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
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.
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