Welsh Americans: A History of Assimilation in the Coalfields

Welsh Americans: A History of Assimilation in the Coalfields

Welsh Americans: A History of Assimilation in the Coalfields

Welsh Americans: A History of Assimilation in the Coalfields


In 1890, more than 100,000 Welsh-born immigrants resided in the United States. A majority of them were skilled laborers from the coal mines of Wales who had been recruited by American mining companies. Readily accepted by American society, Welsh immigrants experienced a unique process of acculturation. In the first history of this exceptional community, Ronald Lewis explores how Welsh immigrants made a significant contribution to the development of the American coal industry and how their rapid and successful assimilation affected Welsh American culture.

Lewis describes how Welsh immigrants brought their national churches, fraternal orders and societies, love of literature and music, and, most important, their own language. Yet unlike eastern and southern Europeans and the Irish, the Welsh- even with their "foreign" ways- encountered no apparent hostility from the Americans. Often within a single generation, Welsh cultural institutions would begin to fade and a new "Welsh American" identity developed.

True to the perspective of the Welsh themselves, Lewis's analysis adopts a transnational view of immigration, examining the maintenance of Welsh coal-mining culture in the United States and in Wales. By focusing on Welsh coal miners, Welsh Americans illuminates how Americanization occurred among a distinct group of skilled immigrants and demonstrates the diversity of the labor migrations to a rapidly industrializing America.


This book has its earliest origin in family history, dating back more than twenty years to a long conversation I had in Justus, Ohio, with the lone family elder who possessed any knowledge of our common Lewis ancestors. While I scribbled copious notes, Laverne Lewis passed on this oral history. He told of Howell Lewis, my great-grandfather, and four of his brothers who emigrated from near Rhymney in the 1860s, how they scattered across the American coalfields and eventually lost contact with one another, and how my great-grandfather became embroiled in the Tuscarawas, Ohio, coalfield strike in 1880. Laverne described how my great-grandfather and several of his colleagues, disguised in women's dresses and blackened faces reminiscent of the “Scotch Cattle” of the South Wales coalfield, tied up the mine guards and set fire to the tipple. Hunted by Pinkerton detectives, “the union” transported Howell Lewis, his wife, Frances, and their children by train to Braceville, Illinois (which is next door to the more famous coal town of Braidwood). There my great-grandfather was given a job in the mine and his true identity was kept a secret. When he and his butty were killed by a rock fall in 1890, my great-grandmother and her four children returned to the small Welsh community in North Lawrence, Ohio, which they had departed in haste ten years before.

My later research into local archives over the years documented the essential accuracy of this oral tradition. Along the way, I came to realize that the Welsh, and other British immigrants, were instrumental in establishing the American coal industry and in shaping it into the engine of the American industrial revolution. I also became keenly aware of the extent to which the Welsh were/are invisible in American historiography. As a specialist in the social history of race, ethnicity, and labor, I found the challenge of that vacuum too powerful to resist.

The pages that follow present a unified treatment of Welsh immigration to the American coalfields, scattered though it was, and of a group of immigrants whose importance to industrializing America was far greater than their comparatively modest numbers would suggest. My primary focus is . . .

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