All entries for Thursday 14 January 2010

January 14, 2010

Wales and the United States

I didn’t really have a sense of the connection between the United States and Wales, until 2008 when I was visiting Philadelphia and I took a photograph of a plaque put there by the Welsh Society of Philadelphia (erected March 1st (St David’s Day) 1968). The plaque is inscribed with the following words:


Plaque in Phily

A number of famous Americans are commemorated on the plaque including:
*William Penn 1644-1718 – described as ‘proclaimer of the free religion and founder of New Wales, later named Pennsylvania’;
*Robert Morris 1734-1806 – ‘foremost financier of the American Revolution and signer of the Declaration of Independence’;
*and Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826, – ‘Third President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence’.

What I didn’t realise then was that the Welsh heritage of colonialists who came to the US was in fact deeply valued and emphasised. As E.T. Ashton writes, Welsh immigrants ‘were able to maintain their Welshness because of certain identified characteristics such as a sense of nationality, a distinctive culture and identifiable standards of respectable behaviour’ (1984: xv). Ashton goes on to define the factors that stimulated Welsh immigration in the US as being ‘religious (such as the Quakers who fled from religious persecution in the late seventeenth century), economic, political, cultural and even what might be termed nationalistic, those attempts to establish a new Wales on American soil (such as the setting up of the Brynffynnon colony in Tennesse by Samuel Roberts in the 1850s’ (xvi). William D. Jones puts it simply: ‘they moved in search of a better life’ (1997: xviii).

Welsh immigrants largely came to the US between 1820 and 1950, and there were only about 90,000, which is paltry compared to the Irish immigration figures, but it is the closest Wales came to mass immigration (Ashton 1984; xvii). Jones points out that most of the immigrants ‘headed for industrial areas’, mainly because the types of workers moving into the US from Wales were not farmers or rural labourers by the end of the nineteenth century (1997: xx). Instead they were ‘Welsh miners, iron and steel workers and tinplate workers, together with slate quarrymen from North Wales’ (xviii). Jones even claims that ‘Welsh expertise in puddling iron, cutting coal or rolling tin-plate was highly prized and in great demand in industrializing America, and it commanded higher wages’ (xix). Along with this though came the risks of such industrial work. So ‘By the end of the nineteenth century Welsh gold miners could be found in California, lead miners in the Rockies, copper miners in Montana and coalminers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, California. Utah, Illinois, West Virginia and Tennessee’ (xx).

References (Books accessed at Swansea University Library)
Ashton, E.T. (1984) The Welsh in the United States, Hove: Caldra House.
Jones, William D. (1997) Wales in America : Scranton and the Welsh, 1860-1920, Cardiff: University of Wales Press; Scranton, Pa: University of Scranton Press.


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