Many Americans are not aware of the fact that they have Welsh blood running through their veins. Citizens from Wales have been migrating to America, along with their English neighbors, for nearly four centuries. The uniqueness of Welsh surnames may reveal whether or not you descend from this fascinating people.
Wales, situated just west of England on the Irish Channel, has housed a culture and people distinct from the rest of Britain for more than 1,500 years. The Welsh descend from the pre-Roman inhabitants of Great Britain, the Celts, who were driven into the mountainous Welsh countryside by the Anglo-Saxons during the middle of the first millennium A. D. Remnants of this ancient society can still be found in Wales today. For example, many people still speak the Welsh language. Since the Act of Union with England in 1536, the Welsh language has gradually declined in usage, but the 1981 census revealed that approximately 500,000 people still spoke Welsh1. The Welsh are also widely known for their love of music. Music is an inextricably important part of Welsh life. As a matter of fact, the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir began as a group of Welsh converts who immigrated to Utah as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Welsh men and women immigrated, together with the English, as some of the earliest colonists to America. The southern region of Wales, located just across the Bristol Channel from what was then England's second largest port city, Bristol, supplied thousands of emigrants during the 17th and 18th centuries. David Peate, in his chapter entitled "Emigration," in Welsh Family History: A Guide to Research, states that the first Welsh-financed colonization attempt in North America occurred in Cambriol, Newfoundland, in 1617. Peate also identifies the influx of immigrants to America beginning in the late 1600s, as a consequence of Welsh nonconformists wishing to escape the persecution imposed on them by the state church. Groups such as the Quakers and Baptists emigrated in congregations. The Welsh established a small colony known as Patagonia in Argentina in the latter half of the 19th century2.
As in Scandinavia, Welsh surnames were not inherited through heredity amongst the masses until the 19th century. The most prevalent Welsh surnames derive from the former patronymic system. Sons took a surname based on the given name of their father, which changed each succeeding generation. For example, Lewis, the son of Evan Jones, would not inherit his father's surname "Jones," but rather "Evans." The terminal "s" in "Evans" served as the truncated form of the English "son," in other words "Evan's son." At other times, the son of Evan Jones might receive the surname "Bevan," a contraction of the Welsh "ap [or ab] Evan," which translates "the son of Evan." According to John Rowlands, in Second Stages in Researching Welsh Ancestry, the ten most common surnames in Wales in 1856 were Jones, Williams, Davies, Thomas, Evans, Roberts, Hughes, Lewis, Morgan and Griffiths. Other ubiquitous surnames included Owen, Pritchard and Parry. The popular given names from which these surnames derived, such as Jones from John, and Davies from David, clearly depict the patronymic practice. Rowlands also cites results from a study on surnames concerning an area in Caernarfonshire, Wales, showing that 90 percent of the surnames there sprung from the top ten3. When the Welsh immigrated to America, the patronymic pattern stopped, and their surnames became hereditary.
The historical practice of using patronymic surnames in Wales aids Americans in discovering their Welsh ancestry. If your American ancestors had one of these common surnames, chances are good that you descend from the rich culture of the Welsh.
1. Crystal, David, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
2. Rowlands, John and Sheila Rowlands, Welsh Family History: A Guide to Research. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., 1999.
3. Second Stages in Researching Welsh Ancestry. Bury, England: The Federation of Family History Societies Publications Ltd., 1999.