Chapter 31


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Welsh in the New World

Others who have made more modern but equally valuable contributions in the field of American and world entertainment and the arts include Bob Hope, Myrna Loy, Billy de Wolfe, Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Ray Milland, Tom Jones, Jess Thomas, Frederick March, Shirley Bassey, Glynis Johns, Jonathan Pryce, Sir Geraint Evans, Bryn Terfel, Margaret Price, Denis O'Neil, Gwyneth Jones, Charlotte Church and many, many other distinguished actor, singers and musicians, some of whom were born in Wales.

As far as the idea of a New Wales being founded in the territory now known as Pennsylvania 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 still predominate in "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 Pennsylvania line, in Northern Delaware, Welsh farmers and ironworkers came late in the 17th century to an area known as Welsh Tract. 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 part of the "three lower counties" in what is now Delaware in the area to be known as "Pencader Hundred" and with those who followed them, established two notable American congregations.

Below Iron Hill in Newark, Delaware at Welsh Tract Church, founded by a congregation dissatisfied with services at Pennepak Baptist (Philadelphia) in 1703, and rebuilt in 1740, there are still Welsh inscriptions on some gravestones. One grave contains the remains of a former Welsh soldier in Oliver Cromwell's army who emigrated to the colony at the age of 82. (Local legend has Jefferson Davies' mother also interred there, but she is buried elsewhere.) 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 a nation able to function independently from Britain.

The other Church, named 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 by British and Hessian troops; and Welsh Tract as a defensive position by American soldiers. Nearby Cooch's Bridge is reputed to be the place where the US Flag first appeared in battle, and a canon ball found its way through one of the walls of Welsh Tract Church. Pencader also nurtured Samuel Davies, missionary to Virginia and a founder and second president of Princeton University, in New Jersey.

In Maryland, Welsh people were also prominent in the early days, such as Philip Evan Thomas, one of the founders of the Baltimore Library Company, first president of the Maryland Bible Society, and president of the Mechanics' Bank. He was instrumental in connecting Baltimore to the West by "the new invention" of the railroad and in 1827, he was elected the first president of the B and O Railroad. He financed the building of the first monument to George Washington (in Baltimore).

After the American Revolution, in which an a lieutenant in the British Army serving in Ohio claimed to have spoken in Welsh to an Indian chief, fresh interest in the Madoc legend was rekindled in Britain with the publication of an account in 1790 by John Williams (who was encouraged by the indefatigable Iolo Morgannwg). In 1792, John Thomas Evans of Waunfawr, Caernarfon, decided to search for the Welsh Indians.

Evans' journey was unsuccessful, though his explorations of the Missouri Valley did lead to that territory being charted for the first time. His maps greatly help the later expeditions of Lewis and Clark. Welsh disappointment in his not finding any Welsh Indians were mollified by the justification that, after being imprisoned by the Spanish governor of the territory, Evans was working for the government of Spain. Thus, as part of the terms of his release, he could not have encouraged the hopes of Britain in the lands that he was exploring along the Missouri.

Despite a letter of John Williams to the Cymmrodorion Society in 1797 that denied the existence of the Welsh Mandans, and an 1858 essay of Thomas Stephens that gave little credence to the story, it remained far too good a legend, and far too engrained in their consciousness for Welshmen to dismiss as mere fantasy. Hadn't the artist George Catlin claimed to have found the Welsh-speaking Mandans in the late 1840's, 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 "Ma .fever" developed, mainly led by the Baptist minister Morgan John Rhys, founder of Cambria County, Pennsylvania, that became a powerful incentive for emigration to the New World. 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.

It was not only John Evans who helped map the North American continent, for another Welshman, David Thompson can rightly be called "the man who measured Canada." Almost on his own, this prodigious explorer, known to his companions as "that Welshman" surveyed most of the Canadian-US border during the early days of the country. Covering 80,000 miles by foot, dogsled, horseback and canoe, Thompson defined one-fifth of the North American continent 200 years ago.

Thompson's work, resulting in 77 volumes detailing his studies in geography, biology and ethnography entitles him to the title of the world's greatest land geographer He died in 1857, ten years before Canada received its independence. David Thompson deserves to be remembered as one of North America's founding fathers.

Chapter 31 Continued
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