By David Schmidt
Special to the Main Line Life
There is nothing more strongly felt among residents of the Main Line than its Welsh heritage. Even if you’re a recent transplant, or descendent of one of the area’s numerous other national or religions groups, you can’t even drive down Lancaster Ave without a constant reminder of the area’s Welsh heritage.
While many of today’s Welsh town names date from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s efforts to create suburbia, there are older precedents. Tredyffrin meant “town in the valley” to the Welsh Quakers who named the township in 1707. Others include Uwchlyn, Bala Cynwyd, Bryn Mawr, Llanerch, Merion, St. David’s, North Wales, Gwynedd, Tredyffryn, many of which remain today.
But the Quakers who came to found what they wanted to be “New Wales,” and a home for Quakers away from the persecution in Britain and other colonies of North America may not have been the first Welsh.
According to Welsh legend, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd was a 12th century prince from Gwynedd who sailed west, seeking respite from the constant warfare of his native Wales. According to the story, his eight ships including his flagship, named the “Gwennan Gorn” landed at what is now Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1169. Madog then returned to Wales for more settlers. He sailed in 1171 with a small fleet of ships from Lundy Island in 1171 and the band was never heard from again, at least in Europe.
Welsh tradition has it they settled in the Mississippi Valley, befriending the natives, whom they showed how to build stone forts. Some of these mysterious forts and stone walls can still found in the area.
Some sources describe the Welsh explorers as moving northward through Alabama and battling the Iroquois in Ohio, with a remnant moving westward where they were discovered at the time of the Revolutionary War as the light-skinned, bearded Mandan Indians of North Dakota. The Mandans were decimated by smallpox in 1838, but many scholars have supposedly found much of their language and customs, as similar to those of Wales. For example, they used a small round boat made of buffalo hides (the bull boat) stretched over a willow frame. This is almost identical to the Welsh coracle.
But those scholars have never convinced mainstream historians, who prefer the concept that the winners get to write the history. Accordingly, the real Welsh presence in America was caused by religious persecution.
Quakers were seen as dangerous revolutionaries. They preached peace and love, and most damning, the repudiation of the any religion’s hierarchy and its authority over people’s lives as well as their religion. Quakers were the simple folk, and didn’t feel the need for bishops and cardinals to set dogma. Needless to say, the British establishment based on the concept that the king was ordained by God found these concepts to be both foreign and dangerous to the status quo. Hence, violent persecution to any and all Quakers.
But Quakers were lucky to attract some people with the resources and the relationships to create a Quaker colony in the New World. William Penn sought subscribers to settle the lands he’s been given in what would become Pennsylvania, and the Welsh jumped at the chance. Jumped fast enough that they beat Penn to the New World.
There were seven land companies formed for the division and sale of land in what was becoming, at least in their own minds, the Welsh Tract. Those companies were granted blocks of land, usually 5000 acres, which each company subdivided and sold. Naturally the heads of each company retained some land for himself.
The documents creating these “patents” exist today in the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, as well as Haverford College, and also in Philadelphia.
The Companies were as follows, according to the book Early Land Records Of Pennsylvania by Egle:
1. John ap Thomas, of Llaithgyn, Merionethshire (5000 acres) and Dr. Edward Jones of Bala, Merionethshire, (5000 acres)
2 Charles Lloyd of D,, Merionethshire (5000 acres) and Margaret Davies, of Dolobran, M (Widow of William Lewis) (5000 acres)
3 John ap Evans of Treverigg, Glamorganshire, (2000 acres)
4 John ap John of Ruabom, Denbighshire
5 Dr. Thomas Wynn of Caerwys, Flintshire,
5 Lewis ap David, Llandewy, Pembrokeshire (2000 acres)
6 Richard ap Thomas, of Whitford Garne, Flintshire (3000 acres)
7 Richard Davies of Welshpoole,
If some of those names sound familiar, its not surprising. Many of the descendants of the original settlers still reside on the Main Line. Take, for instance, T. William Roberts he’s a descendent the ninth generation — of John Roberts of Pencoyd, who came over on the Morning Star.
The original Roberts was born in Wales in 1648 and arrived in the New World in 1683. He added his land to that of his bride, Gaynor Robert. Unlike many of the original Welsh, he wasn’t a gentleman farmer, he was a “malster” or brewer. “I don’t know what inspired him, because if you go to Wales there are plenty of Roberts there,” Roberts says. “He was a farmer and a Quaker and I think he saw an opportunity to get out of Wales. He wasn’t a gentleman farmer, did his own work.”
He settled on land which lies right along what is now City Line Avenue, where the Saks Fifth Avenue store now sits. Roberts named his property Pencoid, (now known as Pencoyd) which means “head of the woods.” There he built a large stone house at the top of a hill above the Schuylkill River. Future generations added on to the house. “The house I was born in was the original, and if I’ve figured it correctly my bedroom is just about where the men’s room is in the Saks store,” Roberts says.
Without the persecution he and other Quakers had faced in Britain, on the Welsh Tract they could dedicate their efforts to developing their lands in freedom. Roberts because prosperous and eventually an important member of the Welsh community. He died in 1724, leaving the farm to his only son.
Roberts was one of what for the time was a large group of colonists, probably amounting to 12,000 by 1740. For a time they were one of the largest nationalities settling the new lands, although they were quickly surpassed in numbers by the Germans, English and Irish. But like Roberts many Welsh faced the sometimes difficult Atlantic crossing seeking religious as well as political freedom.
They sought lands where they could practice their own form of religion and live under their own laws in a kind of Welsh Barony.
One of their leaders, surgeon and lawmaker Dr. Griffith Owen, who came to the colonies in 1684, had induced William Penn to set apart some of his land grant for the Welsh. And evidently had extracted an oral understanding with William Penn and the Society of Friends (a pact made in England before the Welsh sailed to the New World) the Welsh Tract would be self-governing — a “New Wales.”
Not only did this set aside 40,000 acres of land (some sources give 30,000, but the larger number probably includes lands not contiguous with the Main Line acreage.) The idea was that the language and the laws of the area would be Welsh and the land would be know as the Welsh Barony. It would be politically and religiously independent from the British Quakers who were settling Philadelphia. Unfortunately, this agreement was never put into writing and later became a source of bitter controversy between Penn and the Welsh Quakers.
While the Welsh continue to act as if they were independent, in their Welsh Tract, the Colonial government abolished the civil authority of the Welsh Quaker meetings in order to set up a regular township government.
This was most clearly shown when Penn’s government ran the line dividing Chester and Montgomery counties straight through what the Welsh saw as their Barony. But for the most part the Quakers ran their own affairs, after all, the Tract was a long way from Penn’s English Philadelphia and had plenty on their plate without interfering with a group of Welsh farmers living out in Indian country.
The Quakers performed most governmental activities through their “Monthly Meetings” at which they handled disputes, approved marriages, settled estates and even heard grievances of servants against their masters. At other times, these Meetinghouses, which were the first public buildings erected, were the religious facilities Quakers objected to the word church for the colony.
But the dream of having their own colony, like the Catholics in Rhode Island wasn’t to be. Although for years the Welsh or Celtic language thrived, it really only took several generations before English was the primary language of these people. In fact, William Penn himself refused the legality of the Welsh Quakers’ appeal for self-government.
To the bitter disappointment of many of the early Welsh settlers, even the name of the colony was changed. In a letter written one day after the granting of the Charter, Penn wrote to his friend Robert Turner, giving particulars of the naming of the new province:
“This day, my country was confirmed to me under the great seal of England, with privileges, by the name of Pennsylvania, a name the King would give it in honor of my father. I chose New Wales, being as this, a pretty, hilly country, but Penn being Welsh for head as in Penmanmoire (sic), in Wales, and Penrith, in Cumberland, and Penn, in Buckinghamshire . . . called this Pennsylvania, which is the high or head woodlands; for I proposed, when the secretary, a Welshman, refused to have it called New Wales, Sylvania and they added Penn to it, and though I opposed it and went to the King to have it struck out and altered he said it was past . . nor could twenty guineas move the under-secretary to vary the name.”
So this seems strong evidence that Pennsylvania was named after a Welsh word for head and not, as the usual history books have it, after Penn himself or after his father, Admiral Penn. Although since the Welsh word for “head” is “pen” with a single “n” this may be a clever dodge on Penn’s part in finding a name that pleased the king, and acceptable to the English colonists and throw a bone to the Welsh.