The roots of Wales in America run deeper than you may think. Some of the most influential European travellers to America have connections with our small country. Given the population of Wales in the 17th century was around 360,000 people, this is extraordinary stuff – although some think that Wales’ links to America go even further back than that.
Welsh legends in the roots of America
If you believe the earliest history books about Wales – Humphrey Llwyd’s Cronica Walliae and clergyman David Powel’s Historie of Cambria (1589) – a Welsh Prince, Madoc, landed in America around 1170, 320 years before a certain Christopher Columbus. He returned to Wales, legend goes, to take more settlers with him. This myth was used by Elizabeth I to assert Britain’s rights to America over Spain in the late 1500s.
Another strand to the legend suggests his settlers eventually met the Mandan, a Native American tribe, who learned to speak Welsh. A 26-year-old explorer from Caernarfon, John Evans, voyaged to America to find them in the 1790s, but found no evidence of Welsh-speaking when he got there. He made an early map of the Missouri river, however, while on his journey. Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals and made a fantastic album and film about him, American Interior, in 2014.
The early Welsh settlers
In 1681, King Charles II gave 45,000 square miles of America to Quaker William Penn, who wished to call it New Wales (Charles II insisted on it being called Pennsylvania). Many Welsh Quakers who only spoke the Welsh language had recently moved there, fleeing religious persecution back home. A Welsh Tract was established in Philadelphia so government business could be conducted in Welsh, and the street plan was based on the Flintshire village of Caerwys. The areas of Narberth, Bala Cynwyd and Bryn Mawr in west Philadelphia today pay testament to these sturdy Welsh roots.
More immigration in the 18th century brought the Welsh to a West Pennsylvania area now known as Cambria County. Delaware and the Carolinas also have Welsh roots, and a party of Jackson County, Ohio, is called Little Wales. The Welsh language was spoken here widely until the 20th century. It still persists too: according to the 2010 American census, 135 people still speak Welsh.
Prominent Welsh figures in early American history
Yale University is named after British merchant Elihu Yale, whose family took their name from an old family home, Plas un Ial, in the village of Llanarmon Yn Ial west of Wrexham. By the time of his birth in 1649, Elihu’s family were in Boston, Massachusetts. He became a rich man, giving his money to a new university in Connecticut which took his name as a tribute. Elihu returned to Britain later in life, living between London and his grandfather’s home, Plas Grono, on the Erddig estate. Elihu was buried in St Giles Churchyard in Wrexham, where his tomb bears the legend “Born in America, In Europe bred”.
Another venerable American educational institution is women’s liberal arts college Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia, built on land given to Rowland Ellis by William Penn in the 1680s. Ellis' former farmhouse, also called Bryn Mawr, is still standing near Dolgellau.
The Welsh Americans behind the Constitution, and the ten Welsh Presidents
People of Welsh descent have had a powerful effect on American politics. A third of the 54 signatories of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence were believed to be of Welsh descent. They included the Llandaff-born Francis Lewis, who moved to America at 21, signing the constitution on behalf of New York.
Ten of America’s Presidents also have Welsh roots. The second, John Adams (1797-1801), and his son John Quincy Adams, the sixth (1825-1829), are from a family that trace back to Llanboidy, Carmarthenshire (John’s great-grandfather was a tenant farmer on the Banc-y-Llain, which is now part of the Jabajak Estate). Third President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), even owned a Welsh dictionary, and wrote that his father’s family “came to this country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowden [sic]”.
James Madison, James Monroe and William Henry Harrison had Welsh ancestry too, as did Abraham Lincoln, whose great-great-grandfather, John Morris, was a farmer from Ysbyty Ifan near Conwy (his barn, now derelict, is still there). His daughter, Ellen, emigrated to the United States with Quakers, strengthening her Welsh ties in marriage, to Cadwaladr Evans, originally from Bala, and Lincoln’s understanding of Welsh informed his 1860 election campaign, when he had 100,000 election pamphlets printed yn Gymraeg (in Welsh). Another man of Welsh ancestry also opposed him in the Civil War a year later: Confederate Leader Jefferson Davis, whose family migrated from Wales to Philadelphia in the early 1700s.
Welsh links to power continued after this. James Garfield (he was assassinated after six months of his Presidency in 1881) claimed heritage from Caerphilly, while Richard Nixon (1969-1974), had links with early settlers from Carmarthenshire and Montgomeryshire. Barack Obama’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Perry, was also born in Anglesey. Obama is the only President to visit Wales, staying at Newport’s Celtic Manor for the 2014 NATO summit.
A recent Presidential candidate also has family from Wales. Hillary Clinton’s great-grandfather John Jones, a miner from Llangynidr, moved to Pennsylvania in 1879, and her great-grandmother, Mary, was believed to come from Abergavenny. Clinton received an honorary doctorate from Swansea University in 2017, and their College of Law and Criminology was renamed the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law.
Other notable Welsh-American figures of the 19th century
Lewis Henry Morgan was one of the earliest defenders of the rights of Native Americans. A pioneering anthropologist who influenced the work of Karl Marx, his family had travelled to the USA from Llandaff in 1636. Another migrant who fought against the system was John Rees of Merthyr Tydfil, who fought in the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. He then returned to Newport, Gwent, participating in the 1839 Chartist March in the town, where 22 demonstrators were shot dead.
Several prominent business leaders were Welsh too, like JP Morgan, who gave his name to the multinational investment bank: his surname came from family in Carmarthen.
Modern Los Angeles owes a considerable amount to Welshman Griffith J. Griffith, who was born in Pen Y Bryn Farm near Bettws near Bridgend. Orphaned as a child, he travelled to America in 1860, studied journalism, and became a mining correspondent, making his fortune from investing in silver mines. He led a complex life, which included bouts of alcoholism and shooting his wife in the face at point blank range she miraculously survived). After discovering the great parks of Europe he decided that his new home of Los Angeles would need a similar park of its own, so donated 3,000 acres of land to the city to be a public park, which to this day bears his name: Griffith Park. He also set up trust funds so after his death, the city could continue to develop recreational projects: his money supported the building of Griffith Observatory, a new amphitheatre, a Hall of Science, the Los Angeles Zoo, a National Centre for the American West, and four Municipal golf courses (Garw Valley Heritage Society).
A lesser-known figure who deserves more recognition is Martha "Mattie" Hughes Cannon, the first female State Senator ever elected in the US. Born near Llandudno, she emigrated with her family in 1860, before becoming a doctor and women’s rights advocate. When she ran for Senator, she defeated her husband, who was also on the ballot.
The women of Wales campaign for peace
The 1923 Welsh Women’s Peace Petition, co-ordinated by the Welsh League of Nations Union, was signed by 390,296 Welsh women in a call for America to join and lead the League of Nations to prevent the outbreak of another war in the aftermath of World War One. The Welsh delegation, led by Annie Jane Hughes-Griffiths presented the Memorial to US President Calvin Coolidge, alongside the National League of Women’s Voters which represented millions of American women. This act added further to the national story of Wales' rich peace heritage.
You can see an image of Hughes-Griffiths presenting the petition at the very bottom of this article.
Americans arrive on British soil
In the 20th century, Americans kept arriving in Wales in extraordinary ways. Amelia Earhart did so most memorably in 1928, when she became the first woman to fly with a team across the Atlantic. Landing in Pwll near Burry Port, a stone near Burry Port’s quayside commemorates her journey.
American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst also made a splash in 1925 when he decided he wanted to buy a Welsh castle. Buying St Donat’s Castle in Llantwit Major, it he then restored it (and altered it) in gregarious fashion. Lavish parties there hosted Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin and a young John F. Kennedy. Later, it was sold to Atlantic College, who still use it today. You can see the castle in the header image of this article.
Thousands of American GIs also landed in Wales during the Second World War. Many arrived in the South Wales Valleys in flag-waving convoys, or alighted from trains as far afield as Tonypandy and Tenby. They folded into local communities, attended dances, and often married the locals; they also trained for the D-Day Landings on Horton Beach in the Gower. General Dwight Eisenhower even visited troops in West Wales by train, and a rumour persists in Haverfordwest that world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano was stationed there.
Other 20th century Welsh-American icons
The mother of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the world’s greatest architects, left Llandysul as a five-year-old in 1844, travelling with her family to America. Her son’s Welsh roots stayed strong: the groundbreaking estate he built for himself in the 1930s is called Taliesin after the Welsh bard.
Many Hollywood legends have links to Wales too. Peg Entwhistle, the actress who threw herself off the Hollywood sign, was born in Port Talbot where her Welsh grandmother lived. The industrial town would produce many more stars, like Anthony Hopkins, who has now been naturalised as an American. Bette Davis also had Welsh family, and hosted a press conference in Cardiff in 1975. She talked about her roots there, even said goodbye to her guests with a glowing “nos da” (good night).
And that’s before we get to other titanic figures of the arts and culture from Wales, like Dylan Thomas, who died in New York in 1953, and inspired the name of one of its most famous musicians, Bob Dylan. Then there are the pioneering music producers with deep connections to the country, like, Quincy Jones, whose paternal grandfather was Welsh, or disco pioneer Nile Rodgers, who first saw girls dancing in a nightclub on Colwyn Bay Pier, and lived in the town.
Far back in time or near, Wales continues to inform American history, from ancient myths to modern stories. Long may we all discover more, over there, and over here.
Find out more:
- People's Collection Wales
- Working abroad - Welsh emigration (National Museum Wales)
- The Great Plains Welsh Heritage Project
- The links between Wales and America - a Welsh destination guide (Visit Wales)
Header image: St Donat's Castle in Llantwit Major, bought and restored by William Randolph Hearst, now the home of Atlantic College.