In our post on Swansea Ghost Town we focused on the fairly obvious connection with Wales that the name suggests. Just a few miles north of Swansea runs the Bill Williams River which provides a second Welsh connection in this remote desert area. 'Old Bill Williams' has had a river, ( Bill Williams River ) a mountain, ( Bill Williams Mountain ) and a town ( Williams, Arizona ) named after him. In case you decide to visit these locations, we have included some handy travel guide videos on this page.
Who was 'Old Bill Williams' and what were his Welsh roots?
Bill Williams’s Welsh ancestors emigrated to the British colonies in America from Wales in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
William Sherley Williams was born in what was then the North Carolina territory in 1787, six years after the end of the American Revolution and two years before the new American government would ratify North Carolina’s statehood.
Williams family history reports that his father, Joseph Williams, served during the American revolutionary war as a private in the North Carolina militia at Fort White Oak in Rutherford County. He married Sarah Musick in 1777. That same year, he suffered a leg wound from which he never recovered and was at some later point awarded 274 acres for his service. It was there that “Old Bill” and his three brothers were born, the first of nine children, and spent their early childhood. North Carolina at that time was a frontier area. The descendants of British colonists there fought the Cherokee and other native peoples for their territory.
When Bill Williams was eight years old, Joseph Williams was invited by the lieutenant governor of New Spain, Zenon Trudeau, to settle in what is now Missouri, as Trudeau would later invite other settlers, including Daniel Boone. The Williams left the newly-minted United States behind and within a year had established their new farm on the south bank of the Missouri River, near what is now the city of St Louis. At that time, St. Louis was basically no more than a trading post and as yet sparsely settled by Europeans. The Osage, Shawnee, Delaware and other native peoples lived in the area. Bill and his siblings grew up with native children and hunting game in the wilderness around them to feed their family, and it was during this time that Bill began to learn the skills that would make him famous later in life: languages, hunting and trapping.
Joseph Williams and his wife, the former Sarah Musick, were both well educated and this gave them a high standing in a community in which few had formal education. The well-known Musick family were close friends of George Washington’s family and Williams family history reports that Sarah was a personal friend of George Washington at some time in her life. Sarah’s mother, Sarah Lewis Musick, was related to the family of Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Musick and Lewis families were also of Welsh ancestry. Sarah taught her children herself and, other than the six months a school operated in their area, this was the education Bill received. Sarah had a love of history and religion and educated her children well. Some of them, including Bill, later became preachers and ministers.
Bill Williams left his family at 16 to join an Osage community he met while out on a hunting trip. Here he met his wife, A-Ci'n-Ga (Wind Blossom), began a close relationship with the Osage people that would last until the end of his life and never returned to European-American society. His wide knowledge of and talent for languages, experience and skill as a hunter and forester made him a valuable asset as a scout during the War of 1812 and he provided material to produce a book on the Osage language.
Williams’ wife died after the birth of their second daughter. He later sent his daughters to attend school in Kentucky. He left his tribe but never severed his connection to them. His grandson, John Joseph Mathews, son of Old Bill’s daughter, Sarah, became one of the Osage Nation’s greatest and best-known historians, writers, and champions.
Bill Williams went on to widely travel the American west from the Columbia River to the Mojave Desert. He married twice more and became known as a legendary guide and mountain man who mainly made his living as a master trapper. He earned the nickname “Old Bill,” and was known to be literate, intelligent, honorable, honest, courageous, also a man who loved drinking and gambling, and, though he preferred to avoid it, a seasoned soldier and fighter who was no stranger to killing other men.
Today, Williams is remembered in the names of the Bill Williams River, Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, Bill Williams Mountain, the town of Williams, Arizona and its Bill Williams Mountain Men, a group of men who reenact the lives and famous journeys of the mountain men of the American west and act as official Arizona State ambassadors.
Joe Decruyenaere , CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Desert LCC , CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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