Chapter 31

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Welsh in the New World

In 19th century Wales there took place a steady migration from the rural districts to the rapidly growing industrial towns of Glamorganshire, Monmouthshire, and parts of Carmarthenshire; and to England (with Liverpool, Bristol and London benefiting the most). Some came to the New World, especially to upper New York State, to Pennsylvania, and to Ohio. In Pennsylvania, in particular, the emigrants joined their fellow "compatriots in exile" who had helped build the new nation.

Welsh emigration to the United States intensified in the 1870's, following the increasing industrialization and the subsequent great unrest and miserable conditions of the coal fields. Additional emigration took place after the United States Government passed the McKinley Tariff Act of 189l that had a drastic effect on the Welsh tinplate industry, leading to closures of many factories and to massive unemployment.

The Welsh chapels of such towns as Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, Hazelton, Minersville, Edwardsville, Slatington, Delta, and others in eastern Pennsylvania as well as those in Poultney in Vermont and Allegany County, Maryland attest to the influence of the newcomers in those predominantly coal and slate-mining areas. At one time, there were approximately 30,000 people of Welsh descent in the Scranton area; many of their Welsh chapels survive.

Many of these chapels continue to hold Welsh hymn-singing festivals (Cymanfaoedd Ganu) yearly, and there are Welsh societies in the majority of the states of the Union. At Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, there is an annual Eisteddfod begun in 1889 that continues to attract wide interest. There is also a National Cymanfa Ganu held in a different city each Labor-Day weekend that attracts thousands of Welsh-Americans and Canadians for a four-day celebration of Welsh culture, centered around a full day of hymn-singing, but including many more activities.

A large Welsh settlement was established in the slate quarrying region of Vermont, around Poultney, attracting many from the North Wales slate belt centered in Bethesda, Gwynedd. Mention must be made too, of the large Welsh settlements in seven counties in Central New York State, where a few hundred people, mainly in Utica and Remsen continue to try to keep their traditions alive, though year after year the congregations have become fewer and fewer with little or no replacements either from the surrounding communities or from Wales itself. In Gallia County, Ohio, many Welsh families were forced to stay when their raft containing all their possessions drifted away in the night. At Oak Hill, a small museum is dedicated to the many Welsh who settled and worshipped in the area during the late 19th century.

While most US states claim at least some Welsh settlements, some of the more successful ones were out west, far from the anthracite and slate regions of the east coast. Many Welsh went to Le Sueur and Blue Earth Counties in Minnesota, where an annual Cymanfa Ganu takes place in St. Peter. Even further west, in Oregon, the Bryn Seion Church at Beavercreek holds a Cymanfa each June that attracts many worshippers from other states. In Los Angeles, California, the Welsh Presbyterian Church still struggles to survive, but during the 1990's had something of a revival and has sponsored many Welsh events, including two Cymanfaoedd Ganu yearly and a St. David's Day Concert. A most successful and most professional Welsh choir has also been recently created in southern California.

In Utah, many settlers from Wales were attracted during the middle years of the 19th century to the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Missionary activity in Wales led to the formation of many branches of the movement and to the emigration of 249 members on the Buena Vista from Liverpool in May, 1849 led by Captain Dan Jones, a Welshman who had been active taking American converts to Salt Lake City for the past few years. Another large group followed in 1856 on the Samuel Curling.

Over three hundred newly arrived Welsh converts left Iowa City in June, 1849 pushing hand-carts with their belongings to begin the long trek to Salt Lake City. They sang as they journeyed, thus fulfilling a prophecy of Joseph Smith: "The righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy." Less than two weeks after their arrival, they began to form permanent choirs in a temporary meeting house, a log structure known as "The Bowery." The very first program of the choir that was to become the famous Mormon Tabernacle choir took place on Sunday, August 22, 1847. Under some skilled and demanding Welsh conductors, it was to reach the highest possible standards in the world of choral music.

In the past few years, just as in Wales, there have been many attempts to revive the ancient culture. An annual Welsh Heritage Week and a Welsh Language Week have been going strong for a number of years now, held in a different state or province each summer (and sometimes in Wales), and an annual conference attracts many distinguished scholars of Welsh and Welsh-American studies to such college campuses as Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania and Rio Grande, in Ohio.

Welsh-American societies include the prestigious NWAF (National Welsh-American Foundation), which gives scholarships to Welsh-Americans; publishes books on Wales and the Welsh in the US, distributes an informative newsletter, and supports many projects on both sides of the Atlantic; Cymdeithas Madog, which sponsors the language week and other activities; NWGGA (National Welsh Cymanfa Ganu Association), perhaps the largest North American Welsh Society, which sponsors the annual singing festival and also supports Welsh cultural activities through scholar shops and grants; WAGS (Welsh-American Genealogical Society); WAY (Welsh-American Youth); and the Welsh home for the Aged, in Rocky River, Ohio. In addition, there are two Welsh-American newspapers, Y Drych (published in St. Paul, Minnesota) and Ninnau (published in Basking Ridge, NJ).

But the Welsh, wherever they settled in the US (and the latest census showed California with the greatest number claiming Welsh descent, followed by Pennsylvania), were all too few to keep a completely separate identity: 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. We have therefore to consider the influence of those Welsh who did emigrate to the United States to be out of all proportion to their small numbers, a phenomenon repeated in Patagonia, Argentina and in the Australian sub-continent.

Chapter 32: Patagonia
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