Leeks and St. David – A Look at Welsh Research

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Several months ago, when I developed this calendar quarter’s list of blog topics, an article on Welsh genealogical research seemed like a fine addition to the list. What was I thinking?! During my study of the topic, I soon discovered that Welsh research is complicated and is, perhaps, not a topic that can be covered in depth in my standard-length article.

From the outset, it is important to understand that family history has long been of central importance to the people of Wales. Hywel Dda, a Welsh King (ca. 904-950), is said to have codified some of the earliest legal documents in Wales, although the earliest known manuscript of these laws dates only to the second quarter of the thirteenth century. One of the stipulations of the Laws of Hywel Dda was the requirement that families know their relatives to the ninth generation. In 1188, Giraldus Cambrensis noted that “even the lowest of the low was able to recite from memory his family tree, naming at least six or seven generations.”(John and Sheila Rowland’s, Welsh Family History: A Guide to Research, 2nd ed. ,Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008).  Indeed, a Welsh proverb states “Unhappy is the one without land, without lineage.” (Anniddig heb drig, heb dras.)

As I read articles and searched web sites, however, I was able to identify several recurrent themes that help to illustrate the difficulties inherent in Welsh research. I share them with you here, along with to selected resources that may assist you in researching a possible Welsh ancestry.

1.       Immigration issues: As you research the generations of your family from the present into the past, your goal is to identify the progenitor of your putative Welsh line in the United States. Wales and England were united under Henry VIII. Emigration from Wales to America began as early as 1667, with a mass emigration occurring during the nineteenth century, principally from the port of Liverpool. United States officials often did not distinguish between Welsh and English immigrants. This fact may make any surviving family traditions related to Welsh heritage a key factor in your research. Sherry Irvine, in her article for Ancestry Daily News (11 May 2004), states that “of the British immigrants arriving in America in the 1860s, 2% or about 4,000 were Welsh, yet the census of 1870 reveals that nearly 30,000 stated they were born in Wales.” One indicator of Welsh ethnicity may be suggested by an individual’s choice of residence in the United States. Idaho’s Malad City,  settled by a group of Welsh Mormons, boasts a higher population percentage with Welsh heritage than anywhere else outside of Wales (21.1%). Apart from Malad City, the most common places of settlement are found in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Many Welsh settled where work was available in mines and quarries. Additional settlement locations can be found online at Welsh Ancestry Maps.

2.       Surname issues: Once you have identified your progenitor in the United States, several factors may impact your search for individuals bearing his specific name in Wales. If you have ever done colonial Virginia research, you will have experienced the frustration of contending with common surnames in combination with equally common given names and the infrequent use of middle names. At times, this situation is enough to make you want to tear your hair out. A similar situation exists in Wales – although perhaps worse – as very few surnames are in use throughout the population as a whole. Further complicating the issue is the use of patronymics well into the nineteenth century, although you will see some surname conformity imposed by church register entries and civil registration which reduced the generational changes in surname. Finally, use of the “ap” prefix to designate “son of” has also had its impact on surnames. Over time, the “ap” became an elision in which the “a” was dropped and the first letter of the surname thus became a “P.” Samples can be seen in the change from “ap Rhys” to “Price;” and “ap Howell” to “Powell.” In summary, surnames frequently changed with each generation. Once surnames gained the ascendancy, the high percentage of surnames beginning with “P” may reflect the earlier use of “ap,” or “son of.” Finally, the small number of surnames in use creates a heightened need to distinguish one Owen Powell from possibly many others.

3.       Place name issues: One method frequently used to help distinguish one individual from another of the same name is to document location. Here again, Welsh records may prove difficult as Welsh place names can cause a great deal of confusion and can test our skills as well as our imaginations. Who would not want an ancestor from Cefn-coed-y-cymmer, or Penllwyncoch-fawr, or Rhiwbryfdir? First, you will need to recognize common place name elements such as capel and cefn. In addition, both Welsh and English names may be used for a single location – and they may not be the same! You will want to acquire a good Welsh gazetteer or atlas and have access to a Welsh/English dictionary. Finally, Welsh counties were reorganized in 1974 and 1996, making it difficult to locate parishes and record offices accurately. Welsh Counties, Then and Now will help you identify pre-1974 counties and their current counterparts. For example, the pre-1974 county of Cardiganshire was merged with the counties of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire into the new county of Dyfed between 1974 and 1996; in 1996, these counties were separated into Ceredigion (former Cardiganshire and Dyfed), Carmarthenshire (former Carmarthenshire and Dyfed), and Pembrokeshire (former Pembrokeshire and Dyfed). In a second example, the pre-1974 county of Glamorgan was split into South Glamorgan, Mid Glamorgan and West Glamorgan between 1974 and 1996; in 1996 it was further separated into Bridgend, Caerfphilly, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Vale of Glamorgan, and County of Swansea.

4.       Religious issues: Welsh immigrants represented a wide spectrum of non-conformist religions, as reflected by Baptists in 1667 Rhode Island and Quakers in 1681 Pennsylvania, as well as Mormons in Utah and Idaho. Because of this diversity, you will need to research a broader cross-section of church records to identify Welsh settlers in the United States.

Despite the previously mentioned challenges of  Welsh genealogical research, resources are available to assist you. As always, begin by reading background histories and methodologies including three books by John and Sheila Rowlands Welsh Family History: A Guide to Research, 2nd ed. (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008), Second Stages in Researching Welsh Ancestry (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1999; currently on sale), and The Surnames of Wales for Family Historians and Others (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008). Another significant resource is the Wales Events and Time Periods Research Guidance on FamilySearch.

Once you have gained an understanding of the basics of Welsh family history research, several web sites will provide links to useful information, including  GENUKI: Wales; Gareth’s Help Page, with its section for beginners; Cyndi’s List and Wales Genealogy Links.

One significant web site is provided by the National Library of Wales (make sure you select the English language version on the home page). This site provides online access to marriage license applications (1616-1837), probate-wills, jail (gaol) records from the Court of Great Sessions (1730-1820), and a guide to manors and manorial records. You will need to complete an online registration to access these databases (no cost). The site is not completely intuitive and you may have to “hack around” a bit to find what you want after you have registered. However, the results can be very interesting. Searching in the jail records, I located Joseph Powell, a hatmaker, from  Swansea in Glamorgan who murdered Morgan Mathews, of Cardiff, a fiddler, in a Swansea Inn after Mathews refused to play the fiddle. Anne Mathews, perhaps Morgan’s mother or wife, brought suit. Joseph pled not guilty and prevailed as the verdict was also not guilty. Strangely enough, no date is provided in the abstract, although a page note indicates that entries are displayed in chronological order (although no indication if ascending or descending). A reference is provided to the specific court file. Despite the difficulties that I discovered in initially consulting this source, the vignette that resulted from my search was worth the effort. Finally, a card catalog search of Ancestry.com identified 339 databases of interest for “Wales” and twenty-four for “Welsh.”

I hope that you will be successful in searching for your Welsh ancestors – perhaps a good word to St. David will help!

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