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Welsh Migration in Colonial America

In an effort to clarify where my family could of migrated from I did a brief research into the movements of Welsh settlers into the Americas.


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In an effort to clarify where my family could of migrated from, I did a brief research into the movements of Welsh settlers into the Americas. It has long been said in research and in my family lore that the Owens' came from Wales, England. I researched the primary entrees for the Welsh settlers of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina and the three major roads used to navigate through and to the above states.

Hordes of German and Scotch-Irish immigrants passed through the port of choice of Philadelphia where, for the Scots and Irish, the Quaker controlled port was more tolerant. Unlike the British controlled ports of New York, Boston and southern ports, immigrants other than English were frowned upon. Of course all religious organizations at that time had to provide tithes to the Church of England.

The author of the online article, "Migration patterns of Virginia" does caution us about the incorrect use of the label of Scotch-Irish as it was used in the late 1800's, indicating it did not truly reflect all the immigrants. For example there were Welshmen into this lumped group, which is of particular interest to Owen genealogy.

It is documented that many Welsh immigrants first settled in Pennsylvania and New York State. They were mostly miners and farmers.

Apparently Hugh Meredith's account in two issues in the Benjamin Franklin publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette of New Town, later Wilmington, North Carolina in 1731, inspired several Welsh families to move southward to gain cheap land for farming. There was another motive however, as the English Parliament in the early eighteenth century granted a bounty on the creation of naval stores in North Carolina. Naval store industry produced tar, pitch and turpentine which was extracted from the longleaf pine and were often operated by Welshmen.

It should be noted that a small minority of Welsh did travel straight from Wales to the Carolinas, but that route was the exception. The majority of families moved southward from Pennsylvania And New York. By way of three early roads.

The Great Wagon Road

A majority of the immigrants headed west out of Philadelphia and then south through the Shenandoah Valley. The Shenandoah Valley is where my other fifth-great-grandfather, German Baptist, Adam Smith, started his plantation. After 1750, immigrants would be attracted to the Piedmont areas of North Carolina and Georgia as they continue to travel south along the east side of the impenetrable Appalachians.

Free and cheap land was the primary catalyst for such constant expansion. But early laws concerning the eldest son owning their parent's farms also urged siblings to move deeper in from the coast to the Indian controlled interior.

This particular route from Philadelphia would stretch south to North Carolina where the Wilderness Trail took settlers through the Cumberland Gap and into Tennessee, Kentucky, and further west. This migration route was known as, "The Great Wagon Road" or "The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road."  But it mainly went along the back side of Virginia and does not explain all of the settlements along the coastal flats of Virginia.

The Fall Line Road

The Fall Line road split off the King's Highway at the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia and paralleled both the Great Wagon Road and the King's Highway through Richmond, ending in Camden, South Carolina. By 1735 it carried traffic into the interior of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. It is by far the closest north and south road to pass near my Owen family farms in Virginia and the Carolinas. William and Drucilla (Echols) Owen of Frederick, Maryland would most likely have used this route to Halifax County, Virginia. They are today known as the County Line Owen Family, as they settled near the Halifax County, Virginia and Person County, North Carolina state border.

DNA matching of some Owen families seemed to confirm that the central counties of Virginia and the Carolinas were my family's favorite farming areas as they moved ever southward before moving further west. It is likely that this road was used several times by different generations of Owens and other Welsh families.

The King's Highway

The King's Highway wound its way from Boston through the coastal flats of Virginia and North Carolina and ended in Charleston, South Carolina. It was in full use by 1750. It systematically supplied the early coastal communities with supplies and settlers. It was used by colonists to keep in communication during the Revolutionary War and was often referred to as the "Boston Post Road."

The James River Settlement

An entrée into America concerned the Virginia Company and the colorful Pocahontas tale. In 1607, 13 years before the Plymouth Rock landing in Massachusetts, about 108 explorers chartered by King James set foot on Jamestown Island, 60 miles up the James River from Chesapeake Bay.

There were no Owens listed in this first ship, but despite deadly Indian attacks, starvation, and ignorant gentlemen, Jamestown lasted long enough to gain a foothold for the English along the James River. In 1624 it became a Crown Colony, and in 1698 the capital was moved to Williamsburg, and Jamestown disappeared from prominence.

Unfortunately there was no documentation of arriving immigrants prior to 1820. Only the "headrights" documents mention immigrants gaining ownership of land. The documents do not show when or what place of origin for these settlers.

Following the majority of migration, Owen families as well as others seemed to primarily spread inland in a north and westerly direction. The earliest dates of 1676 with John and Sarah (Bracket) Owen of the Terrible Creek Owen Line and Edward and Joyce Owen of the Polecat Creek Owen Line were shown to come from Prince Edward County, Virginia. Prince Edward County's northern border is along the James River and is named for the Prince of Wales.

Though I did find an Owen as a servant of an English captain in Williamsburg, Virginia. in early 1700‘s, Jamestown has not been proven as a port of entrée for my Owen family. I am sure there were other obscure and rare landings in other areas along the Virginia and North Carolina coast which also could have been used; it is the lack of documentation of such landings which will always stump researchers.

Coastal Settlements by Welsh in the Carolinas

In an interesting essay by Lloyd Johnson of Camphell University entitled; "The Welsh in the Carolinas in the Eighteenth Century," Mr. Johnson documents two separate concentrated Welsh settlements in the Carolinas. These settlers were from Pennsylvania and one group were Presbyterians and settled on Northwestern Cape Fear in present day Duplin County., North Carolina as early as 1725.

This first group established Presbyterian churches along the Cape Fear River area. The early Duplin County, Church Cemetery has such Welsh surnames as Bowen, Morgan, Owen, Edwards, Thomas, Evan, James, Williams and Wells. I found that John Owen, the governor of North Carolina in the 1820's was most likely connected to this group. John's grandfather came from Pennsylvania and settled in Bladen County, North Carolina, which was located along the interior stretch of the Cape Fear River.

A second group were primarily Calvinist Baptists whom migrated between 1736 to 1746 and settled along the upper Pee Dee River in present day Marlboro County, South Carolina.

Another notable event was the granting of the first Welsh settlers with ten thousand acres in northeastern South Carolina that became known as the Welsh Tract.

The Baptist Church which seems to be our Owen family's choice of religion, was known as Welsh Neck and was founded by eight families in 1738 near present day Society Hill. It became the mother church of over 35 churches in early South Carolina.

The Welsh in South Carolina were known to have celebrated St. David, whom was the patron saint of Wales, and this could explain why I found the first name of David to be common among Owen families .

Another set of circumstances which may have influenced the Polecat Creek Owen line to migrate to South Carolina in the 1770's was due to the aftermath of the Cherokee War of 1760 that caused more settlers of Scots-Irish descent from Pennsylvania and Virginia to travel down the Great Wagon Road to South Carolina.

The Great Migration

Leaps in migration by siblings are undoubtedly the hardest obstacle for genealogists to overcome. The period from 1798 to about 1819 was historically known as the "Great Migration." Welsh and other settlers, including my family line, moved westward, and the number of states west of the Appalachians grew from two to eight in twenty years. The population of these eight states, which included Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, and Alabama grew from 386,000 to over 2.2 million by 1820. Through DNA, I have discovered that every above state was settled by some branch of my Welsh family line during this period, except for Ohio and Louisiana.

I believe this phenomenal movement of settlers is the main cause of document interruption. Both the unnoticed disappearance of family members in the east to the raw and yet unwritten arrivals of those same family members in the west have plagued researchers for years.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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