The Welsh In Oneida County, New York  |  Evans  |  Emigration from Wales  |  5

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I. Emigration from Wales

Accounts of the Welsh settlements in America formerly began with the year 1170, when the good Prince Madog left the shores of Wales with a band of his retainers, looking for a new kingdom.  Somewhere in this new world, tradition says, he and his men found a more pleasing country than the rocky hills of Wales. Here they staid and, eventually mixing with the natives, were absorbed by them and lost to the knowledge of the world. The historians have long since discredited this tale and the accounts of Welsh Indians which have originated to substantiate it. The present-day writer must abandon these mythical adventurers for the men who have come in more recent times.

From the beginning of the settlement of America Welshmen have been present among the pioneers. Enterprising Welsh antiquarians have found them among the immortal and ever expanding numbers brought to this country by the Mayflower. These same men have claimed William Penn as a son of old Gomer, but with little hope of substantiating their claim. Though Penn was not a Welshman, there came with him to this country the first body of Welsh to settle this side of the Atlantic. These for the most part were Quakers, men of the highest culture, training and ability, men who were driven from Wales by the oppressive laws against their sect. Their settlements in Diffryn Mawr, or the Great Valley, and in other places near Philadelphia were prosperous and happy, and from them have come many men holding high position in the life of Pennsylvania.

These in Pennsylvania were the only Welsh settlements of any size in America before 1800. Individuals and small groups were scattered among the various colonies but nowhere else in large enough numbers to deserve the name of a Welsh settlement. In New York individuals of the race were to be found all through the settled part of the state, the largest number being New York City. There were enough of them to be well represented in the group from New York which signed the federal constitution; Francis Lewis, an immigrant from Wales, was there, and William Floyd and Lewis Morris who were of mixed Welsh and English blood. Their numbers however were small in the state before 1800. The 19th century was to see them come in larger numbers, making settlements in the state which are distinctly Welsh. It is desirable before we take up the details of their settlement in Oneida County to make a general preliminary survey of conditions in Wales causing emigration, and to note the circumstances under which this emigration was carried out.

The primary cause of Welsh emigration to America, as of all large emigrations, has been economic pressure, hard times at home with the hope of improved conditions in the other land. Not that it has been this economic pressure alone which has led to the emigration. Other causes of discontent there have been, chief of which is the dissatisfaction with the control exercised by the Established Church and with the monopoly of the ownership of land by a few rich holders. Rather than being the moving causes of emigration, these have fostered a discontent born of hard living conditions, conditions which had merely to reach an acute stage to drive many to the relief afforded by emigration.

That economic pressure has played this important part in the emigration movement is demonstrated by the history of the two great economic crises in Great Britain during the last century one following the Napoleonic wars and the other in the middle of the century.

In the first of these there was a general depression all through Great Britain. "For six years after the end of the war the proverbial association of 'Peace and Plenty' proved a ghastly mockery to all classes of the community. To agriculturists peace brought only beggary. In the first rush of complaint some allowance must be made for disappointment at the immediate results of the end of the war. But the evidence of commercial depression was real and widespread. The disordered state of the currency continued to injure credit, to disturb trade, to create wild speculation instead of sound business. The labor market was glutted. Discharged sailors, soldiers and militiamen swelled the ranks of the unemployed. The store, transport and commissariat departments were put on a peach footing. Industries to which the war had given a feverish activity languished. Thousands of spinners, combers and handloom weavers were thrown out of work by the increased introduction of machinery into manufacturing processes. Continental ports were once more open to English trade but money was scarce and foreign merchandise excluded by heavy customs duties. It was soon found that home manufactures and exceeded the demand. Warehouses were overloaded, markets overstocked. Produce was unsold, or unpaid for, or bought at prices unrenumerative to employers." (1)

The laboring classes did not at first feel this depression, as the prices of necessaries had fallen after the war much more rapidly than had the wages of the laborers. (2) These favorable conditions lasted however for but a short time. During the year 1816 prices of provisions had again soared very high. Wheat, which in 1815 had sold as low as 52s. 6d. per quarter, rose in consequence of a bad season to the unprecedented price of 135s. per quarter. By this time also wages had reached the low level which they maintained for the following few years. The general depression had caused the failure of a great number of manufacturing concerns and the temporary suspension of many others. By thus throwing thousands of laborers out of work these failures aggravated the labor problem already brought to an acute stage by the addition of large numbers of men who for the preceding twenty years had been removed from the competition of labor by service in the army and navy.

"The crisis was particularly severe in the industries which had been stimulated by the demand for war stores. The iron and coal trades were especially depressed. Out of thirty-four furnaces in South Staffordshire twenty-four were out of blast and whole villages were reduced to starvation. Similar stories came from Newport, Tredegar, Merthyr Tydfil and other growing towns of Monmouthshire and South Wales, whilst thousands of iron works and colliers were suddenly thrown out of work." (3)

The high prices of grain during part of this period were of no more benefit to farmers than to the laboring classes. Brought about by bad harvests, they netted the farmers no more for their crops than in the periods of plenty. When to the general depression and lack of credit there was added violent fluctuation in prices the farmers found themselves nearly ruined. "Farmers who a few years ago were competing eagerly for farms wee sending in notices to quit, and many farms were unlet; mortgagees found it difficult to realize; credit was collapsing; banks were failing in all directions; substantial farmers were becoming parish paupers. And while the producer was ruined the consumer derived no benefit." (4)

The chief industries of Wales, mining and iron working in the South, agriculture and quarrying in the center and North, as a result felt very keenly the economic depression and distress which was widespread over the Principality.

Moreover by this time the mal-administration of the Poor Law had greatly increased the general misery. It was customary for the parish to levy a tax each year for the benefit of the poor within their bounds and to give an overseer the charge of administering the relief. After 1795 the custom had become common in many parts of England and Wales to supplement wages out of the poor rates. Later under the Speenhamland Act provision was made for the apportioning of relief according to the size of the family. It was the operation of this Act which was partly responsible for the unprecedented increase in population in England and Wales during the two decades 1801-1821, in the first of which in spite of the war an increase of 21.5% was marked and in the next an increase of 18%. (5)  In this way came about that redundancy of population which Malthus noted and would have relieved by state aided emigration. This mistaken kindness to the poor bore very heavily upon the thrifty and independent laborer who was thus forced to support both himself and his neighbor encouraged in idleness by the certainty of support from the parish.

With the crisis following 1815 and the consequent large number of laborers left without means of support save the parish, there is to be noted an enormous increase in the numbers thrown upon the parish relief. The year 1818 saw the highest point in the expenditure for poor relief. Where there had been in 1801 an expenditure of a little over twenty million dollars ($20,000,000), in 1818 there was paid out on poor relief nearly forty million dollars ($40,000,000). (6)  The misery that was thus relieved was hardly greater than that caused by the burden of the rates upon those thrifty enough to be able to pay them.

One relief from the troubles in Wales was to be found in emigration. America had also suffered a temporary setback after 1814 but this was soon forgotten and a period of great prosperity set in. There was a large demand for laborers with consequent high wages and many of those who found conditions in the United Kingdom unbearable and who had the energy to seek a better country moved either to the United States or Canada. This movement went steadily on after 1815, reaching in 1818 a total of 27,787 from the whole United Kingdom, a number which was not again reached till a decade later. (7)  In the statistics of emigration the numbers from Wales are grouped without distinction from those from England, so it is impossible to give any figures of the number of Welsh emigrants coming to the United States during this period. (8)  There is no reason to believe that the proportion of the total population emigrating from Wales was either much larger or much smaller than that of the whole United Kingdom. We only know that there were large numbers that left at that time. There were no Welsh papers in the United States at that period to report the arrival of Welshmen from the Old Country, and the papers of Wales are not available to supply that want. Though we have not that direct proof that Welsh came in large numbers at this time, the frequency with which the obituaries of old Welshmen date their arrival in America between the years 1817 and 1821 leaves no doubt that it is true. It was then that the numbers in Oneida County were so greatly strengthened, all the records of the time showing that large numbers were being added to those already there.

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