Puneet Varma (Editor)

Welsh Americans

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

Welsh Americans are an American ethnic group whose ancestry originates wholly or partly in Wales. In the 2008 U.S. Census community survey, an estimated 1.98 million Americans had Welsh ancestry, 0.6% of the total U.S. population. This compares with a population of 3 million in Wales. However, 3.8% of Americans appear to bear a Welsh surname.


There have been several U.S. Presidents with Welsh ancestry, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James A. Garfield, Calvin Coolidge, and Richard Nixon. Jefferson Davis, President of The Confederate States of America P.G.T. Beauregard, U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are also of Welsh heritage.

The proportion of the population with a name of Welsh origin ranges from 9.5% in South Carolina to 1.1% in North Dakota. Typically names of Welsh origin are concentrated in the mid-Atlantic states, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama and in Appalachia, West Virginia and Tennessee. By contrast there are relatively fewer Welsh names in New England, the northern Midwest, and the southwest.

Famous sons

On a plaque mounted on the east facade of the imposing Philadelphia City Hall, the following inscription is found:

Welsh emigration to the United States

The legends of Celtic voyages to America, and settlement there in the twelfth century, led by Madog (or Madoc), son of Owain Gwynedd, prince of Gwynedd, are generally dismissed, although such doubts are not conclusive. The Madog legend attained its greatest prominence during the Elizabethan era, when Welsh and English writers used it bolster British claims in the New World versus those of Spain. The earliest surviving full account of Madoc's voyage, as the first to make the claim that Madoc had come to America, appears in Humphrey Llwyd 1559 Cronica Walliae, an English adaptation of the Brut y Tywysogion. In 1810, John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, wrote to his friend Major Amos Stoddard about a conversation he had had in 1782 with the old Cherokee chief Oconostota concerning ancient fortifications built along the Alabama River. The chief allegedly told him that the forts had been built by a white people called "Welsh", as protection against the ancestors of the Cherokee, who eventually drove them from the region. Sevier had also written in 1799 of the alleged discovery of six skeletons in brass armor bearing the Welsh coat-of-arms. Thomas S. Hinde claimed that in 1799, six soldiers had been dug up near Jeffersonville, Indiana on the Ohio River with breastplates that contained Welsh coat of arms. It is possible these were the same 6 Sevier referred to, as the number, brass plates and Welsh coat of arms are consistent with both references. Speculation abounds connecting Madog with certain sites, such as Devil's Backbone, located on the Ohio River at Fourteen Mile Creek near Louisville, Kentucky.

The more substantiated claim is that the first Welsh arrivals came from Wales after 1618.

First Mass Migration: Pennsylvania

In the late seventeenth century, there was a large emigration of Welsh Quakers to Pennsylvania, where a Welsh Tract was established in the region immediately west of Philadelphia. By 1700, the Welsh accounted for about one-third of the colony’s estimated population of twenty thousand. There are a number of Welsh place names in this area. There was a second wave of immigration in the late eighteenth century, notably a Welsh colony named Cambria established by Morgan John Rhys in what is now Cambria County, Pennsylvania.

The Welsh were especially numerous and politically active in colonial Pennsylvania, where they elected 9% of the legislature. In the 19th century thousands of Welsh coal miners emigrated to the anthracite and bituminous mines of Pennsylvania, many becoming mine managers and executives. The miners brought organizational skills, exemplified in the United Mine Workers labor union, and its most famous leader John L. Lewis, who was born in a Welsh settlement in Iowa. Pennsylvania has the largest number of Welsh-Americans, approximately 200,000; they are primarily concentrated in the Western and Northeastern (Coal Region) regions of the state.

Subsequent Major Migration: Ohio

Mass emigration from Wales to the United States got under way in the nineteenth century with Ohio cities and towns such as Canal Dover, Niles and Gloucester being particularly popular destinations.

In the early nineteenth century most of the Welsh settlers were farmers, but later on there was emigration by coal miners to the coalfields of Ohio and Pennsylvania and by slate quarrymen from North Wales to the "Slate Valley" region of Vermont and New York. There was a large concentration of Welsh people in the Appalachian section of Southeast Ohio, such as Jackson County, Ohio and was nicknamed "Little Wales". The Welsh language was commonly spoken there for generations until the 1950s when its use began to subside. As of 2010, more than 126,000 Ohioans are of Welsh descent and about 135 speak the language, with significant concentrations still found in many communities of Ohio such as Oak Hill (13.6%), Madison (12.7%), Franklin (10.5%), Jackson (10.0%), Radnor (9.8%), and Jefferson (9.7%).

Southern United States

A particularly large proportion of the African American population have Welsh surnames. Factors leading to this result are predominantly in adopting the surname of a residence or taking the father's name and altering it to a surname (i.e. John to Jones, David to Davis or Davies). While there were cases of slaves adopting slave holders names, there were also Welsh religious groups and anti-slavery groups helping to assist slaves to freedom and evidence of names adopted for this reason. In other situations, slaves took on their own new identity of Freeman, Newman, Liberty, while others choose the surnames of American heroes or founding fathers, which in both cases could have been Welsh in origin.


Following the American Civil War, 104 Welsh immigrant families moved from the Welsh Barony in Pennsylvania to East Tennessee. These Welsh families settled in an area now known as Mechanicsville, and part of the city of Knoxville. These families were recruited by the brothers Joseph and David Richards to work in a rolling mill then co-owned by John H. Jones.

The Richards brothers co-founded the Knoxville Iron Works beside the L&N Railroad, later to be used as the site for the World's Fair 1982. Of the original buildings of the Iron Works where Welsh immigrants worked, only the structure housing the restaurant 'The Foundry' remains. In 1982 World's Fair the building was known as the Strohause.

Having first met at donated space at the Second Presbyterian Church, the immigrant Welsh built their own Congregational Church with the Reverend Thomas Thomas serving as the first pastor in 1870. However, by 1899 the church property was sold.

The Welsh immigrant families became successful and established other businesses in Knoxville, which included a company that built coal cars, several slate roofing companies, a marble company, and several furniture companies. By 1930 many Welsh dispersed into other sections of the city and neighboring counties such as Sevier County. Today, more than 250 families in greater Knoxville can trace their ancestry directly to these original immigrants. The Welsh tradition in Knoxville is remembered with Welsh descendants celebrating St. David's Day.

Midwestern United States

After 1850 many Welsh sought out farms in the Midwest.


In the years surrounding the turn of the Twentieth Century, the towns of Elwood, Anderson and Gas City in Grant and Madison Counties, located northeast of Indianapolis, attracted scores of Welsh Immigrants, including many large families and young industrial workers.


After 1855 Minnesota's rich farmlands became a magnet, especially Blue Earth and Le Sueur counties. By the 1880s between 2,500 and 3,000 people of Welsh background were contributing to the life of some 17 churches and 22 chapels.


Some 2,000 immigrants from Wales, and another nearly 6000 second-generation Welsh, became farmers in Kansas, favoring areas close to the towns of Arvonia, Emporia, and Bala. Features of their historic culture survived longest when their church services retained Welsh sermons.

New York

Oneida County and Utica, New York became the cultural center of the Welsh-American community in the 19th century. Suffering from poor harvests in 1789 and 1802 and dreaming of land ownership, the initial settlement of five Welsh families soon attracted other agricultural migrants, settling Steuben, Utica and Remsen townships. The first Welsh settlers arrived in the 1790s. By 1855, there were four thousand Welshmen in Oneida. With the Civil War, many Welshmen began moving west, especially to Michigan and Wisconsin. They operated small farms and clung to their historic traditions. The church was the center of Welsh community life, and a vigorous Welsh-language press kept ethnic consciousness strong. Strongly Republican, the Welsh gradually assimilated into the larger society without totally abandoning their own ethnic cultural patterns.


Five towns in northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania were constructed between 1850 and 1942 to house Welsh quarry workers producing Peach Bottom slate. During this period the towns retained a Welsh ethnic identity, although their architecture evolved from the traditional Welsh cottage form to contemporary American. Two of the towns in Harford County now form the Whiteford-Cardiff Historic District.


After the Eastern European people, the Welsh people represents a significant minority there.

Western United States

Welsh miners, shepherds and shop merchants arrived in California during the Gold Rush (1849–51), as well the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain States since the 1850s. Large-scale Welsh settlement in Northern California esp. the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley was noted, and one county: Amador County, California finds a quarter of local residents have Welsh ancestry.


Los Angeles and the surrounding area, specifically Hollywood, have attracted Welsh artists in various fields of the arts and entertainment industry. The following is a short list of notable Welsh artists that have lived and worked in the Los Angeles area: Richard Burton, Rosemarie Frankland, Michael Sheen, Glynis Johns, Ioan Gruffudd, Ivor Barry, Cate Le Bon, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Katherine Jenkins, and Terry Nation.

Between 1888-2012 the Welsh Presbyterian Church was the center of Welsh community life in Los Angeles. The church was founded by the Reverend David Hughes from Llanuwchllyn, Gwynedd at another site. In its prime the church would average 300 immigrants for Sunday service in Welsh and English. Notably, the choir of the church sang in the 1941 film How Green Was My Valley. The singing tradition continued with the Cor Cymraeg De Califfornia, the Welsh Choir of Southern California, a non-denominational 501(c)(3) founded in 1997 still performing across the United States.

Santa Monica, California was named one of the most British towns in America due to its commerce and British migrants who came during a post World War II boom in factory production, many of whom were Welsh. However, higher cost of living and stricter immigration laws have affected the town once dubbed ‘Little Britain’.

In 2011 the West Coast Eisteddfod: Welsh Festival of Arts, sponsored by A Raven Above Press and AmeriCymru, was the first eisteddfod in the area since 1926. In the following year, Lorin Morgan-Richards established the annual Los Angeles St. David's Day Festival which sparked a cultural resurgence in the city and the formation of the Welsh League of Southern California in 2014. Celebrities of Welsh heritage Henry Thomas, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Sheen, along with Richard Burton’s and Frank Lloyd Wright’s families have all publicly supported the festival.


Mormon missionaries in Wales in the 1840s and 1850s proved persuasive, and many converts emigrated to Utah. By the mid-nineteenth century, Malad City, Idaho was established. It began largely as a Welsh Mormon settlement and lays claim to having more people of Welsh descent per capita than anywhere outside Wales. This may be around 20%. In 1951 the National Gymanfa Association of the United States and Canada sponsored a collection of Welsh books at the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University.

Welsh culture in the United States

One area with a strong Welsh influence is an area in Jackson and Gallia counties, Ohio, often known as "Little Cardiganshire". The Madog Center for Welsh Studies is located at the University of Rio Grande. The National Welsh Gymanfa Ganu Association holds the National Festival of Wales yearly in various locations around the country, offering seminars on various cultural items, a marketplace for Welsh goods, and the traditional Welsh hymn singing gathering (the gymanfa ganu). The annual Los Angeles St. David's Day Festival, celebrates Welsh heritage through performance, workshops, and outdoor marketplace. In Portland, the West Coast Eisteddfod is a yearly Welsh event focusing on art competitions and performance in the bardic tradition. On a smaller scale, many states across the country hold regular Welsh Society meetings.

Tin workers

Before 1890, Wales was the world's leading producer of tinplate, especially as used for canned foods. The U.S. was the primary customer. The McKinley tariff of 1890 raised the duty on tinplate that year, and in response many entrepreneurs and skilled workers emigrated to the U.S., especially to the Pittsburgh region. They built extensive occupational networks and a transnational niche community.


The American daytime soap opera One Life to Live takes place in a fictional Pennsylvania town outside of Philadelphia known as Llanview (llan is an old Welsh word for church, now encountered mainly in placenames). The fictional Llanview is loosely based on the Welsh settlements located in the Welsh Barony, or Welsh Tract, located north west of Philadelphia, PA.

21st century

Relations between Wales and America is primarily conducted through the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in addition to her Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to the United States. Nevertheless, the Welsh Assembly has deployed their own envoy to America, primarily to promote Wales-specific business interests. The primary Welsh Government Office is based out of the Washington British Embassy, with satellites in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

Current immigrants

While most Welsh immigrants came to the US before the 20th century, immigration has by no means stopped. Current expatriates (a recent notable example being Anthony Hopkins) have formed societies all across the country, including the Chicago Tafia (a play on "Mafia" and "Taffy"), and AmeriCymru.


Welsh Americans Wikipedia

Similar Topics