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Last Updated: Monday, 4 July 2005, 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK
Wales mapped onto modern-day USA

Tom Bourton
BBC Wales news website

Welsh settlers played a part in founding America
As America celebrates its most important date in the calendar - Independence Day - there is likely to be little thought given to Wales.

And why should there, you may ask? Compared to the impact and influence groups such as the Irish, Italians and Spanish, the Welsh appear to fade into insignificance.

Well, you only have to scratch the surface of US history to discover why the Welsh-American links are something far stronger and worthy of some celebration.

For starters, the Welsh were by far the largest ethnic group involved in the drawing up of the American Constitution, and it was Welsh descendant Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Little wonder then that George Washington declared "good Welshman make good Americans".

Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta Jones
Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta Jones are leading the Welsh in the US

So as American wakes up to Independence Day on Monday, the BBC Wales news website sets out the reasons for this and examines if there is a Welsh influence in modern-day USA.

You only have to glance at a map of the US to spot umpteen towns and villages called Wales, stretching across Alaska, Utah, Maine, Michigan and New York.

Alternatively, you could visit Swansea, Pembroke, Penrhyn, Flint or Neath, or even Bryn Mawr, Cambria, Barry, Bala or Cardiff by the Sea.

Bill Jones from Cardiff University said it was impossible to put a precise figure on how many Welsh people emigrated to the US as no official records were kept.

But he said a census at the end of the 19th century, which claimed 100,000 people in America were born in Wales, was probably wrong, and the real figure could be closer to 200,000.

Wales, Wisconsin (Pic from Dave Parry)
Wales in Wisconsin celebrates its roots on its roadsigns

Why then, is there so little awareness of what Welsh settlers achieved in the US. In 1971, Thomas M Rees addressed the House of Representatives in an attempt to redress the balance.

"Mr Speaker, very little has been written of what the Welsh have contributed in all walks of life in the shaping of American history," he said.

"Twenty percent of the Pilgrim Fathers were Welsh, as was the captain of the Mayflower.

"How many know that nine Welsh presidents were Welsh or of Welsh descent?"

And it does not stop there. In industry, miners from south Wales set up the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, Virginia, which played a key role in the Civil War, while David Thomas - from Neath - became known as the iron master of America and Joshua Humphreys founded the US Navy.

Welsh soldiers were also at the front, quite literally, in the Civil War, with prominent generals of Welsh descent on both sides of the conflict. So why do the Welsh struggle for recognition in the US?

'Low visibility'

One of the main differences is simple maths - the numbers of Irish and Italian settlers far outweighed the numbers of Welsh Quakers or miners who crossed the Atlantic.

Dr Arturo Roberts, editor of the North American Welsh newspaper Ninnau, explained why the numbers were against them.

"There are 20 people of Irish descent for every one with Welsh descent - that makes a big difference," he said.

Places called Wales in the US
Nome, Alaska
Montgomery, Iowa
Pike, Kentucky
Hampden, Massachusetts
Sanpete, Utah
Lake, Minnesota
Cavalier, North Dakota
Giles, Tennessee
Waukesha, Wisconsin
St Clair County, Michigan
Androscoggin, Maine
Erie, New York

"Most people don't know about Wales - it is not as important as the Irish. On 17 March [St Patrick's Day], everyone is Irish, but it is not the same on 1 March [St David's Day].

"The Welsh have low visibility."

Another reason for this "low visibility" seems to be the way that Welsh people integrated themselves into their new society, with George Washington himself saying: "Good Welshmen make good Americans".

Howard Stringer, who was born in Barry, headed Sony in America before taking over as the firm's chief executive.

He told the BBC Wales programme Star Spangled Dragon that the Welsh disappeared as part of the "immigrant experience".

"The Welsh slipped very easily into the US," he said.

"You can find Welsh people all over the place, but the Welsh have never tried to sell themselves on the international stage like the Irish."

American dream

Professor John Roper, from the American Studies department at the University of Wales, Swansea, agreed.

"The Welsh went over and spread out -the language was lost pretty soon - they seemed keen to lose themselves rather that assert their culture," he said.

Sony CEO Howard Stringer (Pic from Star Spangled Dragon)
Sony CEO Howard Stringer said the Welsh slipped easily into the US

"They bought into the American dream."

Philip Davies, president of the North Welsh American Foundation, said that Welsh communities were getting further and further away from their roots.

"It is truly amazing as to how many places across the US have Welsh names," he said.

"They were given 100-200 years ago, but the communities have evolved to have little or no link with when they were named. The Welshness of places is being diluted."

They may be diluted, but some are less diluted than others.

One of the strongest communities still going is in a place called Bangor in Pennsylvania, which was established by slate miners from north Wales.

Pennsylvania itself is one of the areas with the biggest links to Wales, when William Penn started bringing Welsh Quakers across the Atlantic with the promise of a new life, free from persecution.

Bangor parade (Pic from Star Spangled Dragon)
Welsh influence can still be seen in some communities

John Reinhart, the president of the St David's Welsh Society in Bangor, said his ancestors had brought "a very very strong feeling of the Welsh identity" to the area.

"The other thing is they had a lot of people who were very community-minded and keen to keep the traditions," he said.

"The Welshness they carried here was carried in their hearts - they truly retained their identity."

Although the town's Welsh Day ended in 1975, events including St David's Day celebrations and an annual Gymanfa Ganu (singing festivals) are still held there.

Mr Reinhart said that the latest resurgence began 12 years ago, when the next generation ganged together to preserve the traditions so important to their ancestors.

As for the rest of the US, the mantle of keeping Wales in the front line has passed to actors like Catherine Zeta Jones and Anthony Hopkins.

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