Welsh Heritage in Western, Central, and Eastern New York State
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Above: Ebenezer Welsh Baptist Church and Welsh Yard, Freedom, Cattaraugus Co., New York, by unknown artist, on oil cloth cemetery lot map, circa 1900. Original size 6 inches x 12 inches. Shows the third house of worship erected in 1899. The steeple was later shortened to a bell tower after a lightning strike. Photograph and digital restoration by Barbara Henry using Adobe PhotoDeluxe 2.0.
Ebenezer Welsh Baptist Church
The Ebenezer Welsh Baptist Church had a long and successful history in this part of western New York. Welsh Baptists from Oneida County first came west into Cattaraugus County in the 1840s. In 1844 they built their first chapel in the town of Freedom. By the 1880s the Freedom church had become the largest of the Welsh Baptist congregations in New York State, out stripping even the Oneida churches. Great preaching gymanfas, eisteddfodau, and revivals were held there during the nineteenth century.
The Ebenezer Welsh Baptists erected three houses of worship on the same site (corner of present-day Freedom and Osmun Roads). Each structure was larger and more ornate than the one before. The first in 1844 was a small simple meetinghouse; this was removed when the second church, designed by Welsh-American architect, Aneurin Jones, of Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, was constructed in 1870; and the third structure, which has now fallen, was erected in 1899.
Left: This computer-generated image shows how the Ebenezer Welsh Baptist Church (second building 1870) may have looked based on a 1961 description by Ella J. Roberts. She makes no mention of a bellfry or steeple.
In 1899, seven-year-old Ella J. Roberts was living in Freedom, New York when the second building of the Ebenezer Welsh Baptist Church (erected in 1870) was taken down and replaced with a new building. In 1961, Ella described the second church in a letter to Orrel Howlett, Freedom Town Historian:
"The second one [church] was a beautiful structure, like those up in the New England States. It had front pillars and steps on each side to this entrance and above this was a huge round window. The other windows were large and of small panes and with green blinds. The building was painted white with white fences along the front yard and at the side of the road on the west—that is my first recollection of Freedom." (Ella J. Roberts to Orrel Howlett, 19 July 1961. Letter in possession of Freedom Town Historian.)
In 1895 a group of English-speaking Welsh broke off from the Ebenezer Church to form their own church, The Bethel Baptist. In 1920, after several decades of disagreement, the two congregations finally merged as the Freedom Baptist Church. By the 1950s services were discontinued at the Ebenezer church, but an annual Welsh Day was held in the church from the 1920s to the late 1960s. Later the stained glass windows and other items were sold off, the pews were removed, and the sanctuary was converted for youth basketball and other activities. As the decades passed, the church fell into disrepair leading those associated with the dilapidated church to concede in the summer of 2000 that perhaps the church should be taken down before it fell down. It had become a safety hazard. On January 31, 2001 the old church finally fell. The main section of the building collapsed backwards falling onto a section of the Welsh Yard, a burial ground containing early Welsh gravestones.
Click here to see Kari Leonard's photograph of the fallen church.
Freedom Cemetery: A Brief History
The Freedom Cemetery, located at the corner of Osmun & Freedom Roads, Freedom, Cattaraugus County, N.Y., has an English Section and a Welsh Section called the Welsh Yard. Today, two separate organizations maintain the cemetery. The Welsh section is owned by the Freedom Cemetery Society and the English section by the Freedom Cemetery Association A line of bushes provides the present-day division once marked by a stone fence. The lay out and governance of the cemetery is rooted in history.
When the first Ebenezer Welsh Baptist Church was constructed on the Freedom Flats in 1843-44, Welsh immigrants set aside a portion of the site for use as a burial ground. Deacon John Lewis donated the land, located in the southwestern part of Lot 13 in the Town of Freedom. Nearby were the burials of English speaking Yankee settlers, who had settled in Freedom in the early decades of the 1800s. Rufus Metcalf, who came from Vermont in 1811, donated the land for the English section.
The earliest Welsh Yard burials are those of young children, including Phebe Ann Owens, age 9 months, daughter of John H. and Catharine Owens (1844); Mary Ann Higgins, age 3, daughter of John and Laura Higgins (1846); Hugh Jones, son of William and Elizabeth Jones (1847); George Phillips, age 1, son of David and Mary Ann Phillips (1847). Other Welsh burials of note include: Civil War soldiers, various Welsh Baptist church deacons and ministers, William H. Williams whose gravestone claims that he was “the first Welsh settler in Cattaraugus County” and Robert T. Williams, “father of the Welsh settlement.” A number of gravestones contain Welsh-language inscriptions and the deceased’s place of origin in Wales. Over the years more burials were made until the Welsh Yard and the English Yard of the Freedom Cemetery became a microcosm of nineteenth-century Freedom, including the Yankees, the Scots, and the Welsh.
An English-speaking group split off from the Welsh-speaking Ebenezer Church in 1895 and formed the Bethel Baptist Church. Early on the Bethel trustees sought, but failed, to gain a division of the Ebenezer property which at that time included the burial yard surrounding the church building.
In 1903 the English section of the cemetery incorporated. In November 1914, a well-attended meeting at the Ebenezer Church voted unanimously to incorporate the Welsh side of the cemetery. The directors of the newly incorporated Welsh section were: Robert J. Williams, William P. Morgan and David J. Morgan. It is not known if the Bethel Welsh were involved in the 1914 cemetery meeting, since as late as 1917 the Bethel and Ebenezer Welsh were still at odds with each other. Eventually, differences were resolved. In 1919 the Bethel and Ebenezer Welsh reunited to form the Freedom Baptist Church. In 1921 the stone wall which physically divided the English and Welsh sections was taken down.
In 1953 the Freedom Baptist Church moved to legally transfer ownership of the Ebenezer church building to the Freedom Cemetery with the stipulation that the church be maintained as a memorial and chapel. The cemetery rejected the idea and the transference was never completed. Until it fell in January 2001, the old Ebenezer church building belonged to the Freedom Baptist Church but the ground on which it rested belonged to the Freedom Cemetery Society. In 2003, an historic marker commemorating the Freedom area Welsh settlement was placed at the site by the Freedom Area Welsh Historic Marker Committee.
Early Welsh Yard burial records were no doubt contained in the Ebenezer church records. The location of these records is not known. However, an old lot map of the Welsh Yard survived. Besides the names of lot owners, the map, drawn on old fashioned oilcloth, features a primitive style painting of the church and cemetery, as it looked around the turn-of-the century. According to cemetery officials, cemetery records were destroyed in a fire. The Town of Freedom historian maintains alphabetical lists of gravestone inscriptions for both English and Welsh sections of the cemetery. In 2003 Kari Leonard created an online burial list for the Welsh Yard section of the Freedom Cemetery. Obituaries for Freedom Welsh Baptists are in Welsh Baptist Vital Records 1861-1890.
© Barbara R. Henry