San Franciscans may wear flowers in their hair, but if you spot someone with a leek in their hat today, it is more than likely they’re among the small but increasingly visible number of Americans proud of their Welsh ancestry.
And if daffodils, real, paper or plastic, are covering the front of their house, you can be guaranteed they’re Welsh.
March first is the national day of Wales, celebrating Saint David, the patron of that small but clearly defined national culture within the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Irish Sea to its west.
Mountainous, and known for its coal mining and sheep farming, Wales has its own language and its own flag.
It was from Cardiganshire, Wales where Dewi Sant (as he is known in the native language), set off onto his religious pilgrimages, eventually proceeding to Jerusalem.
There was named a Catholic archbishop before returning to create a religious following in the town once known as Glyn Rhosyn but renamed for him.
Legend claims that St. David’s gift for moving, eloquent speaking was so great that God would raise the very earth beneath where he stood so all in the surrounding area could hear him preach the good word.
It was Dewi Sant, so says Welsh legend, who conceived of the leek as a distinct sign of being Welsh, an idea he suggested to the native people as they prepared to defend their land against the Saxon armies.
By topping their caps with the green-white stalk, the Welsh would know each other. So, according to legend, the humble leek is what helped lead the Welsh to a victory of national pride.
There was evidence of the leek being worn or presented as gifts on St. David’s Day in the Tudor court of Henry VIII, with a payment of fifteen shillings being the cost to give one to Mary Tudor.
Thus, St. David’s Day is symbolized by the leek. Welsh regimental soldiers go one step further, eating a raw leek the first of March.
St. David literally remains in Wales, buried in a Pembrokeshire cathedral following his death on March 1, 589. It is the day that he died which became his feast day to the Welsh. Many claimed that twice visiting his resting place was as good a fulfillment of religious duty as making one pilgrimage to the holy city of Rome.
For the Welsh, of course, it was a lot closer than going to Italy. Truth be told, however, like all Europeans of allegedly “pure blood,” the people of Wales are derived from Italians (when the Romans invaded around the year 48), Austrians (when the original Hallstatt Celts also invaded about 1000 B.C.), Germans (when the Saxons came marching in about 550), and French (the Normans pushed through about 1000).
From these invasions, a Welsh culture distinct from the British began evolving, a language that was likely a Roman influence on the original “Brythonic” spoken Celt, and a united spirit result from a revolt that forced the Normans into retreat from the villages of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Powys.
The outline of what became Wales emerged from King Offa of Mercia building a sea dyke, creating the first permanent boundary from the English. At Cardigan Castle, the first Eisteddfod (gathering of Welsh musicians and poets) took place in 1176, a custom which still continues. Music played on a three-rowed strung harp became a distinct sound in Welsh folk music and is now even known as the “Welsh harp.”
By 1400 Owain Glyndŵr began a four year rebellion against England’s King Henry IV which ended with his self-crowning as the first Prince of Wales and organizing the Cynulliada (Welsh parliament) in Machynlleth. A decade later, Owain vanished, becoming part of the growing legends of Wales.
The English Tudor dynasty began with Welsh noble families in 1485, and fifty years later the Act of Union made Wales a legal part of England. Political allegiance, however, did not mean cultural alliance.
The Welsh have always been separate and distinct from the English, a consciousness bolstered by the singing of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, composed in 1856. Translating into Land of My Fathers, it soon became the national anthem of Wales.
Within thirty years, efforts were made to ensure that their utterly unique and most ancient of European languages would be forever protected by a newly-created Welsh Language Society and its advocacy of use in the land’s public school system.
In the last four decades there has been a an increased effort to restore uniquely Welsh cultural customs and a rising prominence of the nation. In 1977, Radio Cymru, an all-Welsh language radio station began and five years later, Sianel Pedwar Cymru, a Welsh language television station was launched and is now broadcasted internationally.
A massive Millennium Stadium opened enabling nearly 100,000 fans to take in the national sport of rugby. In 2005, not only France and Italy but the other nations of the British Isles – Scotland, England and Ireland – were all beat by Wales in the Six Nations Rugby Grand Slam.
Not until 1959 did Queen Elizabeth permit the Welsh flag with a red dragon to fly above government buildings in Wales. The new Welsh pride has not yet resulted in Wales becoming an entirely autonomous nation from England, but native voters approved the creation of a National Assembly for Wales in 1997, establishing Wales as a separate region ruled by its own constitution within Great Britain.
Nine years later, a Government of Wales Act did pass, which has led to a separation of the legislative and executive branches dictating the region and granted greater power to the National Assembly of Wales to enact its own laws. That same year, a new Senadd Building was completed to house the legislature.
In 1916, during World War I, David Lloyd George became the first Welshman to serve as Great Britain’s Prime Minister, a man whose first language had been Welsh, not English.
Whether it was his saying “leek” in Welsh (Cenhinen) which the British could not correctly understand or his own mispronunciation of the word, about a century ago there were increased references to it as “Cenhinen Pedr.”
The story goes that David Lloyd George first wore a daffodil at a 1911 ceremony for the Prince of Wales.
Thus, one finds the yellow flower as visible as the green-white vegetable on St. David’s Day as the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day.
In 1782, elderly Cherokee chief Oconostota repeated an oral tradition which was then recorded, claiming that ancient forts had once been raised by a tribe called “Welsh” who were driven out by his native ancestors. A 1799 letter recounted that six skeletons with the Welsh coat of arms had been unearthed in Indiana.
Welsh immigrants came to the American colonies and then the United States in distinctive patterns, the first being one Howell Powell to Virginia in 1642, but the colony’s politically elite landed gentry structured their society on British traditions and neither the Anglican Virginians or the Puritan New Englanders particularly welcomed non-English Britons and their non-Anglican faiths.
As is so often the case, religion for the Welsh was as much about cultural pride as it was faith.
In defiance of King Henry VIII changing the British Isles from Catholic to Anglican, some powerful South Wales nobility remained loyal to the Pope and protected commoners who continued the old faith.
When pastors were ordered to cease delivering sermons in Welsh, many refused to conform. In 1660, a restored Charles II of England ordered his courts in Bala, Wales warned those who had become Quakers, Baptists and Methodists that their property would be destroyed if they did not revert to Anglicanism, their refusal to conform being seen as disloyal to the King.
Rather than relent, they pooled resources and purchased about 35,000 acres of land in the Pennsylvania colony, near the Delaware River and close to Philadelphia. By 1700, almost one-third of Pennsylvania’s population of twenty thousand colonists were Welsh.
A century later came the emergence of what were called “Welsh Presbyterians,” who followed the more conservative tenets of the Methodist Church.
A Pennsylvania town was named Cambria for the town of Wales, established by religious followers of Welsh preacher Morgan John Rhys.
From Pennsylvania, enclaves of Welsh-American communities formed in Mechanicsville and Knoxville in Tennessee, and Canal Dover, Niles, Oak Hill, Madison, Franklin and Gloucester in Ohio. Its Jackson County was even known as “Little Wales.”
In the 1840s, a preacher by the name of King Jones from Pontrhydfendigaid, Wales bought some 5,000 acres in Wisconsin and several hundred Welsh families immigrated to the United States to settle there, forming the state’s Wales, Genesee, and Waukesha counties. From there, they migrated and settled in Illinois, and Minnesota, and Arvonia and Bala in Kansas.
A wave of Welsh immigrants came in the 19th century, using their native skills as anthracite and bituminous miners in Pennsylvania, as tinplate craftsman who made cans for food in Ohio and as slate quarrymen in Vermont and New York. In an 1832 letter, John Lewis recorded that Utica had “many Welshmen, and more than forty Welsh preachers. Many Welsh are coming over continually.”
Still others came west to work the Gold Rush, populating the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley, or herd sheep in Idaho, where Malad City boasts the largest population of Welsh outside of Wales.
Mormon missionaries were especially successful in converting the Welsh in the mid-19th century, influencing the converted to settle in Utah.
While still small in actual immigration numbers, the Welsh came to the United States rapidly in the nineteenth century, with just 170 from 1820-1830 to over 10,000 by 1880-1890.
Skilled in the labor of metal and coal mining and furnacing, they found opportunity in coming to America.
Compared to the massive numbers of Irish, Italian, Polish and Russian immigrants who came to the United States at the turn of the last century, the Welsh were small.
The year of 1900 was the peak of their immigration, with a pool of approximately 200,000 first-generation Welsh already settled in the U.S.
What seems to be the case with many Americans who have some degree of Welsh ancestry is that they are likely unaware of it.
Popular Welsh surnames such as Owens, Evans, Bowen, Thomas, Powell, Gwynn, Jones, Floyd, Morgan, Thomas, Glynn, Jenkins, Cardiff, Morris, Pembroke, Davis, Prichard, Ellis are usually mistaken for English.
Like many Scots, Welsh families often found greater hope by first crossing the Irish Sea and settling in Ireland, eventually adapting to many of its customs. There for a generation or so, they came to the United States when the potato famine and other economic hardships prompted the first massive wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s; family tradition and the records of ship passenger lists departing from mostly Cork in Ireland are reason why many Americans who believe their ancestors were Irish find they have traditionally Welsh surnames.
African-Americans also carry a large percentage of Welsh surnames. While some families which identify as black may carry the name of a Welsh ancestor, there is also a strong history between the two cultures, the most common bond being a sense of having shared oppression and movements to forge their own forms of faith.
The most common theory for why so many African-Americans have Welsh names is that they assumed surnames to honor those preachers, abolitionists, co-workers, neighbors and friends who staunchly defended their freedom.
The majority of Welsh immigrants settled in non-slave states. Apart from a handful of early Welsh Quakers who owned slaves, by the mid-1700s the overwhelming majority of Welsh Quakers were fighting for abolition. The small but unified community in Oshkosh, Wisconsin’s Welsh immigrants, for example, rabidly opposed the spread of slavery and supported its eventual abolition across the entire country. Welsh Quakers were also involved in the Underground Railroad.
A number of prominent Americans of Welsh descent were famously abolitionist. Financier and friend of George Washington Gouverneur Morris, whose ancestors hailed from Tintern, Walves, proposed that New York state’s 1776 constitution include an outright ban on slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, who helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society, was also of Welsh ancestry as was abolitionist Esther Morris, the first woman appointed to office in Wyoming.
While most Americans are able to distinguish the Scottish and the Irish from the English, it seems simply that they’ve rarely been exposed to anything distinctly Welsh.
Yet it is still there, without looking too far.
There’s a Welsh-American newspaper, Ninnau & Y Drych, published in New Jersey and The Women’s Welsh Club of New York meet monthly. There are three different Welsh-American organizations in Chicago alone. Welsh St. David Societies may have small membership numbers but they are strong clubs and found in every region of the United States.
And whatever is Welsh in the United States converges today, on St. David’s Day.
Chicago, Illinois is hosting a “Cawl & Cocktails” party, with a raffle, silent auction, and whiskey trifle for dessert.There are St. David’s Day dinners in Windsor, Connecticut and Sarasota, Florida, and luncheons in Pella, Iowa and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Youngstown, Ohio’s annual St. David’s Society banquet of dinner, concert, and singing is a big deal. That city has been marking the holiday for nearly a century and a quarter and is likely the nation’s oldest such Welsh-American celebration.
Albany, New York is hosting a lecture on ancient Welsh heroes. Emporia, Kansas is sponsoring a Welsh music concert. At Racine, Wisconsin’s Covenant Presbyterian Church will hold a special morning worship service honoring the town’s Welsh immigrants, followed by a Welsh music performance and announcement of Welsh music scholarships in – where else – Welsh Hall. In little Edwardsville, Pennsylvania there will be a polite Welsh tea with a dance performance at the Congregationalist Church. Tecwyn Jones is lecturing on differences between Welsh and Celtic culture in Minneapolis. In New York’s Carnegie Hall, there’s a concert of Welsh choral music. Rockmart, Georgia’s Welshfest will offer tours of a Welsh-American religious chapel along with Welsh desserts, the telling of Welsh children’s fairytales and, of course – barbeque.
With the National Welsh-American Foundation being the most prominent of sponsors, Los Angeles is hosting its annual St. David’s Day Festival this year at the Cinefamily Silent Movie Theater. In that unique blending which has long been unique to life in the United States, Welsh-Americans will be gathering for the event known in Welsh as “Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant, Los Angeles-Diwrnod Cenedlaethol Cymru,” in the heart of the Russian community along Fairfax Avenue, walking distance from the famous Farmer’s Market and the Grove.
The centerpiece of Los Angeles’s St. David’s Day festival is a grand concert. A native of the Isle of Anglesey off the northern Welsh coast, the singer and composer island village Meinir Gwilym is making her American debut there, performing both traditional Welsh songs and new works.
Harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis, a native of Rhiwbina, Wales, is presenting a set of compositions honoring Welsh composers.
Under the direction of Tony Davis, the Welsh Choir of Southern California will sing traditional Welsh folk and hymnal music, most of which will be presented in the native Welsh language.
It wouldn’t be a genuinely Welsh event without harp music, being offered by vocalist and harpist Aedan MacDonnell.
Along with the concert will be a rudimentary Welsh language class, and sale of traditional Welsh crafts.
There’s also a book party for Peter Anthony Freeman’s new publication The Age of Saints: An Illustrated Guide to the Saints of Wales. Artist Kimberly Wlassak is going to be exhibiting her original art from a book of traditional Welsh and Celtic fairy tales. Numerous other Welsh-American and artists will have their works on display and for sale.
And, of course, there will be a sampling of traditional Welsh food dishes.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, the media who covered the Republican candidate Mitt Romney became familiar with a scone-like bread treat known as Welsh cakes. They were made personally by the then-First Lady-hopeful Ann Romney, whose father was a Welsh immigrant.
To Welsh-Americans, however, just as familiar is a stew known as cawl, a basic vegetable and meat dish but one which, despite the relatively small square footage of Wales, varies in taste depending on the region one samples it: coastal Welsh use fish and other seafood, those inland often employ ham and bacon, while those in the mountains invariably employ lamb and mutton.
There’s also the distinctive leek soup and Welsh lamb, bara brith, a fruit teacake, glamorgan sausages, and perhaps the most familiar one of Welsh Rarebit, toast with baked cheese, which has been around since 1542.
Yes, those Americans who identify as Welsh are less than one percent of the population. Sure, St. David’s Day is no St. Patrick’s Day, scones are less greasy than Welsh cakes and no hip-hop music has yet integrated a Welsh harp.
Considering the known number of public figures who had some ancestors come to the United States from Wales, however, we’ve all done well by the, well, Welsh:
Five Presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge), Johnny Depp, four First Ladies (Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Rachel Jackson and Hillary Clinton), Reese Witherspoon, four signers of the Declaration of Independence (Francis Lewis, Button Gwinnett, Lewis Morris and Robert Morris), Bette Davis, Daniel Boone, Tom Cruise, Daniel Webster, James Dean, Jack London, Kelly Clarkson, labor leader John L. Lewis, Harold Lloyd, Vanessa Williams, Frank Lloyd Wright, Myrna Loy, Michael Phelps, Rob Lowe, Senator Patty Murray, Ray Milland, Elihu Yale, Jack Nicholson, Howard Hughes,
And the list does go on, much like the name of a town in Wales.
There’s also D. W. Griffith, Taylor Swift, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Christina Applegate, J. P. Morgan, Bruce Willis, Charles Evans Hughes, John and Anjelica Huston, Jefferson Davis, Betty White, Ogden Nash, Matt Bomer, Bradley Manning, Juliette Lewis, Sinclair Lewis, Seth MacFarlane, Jack Daniels, Quincy Jones, Meriwether Lewis, Brad Pitt, Bob Evans, Chris Pine, William Fargo, the Osmonds, Revolutionary War general Daniel Morgan, Jason Robards, Jesse James, Julia Roberts, Union Army General George Henry Thomas, Susan Sarandon, Miss America Mary Katherine Campbell, John Goodman, Liev Schreiber, Labor Secretary John Davis, Robin Williams, and Kristin Chenoweth.
And for good measure, you can even include Paris Hilton, Benedict Arnold, E. Howard Hunt and Britney Spears.