By Kate Madley
Tomorrow sees the fourth annual West Coast Eisteddfod taking place in Portland, Oregon – an event which harnesses Welsh connections in America and celebrates Welsh-American history.
Whether or not you believe claims that a Welshman Prince Madog ‘discovered’ America three hundred years before Christopher Columbus, there is no question Welsh roots in America go back a long way and have left their mark in surnames, place names and popular culture.
Gaabriel Becket and her partner Ceri Shaw, founders of the AmeriCymru.net social network site organise the yearly West Coast Eisteddfod, alternating between Portland and Los Angeles.
“I thought it was a good fit for Portland which is artistically rich and an artistically welcoming town,” said Gaabriel Becket talking of the history of the event.
The Eisteddfod attracts visitors from Wales, America and beyond with almost 3000 attendees at the 2011 event in LA. Guests from Wales who have contributed to the festival include writers Chris Keil, Niall Griffiths and Jon Gower and BBC presenter Chris Needs.
The day-long celebrations include music, competitions, workshops and the traditional Maes B with performances from a Tom Jones cover band Sex Bomb, WRU singer Paul Child and the Côr Cymraeg De Califfornia.
“Welsh expats and people travelling in the US from Wales, people interested in Wales and those who’ve never heard of Wales and want to know what it’s about… you just can’t have too much Cymru,” Gaabriel explains.
The early Welsh settlers in north America were known as ‘Welsh Indians,’ believed to have married with Native Americans to create tribes of people with fair hair and skin which spoke a form of Welsh. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that colonies of Welsh people established themselves in states such as Delaware and Pennsylvania.
One of the world’s top ranked universities Yale, founded in 1701, was named after Welsh benefactor Elihu Yale, whose ancestry is traced back to a village in Denbighshire, Wales.
Another great US institution, The New York Times, was co-founded by Welshman George R. Jones in 1851. The same year saw the publication of Y Drych the oldest ethnic newspaper in the USA which is still in publication today. The paper merged with the North American Welsh Newspaper in 2003 and is now circulated as Ninnau and Y Drych.
Welsh place names appear multiple times across the USA – with Bangor, Barry, Cardiff, Conway, Flint, Narbeth, Tredyffrin and Swansea among the most popular.
In the 2001 census approximately two million people in the US indicated they were of Welsh heritage. An even larger number of US citizens have Welsh family names: there are more than 1.5 million people with Williams as a surname, 1.3 million named Jones, and just over a million named Davis.
Gaabriel says: “I meet a lot of people who haven’t heard of Wales and a lot who know they have some Welsh ancestry which they’re interested in but don’t know much about it. There’s also a culture of people in the US who do know about Wales and they love to get together and kind of happily wallow in it.”