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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

The Quiet Celts: Welsh Americans

Welsh Americans haven't gotten the same attention as their two other Celtic-American cousins; nonetheless, they have contributed greatly to U.S. history and cultural richness.
Welsh Americans haven't gotten the same attention as their two other Celtic American cousins; nonetheless, they have contributed greatly to U.S. history and cultural richness.

Americans love the Irish. Or, more accurately, they love the idea of a sentimental, stereotyped image of the Irish and Irish Americans. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, shamrocks, corned beef and cabbage (which—for the record—is not an Irish dish), Guinness and Jamison. It’s movie characters: the kind old Irish priest with his “faith and begorra” exclamations, and Officer O’Reilly, the good-natured policeman. The Lord of the Dance style step dancing and the rousing chorus of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” (written by three Americans, only one of whom had any Irish ancestry) complete this superficial but pervasive American idea of who the Irish are. But there is no doubt the Irish have made an impact on American culture.

The Scots are not quite as popular, but they do get some love. Americans love the sight and sound of a kilted pipe and drum band marching in a parade. To be sure, most Americans are not the biggest fans of bagpipes, but they seem to thrill to men in kilts. The television series Outlander has increased both awareness of and appreciation for Scots in the U.S., especially now that the episodes take place in Colonial North Carolina. And, of course, who doesn’t love them some shortbread?

But what about Welsh Americans? It’s not that they’re unloved. It’s that most Americans hardly notice they exist. If you were to stop a typical American on the street and ask, “What is the main Welsh American holiday?” or “Do you like bara brith?” or “Who’s your favorite Welsh American?” the person would likely be hard-pressed to answer. But the fact is Welsh Americans have a substantial presence in the U.S. (there are about 2 million of them), they’ve contributed to American history and society since colonial times, and they are quite serious about keeping their cultural heritage alive. They just haven’t made a lot of noise about it. But it’s time they got some attention, so this week’s post is dedicated to the Welsh in the U.S.

Did the Welsh Discover America?

Stand with Ukraine.
Stand with Ukraine.

In a U.S. elementary school in the 1960s, I was taught that Christopher Columbus discovered “America.” This, according to the teaching occurred at the end of the 15th century, 1492 to be exact. But, as with many things one learns in life, this was untrue. He landed on islands in the Caribbean (most often thought to be modern-day Cuba and, possibly Haiti) but Columbus never set foot in North America. Nor did Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the American continents are named. Another 15th century explorer, Vespucci is credited with “discovering” South America.

But four centuries or so earlier (it is said), Norse explorer, Leif Erickson, landed on the North American continent, specifically in the area now known as Newfoundland.

Irish legend claims that St. Brendan made a trip to the land that would become North America all the way back in the 6th century. Some versions say he landed in Newfoundland and others claim he went further south, arriving in what is now Florida or even the Bahamas. Historians tend to dismiss this claim.

But hold the phone! According to Welsh myth, in 1170 A.D., a certain Welsh prince named Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd and a group of followers, fed up with the continual wars in Wales, sailed the Atlantic and set up a settlement somewhere along the Alabama River (which they could have accessed from the Gulf of Mexico). If this story is true, the Welsh would be the first Europeans to have settled in what is now the United States. Unfortunately, as with the story of St. Brendan, most historians say there is no historical evidence of the Madoc story.

Colonial Welsh

In 1642, Howell Powell arrived in the American colony of Virginia. Historians credit him as the first Welsh person officially to settle in the future United States. The first major group of Welsh immigrants to colonial America, however, came in 1682. Welsh Quakers, persecuted under Charles II for their faith, settled in Pennsylvania. Welsh Baptists also immigrated to the Pennsylvania colony and, by 1700, people of Welsh descent made up about one-third of the colony’s population.

Many Welsh immigrants contributed to American society as coal miners and tin workers.
Many Welsh immigrants contributed to American society as coal miners and tin workers.

Another wave of Welsh immigrants occurred in the 19th century, primarily made up of coal miners looking to improve their financial prospects. While some went to Pennsylvania, others settled in upstate New York. A large number, though, found new lives in the Appalachian region of the U.S., especially in Ohio. Jackson County, Ohio, became known as “Little Wales.”

In the mid-1800s, another group of Welsh fleeing religious persecution came to the U.S. During the 1840s and ‘50s, Welsh Mormons found refuge in Utah.

Today, Welsh Americans can be found throughout the United States.

Famous Welsh Americans

Although many Americans would find it difficult to name a famous Welsh American, people of Welsh ancestry have played an important part in the history of the country. Sixteen signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh descent. The author of the document himself—Thomas Jefferson—also came from a Welsh family. Other famous Americans of Welsh ancestry include James Monroe, the infamous outlaw Jesse James, and President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Both Yale University and Brown University, two of the premier institutions of higher learning in the U.S. were founded by Americans of Welsh descent. Bryn Mawr College’s Welsh connection is apparent in its name.

St. David’s Day and Welsh Cultural Heritage

While St. Patrick’s Day has long garnered a lot of attention from non-Irish Americans, there is another important Celtic holiday in March. St. David’s Day is celebrated each year on March 1st and, since 2003, it has been officially recognized as a day to celebrate Americans of Welsh ancestry. Welsh Americans have been celebrating the day and their cultural heritage for centuries.

Sixteen signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh ancestry.
Sixteen signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh ancestry.

In states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio that have large Welsh American populations special festivities honoring not only the saint, but the culture is honored. The Welsh flag with its red dragon is carried in parades or displayed in public. People dress in traditional clothes or in the Welsh national colors of red, green, and white. They often sport daffodils, the national flower of Wales, in their clothes or in their hair. Whether at a celebration or at home, Welsh Americans eat traditional foods, such as Glamorgan sausages, lamb, leeks, cawl (a soup), and bara brith, a bread made with raisins, currents, and candied peel). At some events, public or private, speeches may be given in the Welsh language. Often, songs are sung in Welsh, too.

So, Welsh Americans may not be as high profile as their Celtic cousins, but they are part of the history and cultural fabric of the U.S. They have quietly blended into American society and culture without ever forgetting the great gifts of their ancestral heritage.

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Slán go fóill

All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.

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