The forgotten plans for a Welsh-speaking colony in ‘New Wales’ in north America

The story of the Welsh-speaking colony in Patagonia in South America is a familiar tale to many in Wales – but 200 years before its establishment, there were hopes of a Cymraeg colony far to the north.

The late 17th Century saw a great migration of Welsh Quakers to the British colonies in north America, lured by the prospect of a homeland where they could practice their faith and govern themselves in their native tongue.

The settlement was called the Welsh Tract and it was located in Pennsylvania – though the governor of the colony actually preferred the name New Wales to Pennsylvania, and even offered 20 guineas to get it changed.

But despite the promises made to the settlers, the area never gained self-government – though names on modern maps such as Narbeth and Radnor show the Welsh influence lives on.

The story of the Welsh Tract begins in 1681 when, in the way of things in colonial America, the English king Charles II granted a land charter to Quaker William Penn – a huge parcel of land of some 29 million acres was handed over to pay a debt of £16,000 which the monarch owed to Penn’s father, Admiral William Penn.

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The king named the new colony Pennsylvania – literally “Penn’s Woods” – in honor of the admiral, though Penn junior wanted the land to be called New Wales because it was a “pretty, hilly country. Penn was apparently worried that people would think it had been named in his honour, and he would later write: “I opposed it [the name] 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 Pennsylvania rather than New Wales it became.

Though New Wales is clearly a much better name.

Following the establishment of the colony Penn began organising the settlement of the land, sending dozens of ship and around 2,000 colonists and investors to the New World.

The area was already home to a number of Native American peoples including the Delaware and Susquehannock tribes, and treaties were signed with them.

Before Penn himself headed across the Atlantic, a group of Welsh Quakers led by John Roberts began discussion with him about the possibility of establishing a place “within which all causes, quarrels, crimes and disputes might be tried and wholly determined by officers, magistrates, and juries of our language.”

Penn agreed, and some 40,000 acres on the banks of Schuylkill river near the colonial capital, Philadelphia, were earmarked for the Welsh Tract where his fellow Quakers could run their own affairs in the Welsh language.

Quakers from across north and west Wales started to make the hazardous journey across the Atlantic, and the Welsh population of the new colony began to grow.

The founding of the Welsh Tract

“Whereas diverse considerable persons among the Welsh Friends have requested me that all the Lands Purchased of me by those of North Wales and South Wales, together with the adjacent counties to them, as Herefordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire, about forty-thousand acres, may be laid out contiguously as one Barony, alleging that the number already come and suddenly to come, are such as will be capable of planting the same much within the proportion allowed by the custom of the country, and so not lye in large useless vacancies.

“And because I am inclined and determined to agree and favor them with any reasonable Conveniency and privilege: I do hereby charge thee and strictly require thee to lay out the said tract of Land in as uniform a manner as conveniently may be, upon the west side of Schuylkill river, running three miles upon the same,and two miles backward, and then extend the parallel with the river six miles and to run westwardly so far as this the said quantity of land be Completely surveyed unto you.”

William Penn, March 1864

However, though the area was surveyed and boundaries set out in 1687, the Tract was never formally enacted – by the 1690s the land that was supposed to be a single entity had been carved up and claimed by other counties as the administration and governance of Pennsylvania was settled.

Though Welsh settlers continued to move to the area – and to this day the townships they established such as Radnor, Bala Cynwyd, Narbeth, Berwyn and Upper Merion have more than a familiar ring to them – the dream of a Welsh-speaking, self-governing colony was lost.

But the Welsh Tract would not be the last attempt to establish a Welsh-speaking community in Pennsylvania. In the 1790s preacher and anti-slavery campaigner Morgan John Rees bought 17,000 acres of land west of Philadelphia and established Cambria. But the settlement did not prove a success, with one Welsh colonist, Rev Rees Lloyd, writing: “It is too hard for poor people to make a living upon this land. I cannot with a clear conscience to encourage my poor countrymen to depend much on this place.”

Today the land envisaged as the Welsh Tract or Welsh Barony is split across three counties of Pennsylvania – Montgomery, Chester and Delaware.

Dr Richard Hall from Swansea University ‘s College of Arts and Humanities said the Welsh have had a large influence on Pennsylvania since its earliest days.

He said: “Penn advertised his new province extensively in Europe, and particularly among oppressed and persecuted peoples. He also ensured a widely skilled settler population, advertising for ‘Industrious husbandmen and day labourers… carpenters, masons, smiths, weavers, taylors, tanners shoemakers, shipwrights’ to move there.

“One of the peoples suffering religious persecution at the time were the Welsh Quakers. They were forbidden to hold meetings, and penalized for doing so by imprisonment and fines. In 1682 therefore, a committee of Welsh Quakers visited Penn in London and negotiated with him for a tract of land in Pennsylvania, consisting of 40,000 acres for exclusive purchase and settlement by the Welsh Quakers.

“The first party of Welsh to immigrate to Penn’s colony were the so-called ‘Merioneth Adventurers’. Their leader was Dr Edward Jones. Other leading figures were Edward Rees, William John, and Cadwalder Morgan. The Welsh Tract was for exclusive settlement and use by the Welsh. It had the nature of a Manor of a Baron and was often spoken of as the Welsh Barony.”

He added: “The Welsh influence upon Pennsylvania persisted well beyond the colonial era. Saint Davids and Wayne in Delaware County; Berwyn, Nantmeal, and Whitford in Chester; and Cynwyd, Bryn Athyn, Gwynedd, Narberth, Penllyn, and Wynnewood in Montgomery all proclaim Welsh origin

“In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Welsh expertise was crucial in establishing coal and slate industries in Pennsylvania’s northeast. This would extend to the iron and steel mills of the west.

“The establishment of notable institutions of higher learning owed much to Welsh input too. Welsh influence is also present in the names of lawyers, jurists, educators, musicians, and statespersons who have all left their mark on Pennsylvanian life over the last century or so.”

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