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Fact About Wales and the Welsh

1. Welshmen may have settled America before Columbus. It is now well known that Viking explorers reached parts of the eastern seaboard of what is now Canada about the year 1100 and that Norwegian Leif Erikson's Vinland may have been an area that is now part of the United States. What is less known is that a Welshman may not have been too far behind Erikson, bringing settlers with him.

According to Welsh legend, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd was a 12th century prince from Gwynedd who sailed westward with a group of followers seeking lands far away from the constant warfare of his native Wales. According to the story, his eight ships made landfall at what is now called Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1169. Owain's little flagship was the "Gwennan Gorn." Liking what he found, Madog then returned to Wales for additional settlers, who consequently left with the explorer in a small fleet of ships. Sailing westward from Lundy Island in 1171, the courageous little band was never heard from again, at least in Europe.

Welsh tradition has it that the adventurers settled in the Mississippi Valley, befriending the natives, whom they showed how to build stone forts. Some of these mysterious forts and stone walls can still found in the area. Some sources describe the Welsh explorers as moving northward through Alabama and battling the Iroquois in Ohio, with a remnant moving westward where they were discovered at the time of the Revolutionary War as the light-skinned, bearded Mandan Indians of North Dakota. The Mandans were decimated by smallpox in 1838, but many scholars have supposedly found much of their language and customs, as similar to those of Wales. For example, they used a small round boat made of buffalo hides (the bull boat) stretched over a willow frame. This is almost identical to the Welsh coracle.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Welsh interest in the New World was stirred by the writings of scholar John Dee (1527-1608), a London Welshman. A key figure in the expansion of Britain overseas, Dee publicized the traditions involving Prince Madog's supposed discovery of the New World. Elizabeth's court officials then diligently promoted attempts to find the Northwest Passage to India as justification for their war against the empire of Spain and proof of the legitimacy of their involvement in the Americas. Dee claimed that King Arthur had ruled over large territories in the Atlantic and that Madog's voyage had confirmed the Welsh title to this empire. The popular theory went that, as successor to the Welsh princes, including Madog, Queen Elizabeth was the rightful sovereign of the Atlantic Empire!

After the American Revolution, in which a lieutenant from Flintshire, North Wales, serving with the British Army in Ohio claimed to have conversed in Welsh with an Indian chief, fresh interest in the Madog legend was rekindled in Britain. It was helped along with the 1790 publication of an account by historian John Williams and further embellished by the indefatigable myth-maker and inventor of "ancient traditions" Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Jones) as anxious as ever to further the romances of the Celts. Another noted Welsh scholar, Sir William, Jones gave a dramatic address to the London Welsh in 1792. He announced the discovery of America by Prince Madog and praised the so-called Welsh Indians, calling them "a free and distinct people, who had preserved their liberty, language and some traces of their religion to this very day."

Thus in 1792, Welsh explorer John Thomas Evans (from Waunfawr) was encouraged to search for these "Welsh Indians." After landing in Baltimore in 1792, he traveled on foot to St. Louis where the Spanish governor imprisoned him as a British spy. Evans was later released and worked for the Spanish Missouri Company in their efforts to open the way to the Pacific. Led first by the Scottish adventurer and trader James MacKay, Evans later branched out to wander on his journeys alone, traveling over 2,000 miles exploring the Missouri Valley. His maps of the hitherto unknown territories were a great help to the later expeditions of Lewis and Clark (Meriwether Lewis himself was of Welsh descent; his native guide Sacajawea had been raised in a Mandan village) which put so much of the American West on the map.

Evans did not find the missing tribe, which Welsh people called the Madogwys, after the prince. Though he lived with the Mandans for a whole winter, he was not able to find any Welsh influence among them. Yet, despite Evans's letter to the London Cymmrodorion Society in 1797 that denied the existence of the Welsh Mandans, the legend persisted in Britain, even finding its way into English literature. In Robert Southey's long poem Madoc (1805), the poet develops the theme that Madog may have been the white leader from the east who brought an American tribe south into Mexico.

Others dismissed the fanciful story. In 1858, a prize-winning essay was submitted to the Llangollen Eisteddfod by antiquary and literary critic Thomas Stephens who completely refuted the Madog myth. However, it remained far too good a legend, and far too engrained in their consciousness for Welshmen to dismiss it as mere fantasy (even the adjudicators at Llangollen withheld the award for fear of upsetting the "believers"). In any case, argued the judges, Evans had been working for the Spanish government in its own claims to the Mississippi region and thus could not have been too eager or in a position to enhance British claims to the area.

American artist George Catlin claimed to have found the Welsh-speaking Mandans, even depicting some of them before their decimation by smallpox. Thus, despite the failure of Evans and others to find a Welsh-speaking Indian tribe in the American hinterland, a "Madog fever" developed that became a powerful incentive for emigration to the New World. One of its leading advocates was the Baptist minister Morgan John Rhys (who founded Welsh settlements in Beulah and Cambria, Pennsylvania in 1798). As far as the legend itself affected the people of Wales, whatever the facts behind it, it became and has steadfastly remained one of the most enduring sources of national pride.

A latter-day Evans was Welshman Tony Williams, who recently visited the few remaining Mandans on their reservation in North Dakota. Part of the Sioux Nation, the Mandans are reputed to be taller and fairer of skin than their brothers and some even had blue eyes. Williams's reported that some Mandan creation myths speak of the Lone Man and the last Mandan Scattercorn priest whom, in 1917, provided details of 33 generations of descendants. The Lone Man apparently came from across the sea bringing with him "multi-colored cattle" and introducing building and planting skills. Williams's findings are published in "The Forgotten People" (Gomer Press, 1996). They are bound to rekindle the old Madoc controversy. Perhaps the legend may indeed contain elements of truth about the arrival of the Welsh in the New World long before the voyages of Columbus.

Note: Madog and Madoc are variant spellings of the same name.



2. Canada was explored and mapped by a Welshman.
Not only John Evans (and Meriwether Lewis) helped map the North American continent, but another Welshman, David Thompson could rightly be called "the man who measured Canada." Almost on his own, this prodigious explorer surveyed most of the Canadian-US border during the early days of the country. Covering 80,000 miles on foot, dog sled, horseback and canoe, 200 years ago, Thompson defined one-fifth of the North American continent. His 77 volumes detailing his studies in geography, biology and ethnography entitles him to the title of one of the world's greatest land geographers.

Though born in Wales, Thompson was educated at a charity school in London, immigrating to Canada to work for the Hudson Bay Company in 1784. At the time, the map of Canada was mostly blank. He was taught the art of surveying from a colleague and the skills of wilderness survival from native Canadians. In 1797 he joined the North Company at Montreal and began his explorations of the vast continent to the West.

In 1807, Thompson discovered the source of the Columbia River, becoming the first European to explore the river's entire course. He later helped the commission that set the border between Canada and the United States. He had already explored the territory of the Mandans and accurately fixed the location of the headwaters of the Mississippi, which had been a border point set by the 1794 Jay Treaty.

Thompson amazed his fellow explorers (including the more well known Scot, Mackenzie who has received most of the credit rightly due to Thompson) by remaining teetotal, by refusing to use alcohol as a trade item with the native people and for reading the Bible in French. In 1810, his discovery of the Athabasca Pass provided a navigable route to the West Coast. When Lewis and Clark were sent West to try to settle claims to the Oregon territory, they used one of Thompson's maps of the Mandan country for part of their journey. Not much of a socializer and preferring to hide from the spotlight, Thompson was known as an outsider, "that Welshman," staying aloof from the close clan of explorers and traders. At age 67 Thompson was busy finding an alternate canal route in southern Ontario to avoid the Great Lakes. He died in 1857 ten years before Canada received its independence. He deserves to be better remembered as one of North American's founding fathers.



3. America may have taken its name from a Welshman.
According to research conducted by an English College professor, America did not take its name from Amerigo Vespucci, but from a senior collector of Customs at Bristol, the main port from which English voyages of discovery sailed in the late 15th century. Dr. Basil Cottle, who is himself of Welsh birth, tells us that the official was Richard Amerik, one of the chief investors in the second transatlantic voyage of John Cabot, which led to the famous navigator receiving the King's Pension for his discoveries.

John Cabot landed in the New World in May 1497, becoming the first recorded European to set foot on American soil. As far as Amerik's Welsh connection is concerned, the word "Amerik" itself seems to be derived from ap Meuric, Welsh for the son of Maurice. (The later was anglicized further to Morris). There was a large Welsh population in Bristol in the late 15th century.

Because Cabot's voyages were made before the year 1500, they pre-date Amerigo Vespucci's interest in the New World. Professor Cottle reminds us that new countries or continents are never named after a person's first name, always after his or her second name. Thus, America would have become "Vespucci Land" if the Italian explorer really gave his name to the newly discovered continent (i.e. Tasmania, Van Dieman's Land, Cook Islands, etc.). It seems that countries or territories are named after first names only when the name is that of a royal personage such as Prince Edward Island, Victoria, etc.).

John Cabot, father of later more-famed explorer Sebastian Cabot, was the English name of the Italian navigator whose voyages in 1497 and 1498 laid the groundwork for the later British claim to Canada. He moved to London in 1484 and was authorized by King Henry VII to search for unknown lands to the West. On his little ship Matthew, Cabot reached Labrador and mapped the North American coastline from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. As the chief customs official in Bristol, Richard Amerik could well have had his name attached to these maps; so the newly discovered continent, in England at least, became known as "Amerik's Land." We have to remember that Vespucci's voyages did not lead to the exploration or mapping of North America, maps of which were mainly British.

Vespucci had met and been inspired by Columbus. His voyages in 1499-1500 and 1501-1502 took him along the coast of South America where he discovered the Rio Plata. He discovered that the coast was that of a continent and not part of Asia (as John Cabot had thought). It was suggested in 1507 (the year Vespucci's discoveries were published) that the new lands be called America, but the name was only applied to South America, and it could very well have been taken from that already given the more northerly regions explored and mapped by Cabot. The voyage of the "Matthew" was recreated in 1997 when it sailed from Bristol to New England.



4. Pennsylvania is not named after William Penn.
Most Americans are taught that Pennsylvania, one of the earliest American states to be settled by Europeans, was named after the Quaker William Penn or his father, Admiral Penn. It is not so. Had William Penn, the Quaker leader, not ignored the advice of his secretary, the new colony would have been called New Wales.

In the late 17th century, many Welsh emigrants braved the horrors of Atlantic passage to flee religious persecution. The Welsh Quakers, in particular, sought lands where they could practice their own form of religion and live under their own laws in a kind of Welsh Barony. One of their leaders, surgeon and lawmaker Dr. Griffith Owen, who came to the colonies in 1684, induced William Penn to set apart some of his land grant for the settlement. The project envisioned as a kind of "Holy Experiment," involved an oral understanding with William Penn and the Society of Friends (a pact made in England before the Welsh sailed to the New World). The oral understanding set aside 40,000 acres of land (some sources give 30,000) in what is now southeastern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, this agreement was never put into writing and later became a source of bitter controversy between Penn and the Welsh Quakers.

Even before Penn's arrival to take up lands granted to him by the Duke of York in payment of a debt to his father, Welsh settlements had begun to spread out on the west side of the Schuylkill River around the nucleus of the new city of Philadelphia. However, in 1690, in this so-called "Welsh Tract," the Colonial government abolished the civil authority of the Welsh Quaker meetings in order to set up a regular township government. William Penn himself refused the legality of the Welsh Quakers' appeal for self-government.

To the bitter disappointment of many of the early Welsh settlers, even the name of the colony was changed. In a letter written one day after the granting of the Charter, Penn wrote to his friend Robert Turner, giving particulars of the naming of the new province:

This day, my country was confirmed to me under the great seal of England, with privileges, by the name of Pennsylvania, a name the King would give it in honor of my father. I chose New Wales, being as this, a pretty, hilly country, but Penn being Welsh for head as in Penmanmoire (sic), in Wales, and Penrith, in Cumberland, and Penn, in Buckinghamshire . . . called this Pennsylvania, which is the high or head woodlands; for I proposed, when the secretary, a Welshman, refused to have it called New Wales, Sylvania and they added Penn to it, and though I opposed it and went to the King to have it struck out and altered he said it was past . . nor could twenty guineas move the under-secretary to vary the name
Thus Pennsylvania was named after a Welsh word for head and not, as the usual history books have it, after William Penn himself or after his father, Admiral Penn. (The cunning Penn must have known that the Welsh word for "head" is "pen" with a single "n" thus we have to admire his duplicity.)

At first, the Welsh language was a major tongue in the streets of Philadelphia, many of whose streets were laid out by Thomas Wynne of Caerwys, North Wales, personal physician to William Penn (his house Wynnewood remains standing, the first stone-built house in the state). Large tracts of land to the north and west of the city were given Welsh names. For instance Uwchlyn, Bala Cynwyd, Bryn Mawr, Llanerch, Merion, St. David's, North Wales, Gwynedd, Tredyffryn, and so on, all of which remain today, and many of which remain unpronouncable to native Pennsylvanians.

In 1698, William John and Thomas ap Evan bought a tract of 7,820 acres in the area, settling it in smaller parcels to other arrivals from Wales and calling it Gwynedd (the white or peaceable kingdom). Many followers soon arrived, the Baptists being numerous established Pennepak Church in 1688, the mother church of their faith in the middle colonies. In 1711, they founded Great Valley Church, Tredyffryn, "town in the valley". At the same time, Welsh Anglicans were becoming prominent in Philadelphia.

The still very-active Welsh Society of Philadelphia was begun in 1729, and is the oldest ethnic society of its kind in the United States. Since its founding, it has provided us with many men of distinction who made their influence felt in politics, agriculture, the administration of justice, as well as in industry, particularly mining and the manufacture of iron and steel.

William Penn himself was not Welsh (though his ancestors may have been from Wales before settling in Ireland). On a plaque mounted on the east facade of the imposing Philadelphia City Hall, the following inscription is found:

Perpetuating the Welsh heritage, and commemorating the vision and virtue of the following Welsh patriots in the founding of the City, Commonwealth, and Nation: William Penn, 1644-1718, proclaimed freedom of religion and planned New Wales later named Pennsylvania. Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826, third President of the United States, composed the Declaration of Independence. Robert Morris, 1734-1806, foremost financier of the American Revolution and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Governor Morris, 1752-1816, wrote the final draft of the Constitution of the United States. John Marshall, 1755-1835, Chief Justice of the United States and father of American constitutional law.
According to the Welsh Society of Philadelphia, 16 signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh descent. The list includes: George Clymer, Stephen Hopkins, Robert Morris, William Floyd, Francis Hopkinson, John Morton, Britton Gwinnett, Thomas Jefferson, John Penn, George Read, John Hewes, Francis Lewis, James Smith, Williams Hooper, Lewis Morris, and William Williams. In addition to Jefferson (whose autobiography tells that his family immigrated from a place "at the foot of Snowdon" in North Wales), there were many more leading citizens of Welsh descent who played instrumental parts in the subsequent history of the nation. They include Presidents James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, and Richard Nixon as well as Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

We should also mention General Morgan Lewis, quarter-master general of the US Army and governor and chief justice of New York State; Oliver Evans, inventor and early industrialist; Thomas Cadwallader, co-founder of the Philadelphia Library; Joshua Humphries, builder of the US Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia; John Morgan, Physician-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army and founder of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School; Robert Wharton, Mayor of Philadelphia for 15 terms beginning in the late 1700's; Frank Lloyd Wright (one of his masterpieces was named after the medieval Welsh bard Taliesin); and a host of others including the founders of Harvard, Yale and Brown Universities.

Others of Welsh descent have made valuable contributions to the field of American and world entertainment and the arts. They include: Bob Hope, Myrna Loy, Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Ray Milland, Tom Jones, Jess Thomas, Frederick March, Shirley Bassey, Glynis Johns, Jonathan Pryce, Sir Geraint Evans, Bryn Terfel, Harry Secombe, Margaret Price, Denis O'Neil, Gwyneth Jones and many, many other distinguished actor, singers and musicians.

As far as the idea of a New Wales is concerned, though the Welsh settlers were numerous enough to be of great influence in the subsequent development of the colony, the refusal of William Penn to grant them self-government was ultimately of little consequence as their lands were soon swallowed up in the great wave of immigration from other European countries, particularly Germany. For example, though Welsh names predominate in what is now called "Main Line," there is no discernible Welsh presence today; and though the names Cymru, Caernarvon and others are still found in adjoining Berks County, it is German names that predominate.

Over the state line, in Delaware, Welsh farmers and iron workers came late in the 17th century to an area they named Pencader, meaning Head seat (thought by many of today's Delawareans to be a native American name!) In 1701, to counter the claims of Maryland to the area, Penn granted 30,000 acres to three Welsh immigrants, David Evans, William Davies and William Willis. They settled in an area to be known as Pencader Hundred and with those who followed them, established two notable American congregations.

At Welsh Tract Church, Newark, rebuilt in 1740, there are still Welsh inscriptions on some gravestones though time and weather are taking their merciless toll on the carved wording. One grave contains the remains of a former soldier in Oliver Cromwells' army who immigrated to the colony at the age of 82. Another of the Church's early members was Oliver Evans, the great inventor and industrialist whose mills along the Brandywine heralded the start of the rise of the United States as an industrial power. (He is also included in this List of Facts as one who invented the automobile). Local legend has it that the mother of Jefferson Davies is also buried in the churchyard, but the story is baseless.

The other Church, Pencader Welsh Presbyterian, became the chief center of Presbyterianism in North America for a number of years and home to an academy. Both churches saw duty in the War of Independence, Pencader as an army hospital used by British and Hessian troops and Welsh Tract as a defensive position by American soldiers. Nearby Cooch's Bridge, where Washington attempted to stop the British march on Philadelphia, is reputed to be the place where the US Flag first appeared in battle; an errant canonball found its way into one of the walls of Welsh Tract Church. Pencader Church also nurtured Samuel Davies, missionary to Virginia, a founder of Princeton University and its second president.

But the Welsh, wherever they settled in the US (unlike the Irish and Scots, for example), were all too few to keep a separate identity (apart from a few areas such as Scranton, PA and Utica, NY). There was no great wave of immigration to the colonies from a country whose total population in the late 18th century hardly reached half a million. In 1770, in fact, Carmarthen's 4,000 inhabitants made it the largest town in Wales. Therefore, we have to consider the influence of those Welsh who did emigrate to the United States to be out of proportion to their small numbers.

More Facts About Wales & the Welsh


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