Chapter 31

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Welsh in the New World

As we saw earlier, in our discussion of the Tudor period, Welsh interest in the New World had been kindled by the writings of John Dee in the reign of Elizabeth I. London Welshman and scholar of note, Dee (1527-1600) was a key figure in the great expansion of Britain overseas that began in the Tudor period. He claimed descent from Rhodri Mawr, the great Medieval Welsh ruler. More important, however, was his interest in the Arthurian legends and the traditions involving Prince Madoc's supposed discovery of the New World long before Columbus.

Madoc (or Madog) ab Owain Gwynedd was a 12th century prince who was supposed to have sailed westwards with a group of followers seeking lands to settle away from the constant warfare of his native Wales. According to the legend, a landing was made at what is now called Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1169. Liking what he found, Madoc then returned to Wales for additional settlers, but after sailing westward with his new crew, was never heard from again.

Imaginative minds, including John Dee's, have pictured Madoc as befriending the Mandan chieftains, his men intermarrying with their womenfolk, and a whole new race of fair-skinned blue-eyed Indians being created. In Robert Southey's long poem "Madoc" (1805), the poet develops the theme, garnered from sketchy Spanish evidence through Cortez from Montezuma, that Madoc may have been the white leader from the east who brought an American tribe south into Mexico.

Some sources describe the Welsh explorers as moving northwards through Alabama, battling the Iroquois in Ohio, then moving westwards where they were discovered at the time of the Revolutionary War as the Mandan Indians of North Dakota. The Mandans were decimated by smallpox in 1838, but many scholars have supposedly found many of their customs (including use of a bullboat similar to a coracle) and many words in their language similar to those of Wales.

In Elizabeth I's time, English attempts to find the North-west passage to India were eagerly seized by court officials as at least part justification for their war against the empire of Spain and proof of their legitimacy of their involvement in the Americas. Dee claimed that King Arthur had ruled over large territories in the Atlantic, and that Madoc's voyage had confirmed the Welsh title to this empire. The argument went that Queen Elizabeth, as successor to the Welsh princes, including Madoc, was the rightful sovereign of the Atlantic Empire!!

In the late 17th century, it was thus natural to look to America as the promise land for many Welsh emigrants who braved the horrors of the Atlantic passage to flee religious persecution (or increasing anglicization). Following the Act of Uniformity in 1662, Welsh Baptists under John Myles founded a church at Swansea, Massachusetts, the first church in the American Colonies to be founded by a Welshman.

Other religious groups were troubled by the measures to ensure conformity enforced by the English Parliament after the return of the Stuart Monarchy. The Quakers, the Society of Friends, in particular sought lands where they could practice their own form of religion and where they could live under their own laws in a Welsh Barony, and their success was quickly followed by additional Baptist congregations as well as many other religious groups.

The Quaker project, envisioned a kind of "Holy Experiment," involved an oral understanding with William Penn and the Society of Friends that 40,000 acres of land in southeastern part of what later became Pennsylvania (some sources give 30,000) were to be set aside as this Barony. Unfortunately, this agreement was never put into writing and later became a source of bitter controversy between Penn and the Welsh Quakers.

William Penn himself was not Welsh (though his ancestors may have been from Wales before settling in Ireland). Even before his arrival to take up lands granted to him by the Duke of York in payment of a debt to his father, Admiral Penn, Welsh settlements had begun to spread out, on the west side of the Schuylkill River around the nucleus of the new city of Philadelphia. In this so-called Welsh Tract , however, in 1690, to the dismay of the Welsh settlers, the Colonial government abolished the civil authority of the Welsh Quaker meetings in order to set up regular township government.

William Penn himself refused the legality of the Quaker appeal for self-government. Adding to the bitter disappointment of many of the Welsh, 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
In 1698 William John and Thomas ap Evan bought a tract of 7,820 acres, settling it in smaller parcels to other arrivals from Wales and calling it Gwynedd (the white or peaceable kingdom) after the ancient North Wales kingdom. Many followers soon arrived, the Baptists being numerous enough to establish Pennepak Church in 1688, the mother church of their faith in the middle colonies followed by the Great Valley Church (at Tredyffryn) in 1711.

Chapter 31 Continued
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