The Welsh of Tennessee

Book Signing and Brown Bag Lecture

Meet author & Welshman, Dr. Eirug Davies

Noon on Friday, 7 December2012

East Tennessee History Center
601 S. Gay Street, Knoxville, TN
Held in the auditorium
(across from the Tennessee Theatre)

Guests are invited to bring a lunch
and enjoy the lecture.
Soft drinks and water will be available.

PUBLISHER:  Y Lolfa, Ceredigion, Wales

“The Welsh of Tennessee” is the subject of a Brown Bag Lecture at the East Tennessee History Center at noon on December 7.  Dr. Eirug Davies, associate member of Harvard University’s Celtic Department, will discuss his new book and the remarkable story of how the Welsh helped develop Tennessee’s fledgling iron and coal industries after the American Civil War. 

After its rapid industrialization at the beginning of 19th century, Wales went on to provide Pennsylvania with many of its skilled workers and they could be found wherever coal was being extracted or iron produced. After the Civil War, some would find it advantageous to seek work elsewhere and amongst the places that benefited from their presence was the general Knoxville area. Though the Welsh went on to provide its fledging industry with much needed expertise, their influence has never been fully acknowledged. Such neglect can be attributed in part to the fact that much of what transpired was recorded in the Welsh Language and hence not readily available to all.

The most detailed account of their exploits appeared in a weekly paper called Colomen Columbia (The Dove of Columbia) that was published out of Emporia, Kansas. From a series of articles written by someone under the assumed name of Bonllwyn,  it becomes apparent that it was their expertise that made a success out of the Knoxville Iron venture and initiated their coal mining operation in Coal Creek. As the writer appears to have lived at one time in the Jellico area, he would also be familiar with the number of coal mines that opened up in that vicinity in the 1880’s.

The Welsh also brought with them their own distinctive culture and much of it centered around a series of Welsh medium churches they had organized from Knoxville to the Jellico area, and then onto Soddy and Sale Creek in the vicinity of Chattanooga. Added to this was the annual ritual of holding an eisteddfod, a cultural festival whereby many in the community would participate in choral singing competions, writng essays, composing verse, etc. One of the most notable of such events was held in Chattanooga in 1891, with representation from 10 states, an adjenda that deviated from the usual peacful persuits and which saw them conspiring as to how to proceed with the Coal Creek War.

After his lecture, Dr. Davies will be available for a book signing.


For whatever reason, the English just did not like the Welsh.  In 1847, British Parliament even went so far as to ban use of the Welsh language, attributing all the ills and backwardness of Wales to its language and culture.  When it became a crime to worship in their native language, legions of Welsh families left Great Britain. 

Britain’s loss was Tennessee’s gain, for the American Civil War had wrought devastation.  East Tennessee saw development of its coal, iron, zinc, and copper reserves as the way to rebuild, but lacked the skill to do so.  Welsh miners and industrial workers provided that expertise and they taught native Tennesseans those skills. 

The Welsh of Tennessee took great pride in the fact that Knoxville stood on saith bryn (seven hills), as did Rhufain (ancient Rome), and that their kinsman had won acclaim during the Civil War as the “Rock of Chickamauga.”  They would become Knoxville’s largest employer by embracing the American Dream, while staying duty-bound to preserving pur Gymraeg (pure Welsh) ar pob tafod (on every tongue).  They found in America the freedom to practice and preserve their traditions and culture at a time when those in Wales could not, and wrote extensively about what they saw and experienced in their new home.

It wasn’t a scholar or historian who preserved those rich, first-hand accounts of Welsh-Americans, but a self-educated coal miner and avid reader from Coal Creek, Tennessee, David R. Thomas, who had the foresight to donate them to Harvard University.  Now, my friend Eirug Davies, a fellow engineer and o waed coch cyfan (a thoroughly red-blooded Welshman), has done us all a tremendous service by translating into English that array of Welsh books and narratives from post-Civil War Tennessee.

They offer a fresh, contemporary account of the times from the viewpoint of miners, iron workers, ministers, and farmers who cherished education, abhorred mistreatment of minorities, and knew how to communicate and celebrate at their eisteddfod cultural festivals.  “See the hundreds of holy Welshfolk roaming the streets of Chattanooga, taking in the sights and the charms of this elegant and ever-growing city. To be seen here are the Welsh from about ten different states - Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and of course, Tennessee, the birth place of the Dixie Eisteddfod.”

Adherence to their cultural heritage explains why Welsh miners were infuriated by the callous use of African-American convict labor in the coal mines of Tennessee.  It also explains how they found the courage and conviction to rise up against the practice during the Coal Creek War, and through sacrifice of their own, helped see the convict lease system abolished. “If they can treat a black man that way, we could be next.”

In addition to pioneering Tennessee’s fledgling iron and coal industries, they helped open the coalfields in the mynyddoedd (mountains) of southeastern Kentucky.  Do patrons of Glo Mart in Glomawr, Kentucky, know that their town was named by Welsh miners of the East Tennessee Coal Company who discovered a mawr (big) glo (coal) strike and opened a mine there?  If not, they will now.

Do you know that Skylar Mozingo won the 2010 Dixie Eisteddfod chair for her essay on the “Mother Church of Briceville”, which was built in 1888 by Welsh miners?  When Jacob Sharp won it in 2011, he was byrlymu huawledd (bubbling with eloquence).  Traditions of those early miners are alive today at Briceville Elementary School in Anderson County, Tennessee.

Some might call them common men and women; part of the great salad that was America then, and still is today. But the Welsh, or Cymry (‘come-ree’) as they called themselves, had uncommon experiences and they genuinely were an uncommon people, contributing mightily to the growth of a flourishing nation.

Thanks to Dr. Davies, their accomplishments are now recognized in America and, in Wales, they can be welcomed home as heroes.

Barry Thacker, P.E., President
Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, Inc.
Knoxville, Tennessee, USA


To purchase the book
click HERE!!


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