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National Library of Wales journal

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Cyf. 9, rh. 1 Haf 1955

Letters from Welsh settlers in New York State, 1816-44

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LETTERS FROM WELSH SETTLERS IN NEW YORK STATE, 1816-44.
Welsh migration to upstate New York owes its inception to the tireless
propaganda of the Montgomeryshire radical William Jones of Llangadfan, who
during the last five years of his life (1701-3) devoted all his energies to schemes
for an organised Welsh settlement there. On the one hand he approached the
American government and the Pulteney interest in New York state, on the other
he tried to rouse the fervour of his fellow-countrymen by presenting to them at
eisteddfodau and similar gatherings the attractions of the United States as a land
where feudal and religious tyranny were unknown. Like so many of their kind,
his more ambitious dreams failed to materialise, but from the beginning of his
campaign a trickle of emigrants began from the regions where his advocacy had
been most effective-especially from rural Merioneth and the neighbouring parts
of Denbighshire and Caernarvonshire. The rural distress occasioned by the
outbreak of war with France in 1793, reaching a climax in 1797, quickened the
movement, and the post-war depression of 1816 turned the trickle into something
more like a deluge; for the first time Wales experienced mass emigration in which
economic motives began to prevail over the hitherto dominant religious promptings.
A great deal of the flood, especially from industrial South Wales and from
Montgomeryshire (with its long connections with Pennsylvania), was absorbed
by the Cambria settlement organised in the latter state by the South Walian Morgan
John Rhees; but it was the uncleared or newly-cleared lands of the Mohawk flats
that chiefly attracted settlers from the northern counties during these years. Some
went as lumbermen or labourers, and from 1817 work on the Erie canal absorbed
a few of these. A newly-settled Bala immigrant, employed in wholesale business
in New York, went into partnership with a Caernarvonshire quarryman in 1794
to start slate quarrying 'if ye Rocks will do'. There was a sprinkling of ministers,
teachers, surveyors and shopkeepers, and some practised their crafts as joiners,
stonemasons and the like in the rapidly-developing towns of the area. Utica, laid
out in 1797, had already enough Welsh settlers by 1802 to establish a Welsh
Independent congregation of thirteen members (soon swelling to 250), followed
by a Baptist church in the following year; Steuben, Remsen and other settlements
followed suit. For most of the Welsh settlers were men of strong religious
convictions who had been profoundly influenced by the Methodist revival, now
at its height in Merioneth and quickening into new life some of the older
denominations before the secession of 1811 turned the Methodists themselves
into a new denomination. The bulk of the Welsh immigrants, however, came from
the class of small dairy farmers, and found a living in their new home by buying
small plots of land and paying for them out of sales of 'Welsh butter' — not only
locally, but to the hungry market of New York itself.1
1 B. W. Chidlaw, Story of My Life (Philadelphia, 1890), pp. 16-17, and Yr America (Llanrwst, 1840, trans.
Rev. M. O. Evans in Quart. Pub. Hist, and Phil. Soc. of Ohio, vi. 28-30); C. G. Sommers, Memoir of
Rev. J. Stamford (New York, 1835), pp. 349-50; D. E. Jenkins, Thomas Charles (Denbigh, 1908), iii. 139-41;
A. H. Dodd, The Character of Early Welsh Emigration to the U.S. (Cardiff, 1953), pp. 21-4.
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