John and Mary Davies: 1819 Welsh Immigrants

In 1819 John and Mary Davies packed up their six young children and left their home in rural mid-north Wales to undertake a two-month ocean voyage to America. This is their story.

John Davies and Mary Humphreys were both born near the town of Llanfyllin in what was then Montgomeryshire, Wales – John around 1779 and Mary around 1781. Llanyfyllin was a small market town in northern Wales, about 10 miles from the Welsh border with Shropshire, England, near where the Cain and Abel Rivers come together. Agriculture was the main industry, although there were a few lead and copper mines in the region. John’s and Mary’s fathers most likely were farmers, although it is possible that John’s father, Thomas, was a shoemaker, because John later worked as a shoemaker.

Location of Llanfyllin and Llanfechain in mid-north Wales, near the English border

Location of Llanfyllin and Llanfechain in mid-north Wales, near the English border

John and Mary were married in 1804, and their marriage was registered with the Llanfechain parish, a few miles from Llanfyllin. At the time, they were unable to read or write, as evidenced by the fact that they signed their wedding registration with their marks rather than with their signatures.

St. Garmon’s Church in Llanfechain, Wales  (photo: Derek Harper. geograph.org.uk)

St. Garmon’s Church in Llanfechain, Wales
(photo: Derek Harper. geograph.org.uk)

John and Mary had seven children in Wales between 1805 and 1819. The first child, Mary, died when she was two years old, and her name was taken by the third-born daughter. The children were born at intervals of approximately two years: Mary, Jane, the second Mary, Elizabeth, Margaret, John, and Ann. The first five children were baptized in the Llanfechain parish, but there are no baptismal records for the last two children. Possibly John and Mary moved to a different parish, or possibly they joined a nonconformist group whose baptisms were not recorded with a parish. A Methodist Chapel was established in Llanfyllin in 1809, and John and Mary might have been associated with it; after they emigrated to the United States, they became active in the Methodist Church.

During John and Mary’s early years, many changes were taking place in Wales. An increasing pace of land enclosure and consolidation displaced many farmers from the common land they had been farming. Peace in Europe at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 led to the decline of the Welsh iron and coal industries, also leading to a general decline in the Welsh economy. Poor economic conditions forced many Welsh people to seek relief elsewhere, especially in America.

Farm and hill country near Llanfyllin  (photo: Oliver Dixon, geograph.org.uk)

Farm and hill country near Llanfyllin
(photo: Oliver Dixon, geograph.org.uk)

John Davies made his living as a shoemaker and his shoe business was probably affected by the worsening economy. In 1819, John and Mary decided to leave behind the life they had known for nearly 40 years and to emigrate to the United States. The decision to undertake a long and potentially unpleasant voyage to a place they knew little about must have been a difficult one, especially considering that they had six children, ranging in age from a few months to twelve years. Perhaps the family had friends or relatives already in America who encouraged them to come. Perhaps John hoped to own his own farm some day; he had most likely heard stories about the abundant fertile land in the Ohio Valley. In any case, the Davies family took a leap of faith and left their homeland.

The Davies family travelled about 70 miles overland to the port of Liverpool, where they boarded a sailing vessel bound for Philadelphia. During the long ocean voyage to the United States, often in stormy weather, the youngest Davies child, Ann, sickened and died and was buried at sea; she was less than a year old. After what must have seemed like an endless two months at sea, the family finally arrived in the port of Philadelphia. They made their way to Pittsburgh, which in those days had a population of about 7200 people and was the eastern gateway to the Ohio Valley. Pittsburgh was located in an important coal-mining region, but John Davies was not attracted to the area because of its mines; he was more interested in the farm land to the west of Pittsburgh.

The family lived in Pittsburgh for six years, during which time John continued his trade as a shoemaker and put aside money toward the purchase of farm land. John and Mary’s last son, Thomas, was born while they were in Pittsburgh.

By 1825 the Davies family had saved enough money to buy land in the nearby Ohio Valley. For $100, they bought 80 acres of wooded land and a log cabin in Smith Township, in what is now Mahoning County, Ohio, about 70 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The land and cabin had belonged to two Hoadly brothers, Ebenezer and Hiram, who were early settlers in the area. The cabin had no floor and had only openings for the door and windows — not much of a home for a family of eight!

Location of Smith Township, Mahoning County, in the Ohio Valley near Pittsburgh

Location of Smith Township, Mahoning County, in the Ohio Valley near Pittsburgh

The area around their cabin was still wild – timber wolves could be heard howling at night, and bears were occasionally seen in the woods. John Davies purchased an axe and began the laborious process of clearing the land by hand. During the day he continued his trade as a shoemaker, and at night he chopped trees and burned brush. Mary and the older girls helped support the family by making cheese, which they sold for three cents a pound in Salem, the nearest town, about ten miles away. John eventually cleared the land and was able to farm it. He replaced the log cabin with several frame buildings.

John and Mary Davies were very religious and helped organize the first Methodist Episcopal Church in the county, which was built in 1840 in North Benton, a few miles from their farm. Perhaps they had been Methodists while still in Wales. They were excellent singers and embraced the Welsh tradition of hymn singing. John held unusual religious views, one of which was not to have a likeness made of himself. For this reason, he never had his photo taken, although his children had photos taken of themselves and their families.

John lived to be 74 years of age, dying in 1853. According to family lore, his teeth were still sound when he died, an unusual situation in those days. Mary lived to be 83 years of age, dying in 1864. She was blind for about 20 years before her death. The youngest son, Thomas, lived on the family farm with his parents and with his wife, Betsy McGowan, and their six children. Most likely Thomas cared for his mother in her later years. Thomas inherited the farm after his parents died; the other heirs each received $1000 – apparently John had been successful and frugal. Thomas sold the land in 1869 for $100 per acre and moved to Williams County, Ohio, about 200 miles to the west.

Thomas Davis, youngest son of John and Mary Davies

Thomas Davis, youngest son of John and Mary Davies

Thomas and his older brother, John, both changed the spelling of their last name to “Davis”, dropping the “e”. Their parents and sisters retained the old spelling. The senior John Davies always spelled his name “DAVIES” (all capital letters) so it is possible that he never learned to write anything other than his name.

Submitted by Michael Davis, great-great-great-grandson of John and Mary Davies, and great-great-grandson of Thomas Davis.

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