“Religious leaders have always had a very powerful influence in Wales,” says Alan Conway in The Welsh in America: Letters from Immigrants. “In the early years of the nineteenth century they had not been in favor of emigration as the means for curing the ills that beset the Welsh, but eventually they came down heavily in favor of this remedy. Men like Benjamin W. Chidlaw and R. D. Thomas wrote and spoke constantly in favor of emigration to the United States, and produced emigrant guidebooks for the Welsh in their native tongue.”
Of these Welsh settlements in America, the most famous is that of Brynyfynnon in eastern Tennessee, established in 1855 by Samuel Roberts of Llanbrynmair. Roberts, a Congregationalist minister, was also a tenant farmer, a scholar, and a considerable social force in nineteenth-century Wales.
In conjunction with William Bebb of Illinois, Gwilym Williams, William and John Roberts Jones, and his own brother Richard, all of Llanbrynmair, S. R. (as he was known in Wales) purchased a hundred thousand acres of land in Scott County, which they were prepared to sell to buyers at ½ crown an acre, and at somewhat higher prices for choice lots.
Richard Roberts took out the first group of settlers in 1856 and was followed by S. R. in 1857 with a second group. Like other immigrants to America, the Welsh had to deal with uprooting from friends and homes in Wales, a hazardous sea voyage to the new world, the difficulty of finding a suitable area in which to settle, the hard labor and frustration of clearing a site, shortage of money, the threat of disease and death, and that peculiar Welsh form of homesickness, hiraeth.
Keep in mind that the men who undertook to organize this emigration had never seen the land. The average Welsh citizen of the times was not aware that the land was hardly accessible due to the underdeveloped mountainous area; nor that improvement of the land was next to impossible because of a lack of flat grazing land and building sites. The pastures were more suited for goats than for cattle.
The prospectus of the Welsh settlement in Tennessee was a sound and workmanlike document. Unfortunately, the purchasers had not reckoned with the Southern system of land sales. Almost immediately they found that their title to much of the land was disputed, and a series of lawsuits rendered the settlement virtually stillborn.
The Welsh settlers began to break up, many believing they had been defrauded. Some of these people moved down the valley and became the founders of the Coal Creek settlement, or joined the Knoxville Welsh community.
William Bebb, although transferring the blame for failure to the settlers themselves, maintained that it was impossible to conserve a Welsh island in an ocean of other peoples and least of all in Tennessee on the brink of a civil war.
Mr. John Roberts Jones, of Allen County, OH, was a partner of Bebb and Roberts. In March, 1858, Mr. Jones wrote this letter:
I am sorry that our venture has caused and is causing so much ill feeling as there is between us as relations. I wish that I had never seen Mr. Bebb and E. B. Jones and that I had never heard of Tennessee. Undoubtedly, we have all been disappointed in our venture. It would be a blessing if it could be sold and if each one had his money back. It was terrible indeed of Mr. Bebb to persuade us to buy land in Tennessee without knowing more about it and with the titles being so uncertain. He should have been the first settler according to his promise.
When I heard Mr. Bebb in Wales sighing and groaning that we were suffering such oppression, living on hopeless and sunless farms, boasting of the great fortune that he had made for us and the paradise that was to be had on this side of the Atlantic, who would not have expected something from him!! I have not seen him proving any of his claims and I judge that he had nothing in view except his own pocket.
By 1861, the War Between the States had started; unfortunately for the Roberts, Tennessee was on the North/South divide and the state itself was split. East Tennessee remained loyal to the North and the Union while the rest of the state was Confederate. Diary extracts show that stores at Brynyfynnon were plundered, and meals and board had to be offered to soldiers; sometimes payment would be made for these but not always.
At first Brynyfynnon mainly provided food and shelter but as the war progressed the Union troops took more of their provisions and supplies. Sometimes the troops left insufficient hay for the Roberts’ animals to feed on, and the livestock subsequently died. Troops also took their guns, rifles, pistols, powder, and stirrups—in fact anything that could be of use. At times their lives were threatened and several of their friends were killed.
The war restricted movement, although Roberts managed two tours in the North. However he was coming under increasing criticism from the North; some found it hard to understand his residency in Tennessee given his anti-slavery stance, particularly while their friends and family were fighting in the war. Locals suspected the Roberts of being Fifth Columnists working for the North.
The end of the war did not improve their lot; they still were beset with financial problems and legal wrangling over land. There was still much opposition and misunderstanding from the Welsh speaking communities over their position in the war.
Defeated in his dream of a Welsh Utopia and financially ruined, in 1866 Samuel Roberts sailed for Wales. He came back to the States in April 1870 to arrange for the sale of the land in Tennessee, before returning to Bryn Mair on Conwy Morfa in North Wales. Roberts remained there for rest of his life, devoting his energies to the life of ministering, to theological colleges and to political journalism.