1700s Welsh Dominance Was Not Fated To Endure, But Place Names Were Early Settlers Borrowed The Names From Back Home. The Names Stuck, But Not The Culture.

Posted: June 18, 1995

The map of eastern Montgomery County is dotted with Welsh names such as Bryn Mawr, Gwynedd and Penllyn - locales that also appear on the map of Wales.

That's because the Welsh established some of the earliest settlements in what is now Montgomery County.

During the latter part of the 18th century, they came in large groups with the hope of establishing a place where they could govern themselves, practice their faith, and sustain their language. And, for a while, the Welsh were the dominant group in the area. But the arrival of other ethnic groups and the division of their lands reduced Welsh power in the new colony.

In the late 17th century, English influence, both civil and religious, was supreme in Wales. The Church of England tolerated neither the Welsh Quakers nor the Welsh Baptists, and the English government discouraged the use of the Welsh language.

"Many of these Welshmen were feeling pressed and looking for a way out," said Joan Hauger, curator of the Morgan Homestead in Towamencin Township.

Enter William Penn, the English Quaker who secured the colony of Pennsylvania from the crown for payment of a debt owed his father. Penn envisioned the colony as an asylum from the religious persecution of Europe.

According to Hauger, a company of Welsh Quakers met with Penn in London, and he agreed to grant to the Welsh about 50,000 acres. That land, called the Welsh Tract, included what is now Lower Merion Township and parts of Upper Merion Township, as well as territory in modern-day Chester and Delaware Counties.

The first Welsh immigrants arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682, two months before the arrival of Penn himself.

The Welsh organized themselves into companies of about 20 and elected trustees to represent each company. Grants of land were made to the companies, which the trustees divided among the members, typically in parcels of 100 to 300 acres, according to the records of the Historical Society of Montgomery County.

Within 10 years of their arrival in the county, the Welsh had established settlements in Gwynedd, Limerick and Montgomery Townships.

Gwynedd - now Upper and Lower Gwynedd Townships - was settled by Welsh companies in 1697 on a grant of 7,820 acres.

A smaller settlement was established in the early 18th century by a Welsh company with grants of 700 acres at Limerick. English and German settlers followed the Welsh, and soon outnumbered them.

Montgomery Township was originally settled by Welsh settlers from Gwynedd and others who came directly from Wales.

By the turn of the 18th century, the historical society's records indicate, the original Welsh Tract had been divided among different counties and townships. Haverford and Radnor Townships were made part of what was then Chester County (now Delaware County), while Merion Township was returned to Philadelphia County.

In the upper Montgomery area, the Welsh were having a difficult time farming the soil. By the middle of the 18th century, there was an influx of German settlers looking for farmland in the area, which marked the end of Welsh dominance.

As religious persecution ceased in Wales, Welsh immigration to the colonies fell off. By the time of the American Revolution, the Welsh were a minority group in the county.

According to Phil Ruth, a local historian and writer based in Lederach, the Welsh settlers made contributions to the early development of the Montgomery County area.

"In religion, they built a solid base for Quakerism in colonial America," said Ruth, developing ministers and sending them to other colonies to establish and advance the Quaker faith.

"They also made important contributions to education in the early colonial period," Ruth said.

While the German immigrants in the area saw little value in education, the Welsh took on the job of training teachers and establishing schools.

"They saw education as having value in and of itself," Ruth said.

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