Llanbrynmair Immigration to North America

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1795 AND 1856/7

"Of the people born in Llanbrynmair in the last fifty years there are more now living in America than in Llanbrynmair. It is surprising to think that so many live around Ebensburg, Pittsburgh, Utica, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and especially towards Allen, Putnam, Paddy's Run and Cincinnati".(1)

This comment was made by the Rev. Samuel Roberts in a letter from Cincinnati dated June 2nd 1857, and will serve as an introduction to this essay, which will examine the two emigrations from Llanbrynmair, in 1795 and 1856/7. The first venture was a success, in that the emigrants settled into the new country and in time were satisfactorily integrated into the environment and community. Defined in those terms, the second venture was a failure, and the purpose of this essay is to ascertain the reason.

Although the two groups of emigrants were separated by a period of sixty years, they had problems in common: the uprooting from friends and homes in Wales, a hazardous sea voyage to the new world, the difficulty of finding a suitable area in which to settle, the hard labour and frustration of clearing a site, shortage of money, propinquity of disease and death, and that peculiar Welsh form of homesickness, "hiraeth". And although distanced by time, the two groups were linked by ties of blood, represented by three generations of the Roberts and Bebb families, encompassing the localities of Llanbrynmair, Ebensburg, Ohio, Illinois and Tennessee.(2)

Some of the reasons for emigration were equally constant. William Jones, the self-taught disciple of Voltaire, wrote from Llangadfan in the 1790s: (3)
"The hardships which the poor inhabitants of this barren country suffer by the Insatiable Avarice of the Landowners, have affected my feelings so, that I had determined to write too London to get Intelligence of some proprietor of uncultivated land in America in order to offer my services to concert a Plan for removing such of my countrymen as have spirit enough to leave their Aegyptian Taskmasters and try their fortune on the other side of the Atlantic"

Samuel Roberts fifty years later was writing "The History of Diosg Farm" and "Farmer Careful, Cilhaul Uchaf" to call attention to the iniquities of the tenant farming system as it still existed in Wales. Squeezed by landlords, high prices and recurring poor harvests, the Welsh farmers and agricultural workers of the 1790s would have been able to compare and match notes with their descendants in the 1850s. Another factor was religious tension: the landowners and their stewards belonged to the Church, whereas the tenants and farm workers were more likely to be Dissenters, worshipping at the Independent Hen Gapel where Rev. John Roberts (brother of the emigrating George Roberts) was co-pastor from 1795 and minister from 1798-1834, assisted and then succeeded by his son, Rev. Samuel Roberts.

A brief account of the two emigrations must be given before the solution to our question can be found. The American sailing ship "Maria", laden with a cargo of cloth, grindstones, earthenware, glass, felt hats, bottled beer, iron nails, tobacco pipes, bound and unbound books(4) left Bristol on August 6th 1795, and deposited its travel-worn passengers in Philadelphia on Monday October 27th 1795(1). Among them were two bachelors, Ezekiel Hughes and Edward Bebb; newlyweds George and Jane Roberts, with other friends from Llanbrynmair, and Rev. Rees Lloyd, Congregationalist Minister from Ebenezer Pontypool with his heavily pregnant wife. On landing Rees Lloyd went to the Great Valley area, where his son Ebenezer was born on the day of his arrival (only to be buried in the Presbyterian churchyard within eight months)(6).

The Llanbrynmair party in Philadelphia eventually made contact with Morgan John Rhys, and this was to determine their future destination. Rhys (who later Americanised his name to Rhees) was a Welsh Baptist from Glamorgan, who had acquired radical pro-French ideas while distributing Christian tracts in Paris after the French Revolution, and had promulgated them at home in both pamphlet and sermon. As England and France were at war from 1793 onwards, these ideas were dangerous, and Rhys left Wales, arriving in New York in October 1794. He embarked on a grand tour of the Republic, preaching vehemently against slavery, and incidentally earmarking choice sites for his vision of the town of Beulah, a proposed settlement for his Welsh compatriots where he could establish an interdenominational "Christian Church" which would accommodate all the splintered sects of nonconformity. Rhys set up the Cambrian Company, and on 1st October 1796 he purchased under mortgage for £9,450 from the noted Dr. Benjamin Rush forty-three named tracts in Pennsylvania, on the waters of the Blacklick and the Connemaugh, a total of 17,400 acres situated nearly 250 miles west of Philadelphia and 80 miles from Pittsburgh.

The first task was to settle the area, and using a compass to guide its way through the wilderness went the first group, consisting of twelve families and four bachelors, including Rev. Rees Lloyd and George Roberts. The experience is succinctly described by George Roberts:(7)

"Left Philadelphia for Cambria September 20th 1796, wandered on foot along the road in the wilderness till November 19th, when we had a small cabin of poles not larger than my thigh built in which we lived pretty contented for two years, sometimes without a bit of bread in the house"

George Roberts thrived, and by 1801 he had cleared between eight and ten of his fifty acres situated a couple of miles east of the Beulah town site (in which he had two lots), and owned a dozen cattle and four pigs. Writing to his parents in Llanbrynmair on 13th October 1801 he said(8)

"I have hardly a trace of fear of poverty that dogged me for some years in Wales to a sinful extent"

But around the same time Rev. Rees Lloyd, mourning the loss of a second child who had died from exposure in the forest, was unable to recommend Cambria to new arrivals in Philadelphia(9)

"It is too hard for poor people (to) make a living upon this land on the account of its heavy clearing and slow producings. It require(s) a great deal of money and a strong team and to buy their provisions the twice and thrice first years . . . I cannot with a clear conscience to encourage my poor countrymen to depend much on this place"

A second party arrived in the spring of 1797, accompanied by Morgan John Rhees, flushed with enthusiasm and great plans for Beulah and its proposed Seminary and Library. But the vision was not strong enough to overcome the low morale brought about by severe winters and backbreaking work. When the fertile Ohio lands were made more easily available as a result of federal legislation in 1800, many of the Beulah settlers joined the western migratory stampede. Rees Lloyd, although restless, stayed behind, and bought a react of land three miles east of the Beulah site, from Dr. Benjamin Rush. He announced the plotting of a new town, to be called Ebensburg, and by judicious promises of town lots to the right quarters was in March 1805 able to secure the status of County Seat for the almost non-existent town. Morgan Rhees, crushed by the Beulah worries, had died three months earlier at the age of 45, so he did not suffer this final blow to his dream town caused by the elevation of an upstart rival. Rees Lloyd acted s minister of the First Congregational Church until 1817, when he went to Paddy's Run, Ohio. George Roberts became his co-pastor, and later sole minister, and held public positions as constable, Assessor in 1805, and a justice of the peace or "judge" in 1807, and died in 1853 at the age of 84, a respected if rather narrow-minded member of his community.

While the settlement of the Cambria area was being pioneered, two of the bachelor emigrants, Ezekiel Hughes and Edward Bebb, continued on to Pittsburgh and then floated down the Ohio (river) beyond the mouth of the Miami tributary towards Fort Washington (now Cincinnati) to a spot picked out earlier by Morgan John Rhees. Ezekiel Hughes purchased 80 or 100 acres of poor land from the Symmes Purchase, and when the federal Land Act of 1800 opened up the area, both were able to buy properties along the Whitewater. Thus established by 1801, Ezekiel Hughes returned to Wales to collect a bride. Edward Bebb, also en route to Wales, called on his friends at Cambria, where by chance he met his old Llanbrynmair sweetheart Margaret Roberts Owen, who had come to join her brother George at Cambria; and although she had been widowed on the voyage over in 1801, she overcame her grief and married Edward Bebb on Feb. 2nd 1802, returning to Ohio with him and established a family at Paddy's Run(10). This Ohio settlement attracted many Welsh emigrants, especially when the Rev. Benjamin Chidlaw visited Wales and advertised its virtues in the 1830s. Edward and Margaret Bebb's oldest child, William Bebb, was to become in turn local schoolmaster, lawyer, governor of Ohio from 1846-49, a campaign manager for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, and to end his working life rewarded by a post as Chief Examiner in the U.S. Patents Office. Ezekiel Hughes was appointed in 1805 to make a road from the mouth of the Miami to Hamilton, Ohio, and the following year he was made a Justice of the Peace. He was a friend and fellow Sunday School teacher of the aspiring young politician responsible for introducing the 1800 Land Act, William Henry Harrison, who became president for a few months in 1841, and during his long life offered continuous help to the Welsh emigrants who followed his path to America.(11)

From the above it is plain that even allowing for the failure of the Beulah scheme (and there were many such 'town failures' in the developing United States), the first emigration was a success in that the members survived, reared families, eventually prospered to some degree, and assumed positions of responsibility in the communities they helped to establish.

The second expedition in 1856/57 led by Rev. Samuel Roberts ("S.R.") and his brother Richard Roberts (known as Gruffydd Rhisiart) was by no means such a step into the unknown as had been the earlier emigration. Correspondence between S.R's uncle George Roberts and his father Rev. John Roberts had been regular; visits from Americans were more frequent; pamphlets enticing immigrants were prolific. Steamships were replacing the cramped packet ships, although conditions on board were still overcrowded, unsanitary and uncomfortable. Immigrants, predominantly labourers, farmers and mechanics, were flocking unto the United States from all over the world, and especially Ireland after the famine of the previous decade, and emigration from the United Kingdom reached a peak in the early 1950s.(12) By this time the Midwest and California were popular destinations, surpassed only by the burgeoning cities such as New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Detroit and San Francisco.(13) A stream of emigrants had left Llanbrynmair in the intervening decades, which enabled S.R. to make the comment with which this essay began..

The story of the second emigration is as follows:

Ex-governor William Bebb visited Llanbrynmair in 1855 and persuaded his first cousin "S.R." and Gruffydd Rhisiart Roberts and their nephews William Jones and John Roberts Jones to support him on a venture to settle a group of Welsh people in East Tennessee. Bebb felt confident that all the best land in the west had been appropriated, and that the paths of future emigration would lie southwards. An enticing prospectus was drawn up offering to sell 100,000 acres of land at half a crown an acre.(14) This land was purchased by Bebb in New York from two gentlemen, E.D.Saxton and Mr. de Cock. who were apparently members of the genus "land-sharks" which flourished in nineteenth century America. It was inadequately surveyed, and disputes about ownership arose shortly after the first group of Welshmen arrived in the summer of 1856. This party was led by Gruffydd Rhisiart, a practical farmer in his mid-forties, who somewhat reluctantly agreed to prepare the way for the main group which was to follow twelve months later under the guidance of his brother "S.R." As soon as the newcomers realised the doubts about legal title, many of them moved on to Ohio to friends and relatives in an already established community.(15) Mr. Williams and the two Jones nephews, whose names headed the 1856 prospectus, also 'defected', leaving S.R. and Gruffydd Rhisiart to deal with the physical and legal problems at Brynyffynnon, Scott County, Tennessee. William Bebb came in form much criticism at this time for involving the Welsh emigrants in such an ill-prepared venture, and for not taking part in the settlement. Writing to his uncle S.R. in March 1858 from Allen County, Ohio, the 'defector' John R Jones said:(16)

"I should be please if I had never seen Mr. Bebb and E.B.Jones (Bebb's cousin, a surveyor) and if I had never heard of Tenn.... it cannot be denied that we have been disappointed in our venture. It would be a blessing if we could sell up and get, each one, his money back. Indeed Mr. Bebb was very wicked, urging us to but land in Tennessee without knowing more about it, and the Titles so uncertain. He should have been the first to settle there .... (April 11th 1858) ... I do not and have not seen him fulfilling any of his promises, and it is my studied opinion that he had nothing more in mind when he drew our attention to the land but his own pocket".

There may have been an element of truth in this accusation, although Bebb was genuinely desirous of extending the benefits of America to the deprived Welsh. Samuel Roberts was even more critical of Bebb's laxness in March 1861 (17)

"It is a sad fact that in reality nothing has been done during the past five years to survey and describe our lands ... I know something of the weight and compass of your powers, and know also that you could have done something handsomely of our Tennessee investment if you had resolutely and perseveringly resolved to try"

In defence of Bebb, he did have personal problems in 1857 because he was involved in a shooting incident at his home in Illinois, and underwent a lengthy trial and retrial for manslaughter. Once acquitted he set up a law practice I Knoxville, to be better able to attend to the Tennessee project.(18)

The uncertainties over legal titles and disputes with squatters were only one reason why it was difficult to attract Welsh settlers to the area; another was the slavery question. The Welsh nonconformists were violently opposed to slavery, and Tennessee was a slave state. To settle in such an area made rationalisation of principles necessary, and it was easier to avoid the moral dilemma by staying in the northern states of Pennsylvania or Ohio. "S.R." was a strong advocate of abolition in his earlier career, and his residence in Tennessee brought criticism in America and Wales. Humphrey and Sarah Roberts wrote from Jackson County, Ohio to their father and brother in June 1861:(19)

"The Welsh in America have worshiped (sic) Samuel Roberts, Llanbrynmair, like Great Diana of Ephesus. He sent a letter here to the North recently, saying that he had swallowed the accursed doctrine of the slave dealers in Tennessee. He says in his letter that the people of the South are more noble and righteous than the people of the North, and that the people of the North are to blame for the conflict, Oh! servant of the enemy and a wolf in sheep's clothing! If he came with his letter, the preachers of the North would give him the coat of tar and feathers which he deserves. Now he is caught in his own trap. It is supposed that he wrote against slavery in Wales and this rises against him now. Enough of the wretch.!"

Accustomed to fame and admiration (from his own people at least), "S.R." found this criticism, which was untrue, a particular sharp nail in his cross. Not all his friends deserted him. however, because he was invited to become minister of the Welsh Independent Church in Pittsburgh on January 13th 1860, but felt unable to leave the Tennessee lands at that juncture. (20)

Like Samuel Roberts, ex-governor William Bebb was wholeheartedly opposed to slavery. Evidently he considered himself a man of affairs, and his letters to his cousin were studded with political analyses; but his misjudgement about the southern direction of the pattern of emigration (perhaps excusable on the eve of the transcontinental railway) was repeated in his prognostications about the slavery issue. In March 1857 he asserted to "S.R." that he thought he saw 'the great excitement which has raged for three years between the North and South over the question of Slavery Extension gradually passing away.' (21) Instead the Kansas- Nebraska Act debates and the "Bleeding Kansas" episodes were only a prelude to the real battle of the Civil War, and when this occurred in April 1861 it was the final blow to the Tennessee project. The remaining Welsh immigrants fled to the north, and soldiers of both the north and the south tramped across the territory demanding sustenance and shelter from the two brothers left isolated and beleaguered on all sides. William Bebb , throughout the Civil War was safely ensconced in Washington DC He had left Knoxville in August 1860 and had campaigned for two months in Indiana and Illinois at the request and on behalf of Abraham Lincoln (a political stance which made him 'persona non grata' in Tennessee, where his property was ravaged and his portrait mutilated). Although disappointed with Lincoln's reward of Consul-Generalship to Tangier, which he declined, he was able to swallow his pride and accept the post of Chief Examiner in the Patents Office at $2,500 per annum, along with government jobs for his two sons also in Washington.(22)

The Civil War dragged on, and ended in 1865. Samuel Roberts returned to Liverpool in 1867, where he was presented in March 1868 with a testimonial of £1,245 contributed by over 14.000 people.(23) He returned to Tennessee in 1870 to arrange for the sale of land, and to bring Gruffydd Rhisiart and his family back to Conway. "S.R." spent much of his time thereafter pressing his claim unsuccessfully on the U.S. Government for $2,815 "for supplies furnished in Scott County, Tennessee to Union troops during the rebellion."(24) The Tennessee lands were not properly surveyed until 1881, by which time a reasonable price could be realised. Samuel and his brother Gruffydd Rhisiart lived long enough to see their efforts vindicated to a small degree.

Some of the reasons for the failure of this second emigration can be divined from the narrative: insecure land titles, lack of settlers, the slavery question, and the ravages of the Civil War. To these external events must be added internal factors predisposing the venture to failure. In the first place, the ages and enthusiasms of the protagonists were different. The 1795 emigrants were in their twenties, at the start of their careers as family men. They threw themselves whole-heartedly into their tasks, probably having no option than to do otherwise. William Bebb and Samuel Roberts on the other hand, were in their late fifties, their careers established, their personalities formed. Neither of them was willing to give his full attention to the project. "S.R." was not a pioneer settler: he was a preacher, writer and a radical reformer with ideas ahead of his time, and only incidentally a farmer. He espoused causes, such as the abolition of capital punishment, tenderness in education, free trade, abolition of the Corn Laws, voting reforms, cheap postal rates, and railway communications, long before the well-known reformers lent their names, and societies formed to bring about such changes. In America he petitioned President Buchanan in person about reducing postal charges,(25) and championed the north/south railroad to link Cincinnati with the southern railways and thus bring prosperity to the south. Similarly, William Bebb had a career of law and politics to drain off his energies and make the Tennessee venture a secondary concern.

More significant than the differing personal commitments of the leaders of the two groups is the difference in motivation. The 1795 emigration had idealistic impulses which were much stronger than in the later period. Then, America (and particularly the green and pleasant land of Pennsylvania) was seen as a new Jerusalem, where Welshmen could create a new Wales, beginning afresh. These mystical notions did not die in the nineteenth century - they were behind the Welsh settlement of Patagonia in the 1870s - they had become diluted at least as regards America. The missionary impulse was also active. Ideas spawned by the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales a century before were extended to embrace the evangelistic of the 'back settlements' of the American frontier, and the Indians. Morgan John Rhys enunciated these aims in his publication "Cylchgrawn Cynmraeg" which appeared briefly in 1793, stating the promoters' intention. . . ." to give profit towards supporting missionaries to preach the Gospel to the Indians, and more especially to open the door to go to the old Welsh who sailed with Madoc ab Owen Gwynedd in the year 1170 to North America, and who now live near the Missouri River, far inland"(26). This myth of the Madogiad was in a phase of active revival during the 1790s, and John Evans, with considerable local support and publicity, had set off in 1792 from Wales in search of this fabled tribe of light-coloured Welsh-speaking Indians reputed to be descendants of a Welsh prince Madoc, who discovered America some three hundred years before Columbus. He did not find them, but his observations and maps were helpful to Meriwether Lewis and Clark on their exploratory mission for Thomas Jefferson in 1804 after the Louisiana Purchase. This mythical tribe ( which investigations in the last century have effectively demolished, although like all myths it dies hard), awaiting salvation and to be reunited with their Welsh brethren, were beckoning figures in the wilderness. Apocalyptic visions of a new beginning, a missionary zeal, and mysterious mythical ancestors were therefore powerful stimulants to the imagination of the emigrants at the end of the eighteenth century, and the emigrants of the 1850s had only pale shadows to sustain their spirits in time of despair.

Finally, America in the mid-nineteenth century was a different place form that encountered by the early group at the end of the eighteenth century.. The single factor that was transforming the economic, social and political life was technology - the railway, telegraphy and industrial developments - and the Civil War acted as a catalyst in hastening the pace of expansion. In the period of railway 'mania' from 1846 to 1860 the major trade routes were reoriented in a shift of 90o , from north/south via Ohio and Mississippi waterways, to east/west via the railways, so that the main economic artery became New York to Chicago, with the Great Lakes achieving prominence. Immigration and development spread westwards, not southwards as Bebb had predicted. Also, as technology seized hold of America, the Jeffersonian ideal of the God-fearing, hard-working agriculturalist was being superceded by the industrial urban worker, and on the land before long the sweat of the honest man's brow would be an inadequate substitute for heavy capital investment in farm machinery.

The 1856/7 emigration, with its aim of an independent Welsh settlement, was therefore an anachronism, and even without the squabbles over land ownership, the dearth of settlers, and the unfortunate occurrence of the Civil War, it would have been defeated by economic factors in ante-bellum America in the early stages of its industrial revolution.


(1) Y Cronicl, Vol.XV, Oct. 1857. Quoted p.32 (Ed.) Alan Conway "The Welsh in America - Letters from the Immigrants" University of Wales Press, Cardiff : 1961

(2) See Appendix 1 for abbreviated genealogy [not yet available]

(3) NLW.Ms.13221.E quoted pp.6-6 Conway op.cit.

(4) Bristol Exports 1795-96 Presentments, Aug 4th 1795 (Appendix 2)

(5) A graphic account of the vicissitudes of the journey is given by George Roberts - See Appendix 3, pp.16-19

(6) Welsh History Review, Vol.3 1966-7, pp. 441-472, Sept.1967. Article by Gwyn A. Williams: "Morgan John Rhees and his Beulah".

(7) George Roberts letter - Appendix 1. p.19

(8) Quoted Williams, W.Hist. Rev. (op.cit.) p.464

(9) Rees Lloyd - Samuel Jones, n.d., Pennepek papers quoted Williams, W.Hist. Rev. (op.cit.) p.467

(10) Stephen Riggs Williams "The Saga of Paddy's Run", pp19-20. Miami University Press, Oxford, Ohio. 1845

(11) Richard Williams, F.R.H.S. "Montgomeryshire Worthies" 2nd. Ed.1894 Phillips &Son, Newtown (Private printing)

(12) Terry Coleman, "Passage to America", p.355, 359. Penguin: 1974

(13) Maldwyn A. Jones, "American Immigration" ch.V, Univ. Chicago: 1960

(14) See appendix 4.

(15) Glanmor Williams, "Samuel Robert, Llanbrynmair", ch.IV. Univ.of Wales Press, Cardiff: 1950

(16) Clare Taylor, "Samuel Roberts and his circle" (unpublished) 1974, NLW ms.14093 John R. Jones to Samuel Roberts, March/April 1858

(17) C.Taylor op.cit. NLW.Tennessee Papers, draft March 8th, 1861 - Samuel Roberts to Hon. W.Bebb

(18) Stephen Riggs Williams, op.cit. p.27

(19) Quoted in Conway, op.cit. p.288 NLW. Ms.2600.E.

(20) C.Taylor, op.cit. nlw. mS.14093 - Elders of Welsh Independent Church in Pittsburgh to S.R. Jan 13, 1860

(21) Ibid., NLW,Tennessee Papers, Wm.Bebb to S.R. March 4,1857

(22) Ibid., NLW. Tennessee Papers, Wm. Bebb from Washington, D.C. to Samuel Roberts

(23) Clare Taylor, op.cit.

(24) Clare Taylor, op.cit. Tennessee Papers, S.R. and R.R. from Conway. Jan 12, 1872

(25) Ibid., Tennessee Papers, Aug.31, 1857

(26) David Williams, "John Evans' Strange Journey" American History Review Vol.LIV : 1949, p.513.

This essay was sent to me by David Ryall:

"This was written by my sister, Mrs. Joan Adams, in about 1974 and was submitted to Keele University for the Wedgewood prize - was joint winner. Joan died in 1991 aged 61 and this essay was in a folder of miscellaneous papers in my attic. I consider it too valuable to gather dust so I've retyped it. It is 4,270 words long, but the appendices (which I haven't typed up yet) are twice as long. "

Appendix 3 gives an account of George Roberts' background and voyage. [I don't yet know if the other appendices will become available, since they have to be transcribed. If possible I will add them here. Malcolm]

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