The story of Rugby’s founding is well known — English reformer and author Thomas Hughes envisioned a place in America where his fellow countrymen could escape the social hierarchy of the “old world” and discover a better way of life.
But did you know that another European reformer also saw the northern Cumberland Plateau as an opportunity for a colony that would better reflect the ideas of he and his fellow countrymen?
Decades before Hughes led an effort to plot off lands bordering what is now the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area near where Scott, Morgan and Fentress counties all meet, Rev. Samuel Roberts attempted a very similar settlement further north in Scott County, near Pine Creek — not far from the route that would eventually be used for the Oneida & Western Railroad between Oneida and Jamestown.
Roberts (1800-1885) was a Congregational preacher from Llanbrynmair, Montgomeryshire in Wales. He was an influential figure in 19th century Wales. Seen as a radical, he was educated at a dissenting academy and later helped lead the Welsh disestablishment movement, through which the Church of England was separated from Wales. He was also an early opposer of the Corn Laws, through which taxes and tariffs were placed by England on grain and other imported goods.
Roberts was just as much a reformer as Hughes, who was 22 years younger than he was (the two men did not know one another). And just as Hughes became disenfranchised with Europe’s social system, which favored the eldest sons, Roberts became disenfranchised with the treatment of Welsh farmers.
Through the 1840s, Roberts became increasingly bitter about the landlords’ treatment of the farmers and frequently denounced their practices. His anger stemmed from the treatment of his own family, who were tenants of a small farm known as Diosg Farm. His father, Rev. John Roberts, had spent the equivalent of £700 — the equivalent of about $28,000 in 2019 dollars — over a seven-year period to improve the farm, only to see the rent doubled.
As his pleas fell on deaf ears, Roberts began warning in the 1850s that Welshmen were emigrating to America in the prime of their lives. And he began to formulate a plan with his brothers and several others for a Welsh colony in Tennessee. The essence of their effort was summed up by former Ohio governor William Bebb and Illinois landowner Evan B. Jones — partners in Roberts’ venture — who said during a visit to Wales that it was surprising that “hard working Welsh families should suffer such cruel exactions from landlords when freehold farms could be had on such low terms in America.”
Bebb and Jones secured 40,000 acres of land in Anderson, Morgan, Scott and Campbell counties for Roberts to purchase. He determined to finance the venture by reselling small plots to his fellow countrymen —at a cost of a half-crown per acre — who wished to emigrate to America, forming a major community in the area. Later, he purchased an additional 35,000 acres in Cumberland County.
The new settlement
In the spring of 1856, Bebb and Jones traveled to Tennessee to study the new Welsh lands. On June 20 of that year, Bebb wrote Roberts to inform him that they had decided the settlement should be located “eight miles west of Huntsville in Scott County.” The area he was describing was located along Nancy’s Branch, a small tributary of Pine Creek located just east of where Toomey Road is now.
Nancy’s Branch begins at a pond on property currently owned by John Vernon and Carol Thompson along Coopertown Road, and eventually empties into Pine Creek along the O&W Road. By most estimations, the new Welsh community was established on lands that are currently owned by Tim Miller and James Marcum.
The purpose for choosing that specific site, out of all the property that the Welsh owned, was that it had open forests full of timber, it was dry with water sources, and that it had rich farmland. Bebb’s letter said that “a better place for sheep and cattle could not be well imagined.”
The settlement was called Brynyffynon, which means “the hill with a spring.”
The first settlers arrived at Brynyffynon in September 1856, when Richard Roberts — a brother to Samuel Roberts — arrived in Scott County after sailing to America and taking a train t o Cincinnati. Among the group were Roberts, his wife, Anne, their baby daughter, Margaret, an assistant, William (Griffy) Griffith, his wife, Miriam, and their daughter, Betsy. A small service was held upon their arrival to dedicate the new community.
Samuel Roberts arrived at Brynyffynon the following spring, along with a larger party. Among the group were William Brees and Thomas Humphreys, two Welsh-Americans from Somerset.
At its peak, Brynyffynon had a store, a mill and its own post office.
The misery of war
Samuel Roberts was an absolute pacifist — opposing war regardless of circumstances. He was also an abolitionist who lobbied for an end to slavery.
That actually suited him well for Scott County — which wanted no part in the war that was looming in America, and where slavery was not rampant. There were fewer slaves owned in Scott County in the 1850s than in any other county in Tennessee. However, the politics of secession had not reached the northern Cumberland Plateau by the mid 1850s, and Scott County was certainly not anti-slavery, so it was merely a coincidence that Roberts chose this place.
And even though Scott County wanted no part in the Civil War — the county actually voted in 1861 to secede from Tennessee and remain a part of the Union — the war still caused conflict for Roberts. It was a war fought to end slavery, an institution he staunchly opposed, but it was still war — which he also staunchly opposed. Perhaps ironically, it was the war that ultimately spelled the end of Brynyffynon.
It was in the midst of the Civil War that Roberts came within minutes of death when he was arrested by Confederate soldiers who raided Brynyffynon. The Rebel troops visited the settlement specifically to capture Roberts for aiding Union soldiers who were passing through the area. It was a practice that Roberts did not deny. The soldiers were preparing to hang Roberts when one of them asked exactly where the Welsh settlers had come from. When he was told that they were British, the soldier replied, “That alters matters. If we hang Britishers there will be a hell of a row.” Fearing that angering the British would cause Great Britain to intervene in the war on the Union’s behalf, the Confederates released Roberts and left the community.
A quick death
The dream of a Welsh utopia along Nancy’s Branch in Scott County never quite materialized. The new arrivals from Wales had never laid eyes on the property before journeying to America, and they felt that Bebb had, at best, misrepresented the land and, at worst, had defrauded them. They were shocked to find that it was mountainous terrain, hardly as great for grazing sheep and cattle as Bebb had promised. Additionally, there were several legal challenges to their property’s boundaries, tying the land up in court cases.
One of the settlers at Brynyffynon, John Jones, would later write that he wished he had never heard of Tennessee. He returned to Cincinnati, as did his brother, William Jones, who was shocked by the surroundings in Scott County and left after less than four months at Nancy’s Branch.
By Christmas 1857, only Samuel Roberts, Richard Roberts, and Richard Roberts’ wife and daughter remained at Brynyffynon.
Others visited the colony and some stayed, but the Civil War spelled doom. While the farm was subject to raids by Confederates — like the one that nearly cost Samuel Roberts his life — the Roberts’ relationship with the Union soldiers wasn’t quite as harmonious as the Confederates might have envisioned. The settlement provided food and shelter for Union troops but often wasn’t reimbursed. As the war continued and supplies became more scarce, Union troops began taking more — including most of the hay, which caused some of the Roberts’ livestock to die. Troops took other supplies, including rifles and pistols, gunpowder and stirrups — just about anything that could be of use. Additionally, Roberts’ abolitionist reputation was taking a hit. Many of his family had refused to follow him to Brynyffynon because Tennessee was a slave state, and as the war progressed, he was increasingly viewed suspiciously in the North because he settled in Scott County — those people apparently unaware that Scott County was a loyalist enclave where leaders had voted to secede from Tennessee to remain a part of the Union.
The settlement never recovered from war. And, in 1867, the Roberts brothers returned to Wales. Samuel Roberts was financially ruined. The rest of the Welsh settlers moved Southeast to Knoxville, where they joined a Welsh community, or to Coal Creek in Anderson County.
Roberts returned to Scott County in 1870 to negotiate the sale of his property, and that was the official end of Brynyffynon.
Today, nothing remains of East Tennessee’s most famous 19th century Welsh settlement. The area quickly returned to forest, and has been ever since.
Roberts’ idea of an American utopia where the best social customs of his native Europe could be preserved while enjoying the freedoms offered in the New World was strikingly similar to the ambitions of Thomas Hughes just a few years later. Perhaps because he didn’t hitch his wagon to dishonest American land agents, Hughes’ English settlement at Rugby was much more successful than Roberts’ Welsh settlement at Brynyffynon. Ultimately, Rugby, too, failed, but the town has been preserved through the generations and stands as a testament to its founder’s ideas. Brynyffynon, unfortunately, is gone … and almost completely forgotten.