This article is the latest in a series examining the unknown ancestries of First Ladies including Michelle Obama, Jacqueline Kennedy, Florence Harding, Eleanor Roosevelt and forthcoming ones on Edith Wilson, Pat Nixon, Eliza Johnson and Mamie Eisenhower. They can be found on this website under the category of “Presidential Families.”
The 2012 presidential election has already set a unique historic precedent as the first one in American history where both candidates are first-generation Americans, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each being the son of a foreign-born parent (see the article on this website: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/06/15/foreign-born-fathers-of-obama-romney-makes-a-first-generation-historic-first/).
If Romney were to win, it would lead to another unprecedented historic first in presidential history: both a first-generation President and First Lady.
If Romney is defeated, his campaign has nonetheless already provided another historic first: unlike those before her, no previous candidate’s spouse has ever so openly discussed her immigrant roots.
Ann Davies Romney is the daughter of Edward Roderick “Rod” Davies who, in 1929, at the age of 15 years old, left his native country of Wales with his mother, sister and two brothers immigrated to the United States to join his father, who preceded them in search of work at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan.
Anny Romney’s grandfather, David Davies, like many poor Welsh families, was from a long line of impoverished coal miners, born in Nantyffyllon, a small village, in 1882. Along with other men in his family of all ages, he walked about an hour each day to the coal mines of Coegnant Colliery. Like many coal miners, he developed “black lung” from the silica flakes there which were breathed in, but when a pit cart unexpectedly hit him, it crushed one of his kidneys and he was no longer able to work in the mines. He found some work as a tour bus driver, taking visitors on day trips to Porthcawl, a resort, from Maesteg, but when the work dried up, he was desperate for work to support his three sons, daughter and wife. He came to the U.S. in the early 1920s, becoming a factory worker at Ford Motors. By 1929, he had saved enough money so that his wife Annie could bring their four children from the tiny, two-bedroom, attached brick house in Wales to Michigan.
During the 2012 presidential primary season Ann Romney made frequent reference to her immigrant roots, a reminder that, despite the lifestyle she enjoys as a result of her husband’s tremendous wealth she was raised with the influence of impoverished grandparents of the working-class:
“I am a coal miner’s granddaughter….I feel I am just one foot away from where that mine was and how close we all are, all of us, to the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents who tried to make a better life for us….His [her father’s] parents could only afford to send one child to college and they chose my father. He became an engineer and entrepreneur, a self-made businessman who ended up with a very successful family company.”
Mrs. Romney’s father managed to graduate in 1938 from the General Motors Institute of Technology, now Kettering University, in Flint, Michigan. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy’s corps of engineers, helping to craft the amphibious vessels successfully used in the D-Day invasion. He went on to found an engineering firm which not only serviced the auto, navy and space industries and later invented a wide range of automated items, ranging from high-rise window-washing systems to fishing spears.
“He was very proud to be Welsh,” one of his former employees recalled of Davies, a trait he passed on to his daughter. In fact, on the campaign trail leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Ann Romney often cooked up the traditional Welsh coal-miner food staple known as “bakestones,” a currant-spiked griddle-cooked bread snack from a recipe she’d been taught by her namesake grandmother Annie Davies. Her grandmother also taught her the native Welsh language which Mrs. Romney can still speak.
“I am very proud of my Welsh roots and very tied to them. They are an extremely important part of who I am,” she told reporters in the winter of 2012. She also raised her sons with a sort of ethnic pride of being Welsh. Her youngest son, Craig, carries a shoulder bag which bears the national Welsh insignia of a red dragon. “Mom never let’s us forget we’re Welsh,” he told a [London] Sunday Telegraph reporter several months ago.
Ann Romney has numerous second cousins in Wales with whom she keeps in touch and returned on numerous occasions to visit since an initial visit there with her father. She has since brought her husband and sons back with her. One of her brothers also joined the Romneys on a trip to Wales, all of them descending into a coal mine for a first-hand sense of what their grandfather’s working life had been like. “It was extremely emotional as we realized quite how horrible life was for men like my grandfather below ground,” recalled her brother, also named Rod. “We just felt amazing gratitude that this was not our life now and deep respect for the men who had done that.”
Several of Ann Romney’s Welsh relatives have shared her family’s story, from which this article is derived, with British newspapers including The Sunday Telegraph. and the Evening Standard. According to them, her father and grandmother possessed some of the forlorn ambivalence about leaving their native land that is still often common among later-age immigrants to the U.S.
Her grandmother Annie Davies, according to an elderly relative who knew her, “didn’t want to leave her family behind.” The grandson of Mrs. Davies’ sister added that, “You could tell she missed Wales. I remember her and my grandmother being very upset when she left because they knew it might be the last time they ever saw each other.”
Her grandfather David Davies never returned to Wales.
Despite his great success in the U.S., Mrs. Romney’s father had also felt conflicted about immigrating, according to one of the relatives: “…he didn’t want to leave all his family and friends behind in order to find a new school and new friends in a new country.”
In coming to the United States, however, Rod Davies nevertheless exercised the American freedom of religion to, in fact, chose no religion at all, breaking from his family’s strict Welsh Congregationalist faith to become a “staunch atheist” or, as Ann Romney refers to him, her “great agnostic father.”
According to many who knew him, he “became strongly opposed to all organized religion,” calling it “hogwash.” As he told one of his employees, “I’m a scientist, show me the proof.”
When he learned that his 17-year old daughter Ann was preparing to convert to the Mormon faith of her 20-year old boyfriend Mitt Romney, instructed by his father George, it was “reportedly against the wishes of Mr Davies,” according to the Sunday Telegraph. His two sons, Jim and Rod, also converted to Mormonism. The latter was later quoted in that paper as remarking that their father “considered people who were religious to be weak in the knees.”
As also printed in the paper, George Romney wrote a March 6, 1967 letter to his son, then in France, documenting the conversion by Ann and one of her brothers: ‘I was thrilled to stand in for you in connection with Jim’s baptism….’This makes two converts here that are certainly yours so don’t worry about your difficulty in converting those Frenchmen! I am sure you can appreciate that Ann and Jim are each worth a dozen of them, at least to us.”
Ann Romney’s father remained an atheist until his death in 1992. Ann Romney’s mother Lois Pottinger Davies, the daughter of an Ontario, Canadian immigrant, died a year later. Just before her death, however, she also converted to Mormonism.
According to the British newspaper reports drawn from accounts on ancestry.com and other genealogical databases, Mrs. Romney’s atheist father was posthumously converted to Mormonism by “proxy baptism,” at the faith’s temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, on September 13, 1993. with family members standing in for him.
The strong influence of her Welsh immigrant grandmother on Ann Romney is shared by another contemporary political figure – as dissimilar as they may otherwise be.
Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“As an American of Welsh descent, I have always had a special place in my heart for Wales,” Secretary of State Clinton remarked in 2010, “both the beauty of its land and the determination of its people.” Her grandmother Hannah Jones Rodham was born in Pennsylvania in 1882, but her parents were Welsh immigrants. Although she was five years old when her grandmother Hannah died, Hillary recalled her as “formidable,” and long years later could recall her grandmother’s siblings as “black-haired Welsh coal miners.”
In another genealogical similarity to Ann Romney, Hillary Clinton’s maternal ancestors also immigrated to the United States from Canada, some of which included early French settlers of Quebec, Native-Americans and Scottish immigrants. She also has Dutch ancestors who were colonists of New Amsterdam, later to become New York.
Unlike Ann Romney, it is only in recent years that Hillary Clinton had publicly discussed her Welsh heritage. Several months ago, the Secretary of State elaborated on it in a statement she made on St. David’s Day, a national holiday in Wales, also celebrated by Welsh-Americans like her grandmother Hannah Jones Rodham, and great-grandparents John and Mary Jones:
On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I am delighted to send best wishes to the people of Wales as you celebrate St. David’s Day this March 1. This is an opportunity to reaffirm the strong bonds that unite us and to reflect on the rich and varied contributions Welsh people have made to America over the centuries. Several of our founding fathers – including former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – were able to claim Welsh ancestry. Today, almost two million people living in the U.S. can trace their roots back to Wales. I am proud to say that I am one of them. But there is far more to our enduring relationship than our heritage. Today, we enjoy shared values, extensive cultural exchange, and benefit from a vibrant trade in goods, services and knowledge. As we continue to deepen these ties, our friendship will only grow stronger. As you celebrate this special day with family, friends and loved ones, know that the United States is committed to strengthening our partnership as we work together to build a more peaceful and prosperous future for all our people.
Earlier this year, a spokesman for the National Welsh-American Foundation quipped that “We look forward to seeing St David’s day celebrated in the White House.”
He did not specify whether that hope was invested in Ann Romney.
Or Hillary Clinton.
- When Ann Romney & Michelle Obama Sat Down To Talk (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Ann Romney gets prime-time chance to help husband (mcclatchydc.com)
- What might Ann Romney have to say? (rivrdog.typepad.com)
- Ann Romney Says No More Tax Returns (politicalwire.com)
- Ann Romney: ‘There’s nothing we’re hiding’ (politico.com)
- Ann Romney traces her roots back to Wales (telegraph.co.uk)
- Ann Romney speech may move to Tuesday (politico.com)
- A Wales Tale: Ann Romney’s Ancestral Homecoming (abcnews.go.com)
- Ann Romney’s ‘My Husband Isn’t Terrible!’ Speech Moved to Primetime [Ann Romney] (jezebel.com)