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From Toddington to Texas


Alun Gibbard of Wales used our research service and other sources to discover more about his ancestors who left Bedfordshire for pastures new…

I don't know why, but it seems to happen every time. Whenever I watch Who Do You Think You Are on television, I get a real buzz when people who are complete strangers find a missing link in their family tree. Maybe it says something very deep about us and our need for belonging. That feeling has intensified ten-fold recently, because I've put together some links to my own family history. It turned out to be a tale of two Williams who left their Bedfordshire homes for different reasons to go to completely different places, with a twists of tragedy and adventure along the way. I certainly wasn't ready for what I was to discover!

I knew that my great grandfather on my paternal side, William Gibbard, had travelled to South Wales from Bedfordshire. But why? How? These questions needed answers.

Using the parish church records held by Beds & Luton Archives & Records Service, I found that William Gibbard was baptised at Toddington in Bedfordshire 5 Nov 1843. His family were hit hard by a farming crisis in the county in the 1850/1860s and William and his father had to leave home to look for work as farmhands. The 1861 Census sees them both in another county, leaving the rest of their family behind.

 However, this does not explain why William eventually ended up in South Wales. There was no common pattern of migration to Wales even during such a agricultural crisis. It doesn't seem to make sense that William Gibbard left purely for employment reasons. BLARS referred me to the census, which showed that by 1871 William's father, Thomas Robert Gibbard, was living in Hitchin workhouse. That was a bit of a shock, but I still could not see how this sad fact held a clue as to why William headed west to Wales.

However, BLARS explained that if someone in those days was in the workhouse or workhouse infirmary, relatives were expected to pay towards the cost of keeping them if they were able to. Struggling  to survive themselves, many wrote to the Poor Law Unions claiming they could not pay. Others fled to avoid the officers who would come looking for the upkeep money. It's quite likely that's when William decided to run away.

The Gibbard family of Wales

The Gibbard family in Wales. James Gibbard, son of William second from left front row.

That seemed even harder to take. It was not nice to think that he came to Wales to effectively start my branch of the family because he didn't want to support his father. But it makes sense. In the same year that the father was in the workhouse, the son was getting married in Llanelly, a small, burgeoning industrial town in West Wales, to an 18 year old local girl.He settled there, and the 1901 Census shows that the born Englishman William Gibbard was by then able to speak both English and Welsh. All his descendants since then, including me, have been first language Welsh speakers

Another William ended up even further from his Toddington origins! This William Gibbard was the son of the first William’s grandfather’s brother. I had come across him some years ago but could not make the link between him and me. Through the work done by BLARS, that link was made and it gave me the greatest thrill of the whole journey!

Born in 1817, the son of Edward & Mary Gibbard of Chalton near Toddington, this William Gibbard, had, at about the age of 14,  left Bedfordshire to go to America. His mother had passed away in 1826 but his father was still alive. He may have been sent there by his family to people they already knew.

The first records of him in the USA are in Illinois, but it was in the Deep South that he made his mark. He was part of a wagon trail that were making the move further and further west through Texas in the 1840s. Along with one other pioneer, Adam Sullivan, he settled by a river not far from what is now Dallas, and began a settlement there. It became Cedar Grove, named after a grove of cedars on William Gibbard's farm.

The 1850 census shows William as a farmer in the County of Kauffman, Texas. In 1850, on Christmas Eve, he was elected the first ever Postmaster of Cedar Grove. This was in the days of the Pony Express and the expanding railroad. He also ran a saloon and records show that a regular visitor to his inn was none other than Sam Houston, whose name was later given to the city in Texas. William Gibbard was buried in the cemetery at Cedar Grove on 12 May 1897.

To establish that there was a link with this man and my family was a genuine thrill. Two independent facts could now be joined! This was reinforced when that William Gibbard's military record was discovered. He was a member of the 2nd Texas Cavalry and fought in the American Civil War, having already served in the war against Mexico. This was John Wayne stuff – in my family!

Added to this, my father has researched his wider family and discovered that a family member from my paternal grandmother’s side in Wales, also left for America and fought in the American Civil war – on the other side! So two of my ancestors fought on opposite sides of the same war.

The research is still going on. I've still got questions that need answers, but the research so far has been very rewarding. Also in the picture is,  believe it or not, a third William Gibbard, who left England for America, but in his case in the early 1600s, and there's a Pilgrim Fathers link. Now that's going to be a very interesting next step indeed.