St. David’s Day: Introducing Francis Hugh Owen from Wales

Sepia Saturday 408First  in a series about my Welsh immigrant great grandfather Francis Hugh Owen, who married into the Irish Dempsey family in Baltimore, Maryland. 

The past few years, I have blogged about my Irish Dempsey ancestors during March and the research breakthroughs of our cousins group on tracing our roots from North America back to Ireland — the perfect topic for St. Patrick’s Day.

So this year I’m turning the spotlight on a Dempsey in-law — my Welsh immigrant great grandfather Francis Hugh “Frank” Owen — because my Owen cousins have asked me to share more about him.

And what better day to begin than March 1 — St. David’s Day/Dydd Gŵyl Dewi — named for the patron saint of Wales.
Ruins of a castle in Denbigh/Dinbych, Wales. According to Owen family lore, Denbigh/Dinbych was the birthplace of my Welsh great-great grandfather Francis Hugh “Frank” Owen in 1863. Denbigh/Dinbych means “small fortress” in Welsh. Image:

An immigrant from North Wales

Alas, I have not yet done the concentrated research into Welsh records that would elicit Frank’s early story. However, family oral history –and a U.S. record I have found from his adult years in Baltimore, Md. — help narrow down his possible childhood home.

Frank was born on or about 18 Dec. 1863, according to his death certificate — for which his daughter Katherine (Owen) Negri was the informant. I say about because his age fluctuates in U.S. census returns throughout his adult years.

Owen family lore places his origins in Denbigh/Dinbych, Wales. And Frank’s enumeration in the 1940 U.S. Census of Baltimore City, Md.,  supports Denbigh as a possibility — giving “North Wales” as his birthplace. (Click to enlarge the map below and you will see Denbigh in North Wales, quadrant 39.);sort:Pub_Date%2CPub_List_No_InitialSort;lc:RUMSEY~8~1&mi=2&trs=48#
Map of Wales showing Denbigh in North Wales’ quadrant 39 southwest of Liverpool (1784). Oral history in the Owen family traces my ancestor Francis Hugh Owen to Denbigh/Dinbych, and a “North Wales” birthplace in his 1940 U.S. Census enumeration in Baltimore, Md., supports this possibility.  Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Denbigh/Dinbych in brief

The Imperial Gazetter of England and Wales (1874) describes Denbigh as a lovely area that survived ancient sieges and conflicts to grow and develop into the nineteenth century:

The town occupies a steep acclivity, overhung by a castle-crowned rock, on an affluent of the river Clwyd…The town, as seen from some distance, looks very picturesque; and has been thought to resemble Stirling in Scotland.

It comprises one long main street, smaller diverging streets, and a spacious market-place; contains many elegant residences; and has undergone great modern improvement…

The town has a head post-office, two banking-offices, and several chief inns; is a seat of sessions, and a polling place; and publishes 3 weekly Welsh newspapers…A general country trade, and some manufactures of gloves and shoes, are carried on.

Why emigrate to the U.S.?

More research is needed to definitively identify Denbigh/Dinbych as Frank’s hometown — or Denbighshire, which surrounds it, as his home county.

Nevertheless, the description above provides a charming snapshot of North Wales around the time of Frank’s emigration to the U.S. in the late 1800s.

So the question arises: Why would my great grandfather Frank Owen leave such a seemingly idyllic setting?

More on this in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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14 thoughts on “St. David’s Day: Introducing Francis Hugh Owen from Wales”

  1. I have visited Denbigh several times. It is, indeed, a lovely place.
    Yes, an interesting question, why he left?
    I think (I really dont know) that around that time many migrants from rural Ireland & Scotland arrived in The States. But the Welsh? Less so, I would imagine (?).
    I guess people tend to move for work.The UK “Industrial Revolution” was in full swing at the time. Urban Migration was the rule not the exception.Your great grandfather would have been among many travelling out of North Wales.
    However, in Rural North Wales,the vast majority moved to the new, booming Industries in Liverpool, Manchester or the South Wales coal mines. Francis’s imagination seems to have gone well beyond those options.

  2. I am relieved to learn from some of the comments here that I am not the only one challenged by Welsh research. Fortunately, more records are coming online every day — so perhaps our needles in the Welsh haystack will at last be found!

  3. Oh, I have the same questions about my Irish great grandmother and her sisters — why did they leave? Why did they leave in different years? (Maybe a matter of finances.) Why did one brother stay behind? Eh, I’ll probably never know.

  4. I have to say that that’s a really beautiful map.

    I wonder did your relative ever get a chance to go back to Wales for a visit? My grandmother made a trip back to Scotland in the ’50s. I have her diary, and one thing she says repeatedly is how cold it was. She longed for the warmth of California and after the trip never talked about going back.

  5. Oh, Molly — I am completely ignorant in this regard. I would like to do more research on my Welsh ancestors. But I am saddled with ones called Jones, so don’t hold out much hope of enlightenment. Great idea to time your posts in connection with dates of national significance.

  6. Looking forward to your continuing story. When I was a little girl, my grandfather told me we have Welsh ancestry, but I have no idea who, when or where. Maybe someday …

  7. I would love to explore that castle. Just thinking about how things like that were built back then makes me tired!

  8. Those people who travelled large distances to seek new fortunes were so brave. They left everything behind including the opportunity of ever seeing the rest of their families again. The map was very interesting – I couldn’t help looking up my own birthplace on it.

    1. Cyfarchion, Alan. The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection has digitized many superb maps from around the world. Just click the link in the map caption above to view the collection.

  9. Opportunities for a better life were very limited to people in the old country in earlier times compared to the supposed advantages of the new world. I read recently that there was a much larger number of foreign immigrants to America than is commonly known who gave up and returned to their homeland.

  10. Idylic settings did have many immigrants to America, perhaps because the family was large and opportunities narrow, or that particular ancestor had an urge to explore new opportunities. And unfortunately there were many sad experiences which led to immigrations, and still do.

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