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The Welsh Pioneers of Nebraska

Their Communities and Their Churches
Dr. Berwyn E. Jones

The grandson of Welsh immigrants who settled in Wymore, the late Berwyn Jones was a longtime supporter of the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Project and president of our board for several years. We are honored to bring you his history of the Welsh communities in Nebraska.

A Welsh-American picnic on the banks of the Big Blue River near Wymore, Nebraska in 1911

Chapter I. Introduction

When one thinks of Welsh settlement in the United States, one tends to focus on the places to which the Welsh came in relatively large numbers. Pennsylvania had the Welsh Quakers early on, and coal miners in the19th century. Vermont attracted slate workers from north Wales. New York, and later Ohio and Wisconsin attracted large numbers of Welsh farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Mormon Church drew many Welsh to Utah and southern Idaho. Less known and little studied were the smaller bands of the Cymry who created little enclaves in the great prairie grasslands between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Of these states, only the Minnesota Welsh pioneers have been the subjects of an historical treatise[i]. Others, in such places as Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, the Dakotas and Nebraska have not been documented in any comprehensive way.

This paper will address that lack is a small way by concentrating on one of the pioneer states – Nebraska – not because its Welsh are greater in number or historical significance, but because the author, being descended from two such pioneer Nebraska Welsh families, and currently residing in the state, has a personal interest in, and access to much unpublished information about, this subject.

Two types of notes are used in this text; footnotes for brief explanatory comments, using Arabic numbers, and endnotes providing reference sources, using Roman numerals.

Geographic Background

Geography greatly influenced the patterns of settlement in the early days of Nebraska. A brief overview seems in order at this point.

The state of Nebraska lies almost exactly at the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states, and yet in the minds of most Americans, Nebraska is where the West begins. The 100th Parallel, which bisects the state from north to south, is the traditional divider between farming and ranching lands, the tallgrass prairies to the east and the shortgrass to the west. Eastern Nebraska has a very Midwestern feel – farms of corn and soybeans, an average of 30 inches or more of annual rainfall, and altitudes of around 1000 feet. There the deep roots of the tallgrass prairie created thick layers of dark, rich topsoil. The western half of the state, though, is definitely Western in appearance – up to 5000 feet in altitude, with annual rainfalls that qualify as semi-arid, which produced the shortgrass prairie soil that is neither as deep nor as rich as that in the east. Some pioneers, misled by the shibboleth, “rain follows the plow,” were persuaded that if they would only break that thin sod cover of these high plains, surely rainfall would automatically (magically?) increase until corn and small grains could be raised successfully. It seems almost incredible today that anyone would believe such folly, and yet such was the hunger for free (or nearly so) land that they did believe, and the result many years later was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s[ii]. Were it not for the vast underground reservoir of the Ogallala aquifer and the surface flow of the Platte River system, no plowed fields would exist today west of mid-state.

The landscape south of Wymore, Nebraska, near the site of the Bethel Welsh Church

In the north central area of the state are found the Sand Hills, a vast region of grass-covered sand dunes. Once thought to be stable, geologists now understand that these are “live” dunes that are rearranged over time by the action of the prevailing westerly and southerly winds. Any action that disturbs the protective grass cover results in a “blowout” of rapid erosion. The land is suitable for ranching, but a 160-acre homestead is not a viable unit[iii].

Nebraska is bounded on the east by the Missouri River, which was both a highway for, and an impediment to, arriving settlers. Settlers from a southeasterly direction used the river as a means of transport. However those arriving from due east (Iowa) and from a northeasterly direction (i.e., Wisconsin) via the traditional covered wagon encountered the Missouri River as a barrier. Ferries had to be established to allow them to cross, funneling traffic to those spots amenable to crossing, and leading to the formation of settlements such as Omaha, Belleview, Nebraska City and Plattsmouth.

The Platte River traverses the state from east to west, dividing into North and South Platte about two thirds of the way west. The Platte is not navigable; it has been described facetiously as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Furthermore, its broad sandy bottom was difficult to cross by wagon, impeding north-south travel. It does, however, provide a broad valley of level land that made a natural trail bed and later a railroad and highway bed of easy, virtually-imperceptible rise, facilitating westward travel from the days of the early explorers and fur traders, up to today’s Interstate Highway 80.

History of European Settlement in Nebraska

Nebraska became a US Territory with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The original area of the Territory included all the Louisiana Purchase lands north of Kansas, making up the present states of Nebraska, North and South Dakota west of the Missouri River, much of Wyoming and Montana, and a corner of Colorado. Until that time, the area was virtually unpopulated by Europeans. A few ferry landings were operated from the Iowa side of the Missouri River, creating small villages at Omaha, Plattsmouth, Nebraska City and Brownville. Bellevue was virtually the only settlement comprising perhaps 50 people at a mission to the Indians. Once the Territory was established, settlement was relatively rapid along the river, where enterprising souls laid out communities with surveyors’ stakes and advertised for buyers of the lots. The Territorial Census of 1854 showed a total population of fewer than 3000 people, only one of whom, David Jones, with his wife, Gwen, a missionary to the Indians at Bellevue, was Welsh-born, from Proscairon, Wisconsin, although Welsh-sounding surnames such as Davis, Thomas, Evans, Griffith, Morris and Edwards for people born in Kentucky, Tennessee, etc., were not uncommon[iv].

A railroad poster advertising homesteading opportunities in Iowa and Nebraska
(Library of Congress)

The population of Nebraska increased rapidly after the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, providing 160 acres of public land virtually free to anyone who would settle on it and farm it for five years. Statehood was achieved in 1867, at which time the area of the state assuming virtually its present boundaries. In 1870, the population had risen to 123,000, and about 452,000 by 1880[v], over half of whom were either foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent. The predominant ethnic stocks were German, Swedish, Irish, Bohemian, “England and Wales,” and Canadian. Only 624 specifically claimed Welsh origins[vi].

Earliest Welsh Presence

No proper study of the Welsh in Nebraska could ignore the first intrepid explorer of the Missouri River lands, John Thomas Evans[vii], whose expedition on behalf of the King of Spain preceded that of fellow Welshman Meriwether Lewis, and provided the latter with invaluable maps[viii].

Next after the explorers, were the Mormons (some percentage of whom were Welsh) who established Winter Quarters 1846-1848, at Omaha, just across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs, Iowa, with the permission of the Otoe Indian tribe, to whom rent was paid. Neither the explorers nor the Mormons created a permanent Welsh presence, however[ix].

Actual settlement by Welsh pioneers began in the 1850s, before Nebraska was a state or even a territory, but was unorganized land of the Louisiana Purchase. The US Censuses show the following growth and decay of the number of Welsh-born residents in Nebraska:

            YEAR              NUMBER

            1860                 125

            1870                 228

            1880                 591

            1890                 (records destroyed by fire)

            1900                 926

            1910                 801

            1920                 567

            1930                 257

The peak of immigration roughly corresponds with the Closing of the Frontier, and the resulting end of availability of free or low-cost farmland.

The Welsh Settlements

My research has uncovered eight actual Welsh settlements that were cohesive enough to have organized a church at some point in their development. All were rural, save one, and therefore are identified by county, rather than town, of location. They were located in the following counties: Richardson, Gage, Wayne (two churches), Platte, Douglas (Omaha), Clay, Hitchcock and Keya Paha. Not all were lasting or significant. The following discussion examines these settlements in order of their founding.

A map of the counties of Nebraska is shown to aid in locating the settlements.

Chapter II. Richardson County

The honor of the first organized settlement by Welsh pioneers goes to a small band from Cambria County, Wisconsin, who settled on the Richardson –Nemaha County border in extreme southeastern Nebraska. David Thomas and Thomas Higgins arrived in 1859, and Daniel Davis followed in 1863, having made the entire journey by ox-team[x]. Enthusiastic letters published in Y Drych by these three attracted the attention of a group of Welsh coal miners in Pomeroy, Ohio. Having made excellent money mining coal during the Civil War years, they were eager to find a place to buy land. The Rev. John Thomas James and Caleb Reese came to Richardson County, to investigate possibilities in 1865, and there they bought 600 acres of land for $5 per acre. Reese moved his family there that same fall. Unfortunately, he was killed in an encounter with two drunken soldiers soon after. Mrs. Reese gave up the land, except for a 160-acre farm where she lived.

Thomas and Catherine Higgins, among the first Welsh homesteaders in Nebraska

The following year, 1866, a group of eleven more Pomeroy Welsh families and one Scot, Alex McGeachie, embarked for Nebraska by river boat, traveling down the Ohio River to its confluence with the Mississippi, then up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Missouri, near St. Louis. Thence up the Missouri to the river port village of Aspinwall, just north of the Richardson County line. The journey required six weeks time (of which two weeks were spent hung up on a sand bar!) Their names are recorded as John N. Lewis, Jonah Jones, Edmund Williams, David N. Jones, David R. Jones, Richard Morris, Samuel Brimble, James Evans, Robert Roberts, David Phelps and John Owens[xi],[xii].

Thomas Higgins began a Sunday school in his home, and on March 3, 1867, the Welsh Baptist Church was founded at the schoolhouse on the Higgins farm. Higgins has an interesting history. He was born in Wales in 1818, came to America at age 20, and lived in Oneida County, New York until 1854, when he moved to Cambria County, Wisconsin. He came to Nebraska in 1859, and settled in Nemaha County, just north of the Richardson County line. Although no record exists of a formal call, the Rev. John T. James apparently preached until 1869. In February of that year, the church voted to change its name to Prairie Union Baptist Church, and to include English services in its schedule to serve the needs of non-Welsh neighbors. The services of Rev. E.D. Thomas were secured to meet that need. Rev. Thomas had held a revival meeting while Rev. James was on a trip back to Wales, and had added twenty-one members to the church.

In 1869 Rev. James left the Church, some sources say by exclusion, and set up a rival Baptist Church, which he named Penuel, two miles away. It did not survive for long, but a cemetery remains at the site, with graves dated from December 25, 1869 (the young son of Rev. & Mrs. James) to August 1872. [NOTE: I am excluding later burials of spouses, in an attempt to indicate when Penuel Church may have been viable. No record of a closure date could be found. Rev. James and his wife both died in 1909, and are buried beside their son.]

Prairie Union Church built a new building in 1873, at a cost of $500, with the help of a loan from the American Baptist Missionary Society. It burned just before completion but was rebuilt and dedicated in August 1874. The Nebraska [American Baptist] Association was held there in August 1880[xiii]. Another fire destroyed the church building in 1905, and the present building was built in 1906. However, by 1902, Mr. D. D. Davies of that settlement observed that, “The Welsh language is nearly dead[xiv].”

At the time of the 75th anniversary March 8,1942, a membership of 138 was reported[xv]. Of these, 45 had recognizably Welsh surnames, including 4 Higgins descendants. A 100th Anniversary Celebration was held in 1967, but no names or numbers of members was given, except to note, “…we are small in number…” The church and cemetery still stand, and services are held regularly under the direction of the Rev. Art Chapin.

Table 1. List of the Pastors who served Prairie Union Church

J.T. James 1867-1869
E. D. Thomas(1) 1870-1871
D.V. Thomas(2) 1872-1874
B.F. Lawler(3) 1876-1882
John Powell 1882-1884
I.D. Newell(4) 1885-1887
J.C. Lewis(5) 1888-1890
F. C. Bingham 1890-1893
J. W. Evans 1894-1897
A. B. Bohaman 1897-1899
I. D. Newell 1899-1904
D. L. McBride 1905-1906
C. F. Lusk 1906-1910
Samuel Miller 1910-1915
E. H. Teall 1915-1918
C. A. Baker 1919-1921
Samuel Miller 1922-1927
Tetwiler 1927-1928
M. Bailey 1929-1935
J. F. Teel 1936-1937
Harold Sweezey 1937-1942
E.E. Church 1943-1944
J. F. Teel 1945-1957
H. Locke 1957-1960
Fred Danforth 1960-1962
Mr. Timothy Hollinger 1962-1964
W. B. Cain 1964-?

Notes to Table 1:

1 Rev. E.D. Thomas was also Pastor of the Baptist Church at Salem, Nebraska, First Baptist Church, 1869-1875. Previously he was the organizing Pastor of the Rulo, Nebraska Baptist Church in 1866. [Andreas, A.T, History of the State of Nebraska, Western Historical Company, Chicago, 1882]

2 Rev. D. V. Thomas appears in the 1860 US census as a hotel keeper in nearby Rulo (Richardson Co.), Nebraska and was reported as the organizer of the Baptist Church at Dawn, Missouri, more than 100 miles east-southeast of Prairie Union[xvi].]

3 Rev. B.F. Lawler was also Pastor of First Baptist church, Salem (Richardson Co.), Nebraska, and the Baptist church of Rulo (Richardson Co.), which had declined to a membership on nine in 1882[xvii].

4 Rev. Newell was the organizing Pastor of the Baptist Church in Hastings, Nebraska, in 1874. That church did not thrive.

5 Rev Lewis was Pastor of the Baptist Church in Fremont, Nebr. in 1882.

Chapter III. Gage County

The early history of this Welsh settlement is considerably less well documented that that of Richardson County, despite the greater size of the Gage County Welsh community. The Town of Blue Springs was founded in 1857, a decade before statehood. In contrast, Wymore, which abuts Blue Springs to the south, was founded in 1881 as a Burlington & Missouri railroad junction. The Welsh settlement, which is centered five miles south of the present town of Wymore, predates that town by several years, and so the Wymore Welsh church is referred to as the Blue Springs Welsh church in early literature.

Sam Hudson, an Otoe man known to the Welsh, and one of many Native Americans in Gage County forced to leave for Oklahoma as reservation lands were sold to settlers

A strip of land constituting the southernmost eight miles of Gage County (except for the easternmost 2.5 miles) was dedicated as a reservation for the Otoe and Missouria Indian tribe in 1854. As white settlement grew in the region, pressure mounted to release this land for purchase. In fact, one faction of the Tribe itself advocated removal to Indian Territory (later to become Oklahoma), arguing that the culture could no longer stand the close association with whites that was happening in Gage County. Other Tribal leaders argued that the sale of part of the reservation would produce cash that could be used to improve the remaining acres. In 1876, U.S. Senator from Nebraska Algernon S. Paddock introduced legislation that would put most of the reservation up for sale to white settlers, permitting only 160 acres to be bought by one individual (other recent sales of Indian land had resulted in speculators buying enormous parcels and holding them until prices rose, delaying settlement and leading to huge profits), at prices averaging $2.50 per acre. Sales were supposed to be for cash, but an option to take three years to pay, at 6% interest was also offered[1],[xviii],[xix]

Owen R. Jones (third from right) one of the founders of the Welsh settlement at Blue Springs, in Civil War uniform

It is primarily this land that became the Bethel Welsh settlement. In the 1870 Federal Census, no persons of Welsh birth or parentage were present in the entire county. By 1880, the settlement was largely complete, all available farmland having been purchased, and a sizeable Welsh settlement had been created. The prime mover of this mass migration by the Welsh seems to have been one Owen R. Jones, originally of Aberffraw, Ynys Môn, who arrived in 1873 and purchased 160 acres immediately adjacent to the reservation to the north. Jones sent a series of enthusiastic letters to Y Drych, commending the area and urging the Welsh not to let other nations get all the good land:

BLUE SPRINGS, NEB. December 21 (1878) – For those who wish to know a little about this area, I would say that I have been contented beyond my expectations. Everything is completely successful: there is enough food to be had for man and beast and everything is quite reasonable. Farm equipment and animals can be had reasonably. Concerning the condition of the land, there is something here to please everyone – enough prairie land for those who want it, and bottom land for the others. The price of prairie land is $3.50 per acre, and the bottom and uplands cost more. There is an abundance of wholesome water here, and the weather now is pleasant. The plow can still [ed: i.e., in December] be put in the ground, and nearly everyone is not wearing coats. Several Welsh have recently bought land here. This will be a particularly notable place before long. Unquestionably there is rich land in Nebraska, particularly in Gage County. There are great advantages to Blue Springs because there is good land here, convenient to the market, that the Government bought from the Indians. Hurry to purchase the land before other nations buy it all. O. Jones[2]

Unfortunately, Mr. Jones found himself standing in the way of progress, when his next neighbor, Samuel Wymore, offered the Burlington railroad a portion of his land on condition that the railroad surveyors would plat a town on his remaining land. The railroad needed Owens’s land too, and so he sold out for $20 an acre, and removed to his father-in-law’s land at Barrett, Kansas. The Great Plains Welsh Heritage Centre Archives contain a copy of a contract between Owen and Amy Jones and Horace Sage, Amy’s adoptive father, in which the Joneses agree to take care of Mr. Sage for the remainder of his life in exchange for title to the Sage farm. That was not the end of Owen Jones’s influence in Wymore, however. Two of his daughters married two descendants of John S. Jones family of Wymore.

The origins of the earliest Welsh settlers in Gage County are not so neatly described as for the Richardson County settlement. However, an analysis of households in the 1880 Federal Census reveals a strong pattern. First of all, even though this settlement lies west of the major Welsh settlements of the preceding 200 years or more, in twenty of the twenty-three family groups with children, the head of household was born in Wales. Of the others, one was born in Pennsylvania, one in Wisconsin, and one in New York. This was overwhelmingly a first-generation settlement. However, it was not the first American home for many of these families. Based on the birthplaces of children of Welsh householders in Blue Springs Census District (consisting of Blue Springs and the future Barneston Township[3]), thirteen of the twenty three households came here from Wisconsin, two from Pennsylvania, and one each from New York, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas. Only two families had all their children in Wales prior to arrival here. Only one household gives evidence of residence in two states (Ohio and Illinois) prior to arrival in Gage County. In all these 23 families, the oldest Nebraska-born child was 3 years of age at the time of the census in 1880. Four more were one year of age. These settlers must therefore have arrived only a few years before 1880. The unfortunate loss of the 1890 Federal Census in a fire destroyed data critical to the continuation of this analysis.

Several families came to the area very shortly after the Census. A few more Welsh families took up farms after the 1883 sale of the remaining reservation land. Another small number came to work in the railroad shops as late a 1910. The Welsh settlement was a “checkerboard” of lands in Barneston and Blue Springs Townships, interspersed with German- and Czech- owned farms, a pattern common in other Midwestern Welsh settlements[xx].

Another interesting aspect is the analysis of places of origin in Wales of the Wymore/Blue Springs families. Several coincidences are known to exist. At least three families came from the village of Cemmaes, MGY, and two from Dyffryn Clwyd area of Denbighshire. Further investigation of these patterns is needed to understand the influences that brought people to each place. Only the Welsh-language obituaries, such as those in Y Drych, generally identify the town of origin in Wales. 

            Bethel Welsh Calvinistic Methodist (WCM) Church and Blue Springs Presbyterian Church were both founded in 1879; Bethel on May 4, and Blue Springs on December 3[xxi],[xxii]. Bethel WCM Church was sited 5 miles south of Wymore along the east edge of the present US Highway 77. This appears to have been the easternmost extent of the 1876 reservation land sale in Barneston Township.

Bethel Welsh Church, Welsh Heritage Project, Wymore Nebraska
Bethel Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, Wymore, Gage County

Local accounts of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Bethel WCM Church indicate the organizational meeting was held 3 June, 1879. Charter Members were Gwen Jones, Ruth Jones, Mary J. Spoon, Humphrey and Ellen Closs, Margaret Jones, Thomas Humphreys, John L. Roberts, Owen E. Jones, Mrs. Thomas [sic], Mrs. O. M. Williams, and Evan Davies[xxiii].

Confusion exists in the literature, because Bethel WCM Church is often referred to as “the Blue Springs Church.” In fact, it was the Bethel WCM Church, not the Blue Springs Presbyterian (town) church (the town of Wymore not yet being in existence) that is referred to by Williams[xxiv] when he states that the Blue Springs church was the first WCM church in Nebraska. A building was built in that year, on land given by Edward Roberts, followed by another in 1884 on the same site. The last Bethel building was constructed in 1906. In 1910, a brief story in Y Drych announced the decision to purchase a new organ for the church, “the present instrument being required in the vestry.”[4] A basement was installed under the building for Sunday school rooms in 1926.[5] Some sources report that a branch in the town of Wymore was started in 1909[xxv], and continued until 1923. Little is known of this church.

Also according to D. J. Williams, the Long Creek (Iowa) Presbytery was held at Bethel Church in October 1886[xxvi] at which time the Ministers of Blue Springs and Wymore Bethel Churches were Albert Hooke and William R. Williams, respectively. Neither name is listed as a WCM Minister in D. J. Williams’ “100 Years” book, in the 1886 time frame. In 1888, Rev. David Edwards arrived at Bethel church, and a well-documented period of growth began.[6]  Rev. Edwards was the founder of a highly successful Christian Endeavor young people’s group, fondly remembered to this day by older residents. The Nebraska Presbytery was organized in a meeting at Bethel WCM Church, 1-3 June, 1888, with Rev. Richard Hughes, “The Bishop of the West[xxvii],” presiding. Rev. Richard Miles, of Bethel, was elected the first moderator. Churches of the Nebraska Presbytery were those at Blue Springs (vide supra), Trenton, Postville, Moriah, Norden, Wayne, and Omaha in Nebraska, plus the Church at Denver, Colorado. It was agreed that the next annual meeting would be held at Moriah Church, Platte, County Neb.[7]

The Welsh language began to leave Bethel Church shortly after World War I, but attendance remained strong until the 1950s, because it could attract non-Welsh neighbors after the language change. A Welsh-language Sunday school persisted for years after formal services became English. Rev. D. Penry Davies documents the entry of non-Welsh-name families into the Church during the 1920s[xxviii]. Brownawells, Saathofs, Rutherfords, Sedlaceks and Hevelones all joined. By 1960, the congregation realized that it could no longer support even a shared pastor, and so it reluctantly merged with the Blue Springs Presbyterian Church in a new building in Wymore. The Bethel church building was dismantled, and usable parts were sold, rather than have it stand vacant along a major highway, inviting vandalism. A granite monument stands in its place today, to commemorate the lively community that once was there. The cemetery that once surrounded the church is still active and well cared for, with new burials occurring regularly. Each year, Decoration Day (the last weekend in May) sees relatives flocking back to place flowers on the old graves.

Why did the congregation shrink? Several factors were involved, I believe. First, the automobile made people more mobile; they could easily attend a church in town. Second, the Welsh were very anxious to take advantage of free (or nearly so) public education through the university level, which was totally out of the reach of the poor and the poorly connected in 19th Century Wales. Having become landowners, and in a freer society, people saw and seized the opportunity to place their children in the professions and Civil Service (also out of reach in Wales) through higher education. Thirdly, English language schools, including the High School in town, made farm children and youth painfully aware of their own lack of sophistication, and to aspire to be like their more urbane peers. An immigrant church did not play a part in these aspirations. Several first-generation descendants of the original immigrants transferred their loyalties to town churches of other denomination. Fourth and finally, the strong feelings of patriotism that swept the country during WW I led many immigrant groups to feel intensely American, and English was the language of Americans. This was especially hard on the many German immigrants of Nebraska, some of whom went so far as to Anglicize their surnames: Muller became Miller, for example.

Welsh-American schoolchildren at Wymore in the early 20th century

Educational opportunities were well utilized by the children of Bethel. One, George Hughes, became Director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, as well as an ordained Presbyterian minister. Another, Amwel E. Jones, became Chief of Operations for the U S Soil Conservation Service. His brother, Emrys G. Jones, became State Conservationist for Nebraska in the same agency. Emrys’ two children, Berwyn and Sara Frances, each earned a Ph.D. degree. Others descended from the same John S. Jones family earned advanced degrees in Medicine, Psychology and Law. Still others became extremely successful in business, in larger communities elsewhere. Understandably, they did not return to Wymore to farm.

Table 2. List of Ministers at Bethel Church, Wymore.

A booklet organized for the dedication ceremony of the new (merged) Wymore Presbyterian Church in 1960[xxix], and the records of the Rev. D. Penry Davies[xxx] provides the following list of ministers who served Bethel Church:

John Jones Cardy, 1879

Benjamin Davis 1883

William R. Williams

David Edwards 1888

John W. Morgan 1889

Thomas Miles 1900

Daniel Thomas 1906

R. W Evans 1911

D. Penry Davies 1920[8]

O. J. Davies 1930

Sheldon O Price 1932

Ralph Chamberlain 1938

J. Thompson Baker 1941

Harold Snow 1944*

C. H. Rumbaugh 1951*

H. Warren Kunkel 1954*

Sheridan Robbins 1956*

William J. Llewelyn 1959**

* Shared with Blue Springs Presbyterian

** United Presbyterian Church of Wymore

Chapter III. Platte County Churches

Platte County is located in east central Nebraska, in the valley of the Platte River. It consists of fertile river bottomland and rolling upland hills of glacial till. The Welsh of course favored the latter – it was more like home. Rainfall here tends to be less than in Richardson and Gage Counties, but still adequate to produce corn and wheat crops most years.

Two churches existed in Platte County, for the most practical of reasons. When the weather was bad (especially winter and spring), Shell Creek became impassable. Therefore the people who lived north of Shell Creek were unable to get to Postville Church, and so they determined to have their own place of worship, complete with cemetery. This they called Moriah Church. Both were Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Churches.

Postville Welsh Church, Platte County

Postville Welsh Church was formerly known as First Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, but later, as the village of Postville in which it was located grew and decayed, it has been called Postville, and it will be referred to as such here. This church’s Association is to be commended for its excellent online history[xxxi]. This site documents the history of the area, its exact location, the history of the church, and a remarkably detailed cemetery record that includes the familial relationships of the occupants of the graves.

Postville Church is located in Joliet Township, Platte County Nebraska, some five miles northwest of the county seat, Columbus. The township was organized on 1873, and the town of Postville received its US Post Office in 1878. The post office was discontinued in 1902, and the village gradually disappeared.

First WCM Church was founded on 6 December, 1881 by Elias Hughes and John Edwards. David and Mary Edwards deeded two acres of land to the church 10 July 1884, and the building was completed by W. W. and L.E. Evans later that year. The building is 24 feet wide by 34 feet long, consisting of a single room under a plain shed roof. Three windows are mounted in each side wall. A small anteroom is appended to the main structure to protect the front door from wind, rain and snow. Wooden shingles cover the roof, and white clapboards form the walls. Interior walls are plastered, with stenciled decoration. The raised area at the front of the church holds the piano, organ, pulpit, and chairs, and is still covered with the original carpet. Six kerosene lamps mounted on the side walls provide lighting. Heating is via a large wood-burning stove at the back of the room. Several rows of the original chairs still remain in the church. A chain link fence was constructed around the church and cemetery in 1991, at which time the roof and exterior steps were also replaced and the building painted. Work was paid for by solicitation of 275 family members of settlers all over the United States.

Records of membership exist only from 1902 forward, and which time 42 members were named. The peak membership occurred in 1910, with 45 persons. An organ was purchased in 1902, and in1920 the Quarterly Synod meeting was held here. Regular weekly services were held between 1902 and 1922, but occasional services here led by visiting clergy until after WW II. Sunday School was held regularly until into the 1960s. Rev. Robert W. Evans of Winfred, South Dakota served this church, as well as churches in Trenton and Wymore, Nebraska, according to D.J. Williams, 100 Years. Unusually, he removed to Wales in 1919. Rev. William W. Hughes of Winnipeg, Canada also served here[xxxii], as did W. J. Griffiths[xxxiii] and L. W. Morris[xxxiv]

In 1948, the Presbyterian Synod decided that since the church had no minister and no congregation, the church building should be sold. The local Board pointed out, however, that neither the building nor the cemetery had ever been deeded over to the Presbyterian Synod, and gave notice of withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church. A church and cemetery Board has persisted to this day, made up of descendants of the original settlers whose ancestors are buried there. An annual meeting is held, and donations for the upkeep of the church and cemetery are solicited. The difficulty of maintaining a purely historic property is well attested by Robert Parry’s testimony before the Nebraska State Legislature[xxxv] in 2005, urging support for a bill that would require County governments to maintain abandoned cemeteries. As we shall see below, cemeteries are not always maintained in this country, and indeed can disappear entirely if not privately cared for.

Phoebe and William Rowlands, Welsh settlers at Cornlea in Platte County

The second Platte County Welsh church was founded on the other (north) side of Shell Creek, about five miles south of the village of Cornlea, placing it some 7 or 8 miles from Postville. The formal address is 400th Street at 340th Avenue. The reason for the founding of this church was the lack of transportation access across Shell Creek in wet weather. Few records of the church exist, and indeed it is difficult to see signs of it on the ground, but for a recently erected sign by a descendant. No trace of the church remains, and the cemetery is not maintained. The graveyard contains only one stone, and that one has fallen over and lies under a lilac bush. It is the stone of one Evan Evans, originally of Cyffylliog, west of Ruthin, Denbych, whose obituary appears in Y Drych, 3 June 1877. His son, Robert Evans lived in the area of Cornlea, and had donated a corner of his farm for “the new Calvinistic Methodist Church.” A man by the name of Henry R Williams presided at the burial. Evan Evans’ brother Robert had been the minister at Low Gap, Missouri. Interestingly, Evans’ widow returned to her daughter Catherine and husband John Davies’s people at Morfa Lodge, Rhuddlan, north Wales, where she is interred at Bodelwyddan Church.[xxxvi]

D. J. Williams[xxxvii] notes that the founding of Moriah Church was reported to the Long Creek (Iowa) Presbytery in 1885 by Rev. H. R. Williams and Elder T. J. Edwards, and that a new building had been built.

Mr. Stanley Owens of Omaha, Nebraska, recently informed me that his father, Owen Owens, lived near this church and cemetery as a youth, and that the family removed to Carroll, Wayne County, Nebraska about 1910 because the area was becoming predominantly Polish Catholic, and Owen’s parents, Ellis and Margaret Owens, wanted Owen and his brothers and sisters to marry Welsh, not Polish. Stanley notes that after all that, only three of the nine children did so. It is rumored that the Welsh community pulled up stakes all together, and moved to Carroll, and may have moved graves as well as the living. Three letters from Moriah appear in Y Drych in 1900.

Chapter IV. Wayne County Churches[9]

Wayne County is remarkable in that it had two Welsh churches – one Congregational, one Calvinistic Methodist – within 3 miles of each other! In sparsely settled states like Nebraska, this is very unexpected. It testifies to the remarkable size and vigor of the Welsh community there. In the 1900 US Census, 106 Welsh-born persons resided in Wayne County, nearly all in three adjacent townships. It is further remarkable that both persisted until 1997, and one still holds weekly services, under the stewardship of its long-retired minister, to this date.

The Welsh settlers who came here recognized at least one attribute of the land: it is unusually hilly for Nebraska. Differences, however, were more pronounced. The complete absence of trees and shrubs must have been unnerving, and surely would have been more so if the settlers had realized that the reason for this was the frequent prairie fires that kept this a vast grass land. Trees and shrubs cannot recover from fire like grass can! Also, infrequent violent thunderstorms and occasional torrential downpours that could wash a cornfield away in an hour replaced the generous and reliable rainfall of Wales! Blistering summers and biting cold winters also added to the hiraeth the settlers must have felt, but they persevered (except for a few who gave up and went home). The drawing power of “free (or cheap) land” was overwhelming. One could become a gentleman of means in just a few years of backbreaking labor, and a little luck.

John R. and Elizabeth Morris and family (they were blessed with seven sons!) became the first Welsh to settle in Wayne County in March of 1884. They came from the vicinity of Red Oak, Iowa. Morris bought a frame house in Red Oak, disassembled it and shipped it to Carroll by rail! He then reassembled it on his land. Clearly the log cabin so fondly remembered by those who never had to live in one, was not possible in this treeless plain. Morris’ solution was better than that of many others – a dugout or a house made of “brick” of fresh-cut prairie sod (the  soddy). Seven people lived in the Carroll Township at that time, and no one in the adjacent township. The Henry Evans family, W. I. James, Thomas James family, soon followed them; Bill James and his bride, Frank and Roland James (both of whom married shortly after arrival), and the David H. Jones family[xxxviii]. Many more Welsh settlers came in the next few years[xxxix].

Bethania (Bethany) Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church at Carroll, Wayne County

This intrepid group founded Bethania Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church in 1886. Its first building was constructed in 1891, and the current building was built in 1918. Rev. H. R. Williams (the first minister ordained by the Western Gymanfa of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church), and Elder Elias Hughes were the point men in the effort, and John R Morris and Thomas James were among the first Elders. Over one door is etched the name Bethania, and above the other is Bethany, indication that the name change from Welsh to English occurred about the time of the Presbyterian merger in 1920.The Rev. Gail Axen has been conducting services here weekly since 1956, and continues to do so in 2008! This church has the cemetery used by both Wayne County Welsh Churches. A gathering is held each year on the Sunday evening of Memorial Weekend in late May, when the dispersed descendants of the community return to honor the memory of their ancestors.

Zion Welsh Congregational Church, Carroll, Wayne County

Zion Congregational Church was organized April 2, 1891, in a schoolhouse three miles west and one mile south of the site where the church was built. Its buildings were constructed in 1892 and 1913. It was located 2.5 miles west of the village of Carroll[xl]. Rev. Samuel Jones was the pilot of the effort, and served as minister for the first ten years of the church’s life. The charter members were Howell Rees, Margaret Rees, William Jenkins, Susan Jenkins, Mathias Jones and Owen Jones. Howell Rees served as the first Deacon for 26 years. A funny story is told, that the original building was determined to be moved to a more central location on a hilltop. When the building was lifted onto rollers and pulled up the hill to the new location, it began rolling backward down the hill, and did not stop until it reached the bottom. Unfazed, the good Christians tried again and this time achieved the climb (with more horses? History does not say.).

The Welsh language persisted in services here until 1921, when an English sermon was given the first Sunday of each month. The rest of the month, the young people went downstairs for Christian Endeavor  (in English) while the Welsh sermon was preached upstairs. The last regular Welsh sermons were preached here about 1927. The generational divide was thus opened, and progressed as the older members died. The two churches were forced to share one preacher beginning in 1950, as the communities began to shrink. The outside world beckoned to the young, and farms became larger but fewer as mechanization of farming accelerated. Rev. James Griffith became the first joint pastor. In 1956, Rev. Gail Axen came to the combined parish as a student pastor. He was ordained there in 1957, and has served until this day, in what must surely be a record for service to a single parish. In 1997, Zion merged with Bethania (Bethany Presbyterian by that time), the Zion building, which was in need of repairs, was razed. A black granite monument, complete with a photo etching of the church in earliest days and a brief history, was placed beside the road where it stood, commemorating its life in the community. The site is now a cornfield[xli]

In the early days, this very rural Welsh community boasted a Welsh baseball team and a Welsh band complete with uniforms (prior to WW I). An undated picture of the nattily dressed Welsh Male vocal sextet, replete in light suits, white bowties and even whiter shoes, appears in the History of Carroll[xlii].

Chapter V. Minor Settlements

Three other settlements existed in Nebraska, as well as a number of isolated Welsh immigrants where no real ethnic settlement could be claimed.

The Rosefield area southwest of Trenton, Hitchcock County in southwest Nebraska was never large enough to have a separate church building. The community worshipped at Rosefield Schoolhouse, depending on ministers coming out from the town of Trenton. Rosefield Cemetery is primarily Welsh, and records a lively history of a small community. The History of Hitchcock County contains a one-page summary of the history of the community, and gives many names of early settlers. William D. Davies, “The Beggar of Hyde Park” records the names of the early settlers here in a contemporaneous account[xliii].

The church in Norden, Keya Paha County, in north central Nebraska is mentioned only briefly by D.J. Williams. Little more can be found about it. The US Censuses on 1880 and 1900 show only a couple of Welsh families in the area. The church mentioned briefly by D. J. Williams[xliv] remains a mystery.

Omaha, Nebraska in 1868 (Library of Congress)

About 50 Welsh people were in Omaha in 1880. A Sunday School was started in 1881 by a group of thirty. The Rev. Richard Hughes, “Bishop of the West”, organized Omaha Welsh Church in 1887. In 1893 it was dissolved, and the building was sold to pay off its debts. Only two ministers, W. R. Williams and John R. Johns, served the church[xlv].

A small Welsh community existed in the Adams – Clay county area of south central Nebraska. It was given the name Gwalia Deg (Beautiful Wales) by a land agent for the Burlington and Missouri Railroad from Lincoln, Nebraska, named George S. Harris. His advertisements are seen in many issues of Y Drych in the 1880s. It never grew to be significant. Two Welsh ministers, Thomas Pugh and Roderick R Williams lived there (and owned farms), but preached in the English Congregational Church. The Oak Creek cemetery south of Hastings contains the graves of these settlers, and also of many other ethnic groups. One curious story arose from this community, that of Elizabeth Jones Taylor, the only woman ever lynched in Nebraska[xlvi].


The existence of a vibrant Welsh immigrant culture based on farming flowered in Nebraska in the last third of the 19th Century. A significant but never large number of Welsh-born people became landowners, most for the first time in their families’ histories. Their descendants assimilated quickly, and so most of these farming communities and their Welsh churches flourished briefly and died.

The reason for the creation of these settlements was very simple: LAND. Free by homestead, although most of the Welsh of Nebraska purchased their land, either railroad[10] land, or Indian Reservation land, or privately owned land.           

The reasons for assimilation were not difficult to see. First of all, courage, initiative and the spirit of adventure that brought the parents to a new land was passed on in the genes of the children of the immigrants. They were ready to find their own Promised Lands. Many found them outside the comforting bounds of an immigrant community.

A Wymore school graduation program from 1912

Secondly, the first American-born generation received educational opportunities that would never had been possible in the Old Country at that time. Two enlightened government policies created the opportunities for education. First, school lands. In the Enabling Act through which Nebraska became a state on March 1, 1867, the federal government granted sections 16 and 36 of each township in Trust for the support of Nebraska’s public schools. Second, the Land Grant Universities, or Morrill Act of 1862, in which states were awarded 30,000 acres of land for each Senator and each Representative in Congress, for the purpose of creating an supporting a University of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. The University of Nebraska at Lincoln is one such university, offering studies not only in Agriculture but in a full range of subjects.

Education led these children of immigrants into business, the professions, and Civil Service positions that conferred prestige on them and their parents and continued to improve the financial and social status of the families, They were encouraged to go into the wider American community with the same pioneering spirit that brought their parents across the ocean to a raw, wild land of opportunity but no little hardship. 

Third, the internal combustion engine revolutionized life on the prairie. Replacing the horse team with a tractor permitted one man to farm a much larger acreage than ever before. This led to consolidation into fewer but larger farms, creating a smaller rural population that could no longer support small ethnic communities and their churches. The excess manpower released by this trend availed itself of the automobile to escape to the city and take jobs in the assimilated American society, losing the language and the culture that went with it. Intermarriage ensured that the process was irreversible.

Emrys G. Jones, the father of Berwyn Jones, in uniform during the First World War

Finally, war. World War I came at a critical time for the Nebraska ethnic communities. It led to diminution of loyalty to the Old Country as American patriotism arose, causing the young men to enlist or be drafted into the US armed forces. These men returned thoroughly Americanized after the war. The ditty of the period that asked “How’re ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, when they’ve seen Paree?” raised an unanswerable question for many. World War II finished off the last of the Welsh communities by hitting them with a second helping of all the same influences as the first.

Now that the second American-born generation is reaching their senior years, some of them are looking back on their ancestors with no little awe and wonder. How could these simple rural folk from a downtrodden corner of the isle of Britain have mustered the courage and knowledge, not to mention the financial resources, to brave a horrible ordeal by sea, and then come halfway across this massive new continent to settle on, and create farms from, this vast sea of grass? We want to uncover and record this heritage that has expanded our own opportunities immeasurable. We want our children and their children’s children to preserve this memory. And so we undertake projects such as this.

[1] In fact, payments stretched out for many years, and the tribe received very little benefit. The author’s grandfather, John E. Jones, completed payment in 1892, according to a deed that is still in the family’s possession.

[2] Translated by Martha A Davies, May 2008.

[3] In US land measure; especially in the land settled after colonial days, a Township is a six-mile by six-mile square area, divided in to one-mile square Sections of 640 acres each. Townships were charged with maintaining roads along the Section lines in early times when a team of horses pulling a scraper could “maintain” a road.

[4] That “new” instrument, a three-rank reed organ by the Estey company of Brattleboro, Vermont, complete with wooden imitation organ pipes, presently resides in the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Centre in Wymore, restored to its original glory. It is used to accompany Cymanaoedd Ganu and an occasional community religious service.

[5] The author attended that Sunday School occasionally when visiting his grandparents, and was mightily impressed (and not a little intimidated) by the Biblical knowledge of Bethel’s children.

[6] The author’s great aunt Lizzie became Rev. Edwards’ wife. Edwards later served in Denver, Lake Crystal, Minn., Lime Springs, Ia. and Picatonia, Wis [Williams, 100 Years, p. 417] . They are buried at Bethel Cemetery, Wymore.

[7] See Platte County chapter. This church completely disappeared, it congregation dispersed, early on. Even the graveyard is barely discernible. It very nearly escaped the notice of the present author.

[8] Rev. Davies stayed in the area after his pastorate; he was Grand Master of the Barneston Masonic Lodge in 1934-6.

[9] I am indebted to Mr. Stanley Owens of Omaha, Nebraska for much of the reference material and information about the Welsh of Wayne County.

[10] As an inducement to build railroads where few people had settled, alternate sections of each township adjacent to the railroad’s route were awarded to various railroads. Approximately 16% of Nebraska’s land mass was railroad land.

[i] Hughes, T.E., David Edwards, Hugh Roberts, and Thomas Hughes, Hanes Cymry Minnesota, Free Press, Mankato,Minn., 1895.

[ii] Olson, J.C., and R.C. Naugle, History of Nebraska, 3rd Ed., © 1997, p167-8.

[iii] See, for example, Muhs, D.R., Geomorphology 59, 247-269 (2004)

[iv] First Nebraska Territorial Census, 1854.

[v] New York Times, Dec. 31, 1880, p 2.

[vi] Olson, J.C., and R.C. Naugle, op. sit., p. 175.

[vii] Williams, Gwyn A., The Search for Beulah Land, Croom Helm, London, 1980.

[viii] W. Raymond Wood, “The John Evans 1796-97 Map of the Missouri River,” Great Plains Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 1981), 39, 53.


[x] Omaha Bee Dec 19, 1909

[xi] Haskins, E. in Edwards, L. C., History of Richardson County, Nebraska, B.F. Bowen & Co., Indianapolis, 1917, p. 646-649.

[xii] “Welsh Pioneers of Nebraska,” The Druid (Pittsburgh, Penna., 18 Nov., 1909

[xiii] Gillies, Susan, Executive Minister, American Baptist Churches of Nebraska, personal communication, April 22, 2008

[xiv] Davies, D. D.,Y Drych, 3 July, 1902

[xv] 75th Anniversary and History of the Prairie Union Baptist Church

[xvi] [“The History of Caldwell and Livingston Counties, Missouri, 1886, online at:

[xvii] Andreas, A.T, History of the State of Nebraska, Western Historical Company, Chicago, 1882

[xviii] Wishert, D. J. , An Unspeakable Sadness: The dispossession of the Nebraska Indians, p. 216, ff.

[xix] Dobbs, Hugh J, History of Gage County Nebraska, Western Publishing and Engraving Co., Lincoln Nebraska, 1918, pp 86-87

[xx] See, for example (Blue Earth Co. Minn. Study)

[xxi] Unsigned Pamphlet: Dedication Worship Services, United Presbyterian Church of the Blue Springs-Wymore Area, Wymore Nebraska, April 6, 1962

[xxii] Unsigned Pamphlet: From Generation to Generation: A brief history of Presbyterianism in the Wymore/Blue Springs area.

[xxiii] The Wymoean, 1929 Undated clipping from a personal file.

[xxiv] Williams, D. J., Op cit., p 250.

[xxv] Ibid., p. 251.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 250.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 236, ff.

[xxviii] D. Penry Davies, Bethel Record Book of D. Penry Davies, 1920-1929, transcribed by Lori Laird, online at

[xxix] Unsigned Pamphlet: Dedication Worship Services, United Presbyterian Church of the Blue Springs-Wymore Area, Wymore Nebraska, April 6, 1962

[xxx] D. Penry Davies, Op. cit.


[xxxii] Williams, D. J., Op cit., pp 419, 423

[xxxiii] ibid, p. 420

[xxxiv] ibid. p. 432.


[xxxvi] Carolyn Jones Strother, personal communication, October 1993, archived at Great Plains Welsh Heritage Centre, Wymore, NE, USA

[xxxvii] Williams, D. J., op sit, p 244.

[xxxviii] This material is abstracted from Morris, Lot, “Early Accounts of the Welsh Settlement,” History of Carroll, Nebraska, 1886-1986, City of Carroll, Nebraska 1986. Morris kept a journal all of his life, and wrote this account from it.

[xl] Owens, Stanley, Personal communication, 3 September, 2005.

[xli] Rees, Dorothy, “Zion Congregational Church,” in Wayne county Nebraska History, p. 12, Wayne County Historical Association,1981.

[xlii] Junck, J. , ed., History of Carroll, Nebraska 1886 – 1986. Published privately.

[xliii]  Davies, W. D., America A Gweledigaethau Bywyd, Jos. Williams, Merthyr Tydfil, 1895, p.224.

[xliv] Williams, D. J., Op. Cit., p.244

[xlv] ibid.

[xlvi] Williams, Jean. The Lynching of Elizabeth Taylor, Territorian Press, Santa Fe. 1966