The romantic legend of the Welsh in America dates back to a medieval Welsh prince by the name of Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd who became tired of the constant warfare and petty quarrelling in his homeland and in 1170 sailed with a body of followers out into the Atlantic. He reputedly found a new land across the seas to the west and induced more Welshmen to accompany him to the new land. Nothing more was ever heard of the Prince or his followers.
The first official Welsh settler was Howell Powell who left Brecon for Virginia in 1642. Religious persecution during the reign of King Charles II led to several waves of migration including the Bala Quakers who settled in Pennsylvania in 1682; Morgan John Rhys’ Baptists in Cambria, Pennsylvania in 1683; and Reverend Samuel Roberts and his congregation from Llanbyrnmair in Tennessee in 1795. There were also significant numbers of Welsh Mormons including those who founded Malad City, Idaho.
Later migration in the nineteenth century was driven by poverty and land hunger and these settlers played a vital role in the opening up and settlement of the Great American West particularly in Ohio, where Jackson County was known as Little Wales, and Kansas. Later in the nineteenth century saw the start of industrial migration into the iron and coal industries of Pennsylvania where the Welsh language lived on in Scranton into the early twentieth century.
The Welsh influence has always been under-recognized in the USA and Canada. Their numbers were less than other migrant groups such as the Irish and Scots but also they were like chameleons, quickly blending into their new environment. Nevertheless, they have played an enormous role in the history of America out of all proportion to their numbers.
Sixteen of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh descent including William Floyd, Stephen Hopkins, Arthur Middleton, Robert Morris, Francis Lewis, and Button Gwinnett, revolutionary governor of Georgia and a general in the Patriot Corps.
There have been eleven US Presidents of Welsh descent: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, William Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon. Jefferson Davies was President of the Confederate States of America and current presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has Welsh ancestry on both her maternal and paternal lineage.
Among the robber barons, J P Morgan was of Welsh stock. Tradition has it that William Penn was the grandson of a Welshman. John Tudor who was called Pen-Mynydd and who took the name Penn when he removed from Wales to Ireland, founded the colony of Pennsylvania. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the greatest architects of all time, and had particular influence in Chicago. The money of Elihu Yale founded Yale University and Morgan Edwards founded Browns University and there were many other universities of with Welsh links including the famous Brynmawr college.
A number of Welsh Americans occupied important positions in the American War of Independence including three grandsons of immigrants: Francis Nash, John Cadwalladr and the renowned Daniel Morgan who all served as generals in the Revolutionary army.
At the time of the Civil War there were 200,000 Welsh speaking people in Pennsylvania, Central New York, Southern Wisconsin, central Ohio and Iowa. There was also a sizeable settlement in South Carolina and there was also a Welsh tract along the Cape Fear river in North Carolina.
Today there are over two million people in the USA claiming Welsh ancestry, places such as Malad City in Idaho, Remsen in New York State and Oak Hill in Ohio having the largest concentrations. Legacies of Welsh heritage can be found in many places; there is a plaque commemorating Welsh heritage and the role of the Welsh in forming the city on the east façade of Philadelphia City Hall.