The Welsh: Surnames and Migrations

“…it has been estimated that about nine-tenths of the Welsh population answer to a total of a hundred names and that sometimes only a half-dozen names will be shared by 20 or 30 families.”

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Reprinted from American Genealogy Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 3

Graphic: Graphicstock

Our Welsh ancestors (bless them!) passed along their love for music, poetry, drama and art, but they also cursed us with many common surnames along with the hard work of sorting out our families named Jones, Owen, Ellis, Price and Davis.

According to J. N. Hook in Family Names: How Our Surnames Came to America, it has been estimated that about nine-tenths of the Welsh population answer to a total of a hundred names and that sometimes only a half-dozen names will be shared by 20 or 30 families.

A number of Welsh names begin with P which come from the Welsh way of patronymics. That is, they said, “David ap Morgan ap Griffith ap Hugh ap Tudor ap Rhice” ap meaning “son of.” The “a” in ap was often dropped, and that accounts for the frequency of the surname starting with P. This is how Hugh became Pugh; Powell is from ap Howell, Pritchard from ap Richard, and Price from ap Rhys.

Surnames that end in just “s” rather than the -son suffix may indicate Welsh ancestry even though the surnames sound English. Thus Williams and Roberts are more likely to be Welsh than are the names Williamson and Robertson. Among these types of surnames are: Rogers, Edwards, Phillips and Maddocks or Maddox.

The Welsh are descended from at least two distinct ethnic stock—the tall ruddy Celtic invaders of about 500 B. C. and the earlier “Iberians” (called little black-haired people).

The first sizable emigration of the Welsh to America came in 1680-1720 and as early as 1667 a congregation of Baptists from South Wales had founded Swansea on the Plymouth-Rhode Island border. In 1681 a group of Welsh-Quaker gentlemen obtained a tract of some 40,000 acres in Pennsylvania. By 1720 the Welsh were settled in southeastern Pennsylvania and in Delaware. The middle of the 18th Century saw the Welsh moving toward the Susquehanna frontier and into the Carolinas.

There was a mass emigration from Wales in the 19th Century. This was caused by poor harvests in the old country in the 1790s. Many came to America to live in the new industrial area with a few coming in organized parties.

There were Welsh settlements in Cambria County area of Pennsylvania in the 1790s; in Oneida and Lewis counties, New York; in several areas of Ohio; with many of them moving on west to Wisconsin in the 1840s. Some went to both sides of the Iowa- Minnesota border, northern Missouri or eastern Kansas in the 1860s and 1870s, and finally many wound up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1880s and 1890s. Utah also attracted many Welsh settlers due to the Mormons’ missionary work in Wales, 1840- 1870s.

Since many Welsh were skilled workers they found work in the iron-industry, as coal miners, slate quarrymen or tin-platers. Some American employers actively recruited in Wales. When a Welshman became a foreman or superintendent of a mine or mill he could fill the best jobs by writing to a newspaper back home.

The immigration story of many Welsh families is similar to so many other Europeans. Often the father came alone, obtained a job and then sent for the rest of the family. In some cases the entire family made the journey. Often the men returned to Wales for a bride. They typical immigrant farm family had six to 10 children, with the miner’s family averaging about eight.

As early as 1839 there were some 46 Welsh churches in the United States, and by 1872 there were nearly 400. You will probably find that your Welsh families were Baptists, Wesleyan, Methodists, Calvanistics Methodists, Congregationalists or Mormons.

Welsh was the native tongue of most of the 19th-Century immigrants. As late as 1890 Welsh was still commonly spoken in the farming districts of certain areas of Ohio. A Welsh-language press flourished in the United States for more than a century with a dozen newspapers coming and going. The Drykch (Mirror) of Utica, New York, which was formed in 1851, claiming a national circulation of 12,000 at its height. There were also a dozen Welsh literary magazines between 1852-1895.

Two major Welsh characteristics are sentimentality—particularly a sentiment attachment to yr hen wlad (the old country)—and a very extended family relationship in which even the most distant relatives are known and the exact relationships are known traced out in great detail, according to The Welsh in Wisconsin, by Phillips G. Davies, which was published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

If your Welsh ancestors came in the 19th Century, they probably sailed from Liverpool, England. In 1841 it was not uncommon for a trip to take three months. However, sailing ships from Liverpool to New York normally took 20 days to six weeks and steerage costs between three and five British pounds. Steamships took from 10 to 15 days and third class cost eight pounds, eight shillings, or approximately $33.00 (the pound then equalled to about $4, the shilling about 20 cents).

If your ancestors went to the upper Midwest in the upper Midwest in the mid-19th Century, they probably landed in New York, took a steamboat to Albany, then a railroad to Buffalo where they caught a boat which took them through the Great Lakes to Racine, Wis. (Racine was one of the earliest Welsh urban settlements in Wisconsin.)

There was a saying among the Welsh in America: “The first thing a Frenchman does in a new country is to build a trading post, and American builds a city, a German builds a beer hall, and a Welshman builds a church.”

Churches were indeed central to the Welsh way of life and can be a great source for genealogical information on Welsh families which will help while you try to identify your Walters, Perkins, Rice, Evans and Jones ancestors.