The Lewis Family in Wales (1783-1868)


Cymru am byth

Introduction and Apology  

The following notes and photographs with respect to the family of William Owen Lewis, my Welsh forebearers, were based in part upon information gathered in August 2005, during a visit to Monmouthshire in southeastern Wales.  Data from several British birth, death, and marriage certificates, plus a fairly rudimentary family tree provided by my aunts on the Lewis side of the family, offered essential clues.

There was constant drizzle during our brief search for my Welsh roots.  Unfortunately, I  was negligent in protecting my camera from the elements; therefore, the photography provided here is rather substandard.  I am embarrassed because Wales is truly a beautiful country, and my photos simply do not do it justice.  I guess this means that I need to make another trip to the land of legends, wizards, and red dragons in order to get the photography portion of this presentation right.

Background on My Nearest Welsh-American Relatives 

Like many U.S. citizens, I consider myself to be just a typical “Heinz-57” American.  Since DNA results suggest that roughly 75 percent of my ancestry is rooted in the British Isles (the rest being mainly Germanic), I’m fairly certain that I have more Welsh in me than just the well-documented Lewis line discussed here.  Clearly, the most recent ancestral connection to Wales goes through my maternal great-grandfather, one William Owen Lewis, who emigrated to the United States with his father (another in a long  line of William O. Lewises) in 1868 at the age of 13.  After father and son arrived at the port of Philadelphia, they made their way through the established Welsh Tract of Pennsylvania until they established temporary roots in a coal mining community in Mercer County.

Both father and son worked in and around the coal mines (and possibly the oil fields) of northwestern Pennsylvania for about a decade.  According to family folklore, my great-grandfather, while just a teenager, first found work keeping track of the geese used to detect methane gas in the mines.  Before long, he figured out that it was a much safer profession selling sandwiches to the miners.  He then bought a broken-down wagon, set up shop, and became an American Capitalist.

At about sixteen years of age, my great-grandfather William met a young school teacher two years his senior, named Albertina Richards; and she began teaching the illiterate Welsh newcomer how to read.  Albertina herself was from a long paternal line of Welshmen by the name of Owen Richards (the Welsh evidently weren’t too imaginative with their first and middle names), who had arrived in America during the colonial period.   On her maternal (English) side, Albertina is the fourth or fifth great-granddaughter of a Colonel Joseph Ball, the paternal grandfather of George Washington.

After their studies together were completed, Albertina and William decided to get hitched; and sometime in the 1880s, they moved way out to Rawlins County, in northwestern Kansas, where William built a wood and sod house on a homestead in the middle of the bleak prairie.  My grandfather Don Lewis, the family’s second son, was born in a sod dugout that served as the family’s shelter until the house was built.

Ever the fast learner and always re-inventing himself, William Lewis soon discovered it was better to run the local cooperative for dairy products and grain than farm himself.  A successful businessman, this once illiterate teenager from Wales became the local justice of the peace and served multiple terms as a Republican in the Kansas House of Representatives.

“Judge Lewis” retired from politics after he made the fateful decision to side with Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive “Bull Moose” Party in 1912, and he was voted out of office for his sin.  He did however found a long line of successful Kansas lawyers and sometimes politicians.  Most of them were named — you guessed it — “William Owen Lewis.”

My grandfather Donald Sydney Lewis married a young lady named Martha Rather, whose parents were immigrants from the eastern part of Germany (Brandenburg-Prussia).

My grandparents Don and Martha Lewis raised nine children on the prairie house that Don built for his family near Atwood, Kansas.  My mom Bernice was exactly the middle child.  She used to joke that, until she was ten years old, she thought her name was “Damnit,” because it always took a while for Grandma Martha to run through all the other kids’ names before she got my mom’s right.

Don Lewis farmed his land and kept his family together until the Dust Bowl of the 1930s wiped them out.  One by one, the family relocated to Washington State to seek jobs, usually with Boeing, as the nation began ginning up for the Second World War.

Both my grandfather Don Lewis and his father William kept two Welsh traditions alive during their sojourns in the New World:

Coming from a long line of Welsh “woodmen,” they loved carving wood and making all the furniture required for their families.

And they always loved to sing and play on the piano their favorite Welsh hymns.

For my part, I suppose that I inherited my love of rousing hymns and a strong, heartfelt melody from my Welsh ancestors.

While I’ve always loved the feel of wood grain, the only “woodman” skill I actually mastered was fashioning skateboards out of pine planks found in the dumpster of the local lumber yard.  In Venice, California, where I grew up, we had few hardwood forests; but we had plenty of hard pavement.

1st church

County Monmouth, Wales

The places we visited were associated with three individuals, each named William O. Lewis (which sometimes makes it confusing).  To keep it simple, I’ll refer to this triad of grandfather, son, and grandson as William I, II, and III, respectively (although William I’s father was also named William, but never mind that for now).  William I (1783-1867) lived near the town of Trelleck, in the northeastern corner of the county, near the city of Monmouth.  William II and his son William III (my great-grandfather — the future “Judge Lewis” of Kansas) lived in the following three places before the family emigrated to the United States in 1868:  Shirenewton (located about eight miles south of Trelleck), St. Woolos (16 miles to the west of Shirenewton near the seaport of Newport), and the village of Mynyddyslwyn (ten miles northwest of Newport).

Roadmap of Southwest Wales

Monmouthshire (or “County Monmouth”) is situated in the southeastern corner of Wales, defined on the south by the River Severn and the Bristol Channel, on the east by the River Wye (which marks Monmouthshire’s boundary with the English county of Gloucestershire), and in the northwest by the Brecon Beacons.  During part of the 19th Century, Monmouthshire was administratively combined with the County of Glamorgan to the west.  Since the time of the Norman invasion and through the Middle Ages, this combined region of southeastern Wales has traditionally been known as Gwent.

Due to its geographical accessibility and the attractiveness of its port towns, Gwent was the first part of Wales to be subdued by the Normans after they invaded Britain in the 11th Century.  While it took the Normans and their successors nearly two centuries to conquer all of Wales (the task completed by Edward “Longshanks,” later known as “the Hammer of the Scots”), this southeastern corner of the country assimilated relatively quickly into the new Anglo-Norman culture of the Middle Ages.  Since then, Gwent has remained as the most “Anglicized” part of Wales.

The Briton-based language of Cymraeg (Welsh), however, never completely died out.  Despite this, Wales did not become officially bilingual until the 1990s.  Today, one can observe road signs everywhere in both English and Welsh.  Welsh is spoken mainly in the more isolated northern and central villages of the country; and less than 10 percent of those residing in Monmouthshire consider themselves fluent in the language, although it is taught in the schools.

Today, Wales is considered one of the historically Celtic countries of northwestern Europe, which includes Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Cornwall, and Brittany.

Based upon the historical orientation of Gwent toward England, there is a strong likelihood that the Lewis Family of the 19th Century, although clearly Welshmen, spoke English as their primary language.  They probably kept the Welsh language familiar to them through poetry and music.  Most likely, they did not consider themselves as culturally distinct from any other subject of the British Crown.  Also of note, Lewis is an extremely common surname in Wales, perhaps following Smith, Jones, and Williams, in terms of numbers.  During this period, the Welsh region of Gwent, despite the advancing industrial revolution, remained one of the poorest regions in the United Kingdom.


Young Welsh men routinely enlisted in the British Army, and they served the Empire in campaigns fought in several corners of the world.  The most famous Welsh unit is known as the South Wales Borderers (called the 24th Regiment of Foot before 1881).  The unit, with rosters containing common Welsh names such as Lewis, distinguished itself in North America, the Napoleonic Wars, and Africa.

Comprising 30 percent of the 24th Regiment, Welsh soldiers played prominent roles in twin battles against the Zulu nation in January 1879.  Approximately 1,400 British soldiers (perhaps as many as 400 Welsh) were slaughtered by 20,000 Zulus at Isandlwana; and later that day, 140 British soldiers (mainly Welsh) withstood an onslaught of 4,000 Zulus at a nearby river crossing and supply post, known as “Rork’s Drift.”  Two Welshmen received the Victoria Cross for their bravery at the latter engagement.

Always impressed with this fabled saga in Welsh history, both battlefields in the KwaZula-Natal were mandatory stops, when I took my family to South Africa in 1999.

Rork's Drift0002

Proud Descendants of Zulu Warriors, Who Defeated the British Here at Isandlwana 


Rork's Drift0001

Makeshift Redoubt at “Rork’s Drift,” Where Welsh Soldiers Held Off 4,000 Zulus

Later that year, I made a brief visit to the Museum of the South Wales Borderers in Brecon, Wales.  Identifying myself as a U.S. military officer and student of military history, the curator kindly granted me access to drawers in the unit’s archives, which were filled with hundreds of “after-action reports” and observations written by hand on everything from fine stationary to newspapers and toilet paper.  Isandlwana was such a devastating defeat for the British Army that they wanted an account from every survivor, from captains down to privates.  Just as I started to rummage through the accounts, the curator said she had to go to lunch.  She asked me politely to shut the door to the archives when I was finished.

On this same research trip, I visited another military museum in Cardiff Castle.  After identifying myself, I was taken to a dimly lit storage room and was shown a particularly amazing war trophy.  I was astonished as the curator unfurled a slightly tattered “Stars and Stripes.”  He said it was seized by Welsh soldiers at the Battle of Bladensburg, right outside of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.  A few hours after their victory in 1814, the British soldiers would be torching the White House.


During the lifetimes of William I and II, the County of Monmouth experienced significant growth in population, employment opportunities, and squalor due to the advent of the industrialization and the development of coal mines and iron mills in the region.  Judging from their signing of marriage and birth certificates with an “X,” one has to assume that both William I and William II were illiterate.  However, both were skilled craftsmen who worked with their hands in the plentiful forests of the region and the village workshops or local factories to create wooden objects required of the rapidly expanding economy.

William Lewis I is identified as a “Hoopmaker” when he married a widow named Susan Hemmans [perhaps “Hemmings] in 1848 – William himself having been widowed sometime earlier.

At first, I thought that a hoopmaker was merely a tradesman for making wooden hoops for women’s dresses or barrels for shipping.  However, the flared dresses that one usually associates in the U.S. during the antebellum period, while popular in the 19th Century in Europe, tended to use whale bone, not wood; and barrel makers were called “coopers” (although hoopmakers at times provided the wood components used by the coopers in their barrel making).  Hoopmakers were distinct from carpenters.

Researching the term “hoop maker” a little further on the internet, I came across some sites explaining the importance of wooden hoops for hoisting and attaching sails to ships’ masts and the craftsmanship required to make these intricate devices.  Evidently, between 1750 and the 1870, a hoopmaker (or “hoop shaver” and “woodman,” as noted on documents referencing William Lewis II’s occupation) was a highly sought-out trade, which required precision in selecting, cutting, shaving, and bending oak and other Welsh hardwoods through the use of steam or heat.  I also recall reading that Admiral Horatio Nelson insisted that British warships be outfitted with wood from the forests of Monmouthshire, as the county provided the most most reliable source for timber in the U.K. at the time.  (The only other major European source for ship masts were situated along the southern Baltic coast.)

Evidently, well-crafted hoops were in great demand during the Napoleonic wars; and Newport, located approximately 15 miles away, was a growing port city with an expanding shipbuilding capability.  Given his age at the time, this begs the question:  Could the young woodman, William Lewis I, have fashioned with his own hands some of the mast hoops used by Nelson’s fleet during the battle of Trafalgar in 1805?

Evidently, the skill was important enough to be passed on to his son, who was also listed as a “hoopmaker” on a subsequent census.  Regardless as to whether William I and William II crafted intricate wooden devices for ocean-going ships, beams for coal mines, or wooden inserts for women’s dresses, their skills with wood were evidently in high demand throughout the last 100 years of the family’s residency in southeastern Wales.


We began our brief passage through Monmouthshire by traveling from the Cotswolds in neighboring Gloucestershire (the presumed origin of my Slaughter (sic.) English ancestors).  Our objective was to get as far west as possible toward our final destination at St. David’s on the extreme southwestern coast of Wales.  As such, we only had the afternoon of one rain-swept day in August to visit several of the villages associated with the Lewis Family.

Map 2

Satellite Photo of Trelleck from “Google Earth”

Heading south from the city of Monmouth, we first stopped in the town of Trelleck, where William Lewis I, a widower, married the widow Susan Hemmans in the parish Church of St. Nicholas.  Evidently, William and his new bride lived approximately three miles southeast, in a locality written on the wedding certificate and his subsequent death certificate as “White Leigh.”  William I’s home, which one suspects was a very humble dwelling, was located either on a landed estate or in very small hamlet spelled today as “Whitelye.”

Harolds Stones

“Harold’s Stones” by Photographer Francis Frith

In the past, Trelleck was spelled as “Treloch” after the “Three Stones” located in a field outside of the town.  According to several references, these monoliths were a recognizable feature, as travelers approached the town from the south by horse, foot, or cart.  Referred to as “Harold’s Stones,” after the last Saxon king who was killed during the Battle of Hastings, these important prehistoric religious objects were most likely erected as a small astrological calendar and temple by the same pre-Celtic culture that built Stonehenge, situated on the Salisbury Plane, approximately 60 miles to the southeast in England.  Archaeologists have now determined that these ancient builders transported the famous “bluestones” of Stonehenge from modern-day Preseli National Park in Wales, located 90 miles to the west of Trelleck.  The monoliths which William I routinely passed by as he came to town on business or to worship may have originated from this same source.  The presence of the monument suggests that the area around Trelleck has been continuously inhabited since circa 2500 B.C.


Bluestone in Preseli National Park on the Western Part of Wales; from the Same General Quarry Used by the pre-Celtic Builders of Stonehenge (Represents a clearer view of what one of Trelleck’s Three Stones might have looked like)

According to a brochure available in the Church of St. Nicholas, the town of Trelleck has been in existence since the Anglo-Saxon period.  During the 13th Century, the town was larger than Newport or Chepstow, but it was mostly destroyed in 1291, as a result of a raid following a dispute over deer poaching.  Its population and importance diminished further as a result of the Black Plague in the 1350s and a Welsh revolt for independence 50 years later, led by fabled Welsh freedom fighter Owain Glydwr.  Today, it is a sleepy little hamlet situated in the middle of humbly maintained farmland, with less than a hundred structures.


Lion Inn Pub, Trelleck


St Nics

 Church of St. Nicholas, Trelleck

The Gothic-style Church of St. Nicholas, where William I and Susan Hemmans were married in 1848, was constructed between 1225 and 1272, although the remains of an old Saxon church built during the 7th Century no doubt served as part of its foundation and furnished some of the stonework.  Today, St. Nicholas is considered an “Established Church,” meaning that it is affiliated with the Church of England.  As was the case with a majority of churches in England and Wales, St. Nicholas was no doubt forcibly converted from being a Catholic house of worship to Protestantism by Henry VIII during the early part of the 16th Century.  St. Nicholas probably settled into its current Anglican conventions of worship following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after the English Civil War.

St Nics interiorInterior of  St. Nicholas Church

(Note the Norman-built stone pillars, still standing after 750 years)


Trump Turret

Tump Terret Castle Mound

Another point of interest in Trelleck is “Tump Terret” (not to be confused with “Trump Tower”), a forty-foot-high mound located about a quarter of a mile south of the church, which contains the remains of the local “motte and bailey” castle.  Built by the town’s Norman overlord in the 11th Century, it once featured a wooden fortification on the top of the mound, and soldiers’ barracks, enclosed by a fence and a moat, around the bottom.  Situated on the west side of the main road leading north into town, the “castle” served the Normans for about 100 years until it was destroyed by a Welsh attack.  It wasn’t too difficult to negotiate the weeds and thistles to get to the top of Tump Terret for a photo.  The mound has obviously been left untouched for centuries; and according to a brochure in the church, there remains a local legend that calamity will overtake anyone who attempts to excavate it.

South of Trump Terret

The South Side of Trelleck, taken from the Top of Tump Terret, Looking East

Due to time constraints, we were unable to visit the tiny hamlet of Whitelye, located approximately three miles southeast of Trelleck, where William Lewis I actually resided.



Shirenewton’s Main Thoroughfare, Lined by Lovely Stone Cottages

After wandering around Trelleck for more than an hour, we headed south down scenic Welsh roads to reach the town of Shirenewton, where William Lewis II lived between 1849 and 1855.  The town was the birthplace of William Lewis III (the “Judge”) in 1855.

Today, Shirenewton has a much larger population than Trelleck.  Although clearly a bedroom community for nearby cities, such as Newport, Cardiff, and Bristol, the town appears to also serve as a location for upscale summer cottages, given the maintenance of its neatly laid out buildings and lovely gardens.

According to the town’s website, Shirenewton means “Sheriff’s New Homestead,” and the locality was formally established by Walter Fitzherbert, the Sheriff of Gloucester, around 1100 A.D.  The town’s Welsh name is Trenewydd Gelli Fach, which means “New Homestead in the Little Grove.”  Other ancient names for the village include Nova Villa, which suggests that these crossroads were once the location of a Romano-British villa.

St Thomas

Shirenewton’s Church of St. Thomas a Becket

According to a marriage certificate, in 1849, William Lewis II (my great-great grandfather married Anne Highley (also spelled “Heyley”) in the parish church, St. Thomas a Becket’s, in Shirenewton.   William Lewis III (my great-grandfather) was most likely christened here.  The building is dominated by an excellent example of a Norman fortified tower.

According to the town’s website, the church was built at the end of the 13th century by Humphrey de Bohun, the Norman overlord.  Situated in the center of the village, the tower commands an elevated position overlooking the Bristol Channel.  A census taken in 1851, when William II lived in Shirenewton, indicates that the town’s population numbered 933 inhabitants.

St Woolos

Bridge Crossing the River Usk From St. Woolos to Newport

Sometime after William III’s birth in 1855 and before 1859, William Lewis II and his family moved to the town of St. Woolos (spelled St. Woollos on birth certificates of subsequent children), which was a bedroom district for laborers working in the factories and docks of Newport across the River Usk.  While we don’t know where William II was employed, the above contemporary sketching suggests what the city of Newport might have looked like, as he crossed the river on his way to work from St. Woolos.  Given the rapid expansion of mines, factories, and shipyards in south Wales during the Industrial Revolution, one wonders what sort of Dickensonian conditions the members of the Lewis Family may have experienced during this period of uncertainty.

Brecon Beacons

Mynyddyslwyn and Nearby Towns, with the Brecon Beacons in the Background

For some reason, William II and his family resettled in the village of Mynyddyslwyn, located in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, approximately 9 miles northwest of St. Woolos.  This district of rapidly growing settlements housed the workers employed in the nearby coal mines and steel factories.  The story of the family’s long presence in Wales ends here, as within two or three years after this, William II and William III (and perhaps other members of their family) emigrated to the United States, where they first settled in Pennsylvania.

Our brief journey in August 2005 to several of the geographical points of interest associated with the Lewis Family during their last century in Wales also ends at this point, as we had to head out that evening towards our destination at the cathedral town of St. David’s, located on the spectacular and rugged extreme southwest coast of Wales.

St Davids

St. David’s Cathedral

Welsh Coast

The Spectacular Pembrokeshire Coast of Southwestern Wales

If you’ve been watching the costume drama Poldark on PBS and have seen the spectacular views of Cornwall, just double it to get a sense of the beauty of Wales.

* * * *

Wales remains a fascinating country with gorgeous scenery, a long history, and friendly people experiencing a proud revival of their ancient language and heritage.  I hope to visit again this enchanting land of the Red Dragon and the Lewis Family origins.


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