An Owen(s) Odyssey
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Welsh Genealogy

The Welsh Genealogy of Bartholomew Owen

Our earliest proven Owen(s) ancestor is Bartholomew Owen (before 1637-1677). Although many Virginia records mention him by name, his birthplace and parents are unproven and unknown-don't believe what you see in other family trees. Some of his descendant's report family lore that the original immigrant in their Owen(s) line came from Wales. In 400 years of telling and retelling, family lore in the different branches has become greatly distorted and exaggerated. The most common theme is that three brothers (William, Thomas, and John Owen) came from Wales to Virginia and that John went south and never was heard from again. Virginia records can be found for several men named William Owen, Thomas Owen, or John Owen but they all arrived at different times and on different ships and there is no clear link to Bartholomew. In an effort to gain more insight, my sister and I recently went on a combined vacation/genealogy quest to Wales. Had a great vacation in a beautiful, cold, rainy country with warm friendly people. Genealogy was a total bust. The main thing we learned is that there is a huge "dead zone" roughly from the mid-1500's up until the mid-1700's where little, if any, evidence can be found to support the genealogy of your Welsh ancestors.

Prior to 1543, Wales was governed by Welsh law which placed great emphasis upon lineage in legal matters; especially in matters of property and inheritance. Thus, almost every Welshman and Welshwoman kept detailed records of his/her lineage. Many of these old lineage charts still exist in archives throughout Wales. Unfortunately, when Wales fell under English law, the keeping of these genealogy records was no longer necessary. So, not many can be found for the 17th century and later. Unless you can fill in the blanks from the "dead zone", you won't know if an old lineage chart is for your family or not.

The catholic church had always kept parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials and the practice continued after Henry VIII broke away from the church in Rome and formed the Church of England. However, during the 16th - 17th-century reformation process, many of the old churches. along with their records, were destroyed, looted, and abandoned. By law, parishes in the new Church of England were required to continue recording baptisms, marriages, and burials. Also, by law, they were required each year to send copies of their registers to their bishop. Many of these parish registers and bishops' transcripts still survive but due to age, water damage, insects, fire, and fading ink, few can be found that date back further than the mid-18th century.

Keep in mind that before the 17th-century, there was little separation between church and state. Matters that today would be handled by government or settled in the courts were often settled by the parish priest and may (or may not) have been recorded in a terse one-line statement in the parish register.

In Wales, I only found one parish register dated earlier than 1760. That register went back to 1616 but it was not for a parish where our suspected Owen ancestors had lived-it was for the parish just to the west of Llanfor parish which included Fron Goch & Ciltegarth (we have DNA matches to people who claim their ancestors came from Fron Goch/Ciltegarth). The archivist in the Merionydd Record Office (in Dolgellau) suggested that people often switched back and forth between adjacent parishes. In any event, the first two pages of this register were so black with dirt that they could not be read at all. Other pages were on parchment and many were torn, water-stained, dirty, or with ink so faded as to be unreadable. Not to mention that, in the 17th-century, many of the hand-written cursive letters were not in a form that we can recognize today. And much of the writing was in Latin. Not surprisingly, I did not see the name of anyone who may have been our ancestor. The archive is only open for a few hours on two days each week; so, perhaps, given more time, I might have found something but I doubt it.

One area I have not yet researched is the hundreds of wills kept in the archives at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. They have been digitized and are available online. Because 17th-century handwriting is so different from modern cursive writing, it will take some time to transcribe the ones that might appear to be of interest-if there are any.

There are a great many cemeteries surrounding small churches in Wales. Also, many in farm fields or in peoples' yards. We had a chance to explore a few of them. Virtually all headstones are slate which has been in plentiful supply for hundreds of years-roof and floor tiles are virtually all slate no matter the age of the building. Due to weathering, slate headstones only remain readable for about 200 to 250 years. The oldest one we found was in Saint Michael's church in Llanfihangel Y Pennant. It was for a woman buried sixteen ninety something in the church wall. Her stone was embedded in the wall and was only readable because it had been somewhat protected from the elements. There were hundreds of headstones surrounding Saint Michael's. Almost all of them had a surname of Jones, Evans, Owen, Williams, Roberts, Pughe, or Davies but they were all too recent to have been a close relative of our Bartholomew Owen.

In 1891, 72 out of the 808 members of Saint Michael's parish had a surname of Owen or Owens which brings up an important point: In Wales, there are only a small number of surnames and a small number of given names. Consequently, even within the same village or parish, you will find multiple people with the exact same name (probably not even related to one another). Just because you find a record for a William ap Owen in Machynlleth, it might not be-is probably not-the William ap Owen you are really looking for.

The bottom line is that any information pertaining to Bartholomew Owen or his parents would fall in that "dead zone" where records never existed or have not survived. Or, if a record or tombstone can be found, it most likely proves nothing because so many unrelated people had the exact same name.

There are a number of family trees at Ancestry.com and other online sites that show different theories for Bartholomew's ancestry. It is my opinion that these theories and trees are NOTHING BUT HOGWASH for the following reasons:

1) None of the trees give a credible source for their information. Or, if they do give a source, it is inappropriate for the person. Or, the reported facts in the tree do not match the facts in the source.

2) The archives in Wales have virtually no records from the locations and time periods when/where Bartholomew's ancestors purportedly lived. So, where did these people get the information to build their tree? OK, I know 99% of them simply copied from another tree. But, where did the original tree get its information if the Welsh records are as rare as hens' teeth?

3) Even if records could be found, it would be almost impossible to determine exactly whose record it is because, even in the smallest villages, there would be multiple people having the exact same name. And they might not even be related to one another.

4) Many of these trees contain obvious errors i.e. mother gave birth at an impossible age, etc.

I had been somewhat puzzled that we had so many DNA matches to people who traced their roots back to Wales; yet, no common link to Bartholomew ever emerged. Now, I think I know why. DNA only tells you that you are probably related to someone else. If you are related, you, obviously, share a common ancestor. But DNA DOES NOT tell you who that common ancestor might be. That can only come from the family tree of your DNA match. If the trees of all your matches are wrong, there is no way to identify the common ancestor. Given the scarcity of evidence in the "dead zone" for the time period and places in question, THERE IS A VERY STRONG POSSIBILITY that most-if not all--those trees are DEAD WRONG about the Welsh part of their family tree. And, that neatly explains why the DNA results are such a confusing muddle.

So, where do we go from here in the search for Bartholomew's roots? Quite frankly, I don't know. A more thorough search in Wales would be beyond my intellectual and financial capacity and there is little promise that it would produce results. Our best hope is that: if enough people keep probing, someone will eventually stumble upon a key piece of evidence. But the sad fact is that we may never break through this brick wall. It hasn't even been proved that Bartholomew was born in Wales; he may well have been born in Virginia or elsewhere.

Copyright © 2021 Virgil Owens