The Land of Your Fathers
By Lise Hull
Discover your ancestors' native ground with our step-by-step guide to tracing your Welsh roots.
Did you know that the Welsh discovered America well before Columbus sailed the Atlantic? According to tradition, Prince Madog, a son of Owain Gwynedd, king of North Wales, voyaged from Wales to seek his fortune around 1169. Upon his return, he bragged of visiting a new land where the people lived peacefully. Many believe the land was America, and plaques commemorating the discovery have been laid at Rhos-on-Sea in North Wales, Madog's departure point, and at Mobile Bay, Ala., the prince's supposed landing site across the ocean.
Despite Madog's momentous discovery, it took 500 more years before the Welsh began immigrating to America. During the 1640s, religious conflict led to the first phase of the English Civil War, which spread into Wales and pitted Protestants against Catholics and Parliamentary supporters against King Charles I's Royalists. Even after the Parliamentarians defeated the king, and their leader, the Puritan zealot Oliver Cromwell, became lord protector, religious intolerance and repression continued. In Wales, several nonconformist religions held secret services in homes and pubs, and religious groups such as the Independents, Presbyterians, Baptists and Quakers spread throughout the land. Even though the Toleration Act of 1689 allowed people to worship freely, intolerance remained rampant. Not surprisingly, many Welsh citizens found the prospects of religious and political freedom in America difficult to ignore. By the end of the 17th century, some 3,000 Welsh people had sailed to America, where they clustered to continue practicing their individual religions.
In the 1790s, Wales suffered a severe economic and agricultural depression following disastrous harvests and dramatic inflation, which led to another wave of emigration. Sailing from Liverpool, Bristol, Milford Haven, Caernarfon and other ports, thousands of Welsh farmers, weavers, artisans and gentry sought relief in America, where land was abundant and inexpensive, and the economy stable. Others immigrated to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
Between 1815 and 1850, Wales' population doubled, and Welsh immigration to America soared. The new American residents settled in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois. Some journeyed west to California to take advantage of the 1849 gold rush. Later in the century, Welsh miners and ironworkers flocked to the higher-paying industrial areas of Pennsylvania. By 1900, Welsh settlers had moved into Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, and a large number had migrated to Utah to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Between 1820 and 1950, more than 250,000 people emigrated from Wales to the United States.
Beginning the journey backward
Today, those immigrants' descendants can learn much about their Welsh roots right here in America. As with all genealogy research, you should begin at home: Talk to family members, including distant relatives, who might know about your heritage. And look for names, dates and places in letters, records, the family Bible, photo albums, newspaper clippings and any other documents that may offer clues.
Then, fire up your computer and head over to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' FamilySearch Web site, where you'll find an excellent Research Outline. From the home page, click on the Search tab, then Research Helps. Click on the W, and you'll find a lengthy listing of resources for tracing your Welsh ancestors. Scroll down first to the document titled "Wales Research Outline," which you can open and review online, or download and study offline. (To read the file offline, click on PDF. And if you don't have it already, you'll need to download Adobe Acrobat Reader for free.)
At first glance, this comprehensive guide may seem overwhelming, but it ultimately will help you decide which ancestor to research and where to find various types of records, including census, church, estate, military, school and probate records. If you're just starting your Welsh research, begin by reading the introduction and search strategies. If you already know which ancestor you want to research, you can skip ahead to the articles on specific record types.
You'll want to join your local St. David's Society or the Welsh-American Genealogical Societygymanfa ganu, a festival devoted to the singing of Welsh hymns (in both Welsh and English). There, you can learn more about Wales and its culture, and network with others digging up their roots. You also might subscribe to Ninnau, a New Jersey-based newspaper full of information not only about Wales, but also about Welsh-American societies, events and genealogy resources. Gather as much information as possible, not just about your particular Welsh ancestor, but also about the nation and its history.
Lise Hull is a freelance writer and historian specializing in British heritage. For our complete guide to tracing your Welsh roots, read the February 2004 Family Tree Magazine.