Farm Collector

British Immigration: Celebrating our Shared Roots

British immigrants left lasting impact on America.

For hundreds of years, settlers have been arriving on your shores. Many came from Britain, having made the perilous ocean crossing in the hope of a better future. A large proportion of British emigrants came from farming communities. They “travelled blind” in the hope of setting themselves up as farmers in the new and promising land of America.

Life for the poor in Britain during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was full of hardships. Many opted to leave their roots behind to set sail for a land that they had never seen anything of, except perhaps for a few drawings in a newspaper. Poorer people could not afford to take risks, not unless they truly had nothing to lose, and it seems that for many of Britain’s rural poor, that was the case.

black and white photo of immigrants disembarking on Ellis Island.

Prior to mechanization, vast numbers of people were employed in agriculture in the U.K., but the land often belonged to the privileged few. Most farm workers were paid very little, lived in poverty and could only dream of owning their own land. Many farmers were tenants rather than owners of their farms. They paid rents to the local landed gentry and had few rights. Farm labourers could be hired and fired at will.

Even in the best of times, their pay was among the lowest in the country. The divide between rich and poor was vast. It was hard to get ahead and rise out of the class you were born into. Britain was not the land of opportunity, but America was, and many hoped that it would provide them with a unique opportunity to escape the grinding poverty and hard labour of life as a farm hand.

Few options for the poor

Not only was agricultural work in Britain back-breaking and devoid of prospects, it was also blighted by our unpredictable weather conditions. Between 1789 and 1802, bad weather caused several failed harvests. That, coupled with mass unemployment, brought about an increased interest in emigration. The rural poor were already moving in huge numbers to live in British towns and cities in search of factory and mill work, but for those dreaming of owning their own land and being their own boss, America and Canada sounded like far better prospects.

uphill shot of a crumbling stone cottage surrounded by mountain grasses and trees.

During the early 1800s, emigration was stifled by the Napoleonic wars, but as soon as the wars ended, the economic downturn that followed led to a renewed interest in emigration. The British government introduced schemes to help people emigrate to Canada, America and Australia, largely because they did not know what else to do with the vast numbers of poor and unemployed people in Britain.

There was something of a stigma attached to government-assisted emigration, because people associated it with transportation, where convicts were sent overseas as part of their sentence. However, during desperate times, like the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1852, shipping the poor away to a “better place” was thought of as the best thing to do.

From 1846 to 1851, it is thought that more than a million emigrants left Ireland, with most destined for North America. The ships that carried them were known as “coffin ships” as disease and disaster onboard were commonplace. As many as one in five people are estimated to have died during the journey, which could last six weeks or more.

Welsh settlements in the U.S.

The majority of British immigrants in the U.S. were of Scots and Irish descent, but many also emigrated from Wales. In the 17th century, a large number of Welsh Quakers left Wales for the Colony of Pennsylvania. By 1700, Welsh people made up one-third of the colony’s estimated population of 20,000, which accounts for the many Welsh place names that exist in that area.

old trees growing between falling stone walls

The dream that drove many to make this one-way trip into the unknown was the hope of owning their own farm. Not only was Wales a poor country, making it difficult for anyone to save enough money to buy a farm, but it also had laws dictating that, on a landowner’s death, property had to be shared equally among the deceased person’s offspring. While that seems a fair method, it resulted in repeated division of farms, decreasing in size and becoming less productive with each generation.

It is little wonder then that the vast tracts of land available in Canada and America were so tempting. Between 1850 and 1930, an estimated 85,000 people emigrated from Wales. Assuming many of those people will have had families, that makes for a large number of people of Welsh descent living in the U.S. today.

Finding safety in numbers

Sometimes entire groups of families, friends and neighbours left Wales together. In the 1790s, a Welsh farming settlement was founded in Cambria, Pennsylvania, when approximately 50 residents from the little community of Llanbrynmair in Wales immigrated to farm land that had been purchased there by Rev. Morgan John Rhys Welsh, a Baptist minister.

Another Welsh settlement was formed in 1801, when a number of Welsh-speaking settlers arrived in Ohio. There was a large concentration of Welsh in the Appalachian section of southeast Ohio, and Jackson County was nicknamed “Little Wales.”

These settlers spoke Welsh with one another, though as time went on and emigrants from outside of Wales arrived, English gradually became the norm. As late as 1900, Ohio still had 150 Welsh-speaking church congregations, and Welsh was commonly spoken for many generations in Jackson County. In 2010, it was estimated that more than 126,000 Ohioans are of Welsh descent.

The vast majority of America’s founding fathers were of British descent. Even Abraham Lincoln had Welsh ancestry. Knowing many of his potential voters in the 1860 presidential election were Welsh immigrants, he had 100,000 campaign pamphlets printed in Welsh.

Reality didn’t always live up to claims

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered white settlers 160 acres of free land, if it was worked for five years. This was a wonderful opportunity for those who owned only tiny plots of land or no land at all. America, the land of opportunity, not only offered a way out of poverty-stricken Britain, it also gave the former tenant or farm labourer the opportunity to become a landowner.

a plains and hill, the hill lined with remnants of stone walls

British newspapers printed adverts with enticing headlines like “Start a Great New Life in America,” “Own your own farm in Canada,” “New Colonies in the West” and “160 acres – Free!” Newspapers in Wales advertised in the Welsh language to entice non-English speakers, describing America as wonderfully fertile and perpetually sunny. In local meetings, people were told what a great grain growing region or what a perfect cattle-rearing place America was. With a lack of photographs and film footage, people imagined whatever they felt like imagining.

Many Welsh immigrants settled as farmers on the Great Plains, where, due to the lack of wood, many of their early homes were built from sod. These early farmers struggled with poor living conditions, including drought in the summer and blizzard-like conditions in the winter.

Life was hard on the men who had to clear the land to begin farming, but it was also hard on women who were trying to run a home and raise children in very difficult circumstances. In a letter home, one settler’s wife described how large snakes dropped through the roof of the sod dugout the family was living in.

Innovation improves daily living

One can only imagine the difficulties of setting up a home, giving birth and raising children in such an unfamiliar country. For those who wished they had stayed at home in Wales, there was often no choice but to get on with it, as many immigrants had no funds for a return journey, and nothing to go back to should they wish to return to Wales.

Some immigrants migrated to Washington and California, in search of easier land to farm. Eventually, as settlements grew and developed, improvements came in the form of deep wells to supply water for communities and farms, and windmills that pumped water and allowed for irrigation. A drought-resistant variety of wheat called “Turkey Red” arrived on the scene, and a better understanding of land fertility improved crop production.

As agricultural advances were made, teams of men working with threshing machines began to travel from farm to farm, allowing farmers to better manage their land and harvests. An improved infrastructure of roads and railways further helped settlers convert the wilderness into productive farming communities.

The Timber Culture Act of 1873 gave farmers another 160 acres free if they agreed to plant trees on the land, and further improvements came when barbed wire was patented by Joseph Glidden in 1874, helping early farmers contain their livestock.

Tools of the trade

Early white settlers did not initially produce their own tools and machinery. In the earliest years of immigration, blacksmiths largely focused on repair of existing machinery that had been brought to the U.S. from other countries. Many of the early farmers’ tools came from Britain, and one John Smith, who returned to England from the Jamestown settlement, made a “provisions list” to help other settlers understand what tools were required.

Smith’s list included “broad and narrow hoes, broad axes, felling axes, pick-axes, hand saws, whip saws, hammers, shovels, spades, tools for boring, drilling and chiseling wood, hatches, grindstones and a variety of different nails.” Farm work was slow and labour-intensive but by the 1750s, scythes and sickles had evolved to cradle scythes (or grain cradles) with wooden fingers that arranged the grain for faster collection. It was a small step, but it was said to make the harvesting of grain three times faster than by using a standard scythe and its use marked a step toward faster, more productive farming.

Factories, forges and ironworks gradually began to establish themselves in the U.S. Llewellyn Ironworks, based in Los Angeles, was co-founded by Welshman Reese J. Llewellyn, who was born in Brynamman, Wales. Llewellyn Ironworks provided the materials for the construction of buildings in southern California, the western U.S., Mexico and South America.

While Welsh immigrants often became farmers in America, many also became coal miners, bringing with them the knowledge of mining that they had learned in Welsh coal mines. Many of those who established successful vehicle manufacturing businesses in America came from the British Isles. Henry Ford was of Irish descent, and David Dunbar Buick, founder of Buick Motor Co., was Scottish-born.

The impact of immigrants on farm equipment manufacture

One of the most influential of the early labour-saving farming machines invented on American soil was the McCormick reaper, one of the top agricultural inventions that changed the face of farming in America, designed by Cyrus McCormick. The McCormick family was of Scottish and Irish descent, and Robert McCormick (Cyrus’ father) was the first to see the potential for a mechanical reaper. However, despite his efforts, he failed to produce a reliable version.

Reaping machines designed by Patrick Bell, a minister from Scotland, were available in America at the time. Cyrus McCormick hoped to improve on these rather primitive designs, further developing his father’s ideas.

Bell’s reaper was designed to be pushed by horses, but McCormick’s machine was pulled by horses. Cyrus McCormick demonstrated his reaper publicly in 1831, but he didn’t obtain a patent until 1834. Sales were initially slow, but they gradually rose and in 1847, McCormick established a factory in Chicago, allowing him to expand operations.

In 1851, McCormick exhibited his reaper at the Great Exhibition in London, where it won an award, paving the way for worldwide sales. America had developed its own industry and was no longer reliant on farming with the simple tools immigrants brought with them.

These innovations not only brought mechanisation to the U.S., they also helped establish America as a leader in agricultural machinery exports. Various companies producing threshing machines, steam engines, cars and tractors formed the beginning of an agricultural infrastructure, and the rest, as they say, is history. FC

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at

  • Published on Jul 12, 2022
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