Wales is a small country tucked into the western enclave of the UK, while the United States of America is the fourth largest and 3rd most populous country in the world today. However, without the influence of Wales, the USA of today may not even exist.
The connections between the two countries run deep, criss-crossing for the last 900 years. Many significant people in American politics including presidents have been Welsh or of Welsh descent, from the 18th century even up until the 21st, as well as baseball players (Jimmy Austin), wild west outlaws (Jesse James), architects (Frank Lloyd-Wright), whiskey makers (Jack Daniel) and even university-founders (Elihu Yale). There are more towns and villages with Welsh place names in the US than in any other country outside the UK. The country was even founded by a Welshman in the first place, arguably…
So, in chronological order, let's take a look at five of the biggest connections historically between Wales and the U.S.A.
A Welshman discovered America
Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, or just Madoc for short, founded American long before Christopher Columbus. In 1170, Madoc, the son of Owain Gwynedd, the Prince of Gwynedd, set sail to flee internal violence. The power struggle in north Wales with King Henry II, amongst others, that followed the death of his father led to his initial departure. It is believed by some that he and a small fleet eventually landed in Alabama, or Florida, or Rhode Island, or Newfoundland or even in Yucatan, Mexico. Either the long list of potential locations is strong evidence or makes it less likely depending on your leaning.
Following a successful first expedition in 1170, many remained in the New World while Madoc returned to Wales in order to recruit some new settlers. The second expedition to America never returned to Wales and the group of settlers are thought to have finally rested along the Mississippi River, mixing with Native American tribes and even infiltrating the local languages with their native Welsh.
No physical evidence survives of Madoc or his early settlers today unfortunately, however there are numerous accounts and sources of information that have developed the legend, or truth, in the intervening 900 years. For example, the story was first, knowingly, written about in 1559’s Cronica Walliae by Humphrey Llwyd. Later, in Elizabethan times, the story was used as a way to strengthen and prove Britain’s claims to the New World over the likes of Spain.
Welsh Indians were also later reported. Native Americans with blond hair and blue eyes speaking Welsh were supposedly encountered in the 17th century. Folk tradition has long claimed that a site called "Devil's Backbone", about fourteen miles north of Louisville, Kentucky, was once home to a colony of supposed Welsh-speaking Indians.
A lot of countries have their own stories about discovering America first, such as Ireland’s St. Brendan the Navigator, who did so while encountering dragons and sea monsters along the way. However, the allegations that Madoc was the first European to reach America may actually be more than just a fairytale.
Welsh Place Names
There are place names with Welsh origins in many countries around the world. The obvious examples of Cardiff and Swansea can be found in the likes of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and across the United States. However, there’s a Carnarvon St in George Town in Malaysia, an Ebbw Vale in Queensland, Australia, a Pontypool in Ontario, Canada, there’s even Llandovery in Jamaica and perhaps least surprisingly there’s a Bryn Gwyn in Chubut, Argentina. However, The US is littered with Welsh place names more than anywhere else. From Cardiff-by-the-Sea in southern California to the two Pembroke’s of New England, the US has more towns of Welsh origins than any other country outside the UK.
There are also plenty of towns and villages named Howell and Powell, after the first officially known Welsh settler, Howell Powell, who left Brecon for Virginia in 1642.
However, the most noteworthy of all the 50 states, from a Welsh perspective, is Pennsylvania, which contains the most Welsh-inspired town and place names, including,
Upper Gwynedd and Lower Gwynedd Townships.
There was even an unsuccessful attempt to establish a Gwladfa, a Welsh speaking colony, a Welsh Tract of Pennsylvania, which would be self governed and have Welsh as its native language. Something similar to what would of course be later achieved in Argentina.
But why Pennsylvania?
Once Charles II became king in 1660, a wave of religious intolerance threatened the rights of several groups, so large numbers of people began to leave Wales. For example, the Court of Great Sessions in Bala threatened to burn Quakers in north Wales, which prompted them to acquire land around what is now Pennsylvania in 1682. So did Baptists from mid and west Wales, who made the journey to the Philadelphia area in 1863, as did another wave from Montgomeryshire, in 1795.
South Wales eventually got in on this action too, and provided the majority of Welsh emigrants to America in the 19th century. The growth of heavy industry in the valleys meant that there were plenty of skilled metalworkers and miners who could find work easily in America’s rapidly expanding industrial areas, some of which just happened to be in...Pennsylvania.
The Declaration of independence
As we have already discovered, there was major emigration to the New World across the 17th, and 18th centuries from Wales. Therefore, by the time of the American War of Independence, the Welsh population had grown to about half a million people. Many worked as state administrators and got involved in politics, and were ultimately crucial to the creation of the United States and the creation of the Declaration of Independence.
In total, of the 56 signatories of that document on July 4th, 1776, 16 were of Welsh origin, more than any other country. Some of those involved include Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US, William Floyd, Stephen Hopkins, Arthur Middleton, Robert Morris, Button Gwinnett and Francis Lewis, the New York representative, who was, in fact, born in Llandaff.
Furthermore, arguably eleven Presidents of the United States have had Welsh family connections, including the aforementioned Jefferson, the second US President John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, William Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon and even Barack Obama, whose great, great, great, great, great, great-grandparents Henry and Margaret Perry emigrated to Ohio from Anglesey at the beginning of the 19th century. The state of Ohio neighbours Pennsylvania, and is another area well known for mining and heavy industry historically.
Regarding Abraham Lincoln, it’s said that Lincoln’s great-great-grandfather, John Morris, was a farmer in Ysbyty Ifan in North Wales, whose daughter emigrated to the United States with a group of Quakers in the 1600s. Lincoln made the most of his Welsh connections, by having up to 100,000 Welsh language election pamphlets printed to distribute to potential voters.
That list, of course, does not even include Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose great-grandfather John Jones was a miner from Llangynidr, and great-grandmother was believed to come from Abergavenny.
Finally, continuing on the theme of Washington D.C’s connections to Wales, the Washington Monument has an inscription which places the Welsh influence in the formation of the United States of America into stone. One of the tiles reads, “Fy iaith, fy ngwlad, fy nghenedl Cymru - Cymru am byth! ("My language, my land, my nation of Wales - Wales for ever!").
New York City is Welsh
The story goes that one Robert Edwards, a navy officer, or a sailor, or even just a pirate, was granted land in what is today downtown Manhattan by Queen Anne in the 1770s. This was his reward for patrolling the seas and keeping the Spanish, or even the French, at bay. Seeing as he had no use for the land at the time, he leased it in 1778 to the brothers John and George Cruger for 99 years.
According to a copy of the deeds held in Glamorgan Archives the lease, for “77 acres, three rods and two perches”, and “at the expiration of the 99-year-lease, said land together with all such improvements shall revert to my living heirs, which will be descendants of my brothers and sisters”. The annual rent was believed to be £1,000 and a peppercorn, not too bad for what has been one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in the world ever since.
However, Lower Manhattan has ended up in the hands of New York’s Trinity Church, which is still one of the city’s biggest landowners, as well as one of the most famous churches in the world. It has been said the Cruger brothers were wardens of Trinity Church also. The Cruger’s in turn allowed the Catholic church to use the land as it saw fit. The church has controlled the land since, building on it themselves and renting to other parties too, hence the Manhattan we know today. The estate now includes Wall Street, Broadway, and Macy’s to name just a few, and is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
Robert Edwards died childless, but his descendants still claim the property today. Thousands of families across the globe believe they are entitled to 77 acres of the world’s most expensive land. Across the 20th century and even up to today, countless people connected to the Edwards family have tried to plead their case and to find the truth but the only document that could prove the matter would be the original copy of the 99-year lease signed over to the Cruger brothers, but even if it existed that would now be statute barred anyway.
The descendents believe their case to be legitimate and hope to continue pushing for answers for generations to come. However, there is a belief that the vested interests of the landowners and renters in New York City, and the Catholic Church, as well as the monumental increase in the property’s value over the last 250 years, all mean that Robert Edwards’ right will probably never be recognised.
Welsh Women and the USA
Between the two World Wars, Welsh women adopted the role of peace pilgrims across the country of Wales, as they sought to deflect the possibility of another war and, therefore, protect future generations from further destruction. The deaths of 40,000 Welshman in the Great War has had a seismic impact on the country and the role of women within it transformed due to the loss of their husbands, fathers and brothers.
A key contribution to this peace movement was the signing of the American peace petition, an unprecedented campaign for world peace. This petition was conceived as an attempt by the women of Wales to appeal to the women of the United States and by extension their government and president. The goal was to convince them to join the League of Nations, the forerunner to today’s United Nations (UN).
The petition was first discussed in Llandrindod Wells in August 1922 and the idea snowballed from there. A national conference of the Welsh League of Nations Union in Aberystwyth in 1923, proposed that the women of Wales had more to offer in their roles as peace pilgrims in Wales and were given the opportunity to take charge of collecting names, forming a committee and taking a petition to America in order to present it to the American president at the time, Calvin Coolidge, a man of Welsh descent, as previously mentioned. The movement had already gained mass support across Wales and within three years of its formation, the Welsh League of Nations Union had a membership of 31,299, with 571 branches in Wales.
Between 1923 and ‘24, 390,296 women across Wales mobilised and signed a beautifully crafted, Moroccan leather, petition to the women of America, asking them to use their influence to persuade the country to become a full member of the League of Nations, safeguarding peace for future generations, and calling for ‘Law not War’ through appealing to the women of America; ‘from home to home’. The petition was seven miles long and was signed by 30% of the female population of Wales at the time.
On the 19th February 1924, a delegation which included Mrs Hughes Griffiths, Miss Elined Prys and Miss Mary Ellis left for America. The women arrived in New York and were greeted by the welcoming committee of the United Association of American Women. In total the welcoming committee were four hundred to five hundred women from America, and the group would go on to present the petition successfully to the President himself.
Regarding their goal, World War 2 would eventually break out in 1939, of course, and the US did not join the League of Nations during the interwar period either due to political differences at home. They joined the United Nations eventually in 1945 after the second World War. Despite that, the efforts of the women of Wales can not be understated. It was the first instance of any kind anywhere in the world of women of one country presenting a memorial or a petition to the women of another country..
The petition, and the oak chest in which it is held, still sits today in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. The Women’s Peace Petition campaign of 1923 was a truly remarkable Wales-wide effort involving almost every household, through peace activists going door-to-door in the interests of peace and solidarity with the United States of America.
The list could continue, but that was five of the biggest connections and even contributions of the small nation of Wales to American history and life, covering emigration, politics, human rights and Welsh culture. We didn’t even get into the creation of Yale and Brown Universities or the development of distilleries like Jack Daniels or Evan Williams. Not to mention in more modern times the influence and success of Welsh people in Hollywood, from Richard Burton to Michael Sheen, from Ivor Novello to Catherine Zeta Jones. Perhaps they will be topics for another day, but in the meantime, the contribution of Wales to the development of the USA can clearly not be understated, and it may not exist today without the influence of Wales and people of Welsh descent.
If you have enjoyed this blog, make sure to check out our other articles about Wales, Welsh history, culture, traditions and its people on our regularly updated Blog page.
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