The Humphreys Family–Wales to Wisconsin

Time to take a break from the efforts to trace various Shropshire relatives forward and to return to tracing back my ancestors to the time of their immigration to the US. As mentioned in Frank Jones and Annie Humphreys and Herbert Henry Jones, b. 1890 in Pomeroy, Garfield, Washington, my great-great-grandmother Anna Ellen (Annie) Humphreys was born in Wisconsin in 1863, but her father, Owen Humphreys, was born in Llanerfyl, Montgomeryshire, Wales. The following is what I have pieced together so far about Annie’s parents and their lives in the first years after they arrived in the United States.

In 1850, at the time of the United States Census, Annie’s mother, then Jane Jones, was 16 and living with her parents, Griffith, a farmer, and Margaret Jones, in Portage Prairie, Columbia, Wisconsin. Jane, her parents, and siblings William (14), Margaret (10), and Ann (8), were all born in Wales, as were many of their neighbors. Jane’s youngest sister, Sarah (2), is identified as born in Wisconsin, suggesting that the family arrived in the U.S. and the state between 1842 and 1848. (I will go into the immigration more later, but I did find the record of their arrival into the United States, at Boston, and it was on 5 June 1847. Jane’s infant brother, Griffith, died at sea on the way over.)

Owen Humphreys arrived in the United States, specifically New York, a few years later, in 1851. According to the 1900 census, Owen and Jane married around 1854, probably in Wisconsin, but my next record of Owen in the U.S. is in a Minnesota territorial census record from 1857, which places Owen, Jane, and their baby William (listed as born in Minnesota) in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Like his neighbors there, Owen was a farmer. Although several of them were also from Wales, the percentage did not appear to be as high as in Portage Prairie. Blue Earth was a new town, platted in 1856, so it may have been seen as a good opportunity for related reasons.

By the time of the 1860 United States Census, however, Owen (still a farmer) and Jane were back in Springvale, Columbia, Wisconsin. They still had only one child, William, now identified as born in Wisconsin. Jane’s parents also remained in Columbia County, and were listed in Courtland. Both locations appear to have been largely populated by immigrants from Wales and their children.  Here is a map showing the two areas within Columbia County:


Indeed, as the census illustrates, Columbia County, and especially a section of Courtland Township (although it seems to at least border on Springvale too) that became the Village of Cambria, was largely settled during this time period by Welsh immigrants. One account of the history of Cambria, Wisconsin and specifically the Welsh settlement is here (worth reading for the information on the Welsh language churches and their organization). Another is in 1914’s History of Columbia County, Wisconsin, Ed. J.E. Jones, as follows (using the typical florid language of these kinds of early 20th century local histories):

Since 1845 [Cambria] has been the center of those stanch, clean, moral, intellectual, industrious, musical, and warm-hearted Welshmen who settled in the northeastern part of Columbia County and gave the people of that section a reputation for high-mindedness and wholesoulfulness out of all proportion to their numbers. Central Wisconsin has always been proud of its Welsh Prairie and the strong, fine-grained people who have made their homes on it.

Preceding the first Welsh colonists by about a year were the brothers Langdon. In 1844 they settled on the site of the present Village of Cambria, one of them building a sawmill on a branch of Duck Creek, the other opening a small stock of merchandise… The settlement had just begun when half a hundred Welshmen, with their wives and children, came upon the scene fresh from the Highlands of North Wales. The story of their coming is well told by a son of one of the colonists, Morris J. Rowlands, one of the advisory editors of this history. Cambria had an enthusiastic “Home Coming,” June 3-5, 1912, and Mr. Rowlands’ story was published for the benefit and pleasure of the visitors, most of whom are of Welsh stock.

“First of all,” he wrote, “permit me to state here that, besides having listened to the substance of what I have here to say narrated from the lips of my father, who was a member of the exploring party hereinafter named, I am principally indebted for the facts and dates appearing in this article to reminiscences written in Welsh by my late brother, John R. Rowlands, Jr…. “Early in the summer of 1845 several families from North Wales met accidentally at Liverpool, England, seeking passage as immigrants to the United States of America. On the 17th day of July they sailed from Liverpool harbor on board a sailing vessel named the Republic, and after a voyage of six weeks and two days arrived safely in New York City on the 30th of August, 1845…. After arriving, in New York, a number of families whose male members were quarrymen in the old country, went to the slate quarries of New York and Vermont, but the majority of them turned their faces ‘Westward,’ a word taken as their motto before leaving their native land. The next portion of the journey from New York to Albany was made on a steamboat. From Buffalo they took passage over the lakes on board of a steamboat named Wisconsin, the name possibly being the means of drawing them to that particular boat ; for that state was their ‘promised land.’ After a stormy voyage on the lakes they arrived at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the 16th day of September, where a portion of them landed, and on the 17th at Racine, where the remainder left the boat….

The party then started on foot in search of a suitable place on which to locate, traveling westward over the eastern part of the state, and passing through the village of Fox Lake, where a branch land office was located…. They entered into Columbia, then called Portage County, about four miles north of the present site of the village of Randolph…. There they discontinued for the first time their westward course and turned south, passing over Portage Prairie…. After dinner they kept on their southerly course, crossing the north branch of Duck Creek about two miles west of where the village of Cambria is now located…. [T]hey walked up to the highest point, which was about half a mile southwest of Zion’s Church in Springvale, and there sat down on the green grass deliberating over the situation and comparing notes on the different localities through which they had passed during the week. Viewing the beautiful landscape before them and stretching in splendor for miles in every direction under the variable-colored rays of the setting sun, they deliberately decided to make that locality their place of future abode, hoping that they were thus forming a nucleus around which their countrymen in the future would gather to form a Welsh colony….

[R]eturning to their families at Milwaukee and Racine, they immediately prepared to move onto their farms, coming over in covered emigrant wagons — ‘prairie schooners’ — and by the middle of October they were all on their places, housed in what people nowadays would call ‘miserable shanties,’ but to them, after their wearisome journey, they were ‘comfortable homes. ‘ Facing the winter of 1845-46, the settlement contained in round numbers, including children, fifty-three persons, composed of nine families and seven single men.

It was this new settlement that Griffith and Margaret Jones decided to join in 1847, and likely the communications back to Wales (as discussed in the piece on Cambria linked above, as well as here, in an 1873 account of the founding of Randolph Township and the surrounding area) explain how Owen Humphreys also decided to head to Wisconsin in 1851 or so. Because it is has some fascinating detail, as well as just being fun to read, I am quoting it too at length:

The first Welch people, in this section of our State, settled a few rods east of our town line, and the first in this town were the Rev. Thos. H. Roberts, David Roberts and John Evans…. [T]he first sermon delivered in the town was preached there, in the winter of 1844 and 1845, by the Rev. T. H. Roberts, at which time the Welsh church of Blaen-y-cae was organized…. The said Thos. H. Roberts, immediately after his arrival here, wrote letters to his friends in Wales, describing the country and its advantages, which were read in the mines there, and created quite a furor; the result was that the next spring witnessed the departure of a great many families to Wisconsin, who settled at Lake Emily, and what is now Courtland, Springvale and Randolph, all brought here by these letters. Mr. Roberts, like most of the Welsh preachers, is also a farmer, and has resided, until a few years ago, on his first location, and owns it now, but resides on the town line, in the town of Manchester, and is still a preacher and farmer, and very much respected by all….

At one time, during [Mr. Roberts’] absence, some five or six Indians came to his house to beg some food, as was customary with them, and, in conversation among themselves, his wife declared that she heard them talking in the Welsh language; it created quite a sensation, in consequence of a tradition the Welsh people have that in the year 1170 (322 years previous to the discovery of America by Columbus), a party of Welsh people, under one of their chieftains, named Madoc, left Wales on a voyage for the West, and were never heard of more; but that, at some subsequent time, a traveler published a statement that, somewhere in his travels in the interior of America, he had met with a tribe of Indians who made use of a great many Welsh words, which had the same meaning they had in the Welsh language; for instance, it was one of their customs to build a sort of shanty with poles and boughs, projecting over a stream or body of water; that the name they gave it was a combination of the Welsh words for house and water. Consequently, a theory was made up that those early Welsh adventurers had really reached America, and from some cause unknown had been amalgamated with some Indian tribe, and had given them an addition to their language….

The most of our first Welsh settlers had spent what little money they had by the time they had become settled here, some paid their last shilling for their land, a yoke of oxen, or a cow; one family paid out their last sovereign for an old, lame sow, but which proved a good speculation afterwards in the sale of pigs; but, with no money, or anything to exchange for groceries, they fared hard, indeed; and some recollect well how thankful they were to receive from an acquaintance, who was fortunate to own a cow when they had none, a small piece of butter or a little milk occasionally, and they would go a long distance to get it, and live a long time on its recollections; and many a family look back to the time their first cow calved as one of the most important epochs in their existence; for from that time they began to live, as they could exchange butter for what they needed, and with the good pasturage the land afforded they could make about nine pounds of butter a week from a good cow, and felt comparatively independent. For a long time after they came here, not one of them owned a wagon; but nothing prevented them from attending their religious meetings regularly, week-days as well as Sundays – and they went mostly afoot; and when the creeks were swollen in the spring, or over-flowed the low bridges, the women would take off their shoes and stockings, wade through, and redress on the other side, and go on to meeting. Would any American woman do that? Some went to meeting with a yoke of oxen and a low, log sled, similar to a stone-boat, winter and summer, and some used, for several years, low truck wagons, with the wheels cut from the ends of a large log, the squeaking of which could be heard for a mile when they went to and fro to meeting. Now, some of those very individuals drive as handsome a turn-out as any one….

The following incident will give some idea of the loneliness of some of our early settlers (the neighbors being few and far between), The family of the above named John Roberts had resided here nearly one year before they saw a single individual, excepting their own people, when, one day, one of the boys came running in, shouting at the top of his voice, ―Mother! Mother! There’s a man coming!‖ and they were almost as much astonished as Robinson Crusoe was when he discovered the foot-prints in the sand….

Back to the 1914 account of the settlement, it continued into the period beyond the settlement (again, with rather ridiculous-to-the-current-ear style and word choice):

The Welsh colonists brought with them the thirst for knowledge and the determination to furnish their children with means of education; also, their strong racial love of music. The hardy Highlanders of Wales — the out-of-door people, who love to exercise their splendid lungs and clear voices — found an early occasion to organize on the Welsh Prairie. Music was cultivated from the very day in 1845 that the Welsh settlers opened their crude, but homelike cabins, but not until 1848 did the different settlements organize into a musical union. It was then decided that the colonists in Columbia County should join in a grove about eight miles north of Cambria to celebrate the Fourth of July. Music was furnished by a large and well-trained choir, and E. B. Williams delivered the principal address, a philosophical discourse on music. Other speeches were made, some of them befitting the natural patriotism of the day. “…

In the month of April, 1856, the first grand Eisteddfod (revival of the ancient Druidical festival) was held in the old church or chapel called Zion, on Welsh Prairie. This was well attended by musicians, poets, lecturers and other literary characters from all parts of the state, and was a decided success. Not only was that particular congress of bards and literati a success, but, by drawing out talents not previously known to the public, it proved that there was material enough among the Welsh population for holding such meetings in the future.” The Welsh in Columbia County have held an Eisteddfod at home, or have joined with others to hold one in some other part of the state almost every year since 1856. The center of its musical and choral features has always been Cambria, and this, more than ever, since the building of its fine Music Hall in 1900….


One thought on “The Humphreys Family–Wales to Wisconsin

  1. Pingback: My Family and Immigration in the First Half of the 19th Century | My American Journeys

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