John W. Ellis, governor during the start of the Civil War, is one of North Carolina's most notable Welsh descendants. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.
One of the earliest European ethnic groups to migrate to North Carolina in the colonial period were the Welsh. Most of them were second-generation Welsh-Americans; their parents had migrated from Wales to Pennsylvania and Delaware in the 1680s. What early records exist indicate that the Welsh originally migrated to North Carolina as early as the 1720s, when Parliament offered bounties to individuals participating in the naval stores trade. A 1738 map of North Carolina shows two Welsh settlements, one in present day Duplin County on the Northeast Cape Fear River and the other on the Cape Fear River in present day Pender County.
The earliest account of the Welsh in North Carolina was in “An Account of the Cape Fear Country, 1731,” a travel account by Hugh Meredith and published in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. With glowing terms, Meredith described the land and wildlife of the Cape Fear region and his stay with Welshmen David Evans and Thomas James on the Northeast Cape Fear in present day Duplin County. He considered both to be not only good producers of corn but also skillful in the naval stores industry.
Undoubtedly Meredith’s account of the Cape Fear encouraged more Welsh to migrate to North Carolina. The early North Carolina land records, for instance, include numerous Welsh surnames, including Bloodworth, Thomas, Davis, Edwards, Ellis, Jones, Bowen, Morgan, Wells, James, Lucas, Price, Owen, Powell, and Williams. By the end of the century, the Welsh had assimilated into North Carolina society. For example, the first student enrolled at the University of North Carolina in 1795 was Hinton James, a descendent of the early Welsh settlers in North Carolina. Determined to attend the university, Hinton remarkably walked over 140 miles from his home in Pender County to Chapel Hill.
Economic rather than religious reasons pulled and pushed many to North Carolina. Many of the Welsh were staunch Calvinists—unsurprisingly so because many were former members of the Pencader Hundred Presbyterian Church in Delaware. Some North Carolina churches, including Rock Fish Presbyterian and Hopwell Presbyterian in Duplin County, can trace their origins to the eighteenth century.
Some prominent North Carolinians of Welsh descent include Civil War Governor John W. Ellis and, more recently, William S. Powell, a distinguished local and state historian; Archie K. Davis, who promoted the cultural advancement of the state; and former Attorney General and United Sates Senator Robert Morgan of Harnett County. Today, thousands of Welsh descendents reside across the state.
William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, 2005); Lloyd Johnson, “The Welsh in the Carolinas in the Eighteenth Century,” North American Journal of Welsh Studies, Vol. 4, no. 1 (Winter 2004), 12-19.
By Lloyd Johnson, Campbell University
See Also:Related Categories: Churches, Early America, Colonial North Carolina