Life in Central New York is incredibly rich, as only someone who moved here as an adult can appreciate. The history, landscape, and people offer diversity that is rare, if not unique. Over the forty plus years I have lived in Central New York, I have become increasingly aware of the presence of Welsh communities, primarily to our East – in Oneida and Herkimer counties.
The only immediately local vestige of Welsh culture that I am aware of is St. David’s of DeWitt, an Episcopal church named after David, the patron saint of Wales (where St. David’s Day is celebrated on March first). However, if you travel only 15 .1 miles east on Route 20, just one mile east of Nelson, NY, you may notice a side road on your right “Welsh Church Road.” Follow this road, and you will find a national landmark, the beautiful Old Welsh Church, a now non-denominational Christian church.
As you may have gathered already, churches play a prominent role in Welsh culture, and hundreds of them once dotted the rolling hills of the Mohawk Valley, as well as the Tug Hill plateau North and East of Utica. The Welsh came to America in relatively small numbers during the 1700s, settling mostly in Pennsylvania (whose original proposed name was New Wales), and were mainly Quakers. New York State became a principal destination for Welsh immigrants in the 1800’s due to the availability of land (the Holland Patent) for farmers, and non-farming jobs. The building of the Erie Canal, which notably attracted Irish workers, also provided a draw for Welsh skilled and unskilled immigrants such as masons, carpenters and general laborers.
Religion is central to Welsh culture in Wales as in everywhere the Welsh settle. Most dominant are Baptist, Congregational and Methodist denominations, and every small settlement has wanted to have their own church. The problem is, they built far more churches than there were clergy to support them, and the congregations were too small to support (pay) the available pastors.