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The Contribution of Wales to the United States of America

David Williams, National Library of Wales Journal, Summer 1942, Vol II/3 & 4

The substance of a lecture delivered in the Course in the History of the United States of America for Teachers in Wales, organised by the Board of Education, and held at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, September 8-12, 1941.

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete extract of this article by Gareth Hicks [30 June  2002].


The proud claim was made in the United States Senate by Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi (and it was duly entered in the Congressional Record) that no nation in proportion to its size had contributed more to the development of the United States than had the Welsh. Whether this claim can be justified or not, it would, perhaps, be invidious to argue; in any case it would be impossible to decide. For the greatest episode in the development of the United States is the epic struggle in subjugating the wilderness of the whole continent, and in this struggle there took part not only the famous men, whom it is fitting that we should praise (as Ecclesiasticus tells us to do) but also 'those who have left no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been, and their children after them'. Yet these nameless ones brought to their task the virtues of courage and of industry, and they handed on to their descendants a tradition of sound living, and in a final reckoning no contribution to the growth of a nation is greater than that. But how one is to measure it is another matter, not to speak of deciding between the relative contributions of the various national groups. Nevertheless one cannot but be surprised at the part played in the outstanding events of American history by men and women of Welsh descent, and at a time like the present, when it is important that we should deepen our knowledge of American life, a study of the contribution of Welsh-Americans may well help us to do so, by providing a link between our own history and that of the United States.

Much has been written on the subject, and most of it (I regret to say) is uncritical to a degree. It is therefore, perhaps, as important to indicate what has not been the contribution of Wales as it is to describe that contribution, and so I am tempted to start with the legend of the Welsh discovery of America three hundred years before Columbus. For the legend is, itself, not without significance, and it was destined to lead to a remarkable sequel.

Briefly, the legend states that, about 1170, Madoc, the son of Owain Gwynedd, Prince of North Wales, sailed westwards and discovered America; he returned home, gathered together a number of ships and men, and sailed westwards again, presumably settling down in the new country. Unfortunately, neither Brut y Tywysogion nor the Annales Cambriae mentions either Madoc or his exploits,, and the two obscure references to him in the work of contemporary bards seem to indicate that he had been killed some time before the death of his father, which took place in 1169. That would seem to dispose effectively of his discovery of America in 1170. How the legend had its origin is, indeed, a mystery which cannot detain us. It is, however, to be found, more or less complete, in the MS History of Cambria of the Welsh Tudor geographer Humphrey Llwyd. This was published after Llwyd's death by Dr David Powell of Ruabon, in 1584, and Dr Powell added to the legend the interesting detail that it was in Mexico that Madoc had settled, his proof for this statement being the number of Welsh words to be found in the Aztec language. He gave several examples of such words, none very happy, and one was particularly unfortunate. This was the name penguin, a word which proved nothing, except that the good vicar of Ruabon had never seen the black-headed bird. But once launched, the legend found its way into most of the travel literature of the time, into the books of Hakluyt, Raleigh, Purchas, Archbishop Abbot, and others, and the reason for this is of some importance; it was put forward deliberately in order to counteract, on the grounds of prior discovery, Spain's exclusive claim to the New World.

In the seventeenth century, a surprising addition was made to the legend. The numerous Welsh emigrants to America at the end of the century were interested in it, and for their benefit the Reverend Morgan Jones, a native of Basaleg and an alumnus of Jesus College, Oxford, told the following story. In 1669, he said, he was in the area now called South Carolina, when he was captured by some Indians. They were about to put him to death when he muttered a few words in Welsh, and to his surprise the Indians understood him. Naturally they thereupon released him. Not only did Morgan Jones assert that this story was true; he made a formal affidavit to that effect in the year 1685. His misguided sense of humour was destined to have surprising consequences.

For with the coming of the Romantic Movement in literature, and a revival of interest in the strange and the remote, the Madoc legend seized upon people's imaginations. Moreover, it became mixed up with tales of white Indians in the Far West, and so frequently does one hear of men who have met them, that, in moments of weakness, one is inclined to believe these accounts. At length, in September 1792, a young Methodist minister from Waunfawr, Caernarvonshire, one John Evans, decided to go and search for them, in order to bring them 'the blessings of the Christian religion'. He proceeded to Saint Louis (at the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers), but Saint Louis was then in Spanish territory, and the Spanish governor can scarcely be blamed for regarding the missionary with suspicion and throwing him into prison. It was not till August 1795 that he was able to proceed. He then went up the Missouri for 900 miles and wintered with a tribe of friendly Indians. In the spring he proceeded another 300 miles, but he met the Sioux on the war-path and had to return to the friendly tribe. In the summer he departed once more, and ascended the river for still another 900 miles. But he found no Welsh Indians, and, after having been away for two years, he returned to Saint Louis in July 1797, and there, four thousand miles away from the mountains of Arfon, in utter loneliness, he died of fever. This was seven years before Lewis and Clark embarked upon their great expedition in the same region, and it may well be that the upper reaches of the Missouri were first explored by a Methodist minister looking for Welsh Indians.

When colonisation began in the early seventeenth century, there were, no doubt, some Welshmen among the settlers. Included in the list of colonists settled by the Virginia Company in Maine are the names of James Davies, Richard Davies, and Robert Davies. The name of the skipper of the Mayflower, also, was Captain Jones, but whether he was a Welshman or not he was certainly a rascal, and was no great credit to us. The truth is that such names as Davies and Jones are no indication in the seventeenth century of Welsh origin. It is a misapprehension in this matter which has misled so many people about Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and first exponent of religious toleration. The tradition that he was Welsh is old; Morgan John Rhys, for example, states that he was ' a native of Swansea in Glamorgan'. But this opinion gained currency mainly through the work of Dr Elton, his nineteenth-century biographer. Dr Elton found in the registers of Jesus College, Oxford, that a Rodericus Williams, of Maestroiddyn, in the parish of Conwyl Caio, had matriculated at the College in 1625. Armed with this information he proceeded to Carmarthenshire, and there, in the neighbourhood of Llansawel (and this is in 1852), he met a venerable patriarch who remembered in his youth hearing old people say how they remembered their elders talk of Roger Williams emigrating to America. But, alas, for the long memories of the people of Llansawel, the founder of Rhode Island was educated not at Jesus College, Oxford, but at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and there is no shred of evidence that he was Welsh.

The earliest contribution of Wales to the development of the United States was made by less distinguished men than Roger Williams, although, like him, they were Baptists. The Baptists established themselves in Wales during the Cromwellian period especially in two areas; in the Swansea district, where John Miles of Brazenose College, Oxford, founded the church at Ilston in Gower, and in Radnorshire, the scene of the activities of Vavasor Powell. With the Restoration came the persecution under the Clarendon Code, and, in 1662, the Gower Baptists migrated as a body, and settled in Massachusetts. Although they were Strict Baptists, they were allowed to remain in the state, and in 1667, they incorporated their settlement into the town of Swanzey. Within a century the mother church at Swanzey had established four branches.

Some twenty years later many of the Radnorshire Baptists migrated. By this time, however, Penn had undertaken the settlement of Pennsylvania, and it was to this, more tolerant, colony that the Welsh Baptists now proceeded. They settled at a place (called Pennepeck by the Indians) which is now within the boundaries of the city of Philadelphia. There they were joined by many Baptists from West Wales. In 1701, for example, sixteen members of Rhydwilym and its branches migrated to Philadelphia. They disagreed with their Radnorshire brethren, however, concerning the rite (still practised at Rhydwilym) of the laying on of hands at Baptism, so they purchased 30,000 acres from Penn in what is now the state of Delaware, and there established the Welsh Tract. But, in 1735, there was a mass migration from the Welsh Tract southwards to the Pedee River in South Carolina, where a new settlement was established, called the Welsh neck.

At much the same time as the Radnorshire Baptists, the Quakers of Wales migrated. They had become most numerous in Merioneth and Montgomeryshire, and so thorough was their migration that the sect virtually disappeared from Wales. #

[#Footnote;

Dr R T Jenkins: Hanes Cynulleidfa Hen Gapel Llanuwchllyn (Bala 1937) argues that the number of Quaker emigrants was small. An SPCK circular relating to the 1717-18 Bible speaks of 6,000 Welsh settlers in Pennsylvania: John Davies : Bywyd a Gwaith Moses Williams (Caerdydd 1937). Moses Williams also speaks of emigrants leaving 'yn Heidjau bob blwyddyn i Bennsylania' : Davies, ibid. It may, perhaps, be stated that the numbers were large relative to the population of Wales.]

In Pennsylvania they bought some 40,000 acres of land from Penn, and they seem to have hoped to establish themselves as a separate 'barony', performing all the functions of government in their Quaker meetings, and therefore, presumably, in the Welsh language. But soon their leading men abandoned this policy for one of active participation in the turbulent political life of the whole state. Still, they gave their settlements Welsh names. Thus, Rowland Ellis, of Brynmawr, near Dolgelley, called his settlement by that name, and this, in turn, has become famous throughout the world as the seat of the women's college, Brynmawr College.# Philadelphia, itself, was built adjoining the Welsh area, and, if it is possible to speak of Philadelphia's having streets in those days, it would be true to say that at one time more Welsh was to be heard in those streets than English. But after about 1735 the language tended to disappear.

[# Footnote;

It is of interest to note that the halls of residence for undergraduates in Brynmawr College are called, respectively, Merion, Radnor, Denbigh, and Pembroke. It should be particularly noted that the numerous Welsh names to be found on the outskirts of Philadelphia do not, in most cases, go back to the seventeenth century. They are due to the Welsh enthusiasm of George B Roberts, a President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and one of the most prominent Welsh-American industrialists in the mid-nineteenth century. It was his practice to give Welsh names to all new stations in the old Welsh area.]

Such, then, were the Welsh of Pennsylvania, who contributed so much to the religious life of their new country, and from whom so many prominent Welsh-Americans trace their descent. A hardworking body of men, intelligent, self-reliant, their loss was one which Wales could ill afford.

Wales's second contribution is intimately connected with the first. This was its contribution to education --- for the Puritans insisted on an educated ministry, and New England was soon dotted with colleges. Here I will confine myself to two names. Of these the first is Elihu Yale. Yale's father had settled in New England in 1637, and together with a few associates he founded the township of New Haven. Later he returned to Boston, and there Elihu was born. But, when the Commonwealth seemed firmly established, the Yale family returned to this country in 1652, and, in time, Elihu entered the services of the East India Company. His career was a spectacular one. He became Governor of Madras, and eventually Governor of the Company itself. When he retired he settled near Wrexham, at Plas Grono, which his father had bought. In 1718 he was asked to help a college which had been started in New Haven, and so greatly was his gift appreciated that it was decided to call it Yale College. And so the name of the old Welsh cantref of Ial became that of one of the most famous universities of the world, and when Yale's magnificent buildings were built in comparatively recent years, one of the University's two great towers was made an exact replica of the tower of Wrexham parish church, where its benefactor lies buried.

More typically Welsh than Yale, however, is Morgan Edwards of Pontypool, founder of Rhode Island College, which has become famous in the United States as Brown University. It was Edwards who secured a charter for it, and in 1767 he returned to this country to collect funds for its establishment. Dr William Richards of Lynn presented his library to it, so that, at the present day, Brown has the best collection of old Welsh books on the American continent.#

[#Footnote;

I omit all reference to John Harvard, the founder of the University of that name, and Jonathan Edwards, the first president of Princeton, for I can find no evidence that either was of Welsh descent, in spite of many statements to that effect.]

With the passing of the Toleration Act, the impulse to mass migration became less insistent, and in the eighteenth century it is only isolated individuals who emigrated. Among them, it will be remembered was Goronwy Owen, who ended his troubled life in America. #

[#Footnote;

Goronwy had no high opinion of his neighbours. 'Hiliogaeth Lladron o bob gwlad ', he writes to Richard Morris, 'yw'r rhan fwyaf o drigolion y fangre hon, ac y mae ysfa ddiawledig ar eu dwylo i fod yn ymyrreth a phethau pobl eraill'. J H Davies (ed): The Letters of Goronwy Owen (Cardiff 1923). Their opinion of him is not recorded.]

But towards the end of the century Wales made its third contribution, this time to the political development of the United States. This was during the War of Independence. It is said that eighteen out of the fifty-six signatories of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh descent,# and one of them, Francis Lewis, the delegate from New York, was born in Wales. #

[#Footnotes;

1.Among the signatories are the names of William Williams, Robert Morris, Lewis Morris, Francis Lewis, John Adams, Samuel Adams, William Floyd, Stephen Hopkins, Button Gwinett, the signatory from Georgia, was a native of Gloucestershire, but he was closely related to the Buttons of Glamorgan. His brother, Samuel Gwinett, married one of the Buttons and inherited Cottrell through her.

2.In the article is a long reference to the origins of Francis Lewis, especially the book by Julia Delafield ' Biographies of Francis Lewis and Morgan Lewis (New York 1877).]

I have doubts about many of the others, but with the greatest of them all, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, we are on safer ground. 'The tradition in my father's family', says Jefferson, 'was that their ancestor came from Wales, from near the mountain of Snowdon, the highest in Great Britain. My father's estate on the James River was called Snowdon.' Little is known about his father, however, except that he had risen by his own exertions, and risen sufficiently to marry into the great Randolph family of Virginia. Besides the politicians, it is estimated that no fewer than fourteen of the revolutionary generals were of Welsh descent.#

[#Footnote;

Among them was Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, who defeated the English in South Carolina and played an important part in securing the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga.]

But it cannot be over-emphasised that the contribution of Wales through these men , generals and politicians alike, was purely genealogical (if contribution it can be called). It is foolish to claim, as is often done, that Wales contributed through them to the political thought of the Revolution, that there was anything Welsh in their conception of liberty.

One Welshman, however, although he never set foot on the American continent, did contribute vitally to America's political development. This was the philosopher, Dr Richard Price. Price's contribution was twofold. In the first place, he may be said to have changed the nature of the Revolution itself. For, to begin with, the Revolution was a conservative one; its purpose was to preserve a system of government against reactionary innovation on the part of George III and his ministers, and it was to the common law rights of Englishmen, and to English constitutional precedents, that the colonists appealed for a redress to their grievances. But early in 1776 there appeared Richard Price's Nature of Civil Liberty, of which 60,000 copies were immediately sold, and of which no fewer than fifteen editions were called for within one year. In this Price advised the colonists to act according to 'the principles of liberty', and not according to 'the practice of former times'; to appeal, not to the legal rights of Englishmen, but to the natural rights of men, and thereby the whole temper of the Revolution was changed. Moreover, Price, in his various writings, drew a glowing picture of the future of America, and this faith in the future destiny of their country has had a great influence in welding together the diverse elements which form the American population into one nationality. In older countries the sentiment of nationality derives mainly from a common background; the essence of national consciousness is a common tradition. But this is lacking in a population made up largely of immigrants, and the part played in other countries by a common tradition has been played in America by a common faith in the future. This America owes as much as anyone, to Dr Richard Price. It is no wonder that the new government invited him to emigrate, and that Yale bestowed an honorary doctorate on him, the only other recipient of the honour at the same time being George Washington himself.

This belief in America as the land of the future and of freedom had its effect in Wales itself, and among those who emigrated at the end of the eighteenth century was Morgan John Rhys. He had been imbued with the ideas of the French Revolution, and his periodical Y Cylchgrawn Cymraeg did much to educate the Welsh people politically. He lived only ten years after emigrating, but he took an active part in the life of the state of Pennsylvania, and his descendants have distinguished themselves in religious and educational matters.#

[#Footnote;

Among his great grandchildren are Dr Rush Rhees, until recently President of the University of Rochester, and Dr Nicholas Murray Butler, the distinguished President of Columbia University.]

At the end of the eighteenth century, also, there came once more a strong motive for mass emigration. This time the impulse was an economic one. The expansion into the valley of the Ohio drew immigrants from the whole of north-western Europe, while the acute economic distress in Wales, consequent upon an unbroken series of bad harvests from 1789 to 1802, made migration a necessity. Morgan John Rhys wrote repeatedly to the Welsh periodicals urging his fellow countrymen to join him, and in 1795 he formed the Cambrian Company of Philadelphia in order to acquire land.#

[#Footnote;

For the company's prospectus see J T Griffith; Rev Morgan John Rhys (Carmarthen 1910) and Plate XII in this volume of the journal]

This he secured in Western Pennsylvania, in what is now Cambria County, and thither went a large group of settlers, mainly from the Llanbrynmair neighbourhood, under the leadership of Ezeciel Hughes.#

[#Footnote;

For an account of their difficulties, due to the press gang, and other reasons, see E Pan Jones ' Cofiant y Tri Brawd' (Bala 1892)]

Morgan John Rhys divided his settlers, for no motive other than convenience, into two groups. The Baptists he placed at Beulah; the Congregationalists and Methodists a few miles away at Ebensburg. He planned Beulah on a large scale, as the chief centre of the county, with a town hall, a school, a library, and other municipal buildings, but it has completely disappeared, while Ebensburg has become a flourishing town.

Once started, agrarian immigration continued throughout the nineteenth century, until it became literally true that there was scarcely a family in rural Wales which did not have a relative in the United States. For the agrarian problem remained the most difficult in Wales to solve, and the oppressed peasantry found its salvation in America. Here its land-hunger was satisfied, especially when the Homestead Act of 1862 made provisions for the free grant of 160 acres to anyone who would cultivate them, and the frustrated ambitions of generations of peasants were at last realised. In the great work of subjugating the wilderness, the sons and daughters of Wales played their part, and it is difficult now to appreciate the sense of freedom which they must have felt when they had become their own masters, living as they did, also, in areas where they were scarcely conscious of the existence of a government. The frontier had its drawbacks, it is true: life was hard, a man's hand was apt to be against his neighbour's, and there was real danger from the Indians, as Welsh settlers found during the terrible Indian War of 1862.#

[#Footnote;

For a graphic account of their experiences see Thomas E Hughes & others ' Hanes Cymry Minnesota (Mankato, Minn 1895)]

It was natural that the Welsh immigrants should settle together, and as the country was opened up townships bearing such names as Wales and Cambria and Powys appeared.#

[#Footnote;

The best account is in R D Thomas ' Yr Ymfudwr, yn cynnwys hanes America ac Awstralia; yn nghyda phob hyfforddiad i ymfudwyr ' (Drefnewydd 1854) ]

But these settlements also had their nationalistic aspect, a desire to live together in order to preserve in their new environment the language and traditions of Wales. An element of this is to be found in the work of Morgan John Rhys, and it becomes more prominent in the course of the century, reflecting, indeed, the growing national consciousness in Wales itself. Of these settlements the most famous is that of Brynffynon in Eastern Tenessee, established in 1855 by Samuel Roberts of Llanbrynmair. Its sad story has frequently been told, and need not be repeated here. Defeated in his objects and financially ruined, in 1866 Samuel Roberts returned to Wales.

But all such attempts were doomed to failure, even apart from the special reasons, the outbreak of the Civil War and the like, which operated in Samuel Roberts's case. In the second generation the children of the immigrants invariably became English in speech and lost their national characteristics. Besides, in a new country there is always much movement of the population, and all groups tend to break up. #

[#Footnote;

Perhaps the most interesting study of a Welsh family group in America is to be found in Chester Lloyd Jones ' Youngest Son' (Madison, Wisconsin 1938). The distinguished author's grandfather emigrated in 1844; the emigrant's maternal grandfather was the Reverend David Lloyd, nephew and successor of the Reverend Jenkin Jones, the founder of the Unitarian Church of Llwynrhydowen. The author's cousin is the world famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.]

Further, it was the deliberate policy of the government to weld all elements in the population into one nation, and it looked with disfavour on any attempt to segregate the Czechs or the Croats or the Lithuanians or the Welsh, or any other national group. This, Michael D Jones came to realise whilst a minister of religion in Cincinnati, and when, in 1865, from consciously nationalist motives, he wished to establish a Welsh settlement, he decided to locate it not in the United States, or in the British empire, but in the Valley of the Chubut in Patagonia.

Wales's last contribution to the United States has been to its industrial development, which became more and more important as the century proceeded, until industrial immigration almost rivalled that from the rural areas.#

[#Footnote;

I have omitted all discussion of the interesting movement of Welsh Mormons to Utah. For this see the writer's ' Y Cymry a'r Eglwys Formonaidd', Y Llenor (1927)]

Among early American inventors the name of Oliver Evans (whose grandfather migrated from Carno) stands in much the same relation to Fulton's steam-driven boat as that of Trevithick does to George Stephenson's railway engine. But a far more important link with Wales was David Thomas, superintendent of the iron works of Richard Parsons at Ynyscedwin. He was the first to succeed in using anthracite coal to smelt iron. This he did in 1837, and two years later he was induced to emigrate to America, where he introduced his process and helped to develop the great anthracite beds of Pennsylvania. By the end of the century the town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, included in its population four and a half thousand natives of Wales, while the neighbouring town of Wilkesbarre had over two thousand, and another two and a half thousand were associated with the iron works of Pittsburg. For a time the copper works of Baltimore were manned almost exclusively by workmen from Swansea and Llanelly, many of whom left later to work in the copper and silver mines of Colorado and California. Slate workers from North Wales settled in Bangor, Pennsylvania, and in Utica, New York, still one of the most important centres of Welsh-American life. And towards the end of the century there came the migration of the tin-plate workers. This industry was, to begin with, essentially Welsh. In 1875, while scarcely any tin-plate was made outside Great Britain, fifty-seven out of the seventy-seven tin-plate works in this country were situated in South Wales, and 73% of their products were exported to the United States. So, when the prohibitive McKinley Tariff (which included a 90% ad valorem duty on tin-plate), was imposed in 1890, the South Wales industry was virtually ruined, and by 1895 over half the works were closed. But, in consequence, skilled men were needed to set up tin-plate works in the United States, and once more there was almost a mass migration.

Nevertheless, although the migration of the tin-plate workers came later, the American census of 1890 marks the highest point in the number of natives of Wales in the United States, a sure proof that rural migration was more important than that from the industrial areas. The figure then stood at 100,079, excluding Monmouthshire. Each successive census has shown a decline, until that of 1930 gives only 60,205, but it is estimated that if, in addition to natives of Wales, those are counted who have one parent born in Wales, the Welsh-Americans of the present day number about a quarter of a million.#

[#Footnote;

For a statistical study see the writer's ' Some figures relating to emigration from Wales', Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, VII (1935) ]

Such were emigrants from Wales, a body of men and women loyal not only to the land of their birth, but also to the land of their adoption. This is proved by the fact noted in the United States censuses of 1920 and 1930 that seventy-three per cent of Welsh immigrants had become citizens of the United States. This shows their determination to settle down in their new country and play their part in its communal life, and not merely to make their fortunes there and then return to spend their money at home. The average for immigrants from all countries is only forty seven per cent, and it is highly significant that in both censuses the figure for Wales heads the list. The loss of some of the best elements in its population is one that Wales could ill afford, and who can estimate the suffering through hiraeth of these Celts in exile? But regret would be useless both on their account and on ours, and we may take comfort in the fact that our loss has been America's gain, and that we have contributed our share in building up the rich and colourful life of the American people of the present day.

David Williams


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