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The Welsh in North America

Last updated: 15 August 2008

Legend has it that the first Welsh emigrants to the New World were Madog ab Owain Gwynedd (Prince Madog) and a band of settlers disillusioned with their lives in the 12th century. Howell Powell, who left Brecon for Virginia in 1642, was the first official Welsh settler in America. Until the late 17th century, most emigration from Wales had been on an individual basis.

However, when Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, he instigated a wave of religious intolerance which threatened the rights of several groups to worship in the way that they chose. Significant numbers of people - in some cases, whole communities - began to leave Wales.

The Court of Great Sessions in Bala, North Wales, threatened to burn Quakers, prompting the Welsh Quakers to acquire land (approximately 40,000 acres) in and around what is now Pennsylvania. They emigrated there in 1682.

In 1683, Baptists from mid and west Wales made the journey to Philadelphia, where they settled and acquired 30,000 acres of land on the banks of the Delaware River. Llanbrynmair, in Montgomery, provided another wave of emigrants in 1795.

The first real Welsh colony - Cambria in western Pennsylvania - in which the Welsh language, culture and religion was maintained in a community with a distinct Welsh identity, was established there by Morgan John Rhys, a Baptist minister from Glamorgan at around the same time. In the 1850s, more settlers left Llanbrynmair led by the Reverend Samuel Roberts, who acquired land for a Welsh colony in Tennessee.

But south Wales provided most of the emigrants to America in the 19th century. The growth of the iron industry in the Valleys from the mid 18th century and the later development of the south Wales coalfield meant that south Wales had a reserve of skilled metalworkers, foundrymen and miners who could find work easily in the rapidly expanding industrial areas of America such Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Even though migration from Wales to America during the 17th to the 19th century sometimes involved the movement of whole communities, when compared to migration from other countries the numbers do not seem so significant.

Wales had a population of no more than 500,000 before the 18th century and a little over 1.5m by 1881. In proportion to population, Irish emigrants to America in the 19th century outnumbered the Welsh by 26 to one.

The influence that many of the Welsh immigrants had on the emergence of modern America belies their relatively small numbers. 16 of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh descent.

Presidents including Thomas Jefferson (whose family came from a village beneath Snowdon), James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, and more recently Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon had their family roots in Wales.

Elihu Yale, the son of Welsh immigrant parents who settled in Boston, founded Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. When he died his body was brought home to rest in the churchyard of Wrexham Parish Church near the family home of Plas-yn-Iâl, Denbigh.

Morgan Edwards, a joint founder of Brown University, Rhode Island, came from Pontypool in Gwent. He spent a year and a half in Britain and Ireland between 1766 and 1768 fundraising for the university. The first graduation ceremony was held there in 1769. By way of contrast, Lampeter University, the first higher education institution in Wales, was not founded until 1822.

Other American-Welsh connections include:

John Belle - BBC Local South East Wales
David Thomas - BBC Local South West Wales
Joseph Parry - Mid Wales
Elihu Yale - BBC Local North East Wales
Thomas Jefferson - BBC Local North West Wales

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