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See, Hear, and Taste More of Wales

In A.D. 1170 the Welsh Prince Madoc set sail across the Atlantic and landed in... Mobile, Alabama? Simon Worrall entertains and informs with his essay, “The Welsh in America.”

Then see, hear, and taste more from Wales in a sampling that includes a visit through the world’s largest secondhand book town, a tongue-tangling intro to the Welsh language, the home-grown harmonies of a native singer, and a recipe for a traditional treat.


Spice Up Your Teatime!

Welsh cakes

Welsh Cakes

Welsh cakes rank as a national delicacy. After sampling several recipes, National Geographic researcher Kathy Maher recommends this version from the Wales Tourist Board.



Travel Tip: Hay-on-Wye

image: visitors browse bookshelves heavy with second-hand books

It’s a little town that’s big on books, so big that it’s the world’s largest secondhand book town and host to an international culture festival. Find out about both at hay-on-wye.co.uk and hayfestival.co.uk and in Simon Worrall’s Field Notes.


Soprano Songbird

image: Iona Jones

Hear the voice of Iona Jones, winner of the blue ribbon at Wales’ prestigious Eisteddfodd cultural festival.

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Courtesy of
Sain Record Company


multimedia

Watch an interview with National Geographic staffer Aled Greville, a Welshman living in America. Aled explores Wales and what it means to be Welsh.

AUDIO-only (recommended for low-speed connections).
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Produced by Jacey Pittleman

Photograph of Welsh cakes by David Leite

Photograph of Hay-on-Wye book stall by Michael St. Maur Sheil

Iona Jones photograph by Sian Trenberth

Online Extra

Images: A Welsh Sampler

The Welsh in America

by Simon Worrall

The Italians have Columbus, the English, Sir Francis Drake, and the Portuguese can boast of Vasco da Gama. Raise your hand if you have heard of Madog ap Owain Gwynedd, aka Prince Madoc, a Welsh prince who, according to legend, left the town of Rhos, near Llandudno, in northern Wales, in A.D. 1170 and sailed across the Atlantic to America. Somewhere out in the briny deep, Madoc evidently got blown off course. As a result, he did not land in Newfoundland, or Plymouth Rock, or Roanoke Island, or any of the other addresses generally favored by early explorers. Madoc washed up in the Deep South. “Prince Madoc sailed from here to Mobile, Alabama,” records a plaque in Rhos. An ancient Welsh chronicle, known as a triad, calls him, mysteriously, one of the “Three Who Made a Total Disappearance From the Isle of Britain.”

Real immigration began in the 18th century and accelerated in the 19th.

Unlike the Irish, who tended to settle in urban areas like New York and Boston, the Welsh, most of whom were miners or farmers, preferred rural communities or small towns, like Remsen, in upstate New York. Others went to Wisconsin, Vermont, or California. The Welsh have also left their mark on Philadelphia’s prestigious Main Line, as evidenced by place-names like Bryn Mawr and St. Davids. In the late 19th century the population of Scranton, Pennsylvania, is estimated to have been 30 percent Welsh.

Wherever they went, the Welsh took with them a love of singing and a zeal for nonconformist religion. An estimated 700 churches in America, mostly Congregational and Presbyterian, owe their foundation to Welsh Americans. In the 19th century converts to Mormonism, mostly from the mining town of Merthyr Tydfil in southern Wales, emigrated to Salt Lake City, Utah, where they helped found the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Some Welsh Americans even dreamed of founding their own, separate state. In the mid-19th century an idea was floated to create a Welsh colony in Brynffynnon, Tennessee. Other colonies were proposed for Wisconsin, Oregon, and Vancouver. But it would be in South, not North, America that these dreams would finally come closest to fruition, with the creation of Y Wladfa Gymreig (The Welsh Colony) in Patagonia, in the middle of the 19th century.

Today, there are an estimated 2.5 million Welsh Americans, compared with 40 million Irish Americans and 14 million Scots Americans. The Welsh did not immigrate in the same numbers because they did not need to. Though Wales has always been one of the poorest parts of the U.K., it has escaped economic catastrophes like the Highland Clearances or the Irish Potato Famine, which drove millions of Scots and Irish across the Atlantic. If there was work, the Welsh preferred to stay home. And for most of the 19th century, when migration from the British Isles was at its peak, there was. In fact, the booming coal-mining industry of southern Wales drew people from all over Europe and the world in the opposite direction, to Wales.

Once in America, the Welsh tended to keep a lower profile than their Celtic cousins. As a result, though most Americans are familiar with symbols of Scottish and Irish national identity, like the kilt and the shamrock, Welsh icons, like the red dragon and the leek, enjoy little of what market researchers call brand recognition. In keeping with their temperament and religious convictions, Welsh Americans prefer celebrating their ancestry quietly, and in private, rather than noisily, and in public. The rivers of Guinness and Scotch that flow on St. Patrick’s Day or Robbie Burns Night are absent in traditional St. David’s Day celebrations, which take place each year on March 1st. “We drink tea,” says Dr. Arturo Roberts, editor of Ninnau, a magazine devoted to maintaining and extending ties between Wales and North America. “And someone might sing a song or two, or a hymn. Then we usually have a dinner. I have never seen anyone wearing a leek.” He paused. “What few people know, though, is that St. Patrick was a Welshman.”

That claim can be contested. More certain is that Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, D.W. Griffith, the filmmaker, J.P. Morgan, the banker, and William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, were all of Welsh origin. Today, though not as visible as the Scots or Irish, the Welsh contribution to American life continues to percolate quietly beneath the surface. There are more than a hundred St. David’s Societies in the United States. A former church in Oak Hill, Ohio, now houses a Welsh Heritage Museum. In Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, each year, an eisteddfodd is held. Recently, even Hollywood succumbed to the Welsh connection, with the arrival of Swansea-born actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.

And the Three Who Made a Total Disappearance From the Isle of Britain? When I called the Mobile Chamber of Commerce asking for information, the lady who answered the phone said, in a lilting southern accent: “Prince Madoc? I’ve never heard of him.” I did finally find someone who knew about him, though.

“There’s no proof,” said Gordon Tatum, Jr., a history buff who works at the Mobile Convention & Visitors Corporation. “But we do have a marker on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. And we have a river called the Dog River, which people say was named for Madoc. At some Mardi Gras parades and balls there are Madoc tableaus, as well. The legend lives on.”

Photographs by Vincent J. Musi




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