17th Century Welsh Migration to America

Welsh Migrations.

Ever since I researched my Chilton-Watkins line from Wales, I have been fascinated by Welsh culture and history. This led me to do extensive research on major Welsh migration movements to America. This article will discuss the emigration of thousands of people from Wales to Pennsylvania between 1680 and 1720. Commonly called the “Welsh Tract,” the location comprised 40,000 acres of land and was given to help Welsh Quakers fleeing religious persecution in their homeland. They came by arrangement with William Penn in 1681, arriving in Pennsylvania even before he did.

Holme's 1687 map of Pennsylvania. "The Welch Tract" appears to the left of center.

Holme’s 1687 map of Pennsylvania*. “The Welsh Tract” appears to the left of center. (Click to enlarge.)

Also called the “Welsh Barony,” it covered the land north of Philadelphia and west of the Schuylkill River. The tract encompassed nearly 12 townships in the Pennsylvania counties of Delaware, Chester and Montgomery. An additional 30,000 acres was granted to Welsh immigrants in 1701 in what is modern-day Delaware. Prior to this, in 1667, a congregation of Baptists from South Wales had founded Swansea on the Plymouth-Rhode Island border. Initially these communities intended to maintain their language and culture in the New World.

Religious Persecution.

Religious tolerance was not a strong suit for England at this time. Paradoxically, however, England is proud of its historical record and the part it played in exporting the ideals of religious tolerance to America. Apparently they overlook the fact that most people that carried those ideals to the American Colonies were fleeing persecution in their homeland. However, England claims they arrived at principles of tolerance sooner than other European powers.


I cannot do this topic justice in a few short sentences. However, for our purposes, keep in mind that as the winds of political fortunes changed, certain religious adherents fell in or out of favor. For example, as a result of the “official” break from the Roman Catholic Church by the infamous King Henry VIII, members of the Catholic faith were sometimes persecuted. In addition, the elite and powerful in England also fomented persecution against “non-conformists.”

In its most general sense, non-conformists included all sects and religions other than the Church of England. Persecution against non-conformists continued for at least 150 years, and was at times violent. Included in the category of non-conformists are Baptists, Quakers and Puritans. Thus, nearly all the Welsh immigrants that came during this time period came seeking religious freedom.

Welsh Place Names in Pennsylvania.

Major Welsh Emigrations

First wave primarily from Montgomery, Radnor, and Monmouth.

Many of the Welsh immigrants during this period were from the Montgomery, Radnor, and Monmouth regions of Wales.

In addition, there are many place names in Pennsylvania of Welsh origin, and may provide clues of where their inhabitants came from. For example, the following list of place names received their names from settlers of the Welsh migration to the area:


By the time of the American Revolutionary War, historians estimate there were about 12,000 residents of Welsh descent in Pennsylvania alone. However, their political influence had declined dramatically, and most of the identity of the “olde country” had dissipated.

According to a 2008 U.S. Census community survey, nearly 2 million Americans claim Welsh ancestry. However, about 12 million Americans appear to have Welsh surnames! Apparently about 10 millions Welsh-Americans need to do some genealogy. 🙂

So, how do you find information about these early settlers of the first Welsh Migration? Well, there was an old saying among Welsh immigrants to the Americas: “The first thing a Frenchman does in a new country is to build a trading post, an American builds a city, a German builds a beer hall, and a Welshman builds a church.” That means church records here and in Wales can be used to help trace your family heritage back to their ancestral village.

Genealogy Records.

England did not require any documentation of free citizens to emigrate or relocate to any of its colonies. Therefore, prior to 1776, you will not find emigration records of Welsh families moving to America. Tracing your ancestry back “across the pond” from Pennsylvania will likely rely heavily on church records. The good news is that there are plenty of those! Also, there are passenger lists which may include information about where they came from. Most traveled from the busy English ports of Liverpool and Bristol.

If you have trouble, don’t forget the principles of Cluster Genealogy! You can find clues by researching the people they lived near, and the folks they traveled with on the voyage.

For more guidance see these FamilySearch wiki articles: England Emigration and Immigration and Pennsylvania Church Records.

Next installment:

Although emigration from Wales slowed for a time, it did not stop. Then, the mid 1800s saw another Welsh migration to the United States. This time there were 2 primary motivations. Once again religion played an important role. Between 1840 and 1860 Mormon missionaries had great success in converting many people in Wales to their religion. In addition there were economic forces at work. At the height of the industrial era Welshmen were expert coal miners and iron workers. There was money to be made in America.

I will write about the second wave of Welsh migration in a future article.

If you have ancestors from Wales please share with us by commenting below!

Additional Reading

*Image Credits:
  • By Thomas Holmes – This map is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Geography & Map Division under the digital ID g3820.ct004135, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41940400
  • http://www.data-wales.co.uk/emmap.htm

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