My mother, my two daughters and I are planning our visit to the farm my great-grandgather, Owain Thomas Hughes, left nearly 150 years ago. I’m the middle generation of three generations. We live far apart, but see each other often. But Owain Thomas Hughes lived in an entirely different world. What drove him to leave the family farm in Anglesey in Northern Wales for an unseen land called America? Was it hard times, youthful restlessnes, or a little bit of both?
I know very little about Owain Thomas, aside from a few photos and my mother’s childhood memories, but she and I are trying to find out more. So far, I’ve got the big picture. He left, not surprisingly, when many people left Wales for America, the land of opportunity. In the 1870s and 1880s, Wales was definitely not a land of opportunity. Welsh agriculture was in a free fall, suffering from years of poor harvests; at the same time, the British Parliament enclosed commons and open moorlands. Industry suffered, too. Southern Wales had dominated the global tinplate industry, but in the U.S., tinplate was one of many industries built by earlier Welsh immigrants who usurped Wales’ place. In 1890, several years after my grandfather emigrated, the McKinley Tariff raised the price of imported tinplate, throwing the Welsh industry into a tailspin.
By the late 1800s, technology was making the transatlantic voyage to America much easier. Owain Thomas probably sailed a steamship from Liverpool, a trip that took two weeks. Before that, it was a horrific journey, according to Joanna Masters, with Where You’re From, a company specializing in helping you research your Welsh family history.
According to notes on the back of one family photo, Owain Thomas was 19 when he left Wales. Economic necessity must have been a major factor. But I imagine ambition and youthful restlessnes must have also driven him. He must have been a young man of great energy, as I think most immigrants have to be in order to break away from the familiar and forge a new life in a new land. And I wonder, how much of that energy has passed down to us?