For such a small country, Wales has certainly punched above its weight in terms of its contribution to one of the most powerful nations of the modern era – you could even call it our most successful colony! In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries large numbers of Welsh settlers made their way to ‘the New World’ in search of a better life, mostly for religious and economic reasons. Given the number of Welsh settlers in America, it is perhaps then no surprise that there is a significant number of American Presidents of Welsh descent – who knows, perhaps you are distantly related to one of them?
Founding Father and Early Presidents
Did you know the Welshman William Penn actually wanted to call Pennsylvania New Wales? Unfortunately he wasn’t allowed to , but I can tell you that an amazing five out of six of the first presidents of America were of Welsh descent – this is an amazing statistic, and shows just how much influence little old Wales had on the founding of America.
John Adams – 2nd President (1735 – 1826)
One of the official Founding Fathers of the United States of America, John Adams became the 2nd President in 1797 (after serving as the first Vice-President) and the first one to live in what is now called the White House. He was a vocal advocate for American independence from Great Britain, and served on the committee which drafted the Declaration of Independence.
John Adams’ ancestors originated from Carmarthenshire – from Drefach, Felindre and Penbanc Farm near Llanboidy to be exact.
Adams died on the 4th of July 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and the same day as Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson – 3rd President (1743 – 1826)
Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson was the first Secretary of State for America. However, he is probably most well-known for being the author of the Declaration of Independence, the statement that declared the then 13 American states as sovereign states in their own right and not subject to British rule.
We have Jefferson’s own written word to confirm his Welsh ancestry. When he was 77 years old he wrote in one of his diaries ‘The tradition in my father’s family is that their ancestors came to this country from Wales, from the region of Snowdon, highest mountain in Great Britain’. Jefferson’s father also named the family plantation in Virginia Snowdon after their homeland.
Thomas Jefferson also read, spoke, and wrote Welsh – this is evidenced by his correspondence with his principal aid and fellow Welshie icon Merriwether Lewis, who corresponded with Jefferson in Welsh in all his dispatches.
James Madison – 4th President (1751 – 1836)
Also known as ‘the father of the constitution’, founding father Madison was pivotal in drafting and promoting (surprise, surprise) the US Constitution. He also sponsored the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the constitution) and co-authored the Federalist Papers.
One of his maternal great-great grandfathers, Daniel Gaines, was born to Welsh parents.
James Monroe – 5th President (1758-1831)
Another ‘official’ founding father, Monroe served two terms as President, from 1817 to 1825. He is also the only person in American history to hold two cabinet posts at once – he held the positions of both Secretary of State and Secretary of War in Madison’s cabinet.
Monroe’s mother, Elizabeth Jones, was born in Virginia after her father, James Jones, emigrated there from Wales. Unfortunately, we don’t know where in Wales Jones came from, but we do know he was an architect.
Eerily, Monroe also passed away on the 4th of July 1831 – five years after Adams and Jefferson had died on the same day
John Quincy Adams – 6th President (1767 – 1848)
Quincy Adams was son of the second President and founding father John Adams, and – until George W Bush – the only son of a former President to take on the role as well. However, it is generally agreed by historians that his real achievements took place in his pre-presidential years when he was a diplomat and Secretary of State. He is widely recognised as one of American’s greatest ever diplomats.
William Henry Harrison – 9th President (1773 – 1841)
You may not have heard of William Harrison as, unfortunately, he holds the title for the shortest presidency at 31 days. He died on April the 4th 1841 from pneumonia after delivering his inaugural address in a heavy rainstorm exactly one month earlier. He also holds the record for the longest inaugural address – which he delivered with no hat or coat, hence the pneumonia! Harrison was also the last American President to be born a British subject.
Harrison was a descendent of Sir Thomas Harrison, a general in Oliver Cromwell’s army. His great-grandfather was born Henry Harris, a smallholder from Llanfyllin, Montgomeryshire. Henry’s son (another Henry) moved first to Wrexham, than to Nantwich, Cheshire, before changing the family surname from Harris to Harrison. It was Henry Jr.’s son Benjamin who ended up emigrating to America, signing the Declaration of Independence and siring little William Henry along the way.
Abraham Lincoln – 16th President (1809 – 1865)
Probably one of the most famous American Presidents, Abe Lincoln led the United States successfully through the American Civil War, preserving the Union and abolishing slavery along the way.
This great man had Welsh ancestry by the bucket load. Lincoln’s great-great-grandfather, John Morris, was a farmer in Ysbyty Ifan in North Wales. His daughter, Ellen, emigrated to the United States with a group of Quakers. There, she married Cadwalader Evans.
Cadwalader was born in Ucheldre, a small hamlet near Bala in 1664. His father, Evan Lloyd Evans, was buried in nearby Llanfor and it appears as if Cadwalader’s grandfather, Evan ap Robert ap Lewis, moved to the area from Ysbyty Ifan, Denbighshire.
Ellen and Cadwalader had a daughter Sarah who, in 1711, married a John Hanks. Their granddaughter Nancy was Abraham’s mother.
It seems Lincoln was fully aware of the number and prominence of the Welsh in America – in 1860, he had 100,000 Welsh language election pamphlets printed for an election campaign.
Lincoln was famously assassinated on a trip to the theatre in Washington D.C. on the 14th of April 1865 by Confederate supporter John Wilkes Booth.
James Abraham Garfield – 20th President (1831 – 1881)
Garfield is the only sitting member of the Senate in American history to be elected as president. Some people who knew him recorded that Garfield had stated in conversation his father had emigrated from Caerphilly.
He was subject to an assassination attempt on the 2nd of July 1881, after only a few months in office, by a disgruntled lawyer and writer. He was shot with a gun, but not fatally – he eventually died on the 19th of September due to an infection bought about by his doctors not properly cleaning their hands.
Presidents of the 20th and 21st Century
Richard Nixon – 37th President (1913 – 1994)
Nixon is one of those infamous presidents who everyone is aware of, even if you are interested in politics or not. He is most well-known for being the first (and so far only) American President to resign from office. This was because he was almost certainly going to be impeached for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
Nixon has Welsh ancestry several times over, including some early settlers – ancestors include Howell Griffiths from Carmarthenshire, who emigrated to Philidelphia in 1690, and Huw Harris from Montgomershire, who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1689. His great-grandmother was descended from a Thomas Price who emigrated to America from Wales in 1634, just 14 years after the Mayflower landed. Other ancestors came from Merionethshire and Narbeth in Pembrokeshire.
Barack Obama – 44th President (1961 – present)
Yes, even Barack Obama has Welsh ancestry! His six times great-grandparents Henry and Margaret Perry emigrated to Ohio from Anglesey at the beginning of the 19th century.
While the first president of the United States, George Washington, may not have been of Welsh extraction, his wife Martha Washington (1731 – 1802) was. Born Martha Dandridge, her mother Frances was the daughter of a Welsh clergyman, the Reverend Orlando Jones.
Former First Lady and recent Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton (1947 to present) also has Welsh ancestry. Her great-grandfather was John Jones, a miner from Llangynidr, and her great-grandmother was Mary Griffiths, from Abergavenny. They moved to Pennsylvania in 1879.
I am glad to say there are still many communities with a strong Welsh heritage and identity in America today, the most notable of these being in Ohio. If you fancy learning more about famous Americans of Welsh descent, I can totally recommend 150 Famous Welsh Americans by W.Arvon Roberts.
Do you have any links to America in your family tree?
Like this post? Then check out my other Welsh History posts here. I especially recommend this one about the best Welsh history books to read now.