William Penn Deutsch: William Penn († 1718) ??...

William Penn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welsh Quakers were some of the earliest emigrants to Pennsylvania. Through their industrious habits, they made significant contributions to the colony’s development and played a key role in its political, social and economic formation.

Religion was the primary push factor for most of these early Welsh emigrants. The Quakers had been harshly persecuted in their homeland. Parliament had passed stringent laws forbidding their public worship, and enforcing fines and imprisonment on any who disobeyed.

William Penn, an English Quaker with Welsh roots, had recently been granted a charter from King Charles II to establish a colony in the New World. This colony was to be called Penn Sylvania, or “Penn’s Woods”.  In establishing this colony, Penn’s goal was to provide a safe religious haven for the persecuted peoples of Europe.

Faced with trying circumstances in England, the Welsh Quakers saw Pennsylvania as a secure haven from English religious oppression. Penn’s Welsh ancestry and Quaker heritage gave the Welsh Quakers the resolve and confidence needed to emigrate to his colony.

With the promise of great economic opportunity and the assurance of complete religious liberty, a committee of Welsh Quakers met with William Penn in London to negotiate the purchase of a tract of land. The Welsh committee, headed by John ap John, approached Penn with their desire to buy a piece of land where they could form a distinct Welsh settlement where they could maintain their own language and customs. They proposed a self-governed settlement in which they would handle any quarrels or crimes in their own way and their own language.

An agreement was reached between Penn and the Welsh committee; however, it was a fully verbal agreement (which would later lead to some controversy). Nonetheless, the committee was satisfied at the time, and arrangements were made to purchase forty thousand acres.

Thirty thousand acres were put in the names of select Welsh leaders who acted as “company heads”. Some of these men purchased the land for themselves, while others acted merely as trustees and eventually parted the land out to settlers. The other ten thousand acres of the Welsh Barony were to be distributed by Penn himself to additional settlers.

The Birth of Pennsylvania, 1680, by Jean Leon ...

The Birth of Pennsylvania, 1680, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. William Penn, holding paper, standing and facing King Charles II, in the King’s breakfast chamber at Whitehall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Settlement took off rapidly, and the Welsh Barony was quickly populated by numerous Quaker families. Estimates show that between 1662 and 1700, the Welsh made up the largest immigrant body in the state. The original townships of Merion and Haverford soon overflowed into new townships in Radnor and Goshen. Soon Tredyffrin and Uwchlan were established, and before long, the rest of the barony was settled.

The Welsh Quakers were typically well-to-do, industrious folks. They built up and developed their land quickly, and lived fairly luxurious lives for early pioneers.

For some time, they did indeed govern themselves as the Welsh Barony; however, the system soon disappeared as the Welsh merged into the general population. Over the next few generations, the Welsh language died out as the Quakers took to speaking English. Nonetheless, the relatively small group of Quakers gained surprising eminence in the region, and to this day, their influence can be felt.

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