Called Home by the Grandmothers

Those who have died have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth
~ From the poem “Breaths” by Birago Diop
~ Music by Ysaye Maria Barnwell

Back in January, as I packed my bags for my first trip to Wales, I wasn’t completely sure why I had chosen Wales for my sabbatical destination.  After exploring several options (Norway, Denmark, Sweden) for my ancestral pilgrimage, the path became clear and with each turn, all roads led to Wales. In retrospect, Wales chose me. I know now, Wales is in my bones; it is in my DNA. The grandmothers called me home: to the land of my ancestors, to be still, to listen, to honor intuition, to trust what unfolded and to bear witness to their stories.

The family legend, as I have been told, is that the Howells moved up the Black Mountain from Gwynfe to Llywel in search of more farming opportunities for their children.  When that wasn’t enough they set sail for America.

Three successive generations of Howells men, my grandfathers (Samuel, John, Morgan), left their homeland to migrate to North America in the 1850’s. Grandfather, son and grandson set sail with prosperity on their mind.  Three families in search of a better future of their children and their children’s children. As they sailed one after another, it was the grandmothers who left behind families (parents and siblings) to  settle in the frontier and brave the new world. Two of them left children in graveyards back home in Wales, on the hills of the Black Mountain. 

When I moved 1700 miles from South Dakota to New England, it was the possibility of returning home often that comforted my homesick soul. I could pick up a phone, buy a plane ticket, or plan a vacation with family. When looking through that lens and imagining what my nineteenth century grandmothers left behind, I stand in awe and reverence. They left so much behind and crossed land and sea for unknown territory and opportunity. For that I will be forever grateful. Let me tell you their stories.

Great Great Grandma Elizabeth (Morris) and Morgan Lewis Howells
Great Great Grandma Elizabeth (Morris) and Grandpa Morgan Lewis Howells

Great great grandmother Elizabeth Morris was born the daughter of a slate quarryman in Ffestiniog, Wales in 1853.  At sixteen years of age, she traveled with two siblings across the Atlantic, then another 1500 miles across the frontier to Lime Springs, Iowa. She eventually came to be a housekeeper in the home of my great great great grandfather, John Howells.  I assume it was here that she met her husband, my great great grandfather, Morgan Lewis Howells.

In the spring of 1878, Grandpa Morgan traveled with his brother to the Dakota Territory where they each laid claim to a piece of land.  A dugout along the creek offered them a house while they built a home.  In 1880, he once again traveled by wagon train back across the prairie. This time to bring home the two older children (age 7 and 5). By summer the family homestead (a sod house with dirt floors) was complete.  In the fall Grandma Elizabeth traveled north by train with two small children (age three and one, first to Milbank then on to Wilmot, those final twenty miles by covered wagon.

The stories of Grandma Elizabeth’s life come to me from my great Uncle Herschel, the family historian/genealogist (As do most of the stories told here). It was said that Grandma Elizabeth was an exceptional caregiver and respected on the prairie for her fastidious care of others. It is also true that her mental health became a grave concern for Grandpa Morgan.  After at least one unsuccessful short term hospitalization, she was committed to Yankton State Hospital where she died in 1935.

This past year I watched the film “The Homesman.” The movie portrays the story of prairie madness or prairie fever, as it was know in the 1800’s.  Mental instability, withdrawal, depression, along with changes in character,  habits, and violence afflicted countless new pioneers. As I watched the film,  I wondered curiously about the ailments of my grandmother; a brave woman who left her mother and father, her siblings, her culture, and the beautiful countryside of Wales for a grueling life and unrelenting weather on a harsh unsettled Dakota prairies. What caused her illness, we do not know. We have only a few stories that tell of violent episodes that left Grandpa Morgan unable to provide her care.

Capel Jerusalem with Pantmawr in the foreground.
Capel Jerusalem with “Pantmawr” Barn in the foreground.

Great Great Great Grandmother Margaret Morgan was born on “Pantmawr” in the village of Gwynfe in 1821. She was the oldest of seven siblings all christened at Capel Jerusalem. The 1836 tithe maps of Wales record Grandma Margaret’s father, my Great, Great, Great,Great Grandfather, Morgan Morgans as the occupier of land where both Capel Jerusalem and “Pantmawr” now stand.

The farmers of today recalled to me the stories their grandmothers who told of a time when the barns of “Pantmawr” served as the place of worship. For those early 17th & 18th century Protestant Christians who refused to recognize the Established Church, worship took place in hiding under the cover of darkness in the protected surroundings of hay barns. I do not know if any of the Morgans lived on “Pantmawr” at that time.  It does, however, seem likely that those early dissenters later built Capel Jeruselam at the foot of the hill.

Margaret married John Howells in 1848. John was born one year before Margaret on the farm “Ysguborwern,” just a few hundred feet up the road.  I imagine they played together as children in the church yard and at village affairs. Prior to his marriage and subsequent return to the the farm “Godrewaen” in  the village of Gwynfe, John had moved up the valley with his father, Samuel Howell, to the Hamlet of Trayanglas in the Llywell Parish

In 1851, Margaret and John sailed on the starship “Cornelia’ from Liverpool, England to New York. Their two children and John’s father, Samuel John Howells, joined them for the long trek to America. Margaret left behind her parents and siblings, and in the graveyard of Capel Jerusalem, her first born son, Samuel Howells.

In America, John and Margaret settled on a farm near Milwaukee, Wisconsin where Margaret gave birth to six more children. After they moved to Bark River and Bangor, they settled in Foreston, Iowa where Margaret died at the age of 49.  A faithful member of the Congregational Church, she was buried in Foreston Cemetery and her name is engraved on John’s tombstone in Bangor Cemetery.


Gwaralt farm, Gwynfe, Llangadog, Camarthenshire, Wales

Great Great Great Great Grandmother Anne Daniels was born on “Gwarallt”in the village of Gwynfe in 1801. Some of the buildings on the present day farm (above) appear to date back to the 18th century.  When I visited the farm I was most taken by the stunning views of the Black Mountains and Llyn-y-Fan.  The patchwork of Wale’s lush green countryside is breathtaking from the backside of Grandma Anne’s birthplace.  In 1818, she married Samuel John Howells.  Samuel was born just two farms to the west on “Cwmgwenllan.” Like Margaret and John, I imagine they spent their childhood playing in the fields between their homes and in the neighboring Capel Jerusalem.

Anne gave birth to eleven children, the first child was born on her parents farm “Gwarallt,” the next four on her and Samuels Farm”Ysguborwern,” and the next four on Samuel’s parents farm “Cwmgwenllan,” and the final two up the valley in Llywell.  Anne came from a Calvinistic Methodist family in Gwynfe.  Once a year she walked to Llangeitho for communion.  Still her children were baptized at Capel Jerusalem where her husband was a well respected deacon and lay preacher.

Anne buried five of her eleven children in Gwynfe and said good-bye to one daughter before setting sail from Liverpool to New York in 1853 on the steamship “Jacobsland.” Samuel had sailed the previous year on the steamship “Cornelia”.  Five of the children sailed with Anne to America. They settled into farm life in Wisconsin. Like the other Howells women, Anne left behind her parents and two siblings.

These valiant women left behind and gave so much; generously giving their children opportunities and preparing a future for the unknown and countless generations who would reap the rewards of their courage.

In returning to Ffestiniog and Gwynfe to walk in their footsteps and hear the stories, I celebrate all that was their life, I honor their vision and fortitude, and I speak their names with deep reverence.

Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things then to beings
Tis’ the ancestors’ breath
When the fire’s voice is heard
Tis’ the ancestors’ breath
In the voice of the waters.

~ From the poem “Breaths” by Birago Diop
~ Music by Ysaye Maria Barnwell

As I stood on the Black Mountain, and looked upon the beauty of what they left behind, I was inspired to live with hope and optimism.  I descend from a long line of Howells: people of faith with vision and tenacity, resilience and perseverance in the face of hardship and challenge. My life is their life. In bearing witness to their stories, I was blessed.

The grandmothers called.
I answered.
I returned home.

May we all be so blessed.