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Why do Welsh names seem to be so common within the African American community

Some time ago Mr. David Evans of Australia drew our attention to this topic with the following e-mail : 

"As an aside to your interesting website:  I have been trying to track down the reason for what I consider to be a preponderance of "Welsh" surnames among black Americans.  I find it curious that again and again among various subjects of interest to me, e.g. jazz and tennis, the names Williams, Evans, Jones, Thomas come up again and again ... "

Mr. Evans thus raised several interesting issues. If we accept the widely held notion that slaves tended to adopt the surnames of their masters, a high modern incidence of Welsh surnames would indicate that Welsh immigrants formed a large proportion of the slaveholder class. For reasons discussed below I believe this concept to be quite wrong. In fact, it seems to me that the Welsh can be quite proud that their names survive to such an extent within the black population of America. My access to the literature has been largely limited to British sources. However, many American visitors to the Data Wales website have contributed their insights, advice and encouragement. I hope that, between us, we have managed to offer a balanced picture.


That widely held notion ... 

George F. Nagle of Pennsylvania has carried out valuable research on naming practices in his state. He writes: "Although it is true that slaves in the south did sometimes adopt the surname of the slaveholders (or were assigned that name for tax or legal purposes), they almost never did so in the North. Prior to the 1780's, Northern slaves were almost always identified only by a given name. Beginning in the 1780's, as Pennsylvania began its long process of gradual emancipation, some slaves began to be identified with surnames as well as given names. I have collected data on more than 3,000 slaves in Pennsylvania, and have found only one instance where the surname of the slave matches the surname of the slaveholder." 

2013 update. Edward Ball's "Slaves in the Family" (1998) contains much of interest. See note at foot of this page. 

First of all, is it true that Welsh surnames are over-represented among African Americans or have some famous people with Welsh names simply distorted our view? 

Most agreed that Welsh names are unusually common within this community. I am not aware of any published research in this area but none of our correspondents disputed Mr. Evans' observation. In fact, I might add another Welsh name to his list. I wonder if many people are aware that the name "Floyd" has a Welsh origin. This was originally a descriptive element in early Welsh names, in the form "Llwyd" meaning "grey" or sometimes "brown". Medieval scribes not of Welsh origin had trouble spelling this and it was often written as "Lloyd", or in an attempt to reproduce the singular "Ll" sound of Welsh as "Floyd".

Regional variations.
I am a substitute teacher in the Sacramento California area.  I always look down the roll sheet  for Welsh names. When I call the roll, I find that about 80% of the students with Welsh names are African American. I have always wondered how this came to be. It was very interesting to read your analysis. David L.
Here in Philadelphia I reside in Mount Airy, a largely African American working-class neighbourhood (with the most warm and wonderful neighbours I've ever known), but I haven't any neighbours with Welsh names.  My local Unitarian parish is about 50% black, and right now I'm skimming our church directory...  With the possible exception of Morrison (an older widow -- that's her married name) and possibly Thomas, I don't see any names of Welsh origin borne by black members.  Sandy F.

Does the (albeit regional) high proportion of Welsh names necessarily mean that the Welsh were especially prominent as slave holders in early America? I think that this is unlikely. Several correspondents, while tracing their family history had been uncomfortably surprised by evidence that their Welsh ancestors had kept slaves but there are several reasons to suppose that the Welsh would have been under represented in the slave holding class. Consider the some of the so-called "waves" of emigration from Wales. The first of these, the flight of Welsh Quakers in the late 17th century, consisted of people with a philosophy somewhat opposed to slavery. (Although Priscilla S. of Phoenix has drawn my attention to the fact that some prominent early Quaker immigrants were slaveholders and that it was only in the mid to late 1700s that Quaker leaders and ministers began to actively campaign against the evil of slavery). The industrial emigrants in the 19th century came to America to exercise their skills as furnacemen and miners, they also would have been far removed from the slave owning economy. (In this connection see a note by Ivan Hild, The Welsh and Anthracite Coal Mining in America.)

Before 1840, Welsh emigration to America had been sporadic and limited. The Welsh squire was more likely to be attracted to the plantations of Ireland. "...why tear up one's roots and cross the Atlantic to wrest a home from the primeval forest when land-hunger could be appeased across the Irish Sea without the preliminary pioneering and without the pain of permanent exile from all that was dear and familiar?" (A. H. Dodds, writing in 1953). That many Welsh families settled in Ireland but later (perhaps in times of famine) left for America is attested by the number of American visitors to the Data Wales website who ask why they have names denoting Welsh ancestry although family records indicate emigration from Ireland. (Names like Walsh and Vaughan come to mind). 

An anomaly?
My ancestors were Welsh and came to N. America in the late 18th or very early 19th century and had migrated to Alabama by 1820 or so. They were indeed slaveowners and in fact many of the former slaves stayed long after emancipation. One of the former slaves that stayed with the family had the name of Ellis and was so loved and respected by the family that his name was given to my mother as her middle name. David J.

The perceptive A. H. Dodds also points out that Puritan New England did not particularly attract a Welsh population "so little troubled by religious dissidence". Although there were to be great religious upheavals in 18th. and 19th. century Wales, in earlier times the Welsh had generally remained quite conservative in outlook. In fact, despite sometimes swingeing penalties, there were quite a number of Welsh Catholics. Their enclaves had enjoyed the protection of some of the powerful, ancient families of Wales, those who had remained faithful to the Roman church. In the border counties of South Wales, these included the house of Raglan, the Morgans of Llantarnam and the Vaughans. 

(But see The Raglands - the almost accidental involvement of a Welsh family in the plantations)

Large numbers of Welsh immigrants arrived after 1865, when the 13th amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery in the United States. Official figures for immigration into the United States were available after 1820.  In the decade 1820-1830, only 170 Welsh were recorded as entering the United States as immigrants.  By 1850 that figure had gone up to 1261, and in the decade 1851-60 as many as 6319 Welsh had entered as immigrants, most of them 'industrial'.  The figures for Welsh industrial immigration for each of the decades in the period 1881 to 1931 was in excess of 10,000, with a sharp drop down to only 731 for the 1930's, indicating the Depression. 

Percentages. The Planting of Civilisation in Western Pennsylvania, (S.  J. and E. H. Buck, 1939) has some figures from the 1790 Census to demonstrate the relatively low proportion of Welsh immigrants in, for example, Western Pennsylvania by that date .  Pennsylvania had long been a popular destination for the Welsh so it may be reasonable to assume that most other states would have had an even smaller proportion of Welsh immigrants. Taking figures for 'heads of family', of the 12,955 white families in the five western counties of the State, about 37% were still of English origin, 17% Scottish, 19% Irish, 12% German, 7% Welsh, while 8% were of other origin.  In the five counties, Welsh proportions were stronger in Washington County with 9%, Allegheny County with 8% of the population 'heads of family', Bedford and Fayette counties each with 7% Welsh 'heads of family' and Westmoreland with only 3% on that index. 

South Carolina absorbed many of the early slaves (by 1715 the black population outnumbered the white by 40 per cent) and although it had an area known as Welsh Neck, it is interesting to find that there are no counties in South Carolina with Welsh names. There are examples of Welsh people in early Virginia but here slavery developed more gradually and there is evidence that Virginians desired an English society. They did not encourage immigration from Scotland and Ireland and it may be assumed that this negative attitude extended to the Welsh. The states most associated with Welsh immigration (Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois for example) were not, as far as I know, areas where slavery was particularly widespread.

Distribution of Welsh immigrants by 1900
1900 was in fact the peak year for Welsh immigration into the United States, with 100,000 immigrants that year.  In 1900, Pennsylvania contained a third of all Welsh stock in the United States, with over one hundred thousand of Welsh blood.  Ohio had nearly thirty-six thousand of Welsh stock, New York State over twenty thousand.  Wisconsin and Illinois had over ten thousand each in 1900, and Iowa nearly ten thousand.  According to census figures at 1900, several other States had between one thousand and six thousand of Welsh stock, from Wyoming with just over a thousand to Utah with 6174 Welsh-Americans at that date. The following States had over five hundred Welsh, but less than a thousand: Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Virginia, Maine, Rhode Island. 

One writer contributed the following " ... in my studies of families through out the south it has become very evident that not just the Scots settled the southern states.  Even more so the Welsh. Welsh surnames dominate any list of community names - Owens, Evans, Bowen, Jones, Thomas, Powell, Williams, the list is endless.  And not only are these names present in the white community, they are the dominant names in the African-American families. The names are the names of founders of communities, the old names, the names that first broke the soil with a plough in the Americas." The figures mentioned above do not support this view that Welsh settlers were especially numerous in the southern states but the letter serves to remind us that in America names could be adopted in the same way as elsewhere in the world, that is through familiarity and a desire to maintain a connection with an area associated with the family home by using the name of a local notable or township. In this context it might be useful to look at examples of Welsh place names in some of the southern states. Alabama has counties named Morgan and Montgomery.  The city of Montgomery has a population of over 200,000.  There is a town called Prichard and villages called Cardiff, Jones, Rehoboth and Morris. Georgia has the counties of Evans, Montgomery, Jones, Floyd, Morgan, Thomas, Glynn and Jenkins. There are smaller towns and villages named Davisboro, Evans, Jenkinsburg, Jonesboro, Morris, Morgan, Morganton, Pembroke.  (Georgia had Governors Henry Ellis in 1756-60 and Myrick Davies 1781). Louisiana has towns and villages called Evans, Jones, Jonesboro, Jonesville , Floyd (see the derivation of this, above), Glynn, Morgan City and Montgomery. One correspondent had quizzed several African American friends about their names. This group, in the main, did not think that their ancestors had adopted the names of slave holders. They might well have adopted place name surnames from some of the locations above. 

It is also worth bearing in mind that the Welsh were often noted for their anti-slavery stance. The Oshkosh Centennial Report of 1947, for example, "was particularly proud of the record of Oshkosh Welsh in what it calls 'the War against slavery'.  By 1860, Oshkosh had a Welsh population of 800, of whom 52 went to fight for the North, nineteen of them losing their lives in battle." (Elwyn T. Ashton - The Welsh in the United States, 1984). Ashton also mentions: "Another famous Morris in Wyoming history ... Mrs  Esther Morris, reputedly of Welsh stock. She was one of  the earliest pioneer women in the area, and had originally  come from Illinois ...  She came to live ... at South Pass, then a gold mining town.  She  became the first woman Justice of the Peace in the area, a  lively mining district, which kept her busy on the Bench, dealing mainly with bar room brawls.  This she did for many  years, but also spent much time in the Anti Slavery  movement.  She lived on to the age of ninety." 

Since writing the above, I have looked at the history of the Morris family of Tintern in Wales. A descendant of the American branch, Gouverneur Morris, attempted to introduce a section banning domestic slavery to the 1776 Constitution of the State of New York.

Interestingly, a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society was one William Lloyd Garrison. He was its president from 1840 to 1865. 

So, Wales only supplied a relatively small proportion of immigrants and these tended to locate in states where slavery was not widespread. At least two of the waves of Welsh immigrants would have tended not to be associated with slavery, wherever they settled. There were also examples of the Welsh being philosophically opposed to slavery. 

If the Welsh were not numerically prominent in the ranks of the slave holders, how did African Americans come to make common use of Welsh names? In many cases these surnames just indicate the fact that African Americans shared with the Welsh the need to adopt fixed surnames at times when forenames commonly used in England had become usual in both groups. When fixed surnames became necessary, a father's name would tend to become a surname. John could become Jones and David, Davis or Davies. (See: A short note on Welsh surnames.) Names like this, therefore, need not necessarily be evidence of a Welsh connection.

The adoption of an old Welsh name like Gwyn (or Gwynne), however, does tend to offer stronger evidence of a link. In the relevant period, this was more likely to be a surname in the Welsh community which makes adoption by the above method unlikely. Sasha (Gwyn) Mitchell has extensively researched the manuscripts of North Carolina slaveholder, James Gwyn. His letters and diary contain several references to his personal care and concern about his slaves. Following slavery many slaves kept his surname and some even shared the given names of his family.

So it is true that in certain cases slaves adopted the names of their Welsh "owners" but several correspondents have reminded me of the "Underground Railroad", a system designed to help slaves escape northwards. Apparently Welsh Quakers were prominently involved in this system and it is possible that some slaves, aided in this way, adopted the names of their helpers. 

However, it is strange that few correspondents commented on what I consider to be an important issue in the context of this discussion. The Welsh and African Americans shared a common goal in the sphere of religion. Over many years both communities desired  to create their own methods of worship. In 1639, on a site at Llanvaches in Monmouthshire, William Wroth founded the first "independent" church on a congregational model in Wales. Although religious dissent was limited in Wales at that time William Thomas, who had been a co-pastor at Llanvaches, was a pioneer emigrant and formed a congregation near Plymouth, Mass. around 1640. 

It is well known that 19th. century Welsh communities in America were often led by preachers of the non-conformist tradition. One writer, commenting on the website notes about emigration from Wales said "In your mention of migrations,  you should add the migration to Wales, Genesee, Waukesha County, Wisconsin in the mid-1840's. There were several hundred families that followed a preacher from the Teifi Valley  (Pontrhydfendigaid)  to Wisconsin.  I believe the preacher was called King Jones, and he purchased about 5000 acres in Wisconsin that formed the basis of the migration. These people formed the nucleus of most of the Welsh found today  in Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, and Minnesota." 

This is just one example of a trend among the later Welsh immigrants. There are so many examples of parties being led to America by non-conformist ministers that it would be tedious to attempt to list them. It might be instructive to consider the impact these ministers made on religious life in America, however. Ashton has this to say on the subject: "An Association of Baptist churches had been established by 1706, with headquarters in Philadelphia  In 1756 this association set up the Baptist Hopewell Academy in New Jersey.  By the end of the century the Separate Baptists had expanded vigorously throughout Virginia and both the Carolinas.  The reactions of the older 'Regular' Baptists, mainly of Welsh stock, to this new influx were somewhat mixed.  But it was a Welshman, David Thomas, who set out on an evangelist mission that consolidated the Baptist Church in the South.  They became the strongest denomination in an area which had been mainly Anglican (D. Benedict, History of the Baptist Denomination, 1850).  Another Welshman, Lewis Richards, was typical of the new religious enthusiasm that came with the Great Awakening.  He had originally gone to Georgia as a Baptist minister, but became well-known as an 'enthusiastic' preacher throughout the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland, also keeping constantly in touch with his religious friends and mentors in Wales. ... by 1840 there were 117 Baptist churches in the U.S.A." 

"The Congregationalists were more numerous than the Baptists, with over 228 churches at the end of the century, including churches in New York, and at Utica and Steuben in New York State, the famous church at Paddy's Run in Ohio, as well as Radnor Church, also in Ohio. ... The Calvinistic-Methodists (Welsh Presbyterians) were even a little more numerous than the Congregationalists, with 236 churches.  Their earliest church had been Pencaerau at Remsen, New York (1824) with another in New York City itself shortly after (1 826); Remsen soon had another Welsh church, Penygraig (1827), and a third, Capel Ceryg, in 1831.  Other early churches of this denomination were in Pennsylvania (four before 1834), Utica, New York, and Cincinnati, Ohio. ...
By 1832, John Lewis was informing his nephew that Utica was a large and fine town, "It has 8000 inhabitants, including many Welshmen, and more than forty Welsh preachers.  Many Welsh are coming over continually." 

The period 1800 to 1820 saw the Methodists breaking from the established Anglican church and this signalled the massive growth of non-conformity in Wales. From 1820 to 1900 large numbers of chapels sprung up in all areas and if we consider the Welsh experience we can imagine parallels in the African American community. The Welsh had become disconnected from the established churches where the clergy were often Englishmen. They sought to meet to hear the word of God "addressed directly to them in their own language, often without official clergymen". The Church of England had long been associated with the tyranny of the English crown and in the 19th century its support in Wales melted away. 

Just like the Welsh, black Americans were more comfortable with preachers who shared their background and in churches which were not party to old notions of "class" and social division. Just like the Welsh, black Americans had suffered years of oppression and exploitation before they were able to set up their own institutions and I believe that these common experiences led (in some hitherto unexplained fashion) to the sharing of names by the two communities. 

In around 1777 the slave Richard Allen experienced a religious conversion through meeting itinerant Methodists in Delaware. After obtaining his freedom he joined another recently released slave, Absalom Jones and together they founded the Free African Society of Philadelphia. Both men also founded churches, realising that black Americans emerging from slavery required independent black churches. Absalom Jones became an important black leader and was lauded in his lifetime. His portrait appears in the excellent "History of the African American People" (Edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Salamander Books, London 1995). Jones himself may well have taken the name of a Welsh slave holder or preacher and I think it more than likely that many later African Americans took their names out of respect for their early religious leaders. 

Much remains to be discussed and clarified. The Welsh certainly shared in the shame of slavery but I hope that I have shown that it is unlikely that the widespread use of their names indicates a high level of involvement in the abominable practice. 


Here in Wales, I was fortunate to find a copy of the fascinating "Slaves in the Family" by Edward Ball (1998, Farrar Straus and Giroux, USA and Viking Books, UK). Edward Ball tells the story of his ancestors who became some of the largest slave owners in South Carolina. He also tracked down and interviewed descendants of  people who had been slaves on the family plantations. "Slaves in the Family" is essential reading for anyone interested in American history and the subject of slavery. The writer took up a great challenge and succeeded in producing a work which will long continue to inform the academic and delight the general reader.

The Ball family archives provided data on the adoption of surnames.

"In spring of 1862, near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, black Americans began to use surnames for the first time ... The common view is that black people adopted the names of their former owners, but that was not the case at the Ball places. Although a handful of of workers took the name Ball, most chose some other name."

The names chosen included: Aiken, Anton, Ash, Bennett, Black, Broughton, Brown, Bryan, Campbell, Cigar (or Segar), Coaxum, Collins, Dart, Drayton, Easton, Ellington, Evans, Fayall, Ferguson, Fleming, Ford, Fork, Frost, Gadders (or Gethers), Gadsden, Gaillard (Gillard), Gainey, Gamble, Garrett, Garsing, .... Irving,  Jenkins, ... London, Lonesome, ... McKnight, Miles, ... Thomson, Vandross (Vanderhorst), ... Waylan, White, ... Wilson and Withers.

The present writer scanned the list and found the majority to be typical English surnames. However, the following examples were probably introduced to America by Welsh settlers: Evans, Harris, Jenkins, Jones, Owens and Pritchard. Perhaps someone will examine South Carolina records to find examples of these names in newspapers and public records. Who bore those names in the days just before emancipation?  



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