I am a Welsh Mormon Pioneer (By Jamie Dunham Decker)
I am excited to welcome Jamie Dunham Decker as a guest blogger this week. Jamie lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She is a Temple and Family History Consultant for the LDS Church, Genealogist-in-training, a wife and mom of three, a hairstylist, and a blogger. You can read more of her blogs at Welsh Wagon Wheels @WelshWagonWheels)
When I was a child, my grandmother told me our ancestors were Welsh. Her mountain West accent made it sound a bit like “welch”. I assumed she meant like the grape juice.
I knew that Irish and Scottish were known for their red hair and freckles, and Italians were known for their lovely olive skin, but I had never heard of Wales. So… it was in England, then?
She said the Welsh had dark hair and fair skin, like me, and that they had beautiful singing voices. As a matter of fact, I did love to sing. I remember going and looking at my reflection in the mirror. The almost-black hair that I had always hated because it wasn’t blonde suddenly felt like it had a purpose. My pale complexion and hazel eyes that didn’t resemble a single tanned, blue-eyed doll I had was all of the sudden, not so bad after all. For the first time in my life, I was something. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t find Wales on a map, or that I wasn’t really sure what Welsh was. It was me, and that was all that mattered.
When May We Go to Zion?
It wasn’t until I was a young single adult and investigating the Mormon church that I became deeply interested in my family history. I had heard my grandmother mention that our ancestors walked the plains for their religion, but I didn’t know much beyond that, until one day a friend showed me FamilySearch. We looked up the name of the one ancestor that I knew about. What we found was amazing: a long line of Welsh Mormon pioneers, including detailed stories about their voyage.
I learned that my ancestors came from Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. Both sets of my great-grandmother’s parents’ families had converted to the Mormon faith during the mid nineteenth century, thanks to the missionary work of Dan Jones, a close friend of Joseph Smith, who was with him the day before he was murdered by an angry mob. The night before the prophet’s death, with hushed voices, he asked Jones if he was afraid of dying. Jones said that he was not. He then gave his last prophecy: “You will yet see Wales, and fulfill the mission appointed you before you die.” 1
Indeed, the prophecy was fulfilled, and Mormon converts came to America in droves. For the next several decades, the newly-baptized converts of Wales and the British Isles would emigrate from Liverpool, England to various ports in the United States by ship. The first wave of Welsh Mormon immigrants began to arrive in the late 1840s and continued for a number of years, fulfilling the desires of many Welsh saints expressed with the phrase, “Pa bryn y cawn fyned i Seion”, which translated to English is “When may we go to Zion?” 2
President Brigham Young sent many Welsh families north of Salt Lake, to Weber, Ogden, and Malad City, a small Welsh Mormon enclave near the Idaho border that would become the largest Welsh American settlement outside of Wales. In fact, today, there are more people of Welsh descent per capita in Utah and Idaho than anywhere else in the United States.3
There have been humble attempts to preserve some aspects of Welsh culture. Each year, The Malad Valley Welsh Festival celebrates Welsh culture with music, poetry, and history of Welsh Americans in the Mountain West. For hundreds of years, Welsh have celebrated with the annual eisteddfod, an event celebrating the arts and culture of Wales.
Like many descendants of Welsh Mormon Pioneers, my ancestors and relatives have deep roots in Malad. When I visit the grave of my grandparents, who are buried in the Malad City Cemetery, it is impossible to even glance in another direction without seeing the headstones of my ancestors, each epitaph bearing a familiar surname. Thomas. Owens. Williams. Waldron. Morgan. Jones. Driving around Malad might not seem remarkable to a passing traveler, but for those of us with Welsh Mormon blood, this tiny town is a precious gold mine of history and heritage.
Connections with the Past
The longstanding residents of Malad – the local business owners and residents – take pride in their town and their heritage. Businesses along Bannock Street, while there are few, have been family-owned for generations. What once was a building occupied by my great-great-grandfather, R.T. Owens, is now occupied by a distant cousin. Each time I make a trip up there, I make it a point to stop in and say hello. It might not seem like a big deal, but to be in Malad means the world to me. Those Welsh pioneer values of hard work, humility, community, and family are still alive and well on the streets of Malad.
Beyond physical appearance, the hallmark Welsh traits – being passionate, musical, and hardworking – are truly synonymous with Latter-day Saint values. I have witnessed this, and it seems as if something deep inside of myself has been pulling toward my heritage my entire life. I didn’t grow up Mormon. In fact, I would say my upbringing was hostile to it. I certainly had no idea of my rich Pioneer heritage. After I was baptized as an adult and became interested in my family history, coincidences happened in such awe-inspiring ways that I knew they weren’t really coincidences after all. Reading about my Welsh ancestors, their conversion to the Gospel, their journeys and their sacrifices have me convinced that I didn’t really find them. Rather, they found me.
John Edward Owen and Mary Thomas Owen, year unknown. Courtesy of Larry Thomas.
What it Means to Be Welsh
Elaine Cannon once said, “There are two important days in a woman’s life: the day she is born, and the day she finds out why.”3 Like many others, I used to wander through life without direction. I no longer sojourn through mortality without purpose. I know who I am. I wear many hats: wife, mother, sister, friend. But deep down, I feel Welsh. I know I am Welsh, through and through.
My ancestors brought their fighting spirit with them, out of the coal mines, across the green hilly pastures, over the chilly Atlantic Ocean, and through the great plains by foot and wagon to bear their posterity in America. For those of us with Welsh blood – which is estimated to be nearly half of the Latter-day Saint population in Utah (and even more in Idaho) – this holds great significance. Like my great-great-great grandmother’s patriarchal blessing said, her posterity would be “converted with prudence.”
That is us, my dear Welsh cousins. It is us.
Lest We Forget…
To be Welsh is to be passionate. For those of us who came from this stalwart group of early Saints, let us not forget who we are and where we came from. We are the descendants of Welsh Mormon Pioneers. And for those who aren’t Welsh, but who come from those who crossed the plains with our Welsh progenitors, taught them the English language, taught them to farm, and worshiped alongside them – these values are at the very core of who we are today.
You might not feel like you have any family history that needs to be done, but I promise you, if you learn of your ancestors, you will be blessed. You will see miracles. You will see the hand of the Lord in your life, whether or not you are a Latter-day Saint. You come from a long line of courageous men and women. Tap into that, and you will be surprised at what begins to happen.
- Smith, Joseph. History of the Church, vol. 6 pg. 601, 26 June 1844. https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/volume-6-chapter-32 Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.
- Welsh Mormon History, Center for Family History and Genealogy at Brigham Young University, 2012-2017. http://welshmormon.byu.edu/About.aspx Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.
- “BBC NEWS – Wales – South West Wales – Tiny US town’s big Welsh heritage”. news.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 28 August 2017.