On April 9, 1819, a massive crowd assembled along the banks of the Teifi River near Cardigan, witnessing the brig Albion set sail for Saint John. Carrying 180 passengers and a cargo of slate, the ship was filled with families from nearby areas seeking a better life in British America. The Albion reached Saint John harbor on June 11, 1819. After being declared healthy and free of disease, the Welsh immigrants disembarked and immediately held a church service to express gratitude for their safe voyage. By mid-July, many families had relocated upriver to Fredericton, the capital city, and requested land about 15 miles outside the city from the Legislative Assembly. They named their new community ‘Cardigan Settlement.’
The arrival of 150 impoverished Welsh immigrants significantly affected the small city of Fredericton. Many of them did not speak English, and none possessed the necessary skills to transform the wilderness into a habitable environment. As a result, an Emigrant Society was established to provide food, shelter, tools, and guidance on land clearance and cabin construction for the Welsh settlers.
The challenges encountered by the settlers were extensively reported in local newspapers. In August 1819, they were characterized as ‘very destitute’ and ‘wandering through the streets or packed into barns.’ In September, the Emigrant Society sought additional support from Fredericton’s residents, stating that ‘without further assistance, they must nearly perish from cold and hunger in the upcoming winter.’ Citizens were reminded that, regardless of their willingness to help these families, it would be challenging to find them housing during the winter due to their differing habits.
By November, it became evident that the settlers, despite their best attempts, would have to find shelter in Fredericton. The Emigrant Society visited the ‘various dwellings’ of the Welsh and discovered most of them in desperate conditions. William Richards, his wife, and four children were ‘in a most pitiable situation,’ which soon led to the death of William’s four-year-old daughter. A few days later, John George was discovered dead in the woods, having succumbed to ‘fatigue and the harshness of the weather.’ Nine families endured a miserable winter in the Cardigan settlement, while others lived in sheds and barns in town. All suffered from illness, cold, and hunger.
With the arrival of spring, the strenuous work recommenced. By the end of 1820, the Welsh families had settled in Cardigan. Some of the original families moved on to New York, Ohio, and Iowa, but the majority remained, and by the 1830s, Cardigan had become a flourishing farming community.
Over the course of 198 years, the descendants of the initial Welsh families thrived and spread across the country, with a few still residing in Cardigan. They transitioned from farming to various professions, such as doctors, engineers, soldiers, airline pilots, nurses, teachers, entrepreneurs, accountants, pharmacists, professional athletes, RCMP officers, and university professors. They served their communities in City Hall, the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick, hospitals, schools, government offices, and civic organizations. They also became role models for countless children and youth through coaching teams and leading youth organizations.
Today, Cardigan looks quite different. Like many rural communities, the post-WW2 industrialization marked the end of small family farms, and much of the land initially cleared by the original settlers has returned to forest. The Welsh Chapel and graveyard have been designated as historic sites, maintained by the great, great, great grandchildren of the first settlers. Services are held in the Chapel in June to commemorate the arrival of the Albion and in October to give thanks for the perseverance of our ancestors.
The founding of the Cardigan Settlement has been meticulously documented in various sources, including Peter Thomas’s book “Strangers From a Secret Land,” public records, newspaper articles, and the private letters and family bibles of Welsh settlers.
The account is written by Janet Thomas, the great, great, great granddaughter of William Thomas from Kidwelly, Wales; great, great, great, great granddaughter of David Saunders and Elizabeth Bowing from Cardigan, Wales; great, great, great granddaughter of Sarah Davies from Carmarthenshire, Wales; and great, great, great, great granddaughter of Jonathan and Elizabeth Jones from Carmarthenshire, Wales.
Nestled in the heart of the rural village of Cardigan, between Tay Mills and Hamtown Corner in York County, the Welsh Chapel is a modest, carpenter Gothic-style church. The small, rectangular building has its gable-end facing the Royal Road on Route 620, which connects Cardigan, New Brunswick’s oldest Welsh settlement, with Fredericton, the provincial capital.
The Welsh Chapel is recognized as a Provincial Historic Site for its role as a landmark that reflects the religious and cultural development of the Welsh community and for its architectural significance.
Built around 1856, the Welsh Chapel is associated with the first permanent Welsh settlement in New Brunswick. The original congregation dates back to around 1822 when Rev. Dafydd Phillips began holding services in Welsh within settlers’ homes. Many of the original Welsh settlers are interred in the nearby churchyard.
While the designers and builders remain unknown, the existing architectural evidence suggests that the building was inspired by a Protestant country church model. The coherence of its design is remarkable, particularly in the use of local wood for design elements. Unassuming in its vernacular style, the chapel is significant for its blend of Classical and Gothic influences, typical of 19th-century rural New Brunswick church construction. Embodying the Welsh-Baptist religious building tradition, the church features unique characteristics of a mid-Victorian picturesque church that served as a social and spiritual anchor for the Welsh farming community. In its simplicity, the Welsh Chapel has neither a steeple nor any structural additions.
Resource: Central New Brunswick Welsh Society
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My wife, Ida Florence (Saunders) Belyea of Fredericton and then Ottawa was one of the “Wake Up Group“ that was instrumental in the foundation of this common sense beautiful credit to Wales and the age of man. Although I am not Welsh, nor have I the Welsh, I am inordinately proud of this site and the Welsh