19th Century Welsh Migration to America

Second Wave of Welsh Immigrants

In a recent article I discussed the large Welsh migration of the late 17th and early 18th centuries to the American Colonies. Many of these were Quakers or other non-conformists who fled Wales seeking religious freedom. Most of the thousands of Welsh immigrants settled in Pennyslvania and nearby colonies. Historians tell us that with more political stability and religious tolerance, emigration slowed until the mid-1800s.

Then a second great migration began. In fact, about 85,000 people emigrated from Wales to the United States between 1850 and 1930. Most of these went to America to improve their economic situation. However, some emigrated for religious reasons, particularly early Mormon converts.

Although many people were emigrating from Wales, during part of this period Wales was also swelling in population. The result was actually a net inflow of migration. Why? Simply put, the industrial revolution increased demand for coal and iron. The South Wales Coalfield is one of the largest deposits of coal in the world.

British Coalfields in the 19th Century

British Coalfields in the 19th Century


Emigration = To leave your country of origin to live in another
Immigration = To come into another country to live permanently

Fueling the Industrial Revolution

“Between 1851 and 1911, it is estimated that some 366,000 people moved into the South Wales Coalfield. The peak of this migration occurred between 1901 and 1911 when 129,000 people moved into the area. Such was the rate of growth at this time that South Wales absorbed immigrants at a faster rate than any where in the world except the United States of America.” Source: http://www.agor.org.uk/cwm/themes/Life/society/migration.asp

Isaac Chilton, Collier

My ancestor, Isaac Chilton (1831-1911) was a collier in Nantyglo, a village in the South Wales Coalfield. [Earlier I wrote an article about creating a Virtual Tour of this area.] His family was part of the early influx of people that came to the area. His father, William Chilton (1796-1866), was born in Shropshire, England, to the north, as were generations of Chiltons before him. William Chilton came to Monmouthshire around 1820 as a young man. He married a young lady (also from Shropshire) and they raised their family in Wales. William worked in the coal mines until his death in 1866.

Nantyglo Ironworks, by Henry Gastineau 1820

Nantyglo Ironworks, by Henry Gastineau 1820

Isaac’s grandfather (William’s father), Isaac Chilton (1769-1817), was also a collier. So the Chiltons were coal miners for generations and they followed the work to the largest coal mine in England. But Isaac did not spend his whole life working in the South Wales Coalfield. In the 1850s, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) were preaching in the area. He took an interest in their words and joined the Church.

Welsh Mormons

Mormon missionaries in Wales were quite successful in the 1840s and 1850s and many of their converts contributed to the Welsh Migration. They joined others emigrating to America, and then traveled on to the Utah Territory. Isaac Chilton and his young family was part of this group. Upon arriving in Utah, Isaac and his family were directed south of Salt Lake City, to the community of Lehi. Here they took up farming, although he did some mining from time to time.

Many Mormons are proud of their Welsh ancestry. Dr. Dennis of Brigham Young University maintains a website for Welsh Mormon History. The site includes a listing of over 5,000 Welsh converts to Mormonism that immigrated to the United States during the 19th century. The vast majority of these came between 1840 and 1870. It is an excellent resource for descendants of these Welsh immigrants. In addition to names, there are many photographs, biographies, vital records, and references to ship’s voyages.

Malad, Idaho

A few years after Isaac’s arrival in Utah, the community of Malad, Idaho was formed. It began largely as a Welsh Mormon settlement in the 1860s. To this day it is a small farming community. However, it lays claim to having more people of Welsh descent per capita than anywhere outside of Wales. They hold an annual Welsh Festival to celebrate their Welsh heritage. On the map below you will see the dark red county in southern Idaho which shows the location of Malad.

The map represents the percentage of each county that claim Welsh ancestry. It does not show raw numbers of Welsh descendants. Because it is a percentage, rural counties tend to show up more than urban counties. However, the map clearly shows a substantial number throughout the Mountain West. The greatest concentration continues to be in Pennsylvania as well as upstate New York. Other areas of note include Ohio,  and some other locations in the Midwest like Kansas and Missouri.


Percent of residents that claim Welsh ancestry (2000)

Percent of residents that claim Welsh ancestry (2000). Source: Wikipedia “Welsh-Americans”

Welsh Destinations in America

Note: The information below draws heavily from the Wikipedia article “Welsh-Americans” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_Americans)

Most residents of Wales were farmers or miners. When they came to America they often continued in the same profession they were in before. The primary destinations of the Welsh Migration to the United States often reflected that fact.


Mass emigration from Wales to the United States got under way in the nineteenth century with Ohio cities and towns such as Canal Dover, Niles and Gloucester being particularly popular destinations. Most of the earliest immigrants to this area were farmers. Later it was natural for many coal miners to come to the coalfields of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

There was a large concentration of Welsh people in the Appalachian section of Southeast Ohio, such as Jackson County, Ohio and was nicknamed “Little Wales”. As of 2010, more than 126,000 Ohioans are of Welsh descent with significant concentrations still found in many communities of Ohio such as Oak Hill (13.6%), Madison (12.7%), Franklin (10.5%), Jackson (10.0%), Radnor (9.8%), and Jefferson (9.7%).[15]


Following the American Civil War, 104 Welsh immigrant families moved from the Welsh Barony in Pennsylvania to East Tennessee. These Welsh families settled in an area now known as Mechanicsville, and part of the city of Knoxville. These families were recruited by the brothers Joseph and David Richards to work in a rolling mill then co-owned by John H. Jones. The Richards brothers co-founded the Knoxville Iron Works beside the L&N Railroad, later to be used as the site for the World’s Fair 1982.

By 1930 many Welsh dispersed into other sections of the city and neighboring counties such as Sevier County. Today, more than 250 families in greater Knoxville can trace their ancestry directly to these original immigrants. The Welsh tradition in Knoxville is remembered with Welsh descendants celebrating St. David’s Day.

Midwestern United States

After 1850 many Welsh sought out farms in the Midwest.


After 1855 Minnesota’s rich farmlands became a magnet, especially Blue Earth and Le Sueur counties. By the 1880s between 2,500 and 3,000 people of Welsh background were contributing to the life of some 17 churches and 22 chapels.


Some 2,000 immigrants from Wales, and another nearly 6,000 second-generation Welsh, became farmers in Kansas, favoring areas close to the towns of Arvonia, Emporia, and Bala. Features of their historic culture survived longest when their church services retained Welsh sermons.

Mid-Atlantic United States

New York

Oneida County and Utica, New York became the cultural center of the Welsh-American community in the 19th century. By 1855, there were four thousand Welshmen in Oneida.


Five towns in northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania were constructed between 1850 and 1942 to house Welsh quarry workers producing Peach Bottom slate. During this period the towns retained a Welsh ethnic identity, although their architecture evolved from the traditional Welsh cottage form to contemporary American. Two of the towns in Harford County now form the Whiteford-Cardiff Historic District.


“Welsh immigration to northeastern Pennsylvania took place roughly between 1840 and 1865, dates that more or less parallel the arrival of Irish Catholics to the region. Both groups earned their livelihood by digging coal in the primitive anthracite mines that were scattered about the cities of Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, and Hazleton…. Before the Welsh arrived, hard coal had been dug by Anglo natives. But as demand for the clean-burning substance expanded, outsiders began filtering into the region. The Welsh and Irish Catholics were the first of huge numbers of immigrants to arrive to the region.” (http://www.data-wales.co.uk/ivanhild.htm)

Impact of the Welsh Migration

In closing, let us consider the cultural impact on America due to the Welsh Migrations of both the 17th and 19th centuries. George Washington is known to have famously said, “Good Welshmen make good Americans.” Among the earliest was Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. No less than 16 of the signers of this document were of Welsh descent. Welshmen also made up the largest ethnic group among the signers of the Constitution. 9 of our Presidents have Welsh ancestry.

And of course they have made an impact on our popular culture. Welsh have always been known for the singing and Welsh-Americans have continued that. Familiar names like Bonnie Tyler and Tom Jones, and a significant percentage of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir can all trace their roots back to Wales.

Comment below and share the story of your Welsh ancestor!

Feature Image credit: By Unknown – National Library of Wales, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44249029


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