There are many family stories so dramatic that they could be written into compelling works of historic fiction. One story actually was.
The tale begins in the middle of the 17th century in Britain, when an inspired young man named George Fox added to the religious and political foment of the era by preaching a new understanding of Christianity emphasizing “that of God in everyone” and the individual’s direct access to the divine, leading logically to the conclusion that the Anglican clergy – or any other religious leaders or bureaucracies – were unnecessary. Fox traveled throughout the country to preach his faith, and won over many listeners particularly in northern England and Wales. Typical of his converts were members of the Humphrey family, small landowners who hosted Fox at their home Llwyndu, located where mountains meet the sea along a stunningly scenic section of the Welsh coast at LLwyngrwil. Ultimately Fox and his followers established a new denomination, the Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers.
Of course, the religious establishment was not interested in having its authority questioned, including the head of that establishment who was the British monarch. Quakers were formally persecuted and imprisoned for practicing their new faith; one of the earliest pieces of Quaker literature is a four-volume collection entitled “The Great Book of Sufferings” which catalogs the first-hand accounts of the various property seizures, imprisonments, and tortures to which members were subjected. But Fox recruited an important nobleman who saw a way out. After spending some time in prison for his heretical beliefs, William Penn cashed in debts the British monarch owed to his father in return for an enormous tract of land in North America. Penn sought to found a colony based on Quaker ideals, some of which became bedrocks of American democracy such as the idea of religious toleration and the principle that all men are created equal.
The colony was also meant to be a refuge for British Quakers, as Penn saw Pennsylvania as a place where they could practice their faith without fear of oppression. In May of 1681, he sat down in London with a delegation of Welsh Quakers that included Thomas Ellis, a minister who had been arrested at least twice and imprisoned for his faith, among other sufferings. The Welshmen were very interested in the American colony, but wanted to keep their community intact if they moved. Eager to persuade the Welsh, Penn promised them their own tract of land. Persuaded, Ellis bought 1,000 acres on his own. His negotiating companions secured 30,000 acres for the settlement of Welsh Quakers.
In 1682, the exodus of Quakers from Wales to Pennsylvania began, and the Welsh were among the earliest settlers of the colony, including families like the Humphreys and Ellis’s. The land they purchased – the “Welsh Tract” or “Welsh Barony” – was at the heart of the colony, near to Penn’s planned capital city of Philadelphia. Their vision of a unified, distinct “Welsh Tract” soon faded as Penn failed to deliver on perceived promises for self-government. But the Welsh instead assumed leadership positions within the colonial government as well as in the city government of Philadelphia. Their influence can still be seen in place names like Bala-Cynwyd, Gwynedd, Radnor, and Merion. The George’s Hill potion of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia resulted from the bequest of a family that arrived from Wales in 1708 – the site of the family estate. The lands and colleges of Haverford and Bryn Mawr originate with this group of Welsh Quakers.
Almost three centuries later, Welsh writer Marion Eames composed two books of historic fiction set in this period of persecution and emigration. Her protagonist is Rowland Ellis, a historical leader of the Welsh Quakers of Merionethshire and of the Pennsylvania settlement, whose family estate of Bryn Mawr in Wales provided the name of his new home in Pennsylvania as well as the name of the present-day college. Rowland’s mother Ann was a Humphrey of Llwyndu, whose siblings and their families also made the move to America. Eames’ first book The Secret Room tells the story of Rowland Ellis’ conversion and the difficulties his new faith brought to him, his family, and his community. Fair Wilderness continues the narrative as Ellis moves his family to Pennsylvania to create a new life and a new society. These novels present a very accessible way to understand the lives and struggles of the Welsh Quakers.
All of the Welsh described above are part of the Thompson family. Rebecca Wallace (Thompson)’s mother was Martha George, whose parents were from this Quaker community. Her ancestors were the Humphreys of Llwyndu, the minister Thomas Ellis who negotiated with William Penn, and the Georges of George’s Hill in Philadelphia. Rowland Ellis of the Marion Eames novels was a first cousin to Martha’s ancestor Lydia Humphrey.
Martha’s parents Edward George and Martha Woolistan left Pennsylvania after being ostracized for “disunity” in 1787. They traveled first to Virginia and then to the frontier of North Carolina west of the Great Smoky Mountains in the area soon to become Tennessee. They settled in Green County along the French Broad River. Martha would eventually meet and marry Jesse Wallace, who came from an equally prominent Scotch-Irish family.
It is still possible to visit Rowland Ellis’s home in Pennsylvania, named Harriton House by a later Quaker owner. The old home of Llwyndu in Wales still exists as well, as does the nearby Quaker cemetery on land donated by the Humphreys. At the date of this writing, it is becoming increasingly important for everyone to revisit the Quaker-inspired ideals of human equality and religious toleration too.
- Charles H. Browning’s The Welsh Settlement of Pennsylvania provides a ponderous amount of detail about the families that settled in the Welsh Tract, and is available via the Internet Archive.
- Find-A-Grave Memorial #21678401 for Martha George Wallace