they had found before doing so.  They newcomers seem to have been surprised and a bit bewildered by the varieties of types of people, the near lack of class structure and religious beliefs they encountered.  While it was a struggle, most seem to have acclimated well and felt they had made a good choice after they had been in the US a few years.

The migrants of 1851 followed members of their community who had gone before them; they were leaving ‘home’ but going toward people they trusted who could help them get established.  The people who had previously left North Molton  and were living in Fayette, Lafayette County, Wisconsin by 1850 included:

John Kingdon Cockings (b. 1823, Heasley Mills, North Molton, d. 1913, Fayette, Wisconsin, USA), son of John and Isabella Kingdon Cockings.  He emigrated in Mar 1848, arriving at Castle Garden in New York on Apr 17th.  He traveled with his two elder brothers, William and George Cockings.   John had left his wife, Margaret Leworthy Cockings, behind, along with several small children.  Letters from his father to his sister note that John was an awful correspondent, which his father found frustrating. and that his father hadn’t heard from William or George, who had settled in Onondaga, New York state, at all.  I don’t know what drew William and George to stay in New York or why John chose to continue on to Wisconsin.  John probably didn’t go on alone or already knew someone in Wisconsin to travel toward.

Thomas Short ( b. 1813, North Molton – d. 1884, Spearfish, South Dakota, USA), who emigrated with his wife, Mary Ann (–?–), and children, John, Mary Jane and William, as well as his single brother, William Short (b. 1824, North Molton, d. 1899, Fayette, Wisconsin, USA).   Thomas and William were the sons of John and Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Shapland Short.  They sailed from Barnstaple, Devonshire, England on 6 Jun 1848.  Thomas and William had both been working in the tin mines but had been laid off, and America seemed like as good an economic option as any.

William Nicholls Buckingham (b. 1823, Charles, Devon, d. 1896, Fayette, Wisconsin, USA), who emigrated about May 1850 with his new wife, Mary A. Cockings Buckingham(b. 1827, Heasley Mills, North Molton, d. 1877, Fayette, Wisconsin, USA).  They had been married on 19 Mar 1850 in North Molton, and were en route shortly afterward, as a letter of August 1850 from John Cockings to his daughter, Mary, thanked them for the second letter they had received, as well as their first sent from Quebec.

A few letters written by John Cockings to his daughter, Mary, give a glimpse into the thinking about those who had left and were considering joining their family and friends.  All four of John’s children had left for America:

Transcription of Letters from John Cockings to his Daughter, 1850

Migrants in the group that emigrated from North Molton in late March 1851 included:

John Cockings (b. 1793, Heasley Mill, North Molton, d. 1872, Fayette, Lafayette, Wisconsin, USA), who was also the author of the diary that detailed the group’s trip.  John was eager to join his daughter, Mary, her husband, and his son, John, though in letters from 1850, he had many questions about the place she lived and how much travel had cost.  He said his wife, Isabella, was concerned about going, was looking on the dark side of things, but that he thought if Mary’s brother, John, would write to encourage her, she would probably go.  In the end, he and  his wife, Isabella Kingdon Cockings (b. 1793, North Molton, d. 1874, Fayette, Lafayette, Wisconsin, USA) did choose to leave North Molton and settle near two of their children in Wisconsin.  No member of this immediate family stayed in Devon.

John Leworthy (b. 1788 or 1791, d. 1874), who emigrated with his wife, Margaret Thorne Leworthy, and their two surviving children, Mary Leworthy (b. 1821 or 1822, North Molton, d.1892 Fayette, Lafayette, Wisconsin, USA.) and Margaret Leworthy Cockings (b. 1825, North Molton, d. 1882, Fayette, Lafayette, Wisconsin, USA), as well as Margaret’s two small children:   Ann Margaret Cockings (b. 1845, North Molton, d. 1921, Mineral Point, Wisconsin, USA) and Mary Isabelle Cockings (b. 1847, North Molton, d. 1924, Waldwick, Wisconsin, USA).   Per letters from John Cockings to his daughter in 1850, his wife, Isabella, would be much happier about going if the Leworthys would go, as well, but he said that they hadn’t even been considering it, and as their daughter, Mary, had a good job in service, it seemed unlikely they would leave.  And yet six months later they all emigrated; one wonders what made them choose to leave in the end.  No member of this immediate family stayed in Devon.

John Pile and Ann Maldram Pile, who had lived in Heasley Mill, North Molton, also emigrated in 1851, supposedly on April 2nd, and were friends with the Cockings, as John Cockings had sent Ann’s greetings to his daughter, Mary, in a letter in 1850, adding that Ann Maldram and John Pile planned to go to over next spring; I am guessing they emigrated with the Cockings and Leworthys.  An article I found, which I highly recommend, details the everyday life of the Piles and the Devonshire Hollow community through letters the Piles wrote home to England in which they described their frontier life in Wisconsin and the people in their community, including the Cockings, Leworthys and Shorts above.

The article:  Birch, Brian P.  “From Southwest England to Southwest Wisconsin: Devonshire Hollow, Lafayette County”, The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 69, No 2 (Winter 1985-86), pp. 129-149.   Wisconsin Historical Society Press.  Available through Jstor:

I am not sure who the other two emigrants were that completed the group of twelve.  However, John Cockings had written in his 1850 letters to Mary that Ann Harris and family were planning on coming the following spring, as were William Collard, John Way?, and John Shapland, so there were many possibilities.


Detail of the Travel Route taken by North Molton emigrants within North America

Detail of the Travel Route taken by North Molton emigrants within North America

The emigrants left North Molton on the 26th of March and were thus on the road and not counted when the census was taken on March 30th.  They sailed from Plymouth Harbor in Devon on 3 Apr 1851, crossing the ocean, then sailed down the St. Lawrence River.  They changed to smaller ships to travel through the Great Lakes before landing at Milwaukee.  There they took wagons overland to Fayette. Their journey ended when they arrived at William and Mary Cockings Buckingham’s home on the 27th of May.  They had been travelling eight weeks.


The diary:  Transcription of John Cockings’ Travel Diary, 1851

A New Life

The Piles’ letters in the Brian Birch article describe how the newly arrived men labored for others or mined, as many had done back in Devon, but that within a few years, each had saved enough money to purchase land of his own and start a farm.   Even then, some continued mining to earn extra money or because they enjoyed it, but they also had farms, which they added to via purchase or rental as their families grew over time and as the mining industry declined.  Later, descendants of these families often intermarried, growing even stronger the connections between the families.

Shortly after she arrived, Mary Leworthy married the earlier immigrant William Short, noted above.  They wed on 1 Sep 1851 in Elk Grove, Lafayette, Wisconsin, USA.  Mary had held a  good position as a servant in Exeter before she quit to emigrate with her parents.  William was noted in the 1841 census in North Molton working for the James Smith family as an agricultural laborer, and before 1848 he was working in the tin mines but then had been laid off.  In Devonshire Hollow the couple had a 40-acre farm next to the Cockings and Buckinghams.   John Pile, who was a religious man and a staunch Primitive Methodist, a religion to which many in North Molton belonged, wrote with pleasure in a letter of 1857 that William Short had joined the church.  The Primitive Methodists often joined the Episcopal Methodist church in Wisconsin.  Mary and William had only one child, John Short (1852-1927).   John later had four wives and was the father of ten children, including Mary Ursula Short.

William and Thomas Short’s sister, Elizabeth Ann ‘Lizzie’ Short (b. May 1831, North Molton, d. Mar 1913, Waldwick, Wisconsin, USA) married Jul 1856 in North Molton, William Skinner (b. May 1830, Chulmleigh, d. 1923, Waldwick, Wisconsin, USA).  They possibly emigrated almost immediately, as their first child, Elizabeth Ann Skinner, was said to have been born Mar 1857 in Wisconsin.  William Skinner was drafted during the Civil War and served under General Grant.  When he returned, he was plowing his fields and uncovered some lead chunks.  A rich deposit of lead was found not far beneath the surface, which William sold for $4-5,000, figuring himself a wealthy man.  The couple had nine known children.

Although three Short children emigrated to the US, four adult children of John and Elizabeth Shapland Short remained in North Molton with their families and their parents (as far as I know, though I haven’t been able to completely track several of the daughters).  Ann Maldren’s parents and some of her siblings also stayed in North Molton.   I do not know enough about the Pile, Buckingham or Skinner families to know whether or not they left siblings behind in Devonshire.  While some families uprooted completely, others became divided, with descendants in both Devonshire and the US.

Updated:  13 Feb 2016

Connection to Short-Harford Family: Mary Leworthy (1821/22-1892) and William Short (1824-1899) were the grandparents of Mary Ursula Short (1878-1965), who married Washington Keegan (1869-1944).


2 thoughts on “North Molton, Devonshire, England to Devonshire Hollow, Lafayette County, Wisconsin

  1. authorjim

    I went to your Ancestry tree and found everything I had hoped for. Thank you very much! I also posted the picture of William Short and, as I get time, will check to see if I have any others. However, it looks like others have already posted everything that I have. Thank you again. Jim


  2. authorjim

    I have some pictures that William Thomas sent to my aunt, Bertha Hanson, I don’t see them in your tree and I was going to enter them i but I find that I am not allowed to do that. One is of William Thomas and his wife Nettie. Not a real good picture but not bad.The other is of Lloyd William Short’s daughter, Beverly Ann when she was a flower girl at a wedding.



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