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  • Migrant Culture MaintenanceThe Welsh Experience in Martins Ferry, Belmont County, Ohio, 1900–1940
  • Robert Llewellyn Tyler (bio)

Any study of nineteenth-century emigration from Wales must first acknowledge that Welsh emigrants have always been few in number. This was due not only to the small size of the Welsh population, which did not register as more than 1 million until the 1841 U.K. census, but also to the rate of emigration from Wales, which was significantly lower than that from England, Scotland, or Ireland.1 Nevertheless, in recent years the Welsh in America have received increasing attention from historians and, quite understandably, these historians have focused on the greatest concentrations of Welsh settlement—the states of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio.2 Within these states, the Welsh were further concentrated, attracted by the emergence of particular industries [End Page 70] in which Welshmen were often specialists, and micro-studies of such settlements can provide relevant insights into Welsh American communities and the ways in which they changed. One such community was Martins Ferry, located in Belmont County, Ohio, situated along the Ohio River across from Wheeling, West Virginia, about sixty miles west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.3

The first European settlement in the area was initiated in 1787 by a Capt. Absalom Martin, whose son, Ebenezer, laid out what was to become known as Martins Ferry in 1835, although it did not officially become a city until 1865.4 Initially developed as a farming community and way station for the transport of livestock and farm produce, the arrival of the railroad in 1852 and the discovery of coal in the locality gave impetus to the town's industrial growth. A local newspaper in 1886 described "numerous thriving manufacturing establishments" primarily involved in the production of metals, and the history of Martins Ferry and of the Welsh presence in the city were both closely linked to the fortunes of the metallurgical industries, particularly tinplate.5 The 1890 passage of the McKinley Tariff enabled American producers of tinplate to more effectively compete with Wales, the world leader of the industry, and created a demand for skilled tinplate workers. At the same time, as a direct result of the tariff, many Welsh works temporarily closed or cut their production. As the city became a magnet for migrants from across the United States and further afield, unsurprisingly, many of these migrants came from Wales, particularly from the tinplate-producing district located in the southwest of the country and centered on the town of Llanelli.6 An observer in 1903 could write [End Page 71] of Martins Ferry: "So rapid has been the increase of population that homes cannot be built fast enough to supply the demand."7 Several nationalities were represented by numbers above one hundred individuals at the time of the city's greatest growth, and among these, migrants from Wales maintained a long-term presence in significant numbers (Table 1).

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Table 1.

Foreign-Born in Martins Ferry by Decade

Indeed, when the Welsh-born and children born in the United States to two Welsh parents were combined, they constituted a significant part of the population of Martins Ferry, both numerically and proportionately, approaching 10 percent of the total population at their peak during the first two decades of the twentieth century (Table 2).

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Table 2.

Welsh in Martins Ferry, Belmont County, Ohio

* Born in the United States with both parents born in Wales

The city's small size and the hundreds of Welsh people living in its environs meant that Welsh people were present throughout the settlement. Their presence [End Page 72] was reflected in the distribution of the Welsh business and service community, where Welsh immigrants and their children provided a variety of goods and services to their fellow countrymen and the wider community throughout the period. In 1900, liquid refreshment could be taken in the company of saloon keeper Evan I. Evans, whereas sustenance of a more spiritual nature could have been provided by Rev. William Lewis of the city's Welsh Congregational Church and Rev. William J. Williams, denomination unknown. Life insurance could be...


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