Pennsylvania Welsh Speak from Slate Gravestones

Photo of Slate Ridge Cemetery by Karen Novak at Findagrave.com

Photo of Slate Ridge Cemetery by Karen Novak at Findagrave.com

Perhaps no one knows the bond that Slate Ridge Cemetery holds to the Welsh community in Delta, Pennsylvania more than the Welsh immigrants who settled in that region and their descendants. Most of the inhabitants in Peach Bottom Township, Delta, Pennsylvania and in Cardiff and Whiteford, Maryland came from northern Wales, and surnames such as Jones, Williams, Hughes, Evans, Roberts and Morris abound in this area.

When the Welsh immigrants arrived during the 1800s, they brought both their culture and mining skills with them to work in the area slate mines. A certain pride went with mining in this region, as the slate extracted from the Peach Bottom mines was touted as the best in the world. And, because slate played such a large part in their lives (and in many deaths in the mining industry), the immigrants used it in all sorts of interesting ways. A trip to the area will reveal slate in roofs, steps, risers, sidewalks, window and door sills, fence posts and ornaments.

But, the most interesting use of slate is in the tombstones that you can find at Slateville, Slate Ridge and Mt. Nebo Cemeteries. These stones were created from the best slate with nothing but hand tools such as hammers, chisels and carving knives. According to the book, The River and The Ridge: 200 Years of Local History, Mr. Robert Evans of South Delta was responsible for most of the carvings. He learned his craft in Wales.

Most of the tombstone inscriptions located at Slate Ridge Cemetery are in the oldest form of the Welsh language and many of them are examples of a form of poetry, which is exclusively Welsh, known as Englynion. Most Welsh communities in this country had at least one resident poet, and it is generally agreed that locally there were two poets, as there is some variation in the style. No poems on the stones were signed, but the identity of one poet is known. His name is Robert W. Morris. He is mentioned in Rehoboth Church records as a man of the ‘finest character’ with a reputation as a ‘man of God placing him above all the rest.’ As was the outcome for many quarrymen in those days, he died as a young man, 44 years old, in 1886, of “miner’s consumption.”

One example of typical Welsh poetry is the inscription of “Hugh Williams, born in Ffestiniog, North Wales,” who died in 1865. Often these poems tell us something about the person’s life, or their personality. Williams’ inscription reads, in Welsh:

“Mi welaf Le mewn marwol glny I’r euog guddio’iben, Aoyno Llechaf news mynd-trwy Bad trallod is y nen”

(“I see a place in his wounds for a guilty one to rest, where I’ll abide through troubled life, A sanctuary for the blessed.”)

Another example tells about a woman’s life in a few words:

“Er cof Am Magdalene, priod Griffith R. Thomas, Bu Farw Medi 20, 1892 yb 33 mlwydd oed.
Geiriau segur a surion-ni Luniodd I flino’I chymdogion, ‘Ie,’ a “Nage’
Oedd ddigion O eiriau call y wraig hon”

(“In memory of Magdalene, wife of Griffith R. Thomas. Died September 20, 1892, at 33 years of age.
Nasty words and gossip – she never used to upset her neighbors, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ were all this wise lady said.”)

Many of my ancestors are buried at Slate Ridge Cemetery, and my father would tell stories about funerals he attended there. When he was young, he was allowed to chase rabbits along the stone walls so that he would not fidget during the funeral service. The Welsh traditions are alive and well even today in the Delta area, where you can learn the Welsh language at Rehoboth Welsh Church and find young men who still know how to split slate (a fine art, that!).

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