This is a guest post as part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.
A folk tale from Wales and Appalachia for Halloween
At the end of May 2019, an exhibition of Welsh folk art titled ‘Meddygon, Swynion a Melltithion / Curers, Charms and Curses’, featuring the work of eight illustrators, photographers, sound artists, doll makers, and crankie makers, went on show at the Monongalia Arts Center in downtown Morgantown, West Virginia. I had carried the artwork along one of the old nineteenth-century European migration routes, over the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains to the steel and coal city of Pittsburgh, and down the Monongahela River into Appalachia. Admittedly not in a storm-tossed schooner bound from Aberaeron or with belongings strapped to a covered wagon hauled by a pack-mule, but in a large backpack trolley on an environmentally unsound 747 and an overnight Megabus.
On arrival in Morgantown, I gave an in-depth interview about Welsh and Appalachian folk arts to West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s folklife reporter, Caitlin Tan, in the middle of which Larry, the cameraman, chipped in with an unexpected insight into the Mabinogion. He explained he had studied medieval linguistics at college, where he specialised in the ancient Welsh stories. At the opening night of the exhibition, Jesse Wright, head of WVPB news, filmed the entire event. A lady told me that her mother had organised a Welsh language eisteddfod in Morgantown until the early 1960s; JoAnn Evans from the St David’s Society of Pittsburgh gave me a bag of Welsh language vinyl collected by her father; the city museum discovered they had a pamphlet entitled Mining A career for Welsh Boys; Minister Bob Dayton from Pennsylvania performed the Snowdonia tale of Cadwaladr and the Goat with a bag full of sheep puppets. Something was stirring.
None of this was a surprise. I have family in Appalachia and I knew there were traces of the Welsh in the mountain state. Morgantown was founded by Zackquil Morgan, son of Morgan Morgan from Glamorgan, who arrived in what was to become West Virginia in the 1730s. The city graveyard is full of stones etched with the names Davies, Griffith, Evans, Jones, Williams, Price, and of course Morgan, yet there is little written evidence of their ancestors. It seems the forgotten Welsh vanished into the deep dark forests to become the lost Appalachians.
In the early 1800s, the Ceredigion commons were being bought by wealthy gentry, and the poor labourers who had farmed them for generations had little choice but to leave. They arrived in Appalachia as migrants and settled on land that was already lived and worked by indigenous people who were in turn forced to leave. By 1830, President Jackson’s ‘Indian Removal Act’ had become law, leading to the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee from Southern Appalachia.
Half the population died on ‘the Trail of Tears’ as they were marched under armed guard to Oklahoma. As the tears of the women soaked into the dry ground, a beautiful flower grew. The Cherokee Rose.
A hundred years later, miners and prospectors came to work in Osage and Scott’s Run on the outskirts of Morgantown, where Welsh was spoken alongside German, Spanish, Romanian, Greek, Italian and many more. The scrip system and company houses meant the colliers and their families were little more than objects owned by the mine owners – an injustice they thought left behind in Wales.
The Cherokee called the Welsh miners ‘The Moon-eyed People’, because they could see in the dark and lived underground.
Before the opening, little memory remained of the Welsh in West Virginia. After three or four generations, the sound of croaking frogs in the swamps and coal barges chugging along the Monongahela River had drowned out the Welsh language. Folks consider themselves Appalachian American now.
Yet their quiet voices have left a memory, not only in the coal culture, but in shared folk tales and folk arts. The exhibition celebrated the forgotten voices of the granny women of both Appalachia and Wales, who could charm, cure and curse, had remedies for every kind of ailment, and were treated with both suspicion and respect within their communities.
Beti Grwca of Cei Newydd was famed for her love potions, as was Nancie Gore, a Cherokee from the Ozark Mountains who loved horses, hated doctors, and had learned remedies from the old medicine men she knew. Agnes Dolan of West Virginia could cure fevers and curses by drawing a heart on a piece of paper and sticking it with pins, while Dark Anna of Llanfairfechan cursed by piercing a clay doll with her foster mother’s hatpin. A man in Clay County shot a raccoon in the leg and old Martha Pringle forever walked with a limp, while a farmer in Tregaron shot a hare with a silver bullet and a doctor pulled the same bullet from the leg of an old woman who lived nearby.
Both Appalachia and Wales share a tradition of quiltmaking. The exhibition features a blue and white quilt made in Oak Hill, Ohio in 1894, for the Rev. and Mrs J. Mostyn Jones, which includes the embroidered signatures of almost sixty Welsh women.
Folk tales and folk arts are archives of memories of those who carried knowledge and wisdom. They are our connection to the dead.
We remember them at Halloween.
Stevenson, Peter: The Moon-eyed People, Folk Tales from Welsh America (Stroud, The History Press, 2019)
Stevenson, Peter: Chwedlau, Cwiltiau a Chranci / Stories, Quilts and a Crankie (Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum, 2019)
This post is also available in: Welsh