A Welsh Immigrant Writes Home from Upstate New York, 1856
Published in the New York Almanack, December 15, 2021
There is a fascinating letter from Evan Evans of Turin, Lewis County, New York to his relatives back in Wales. It is written in Welsh and dated August 1856. The letter tells the story of a young man who had recently arrived in the United States who was struggling with homesickness and wrestling with doubts about whether he had made the right decision to move to America. He describes the sea-crossing, his arrival, and his new life in north-central New York State. The letter now resides in the Meirionnydd Archives in northwest Wales. It has been scanned and can be viewed on the Casgliad y Werin Cymru (People’s Collection Wales) website. In English translation for the first time (with thanks to Gwerfyl Price, a Welsh native speaker), it reads:
My dear Uncle,
I am sending you only a few words to greet you in the hope that they find you in your usual good health. I had a bad bout of sea sickness and was quite ill with it for about 9 or 10 days and am still not feeling as well as I was when I was [there]. However, I hope that I will feel better after becoming accustomed to the country.
The weather was very hot when we got here but has cooled slightly at present. From what I can see the land around is quite desolate and rather awful to my eyes, but things will hopefully improve with time.
I am working with Welsh people. The man [husband] is from Denbighshire and his wife from Llanbrynmair, and I am earning £2.14d a month in wages. I am around 12 miles distant from my brother. There are no Welsh chapels near to me […] I have the heaviest longing (‘hiraeth’) thus far and am thinking seriously about returning. I am thinking a lot about John at home as they were at harvest time, not even having time to wipe the sweat [from their brows], much as it is here. There will be a more detailed account of the voyage in John’s letter to my Uncle Lewis with whom I am sending this.
I sent two papers after disembarking in New York to show that I am alive. Remember me fondly to the family at Perth-y-felin, Tŷmol, Frongoch and Hendre. And fondest regards to you also, to John and Jane his wife, and to Beti, Robert, Gwen and little Jane. A million wishes to you all and to all of my old acquaintances, each and every one, and to Evan yr Allt Ddu. I would love to receive a letter from you also at your very earliest convenience.
You should address the letter thus:
Evan Evans, Care of: John J. Jones, Turin, Lewis County, New York, America.
Immigration from Wales to the United States peaked in the late 1840s and 1850s as Wales, like Ireland, experienced economic hardship and crop failures that prompted many to seek better lives elsewhere. As David Maldwyn Ellis explained in his 1972 article, “The Assimilation of the Welsh in Central New York” in New York History, the Welsh community in Oneida County (which spilled over into Lewis and other neighboring counties) was one of the largest and most important in America. The Welsh-language newspaper Y Drych was published in Utica, Oneida County, and ran well into the twentieth century. Welsh immigrants normally spoke Welsh as their first language. Partly due to their Protestantism, they were more readily accepted in America at the time than predominantly-Catholic immigrants from Ireland.
On finding Evan Evans’s letter, I immediately suspected that it was written by my third great-grandfather, Evan W. Evans. He lived in West Turin at the time of the 1860 Census and later married Ellen Griffiths of Turin. Ellen was also born in Wales and had immigrated with her parents as an eight-year-old girl in 1848. In 1860, the census recorded that Evan was a farm laborer who boarded in the home of a Scottish-born man named Francis Johnson.
Turin was a small village of about 1,800 at the time (its population is even smaller now), but given the nature of Welsh names, and their prevalence in central New York, all matches need to be treated extremely carefully. In the 1860 Census, there were 22 men by the name of Evan Evans living in Oneida County and five Evan Evanses in Lewis County, all of whom lived in Turin or West Turin. Two of them were of the right approximate age to be the author of the letter. One was my third great-grandfather, who was 30. The other was a younger man – aged 23 – who also worked as a farm laborer and lived on the farm of Sylvester Foster, an elderly Connecticut-born man.
I believe it was the younger Evan Evans who wrote the letter primarily because of a fact recorded forty years later, in the 1900 Census. Both Evan Evanses were still alive at the time and (for the first time) the census lists of that year record the year of immigration for foreign-born residents. My third great-grandfather’s immigration date is cited as 1852. As the letter was written in 1856 and seems to have been written very soon after the sea-journey and arrival of its author, I believe it is unlikely to be his. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to confirm that it was by the younger Evan Evans either, as the year of his immigration is not recorded legibly in the 1900 Census. There is, however, a record of an Evan Evans, farmer, of the right age arriving in New York on board the ship John Bright from Liverpool (the departure point of most Welsh emigrants) on July 7, 1856. A John Evans a year older that him, possibly the brother mentioned in the letter, was on board the same ship.
It is reasonable to assume that the younger Evan Evans boarded at the home of John Jones (a Welsh immigrant himself who appears in the census as a tailor) initially before moving to the farm of Sylvester Foster sometime between writing the letter and the 1860 Census. This Evan Evans was drafted into the Union Army in the Civil War in 1863. He returned to Turin after the war and married a woman called Elizabeth, whereas my great-great grandfather moved south with his wife to start his own farm in the Town of Floyd in Oneida County in the Welsh village of Camroden.
What is fascinating about Evan Evans’s letter is the longing for home that it captures. After a tumultuous journey to America, his thoughts were full of the family and friends he had left behind. It also depicts the way in which immigrants started their new lives after arrival. The author boarded with a fellow Welshman. From there (like the Evan Evans who is my ancestor), he was able to procure work as a farmhand and, eventually, to set up a farm of his own.
The Welsh of central New York assimilated over several generations. Like other immigrant groups, they eventually lost their language, and the American-born children or grandchildren of immigrants began to marry outside the Welsh community. But central New York still has numerous Welsh-American societies. Utica has hosted the North American Festival of Wales multiple times, most recently in September 2021, and Welsh-language singing still takes place at the annual Barn Festival in Remsen, Oneida County – about 25 miles from where Evan Evans wrote his doleful letter home in 1856. It is a rarely preserved and poignant example of the emotional hardships that nearly all immigrants to America will have experienced as they began new lives thousands of miles from home.