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Small nation hits big time in the States

Aug 31 2004

Emily Lambert, The Western Mail


CATHERINE ZETA-JONES recently topped US presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry's list of sexiest women.

But the Swansea-born beauty is just the latest in a long line of Welsh influences to have shaped American life, as a new BBC Wales series discovers.

Narrated by Welsh export John Humphrys, the three-part series Star Spangled Dragon on BBC One Wales traces some of America's key players who were Welsh descendants.

Among them were presidents Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, whosefather came from the foothills of Snowdonia. During the American Civil War both sides were led by Welsh descendants - the Union by Lincoln and the Confederacy by Jefferson Davis.

Even today, famous American faces including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robin Williams and Tommy Lee Jones, descend from Welsh stock.

The influx of talent was so impressive in the early days that even George Washington once declared, "Great Welshmen make great Americans".

But if America's first president was moved to make such a statement, why is it we hear so little of the great achievements of the Welsh emigrants and their descendants in the roll-call of American greats?

Star Spangled Dragon seeks out these unsung heroes from the founding fathers to the present day.

"The American Declaration of Independence, which announced America's break from Britain in 1776, was written by son of Snowdonia Thomas Jefferson, and 18 of the 56 signatories were of Welsh descent, making the Welsh by far the largest ethnic group involved," Humphrys explains.

"Another Welshman, Governor Morris, wrote the final draft of the American Constitution, a pivotal document which was to become a blueprint for later democracies."

But many Welsh achievements remain practically anonymous. Before his death last autumn, journalist and Cardiff University academic Geoff Mungham was Star Spangled Dragon's adviser, and in the programme he points out the number of little-known Welshman who have made a huge difference to modern America, but who got left out of the history books.

"The contribution Welsh Americans have made to building up the America that we know today has been immense," he said.

"I think their achievements were out of all proportion with their numbers.

"People like Oliver Evans, who invented the first high-pressured steam engine which made possible the railroad train and steam boat so important to commerce and trade.

"People like Zephaniah Rees, one of the first people to produce a petrol-driven automobile. When we look at the early history of automobiles it's easy to find references to Rolls and Royce and Daimler and Benz - but I want to know where Rees is?

"And people like Charles Francis Jenkins who should be written into the history of broadcasting.

"By 1913 he'd developed first proposals of radiovision, what we now call television."

There was also David Thomas from Neath, the first man to produce iron from anthracite. By 1856 half of all iron in America was produced by a technique developed by Thomas in South Wales.

He was dubbed the "Ironmaster of America".

The colossal Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, Virginia (pronounced locally as tread-egger) were the largest in the south. They were built by Rhys Davies and his fellow ironworkers from Tredegar, and named in their honour.

Star Spangled Dragon can be seen on September 7 on BBC One Wales from 10.35pm.


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