Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rooster Cogburn's Cat

Why do so many black Americans have Welsh surnames?  It's a question that is regularly asked on the internet and the answer, more often than not, is unsatisfactory.  The Welsh must have been great slave owners say some; no it's because Welsh preachers were so well respected say others, clutching at straws!

The truth seems to be that, despite all the 1960s talk of "slave names," most  former slaves did not take the surname of their owner.  Until the conclusion of the American Civil War most slaves didn't have an established surname and with emancipation they became free to adopt any name that took their fancy.  Many chose Welsh surnames because the Welsh element in the South was so strong.  Former slaves adopted surnames they were familiar with, and these were often names of Welsh origin.

We tend to think of the Welsh in America as having migrated in the 19C to places like Scranton and Wilkes Barre.  Radnorians will remember the far earlier migration of Quakers and Baptists to Pennsylvania in the 1680s.  For example Sarah Stephens, daughter of Stephen and Elizabeth Evans, formerly of Llanbister, was the first European child born in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania. That was as far back as May 1686.  Yet even those Radnorshire pioneers were late comers compared with the Welsh who poured into Virginia earlier in the 17C.  The result was that, by the time of the first American census in 1790, Welsh surnames were far more common among the free population of the Southern states than in the North - 14% in North Carolina, 12% in Virginia, 10% in South Carolina and Maryland.

Sterling Price, the soldier not Rooster Cogburn's cat, was just one of dozens of Confederate generals with Welsh surnames or acknowledged Welsh ancestry - a leading Confederate naval commander was even named Catesby ap Roger Jones!  Price's ancestors included Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire patrons of the bard Lewis Glyn Cothi and although they had washed up in America as early as 1611, contemporaries still described him as a "Welsh Celt."  Indeed proponents of the controversial "Celtic thesis" estimate that 50% of the population of the South were of Celtic - mainly Scotch-Irish and Welsh - descent and that this is central to understanding the divide between North and South.  It's an interesting topic encompassing literature and music as well as politics, although bedevilled by racism and its distant cousin - political correctness.

Getting back to Welsh surnames: Williams is the 3rd most popular surname in the United States, 49% claiming to be white and 47% black.  For Jones (5th) the division is 58% white, 38% black.  Davis (7th)  - this has long been the usual American spelling  - 65% white, 31% black.  Two surnames which are more typical of Radnorshire than most Welsh counties are Powell (91st) 70% - 26%  and Price (59th) 76% -20%.  Some other examples Evans (48th) 71% - 25%, Lewis (26th) 61% - 34%, Thomas (14th) 68% - 28%.

You would expect a  name like Griffiths (369th) to be higher placed than it is, perhaps it gave rise to surnames like Griffin.  Certainly Rees became Rice (169th) or Reese (405th)  and Lloyd (493rd) had to share the limelight with Floyd (469th).  The difference between Owen (496th) with a 93% - 2% division and Owens (126th) 68% - 28% is striking.  Perhaps Owens belongs mainly to the 17C migration and Owen to that of the 19C.

What we can say is that black Americans were more likely to adopt the very common Welsh surnames like Williams, Jones and Davis, rather than those that were less common but still numerous, for example Morgan (62nd) 78%-16%, Morris (56th) 76% - 19% or Phillips (47th) 79% -16%.  These names were adopted because they were familiar and were not necessarily connected with slavery or actual Welsh descent.  At the same time although American slavery had an African origin, slavery itself descended through the mother.  This soon resulted in some slaves having 50% or 75%  white ancestry.  Condoleeza Rice recently had her DNA tested on a PBS TV show, it was 51% black, 40% white and 9% Asiatic probably Native American, no doubt a not untypical result.   Even if Welsh surnames are no guide it would seem safe to assume that a fair proportion of the population of the South - white and black - have at least some Welsh ancestry.


Jac o' the North, said...

Glad to see you making the point about the massive Welsh presence in the South. Too many in Wales want to re-write history by concentrating on 19th century immigrants to the industrial North in order to 'prove' that the Welsh were anti slavery, without realising that the Civil War was about more than slavery.

Another area where this presence is felt is Country music, an essentially Southern white music: George Jones, Grandpa Jones, Skeeter Davis, Nanci Griffith, Buck Owens, and of course the king, Hank Williams.

radnorian said...

not forgetting the wonderful Wynette Pugh, now there's a name that's somewhat W. E. L. S. H.