In the 19th century, thousands of immigrants left Wales to seek a better life in North America, settling in significant numbers in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. By the time of the American Civil War, as the United States expanded westward, the Welsh were among the thousands of immigrants who crossed the Mississippi to settle in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
Thomas and Catherine Higgins were among the first Welsh immigrants to homestead in Nebraska. After coming from Wales, they lived in New York, Ohio and Wisconsin before settling in Nemaha County in the mid-1860s.
Encouraged to head west by railroads, state governments and their fellow settlers, they joined Americans from eastern states, Czechs, English, Germans, Norwegians and many other nationalities. To the north, Welsh immigrants also settled in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Welsh immigrants on the Great Plains were predominantly farmers, seeking the opportunities provided by the Homestead Act, which made it easy and inexpensive for settlers to claim government-owned (previously native-owned) land. Welsh-language newspapers advertised Tir Rhad (Cheap Land) and praised the fertility of the region.
An advertisement for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, promoting settlement on the Great Plains, published in the Welsh-language newspaper, Y Drych. The railroad’s General Emigration Agent, responsible for assisting settlers, was William E. Powell, himself an immigrant from Wales.
It is important to acknowledge that the Welsh, like other settlers, displaced the native peoples of the Great Plains. In the Wymore area for instance, settlers, land speculators and local officials pressured the Otoe tribe to sell their remaining reservation lands in the 1880s. Much of that land became the Welsh settlement in the following years.
Sam Hudson, a member of the Otoe tribe, lived in the Wymore area during the period when Welsh settlers began to arrive, and was known to the Welsh. However, like most of the Otoes, he was forced to leave what remained of the tribe’s lands in Nebraska. Hudson was later recorded in the census as living in Oklahoma.
In the early years of settlement on the plains, establishing a farm was hard work and conditions were challenging. The lack of wood on the prairies meant that some of the Welsh lived in sod houses at first. From South Dakota to Kansas, farmers struggled against droughts in the summer and blizzards in the winter. Grasshoppers and hail could ruin a harvest. Facing harsh conditions in the early 1890s, some of the Welsh requested aid from communities back east through Welsh-language newspapers and magazines. Some settlers decided to leave the Great Plains and migrate even further west to states such as Washington and California.
The first sod house built in the Welsh settlement of Powell, South Dakota. The community was named after W. E. Powell, the railroad agent who promoted emigration to the plains.
Eventually, with increasing settlement and technological innovations such as water-pumping windmills and agricultural machinery, the Great Plains would become an agriculturally productive region, and many of the homesteaders who stayed became successful farmers.
On the Great Plains, the Welsh lived in distantly scattered communities, but although their numbers were small, they maintained a strong sense of their identity. They worshiped at Welsh-speaking Congregationalist and Calvinistic Methodist or Welsh Presbyterian churches. Welsh communities stayed in contact with each other through Welsh-language newspapers, such as Y Drych (The Mirror). Welsh settlers continued to maintain the cultural traditions they had brought with them from Wales, including the eisteddfod, a competition of poetry and song conducted in Welsh.
Born in Wrexham, Wales, George U. Jones came to Wymore in the 1880s. Jones published poems in Welsh and was widely known among the Welsh by his bardic name, Ymyl Alun. He also served in the Nebraska state legislature.
By the early 20th century, fewer immigrants were coming to North America from Wales. The younger generation of Welsh Americans and Welsh Canadians on the Great Plains were beginning to speak English more than Welsh, although the ethnic identity would remain strong for many years. Welsh churches would continue to sing hymns in Welsh and maintain many cultural traditions. However, as farming practices changed and rural population declined in the later 20th century, many of the Welsh churches would close or merge with other congregations.
The Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church at Judson, Minnesota. The denomination merged with the Presbyterian Church, USA in 1920.
Although the Welsh immigrants of the plains and their descendants became Americans and Canadians, many have never lost sight of their connection to their ancestors. Welsh cultural organizations can be found across the region, keeping our history and traditions alive.
At the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Project, we welcome all to learn about the story of Welsh immigration to the Great Plains. As a regional history resource, we seek to engage with all cultures of the Great Plains, including other immigrant ethnicities and the native peoples who consider the region their traditional homelands.