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The Welsh Settlement That Never Was

Throughout history there have been things or events that almost happened but never did. A case in point is the Welsh settlement in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

The Revolutionary War ended in 1783. In 1789 the Constitution of the Untied States was ratified. That next year nearly four million inhabitants of the new American republic were counted in the first ever federal census. 340,241 of those counted resided in New York State. The Welsh were counted with the English so there is no way of knowing how many were from Wales. At that time, there were 15 counties in New York State. Ontario County, formed in 1789, spread across all of western New York, earning it the future distinction of being the "Mother of All Counties." The population of this huge parcel of land was a mere 1,074.


Left: Sir William Johnstone Pulteney



As post-war America expanded westward from New England and the Atlantic seaboard, land speculation ran rampant in New York State. In 1791, the wealthy British landlord, Sir William Johnstone Pulteney, purchased a large tract of land in western central New York from Robert Morris who had previously purchased it from Phelps and Gorham who in turn had acquired it from Massachusetts and the Seneca. The Pulteney Purchase comprised a million acres of fertile farm land stretching from Seneca Lake to the Genesee River.

Below: William Jones 1726 - 1795 (National Library of Wales)

William Jones of Montgomeryshire, Wales, had long been interested in emigration opportunities for himself and Welsh tenant farmers who were experiencing hard times. So when Jones heard about the Pulteney purchase in the fall of 1792, he immediately wrote to Pulteney. In his letter, Jones proposed the establishment of a Welsh colony on Pulteney's new lands. Jones, however, was not very diplomatic. Considered something of a malcontent by his contemporaries, Jones did not endear himself to Sir William, Great Britain's biggest landowner at the time. In his letter, Jones lashed out at the "insatiable avarice of the landowners", calling them "Egyptian taskmasters."

Predictably, Sir William responded negatively. He not only refused to aid Welsh emigration to his new lands, he totally dismissed the notion that conditions were so poor as to even warrant emigration anywhere. From the great landowner's perspective, things were just fine in Great Britain. The rents, he agreed, were a bit high but the farmers were getting higher prices for their produce, and if they would just adopt better cultivation methods and be more industrious, they would surely prosper. There was no need for them to go to America where conditions were harsh. Plus, the expense of migration was great. While there may have been some truth to what he said, Sir William's put-down riled Jones so much that he wrote in the margins of Pulteney's letter, "Thus they abuse the simplicity of the ignorant, and insult the senses of people of understanding." Jones then turned his sights to Kentucky as a possible destination, but further contacts with American officials brought him no nearer to his dream of emigration. Jones died in Wales a few years later. As it was, Pulteney's agents first recurited Americans, then Germans and Scots, to settle the Pulteney Estate.


What if Jones had been more diplomatic or Pulteney more sympathetic? What if Jones had kept trying to persuade Sir William? What if Sir William Pulteney had opened his lands to Welsh emigration in 1792? An earlier and more significant Welsh settlement would probably have occured in western New York, in the Finger Lakes region between Seneca Lake and the Genesee River. This settlement would have been some 2 to 3 years ahead of the Welsh settlement that occured in central New York beginning in 1795. Rather than thousands of Welsh immigrants pouring into Oneida County and central New York, these immigrants might well have poured into the Finger Lakes region and the Genesee Valley. Ontario County and its growing villages of Bath, Geneva and Canandaigua might well have replaced Oneida County, Remsen-Steuben and Utica as the nineteenth-century Welsh capitals of the American northeast. But history played out otherwise and only a few scattered Welsh-born immigrants ventured into the western part of the state before the 1830s. Not until the Cattaraugus Settlement circa 1840 and after would there be a true Welsh settlement in western New York.

Jones may have failed in establishing a Welsh colony in upstate New York, but his efforts inspired a groundswell of mass migration after his death. In 1955, A. H. Dodd wrote in the National Library of Wales Journal:

Welsh migration to upstate New York owes its inception to the tireless propaganda of the Montgomeryshire radical William Jones of Llangadfan, who during the last five years of his life (1791-5) devoted all his energies to schemes for an organised Welsh settlement there. On the one hand he approached the American government and the Pulteney interest in New York state, on the other he tried to rouse the fervour of his fellow countrymen by presenting to them at eisteddfodau and similar gatherings the attractions of the United States as a land where feudal and religious tyranny were unknown. Like so many of their kind, his more ambitious dreams failed to materialise, but from the beginning of his campaign a trickle of emigrants began from the regions where his advocacy had been most effective especially from rural Merioneth and the neighbouring parts of Denbighshire and Caernarvonshire.

Today, a slate memorial slab honoring William Jones is displayed on the west wall of the vestry at the Church of St Cadfan, Llangadfan, Montgomeryshire.

Sources:

Cowan, Helen I. Charles Williamson--Genesee Promotor--Friend of Anglo-American Rapprochement. Clifton, N.J.: Augustus M. Kelley, 1973.

Welsh National Folk Dance Society Search the site for "William Jones" or "Llangadfan"

Dodd, A. H. "Letters from Welsh Settlers in New York State, 1816-44." National Library of Wales Journal Vol IX/I, Summer 1955. Extracted by Gareth Hicks onto the pages of GENUKI (UK & Ireland Genealogy). http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/wal/Settlers.html

Johnstone, Jeffery M. Sir William Johnstone Pulteney and the Scottish Origins of Western New York. November 24, 2002.

Sketch of the Life of William Jones. Cambrian Register (1796), p. 237-251 in original or p. 252-266 in the PDF version. (National Library of Wales)

William Jones, Welsh Radical. Wikipedia Article.


© Barbara R. Henry