Settlers of Welsh descent played an important role in settling the South Carolina backcountry in the 1730s and 1740s. Many of these early Welsh migrated from Pencader Hundred Baptist Church in New Castle County, Pennsylvania (later Delaware). Most migrated to South Carolina for religious and economic reasons. Arminian practices associated with the first Great Awakening were entering northern Baptist churches, which may have offended the more Calvinistic traditions of early Welsh Baptists. Land shortages and tensions with Quakers over slavery may have inspired other Welsh immigrants to forsake Pennsylvania for the southern colonies. A few of the Welsh brought slaves with them to South Carolina.
In 1736 Welsh Baptists in Pennsylvania petitioned South Carolina officials for a grant of 10,000 acres of land in Queensborough Township and all the land above it for eight miles straddling the Pee Dee River. The request was approved, and petitioners received a generous grant of 173,040 acres, situated in present-day Darlington, Chesterfield, and Marlboro Counties. The land became known as the Welsh Tract and quickly became one of the most populated and prosperous sections of the South Carolina backcountry. Most early settlers here received grants of land through the headright system and until 1745 held the prerogative to choose whom they wanted to settle in the community. Welsh Tract inhabitants raised grain, indigo, and cattle and constructed mills on several Pee Dee River tributaries to grind flour for the Charleston market. At least three Welsh Tract settlers, William Hughes, James Price, and Job Edwards, came from Wales in 1746. With the exception of these men, however, there does not appear to have been a direct migration from Wales to the Welsh Tract.
In 1738 some families with Welsh surnames founded the Welsh Neck Baptist Church. Members of this church were bilingual, and some used the Cyd Gordiad, the first Welsh Bible published in Philadelphia in 1730. John Fordyce, a minister with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel who visited the area in the 1740s, noted that these people were speaking both Welsh and English. The Welsh Neck Baptist Church became a center of Baptist influence in colonial South Carolina, serving as the mother church for more than thirty Baptist congregations established between 1738 and 1800.
Many settlers in the Welsh Tract were Baptists, and they managed to keep a distinct cultural identity for several decades. The aftermath of the Cherokee War in the 1760s, however, altered the distinctive ethnic composition of this community. Settlers of Scots-Irish descent migrated by way of the Great Wagon Road into the Welsh Tract. Between 1760 and 1768 the population increased from about 3,500 whites and 300 slaves to more than 5,000 whites and 1,276 slaves. In 1768 the Welsh Tract became St. David’s Parish, and in 1777 residents established St. David’s Society and Academy to promote learning in the parish. This institution continued to function into the twenty-first century.
The Welsh influence in South Carolina could also be found in Charleston. In 1736 the St. David’s Society, named for the patron saint of Wales and celebrated by local inhabitants of Welsh descent, was first organized in Charleston. Some indentured servants who came to the colony were Welsh. The South-Carolina Gazette in 1744 offered a reward for a runaway indentured servant named Thomas Edwards who spoke “Welshy.” A 1771 advertisement in the Gazette for the St. David’s Day festivities in Charleston appeared in Welsh, although the annual celebration was interrupted by 1774 due to the rising tensions between the colonies and England.
By 1790 persons of Welsh descent represented just over six percent of South Carolina’s white population. Some prominent South Carolinians of Welsh descent in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries included the Reverend Evan Pugh and David Rogerson Williams, who served as governor from 1812 to 1814. From 1783 to 1800 several members of the Welsh Neck Baptist Church served in the General Assembly.
Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Johnson, George Lloyd, Jr. The Frontier in the Colonial South: South Carolina Backcountry, 1736–1800. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.
Meriwether, Robert L. The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729–1765. Kingsport, Tenn.: Southern Publishers, 1940.