These two surnames, Rhys and Rice, share similarities. First of all, both are of Welsh origin. Secondly, both can be traced back to the Celts (or Britons) who once lived in the Moor of Wales. Thirdly, both are derived from the old Welsh forename “Ris”, which means “ardour”. Spellings variations for both include: Rice, Rhys, Rees, Reece and others.
Spelling variations of these Welsh surnames might have been due to the challenge of converting them from Welsh to English. The Welsh used the Brythonic Celtic language which contained sounds for which there was no direct translation – the sounds didn’t exist in the English language. In addition, often a family might change their surname, even if slightly, to denote a religious or patriotic affiliation. It seems reasonable to believe that “Rice” is the Anglicized version of “Rhys”.
The Rice surname was brought to Ireland by Welsh settlers and today there are still many Rices in Ireland. Earliest Welsh records mention a person named “Hris” (no surname, however) in 1052. In the Domesday Book of 1086, the result of a survey ordered by William the Conqueror, the surname is listed as “Rees”.
The Rhys surname literally meant “the son of Rees.” Records document a person by the name of “William Rys” who lived in County Somerset during Edward III’s reign. Edward Reece, who lived in County Hereford, enrolled at Oxford in 1601. Stories of other notable people with either the “Rice” or “Rhys” surname follow – one a Welsh Baptist minister who immigrated to America in the late eighteenth century, and the other, one of the earliest Rice immigrants to come to America.
Rev. Morgan John Rhys
A quote from Rev. Morgan John Rhys: The Welsh Baptist Hero of Civil and Religious Liberty of the 18th Century:
Dr. Armitage said that Morgan John Rhys was “the Welsh Baptist Hero of Religious Liberty.” Dr. Lewis Edwards, of Bala, Wales, said that he was “a man who had consecrated his life to fight against oppression and tyranny and that he excelled as a defender of civil and religious liberty,” and the Rev. J. Spinther James, M.A., says “that he was a man far in advance of his age, and that he was nor properly known nor properly appreciated by the age in which he lived, nor the one that followed. He was one of the few Welsh who belonged to that class that started the ball of the reformation to roll in Europe. Inasmuch as that ball in its course struck the British government and shattered it, so that the American colonies became free forever, and inasmuch as it also struck the oppressive monarchy of France, so as to cause the great revolution there, so that the English government was so possessed with the fear that the lives of all who advocated liberty were in danger.”
That quote is quite an assignation – to say that someone who lived the majority of his life in Wales was influential in liberating the colonies from British tyranny, as well as plant the seeds of discontent which led to the French Revolution.
Morgan John Rhys was born on December 8, 1760 to parents John and Elizabeth Rees of Graddfa, Llanfabon, Glamorganshire, South Wales. Because his father was a well-to-do farmer, Morgan received the best possible education available at that time. After joining the Baptist Church of Hengoed, he also began to preach. Then it was on to Bristol College in August 1786 to further his education before accepting his first pastorate as an ordained minister at Penygarn Baptist Church. One source called him a “radical evangelical” – his sermons were themed with principles of parliamentary reform and he was also strongly anti-slavery.
He went to France in 1791, believing that the Revolution was an open door to spread the Gospel in that country. He apparently had great success – not long afterwards the Bible was being translated into French. Upon his return to Wales in 1792 he opened a book store and print shop. After speaking at a meeting of churches later that year, he preached in both the Welsh and English languages during the same sermon. In that same meeting, he proposed that money be raised in order to distribute French Bibles.
At the next year’s meeting he urged churches to establish Sunday Schools to teach the young ones how to read the scriptures. With his printing press, he published a book entitled “A Guide and Encouragement to Establish Sunday Schools and Weekly, in the Welsh Language through Wales, with lessons easy to learn, and principles easy for children to understand; and others who are illiteral.”
It was said of Morgan Rhys that when he came up with a good plan he would work to put it into practice quickly. He continued to press the need for Sunday Schools at the 1794 meeting. He also had plans to publish a hymnal. Then something abruptly changed Morgan Rhys’ life.
While meeting with some friends privately at a Carmarthen hotel near the end of July, he was informed that a man had entered the hotel and inquired about his whereabouts. The gentleman hinted that he had been sent from London to arrest Morgan Rhys. When Morgan learned of the plot, he bid his friends a sorrowful goodbye, and on August 1, 1794 he began his journey to America.
When he finally reached New York on October 12, he was met by the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, who was also the Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, the Rev. Dr. Rodgers. The two formed a friendship and almost immediately Morgan returned to the ministry and was met with great success. According to the biography cited above, “He was followed by admiring crowds wherever he spoke, and preached Christ with an earnestness and an unction, but rarely witnessed since the days of Whitfield.”
As he traveled and preached, he was mindful of finding a suitable place to settle and establish his own colony. He married Ann Loxley of Philadelphia and after living there for two years, he and Ann bought a large tract of land which they named Cambria. The seat of the county would be Beulah. In 1798 he removed to Beulah with other Welsh immigrants where he served as both a landlord and pastor of the church in Beulah.
He later left Beulah and moved to Somerset, county seat of Somerset County. Soon afterwards he accepted an appointment as Justice of the Peace for Quemahoning Township, Somerset County, and later as an Associate Judge in the same county. He served in various civil offices until his sudden death on December 7, 1804. Morgan John Rhees (he had changed the spelling of his name after arriving in America) left behind a widow and five children. As death neared he remarked to his wife, “The music, my love, it is so sweet; do you not hear it?” When his wife said she did not hear it, he said, “Oh, listen – now – now – the angels sing come waft on high, we wait to bear thy spirit to the sky.”
Edmund Rice was born in Suffolk, England in approximately 1594. He was a deacon at his local parish, but in 1638 he left England and was one of the early immigrants who joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although it is not recorded why he and his family left, many people who immigrated at that time did so because of religious persecution.
He and his wife and children (seven at least) set out on their journey. Upon arrival with his wife and children, he perhaps first lived in Watertown, Massachusetts. Not long afterwards he helped found the town of Sudbury, and in 1656 he was one of thirteen founders of the town of Marlborough.
After being made a freeman on May 13, 1640, Edmund served Sudbury as a selectman and was ordained as a deacon in 1648. He also became the largest landowner in Sudbury and served in the Massachusetts legislature for five years. Part of his civil duties included laying out roads in Sudbury.
On June 13, 1654, his wife Tamazine (or Thomasine) died. He remarried the following year on March 1 to Mercy Brigham, a widow. When he and other petitioners were granted the right to form the new town of Marlborough, he and his family moved there. Communal farming was practiced in Sudbury, but that practice was apparently not agreeable to Edmund Rice and twelve other dissenters. When Marlborough was established it was specifically organized to be a place where only individual ownership was practiced.
Edmund was elected as selectman in 1657 and every year thereafter until his death on May 3, 1663. Edmund and Thomasine together had ten children: Mary, Henry, Edward, Thomas, Lydia, Matthew, Daniel, Samuel, Joseph and Benjamin. Edmund and his second wife Mercy had two children: Lydia and Ruth.
One of Edmund’s grandsons, Jonas Rice, founded Worcester, Massachusetts. The descendants of Edmund Rice began meeting annually in 1851. Several genealogies have since been published and in 1912 his descendants organized the Edmund Rice (1638) Association (ERA). The following year a marker was erected and dedicated near his home in Sudbury (now Wayland). The Association was incorporated in 1934 and four years later an updated genealogy was published. ERA continued its research and by 1968 26,000 descendants had been verified.
In 2013, using a statistical model, it was estimated that the 12th generation alone contained 2.7 million descendants. Generations 1-12 totaled 4.4 million. When allowing for spouses of half that number would bring the total to almost 7 million. When parents of spouses are added in, the astonishing total is near 10 million. No wonder genealogy is such a tedious and time-consuming effort!
© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.