Prince Madog of Wales
This legend claims that a Welsh prince named Madoc [aka Madog] reached America over three hundred years before Christopher Columbus did. Though it may seem fantastic to you, George Catlin, a famous artist; William Clark, the well known explorer who traveled with Meriwether Lewis; and Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, died believing the legend to be true.
The principal sources for our synopsis were Ellen Pugh’s book, Brave His Soul(1) and Reuben T. Durrett’s book, Traditions of Earliest Visits of Foreigners to North America(2). One of our readers informed us that the primary source for Brave His Soul was Zella Armstrong’s Who Discovered America published in 1950.(3)
Madoc’s story started in the year 1170, when England and Wales were separate and often warring countries. Records from that time are scarce. And many of the documents from Prince Madoc’s cantref [the Welsh name for county] were destroyed by fire when Edward I of England conquered Wales in 1282 and attacked the abbey where they were stored. Historians have spent the last 800 years gathering the remaining crumbs. The decision about where they lead is up to you.
Prince Madoc was born around 1145 CE, most likely in his family’s castle, Dolwyddelan, the ruins of which exist today. Madoc was the son of Owain, King of Gwynedd – more formally known in Welsh as Owain ap Gruffydd ap Cynan.
King Owain was one of the more significant and most ruthless Welsh rulers of the Middle Ages. During his reign, he fought many battles against other Welsh princes. He also battled the energetic and equally ruthless Anglo-Norman King of England and Lord of Ireland Henry II. [Henry II was England’s first Plantagenet king, as we already mentioned.]
Owain ruled the northwest corner of Wales, including the island of Anglesey, which was separated from the mainland by the Menai Strait. Though Henry II conquered most of the British Isles, he was unable to beat Owain of Gwynedd. In 1165, Henry gave in to the stubborn Welsh cantref and allowed his daughter Emma Plantagenet to marry Owain’s son Prince Dafydd [aka David].
[We mentioned Anglesey earlier. Archaeologists found significant Bronze Age megaliths and petro-glyphs there that might indicate earlier efforts to cross the Atlantic.]
King Owain had as many as nineteen children – seventeen sons(4) and two daughters – by several wivesand mistresses. Fourteen of his children were mentioned by name in the Chronicles of Wales that document the history of the country, but not our PrinceMadoc.
Owain’s family had a history of dynastic internecine warfare [conflicts within families]. To retain the throne, Owain ordered his brother and nephew blinded and maimed. Prince Madoc entered the scene when, in 1169, King Owain died and his sons bickered about which one would succeed him.
The oldest son, Iorwerth, should have been the natural successor. But Iorwerth had a blemish on his face and according to Welsh law, any blemish disqualified a man from the position of king. The next in line by right of legitimacy was Dafydd. But before Dafydd could take his kingly seat, his half-brother Prince Howell(6) grabbed it from him.
Prince Howell was the son of an Irish mistress named Pyfog. Two years after taking the throne, Howell took a trip to Ireland, which was right across the Irish Sea from Gwynedd. He wanted to take possession of some property owned by his mum, Pyfog. But when Howell returned, he discovered that Dafydd had taken advantage of his absence and snatched back the throne.
Prince Dafydd was one of several sons of Owain’s last wife, Princess Crisiant ferch Gronwy(6). [Ferch Gronwy meant from the state of Gronwy – aka Cronwy. The cantref of Gronwy was where Abergele is marked on the map above, east of Gwynedd.] Crisant had been Owain’s first cousin. When they married, Thomas á Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, excommunicated them from the Roman Church because first cousins were not supposed to marry. After Owain’s death, Crisiant became known as Dowager Crisiant. Dowager was a title for distinguished old women, usually widows of important people.
As mentioned, Dafydd was married to Emma Plantagenet. This worried his brothers. They thought Dafydd would ally with his father-in-law King Henry II and take control of Wales. Dafydd, meanwhile, feared that his brothers were plotting against him, so he ordered one of them, Rhodri, imprisoned, and three of them, Riryd, Edwal and Einion, sent into exile. Prince Howell had either fled to Ireland or was killed by Dafydd’s army.
Prince Madoc was the son of one of Owain’s mistresses named Brenda. Madoc had been born with a club foot and should have been put to death at birth, except that Brenda kept his birth a secret. She entrusted him to the care of a wise old Druid woman named Pendaran. Madoc did not know his true identity until he was sixteen, when his mother lay on her deathbed and revealed his heritage. But he wanted no part of the civil war in Gwynedd caused by his older half-brothers.
Madoc was a handsome, mild-mannered man. Like most men in that part of Wales, he was “skilled in the handling” of the Welsh fisherman’s coracle, an oval boat of woven wood that looks like a walnut shell. Coracles held one or two people and could easily maneuver the rough waters of Caernarfon Bay and the Menai Strait. Madoc traveled to “many foreign lands without fear or misadventure.”
Madoc had heard the ancient Druid legends about the “fair lands that lay to the west.” Perhaps the legends included stories from the Bronze Age, when miners traveled far and wide in search of copper and tin. Author Gavin Menzies asserts that the same people – he thinks it was the Minoans – who mined the coal from the Great Orme of Llandudno, which was in Prince Madoc’s back yard, traveled as far west as Lake Superior in North America. As a child, Madoc might even have climbed through the 2000-year old tunnels of the Great Orme just like the child who rediscovered the labyrinth in the 19th century.
The Druids’ legends might have included more recent stories about the Phoenicians and Romans sailing to Thule [Iceland]. The Eastern Mediterraneans [Phoenicians, Syrians, Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans] re-discovered the circular ocean currents of the Atlantic over a thousand years before Madoc was born.
Perhaps Madoc knew of the poem by Taliesin, a sixth century bard [poet], that spoke of a “magic country beyond the looking glass of the sea.” Or the Irish legend that spoke of a Paradise-like island to the west of Ireland that was visible through the fog only one day out of every year. The Irish called it Brasil. Certainly Madoc knew about the Norwegian Vikings in North America because during his lifetime, they still had a settlement on Greenland and were traveling to Labrador for wood.
As we will repeat over and over in the stories in this web-book, the Atlantic currents that the Portuguese later named the Volta do Mar will carry any floating object west across the Atlantic. Logically, every Welsh seaman knew about those currents by the year 1170. Whatever and somehow, Madoc rightfully believed there was a place “west” to go and hoped he would find peace there.
According to a poem written by Madoc’s nephew, Lywarc [the son of his brother Llwelyn], in 1170, Madoc left Wales in a ship called the Gwennan Gorn on the “enterprise of exploring the west countrie in search of more tranquil scenes.”
Madoc supposedly engraved his story on a stone somewhere in the West Indies. “Weary of a life of bloodshed and rapine [violent seizure of property] in Gwynedd, I sailed with ten ships and three hundred men towards a country much recited in the annals of our Druids; a distant world which lay in the west. After thirteen weeks, battered, famished, and disheartened, we reached it at last. There for twice thirty [sixty] years, I and my people lived in happiness and peace, possessing wealth not dreamed of in hungry Wales.”
Another version of the legend stated that Madoc left with a fleet of two ships. A third version claimed that he had thirteen ships. Reports about the number of passengers on those ships also varied: between twenty and a full colony of three hundred. Logically-minded historians suspect there was just one ship with a crew of about twenty. Most arrows point to Abergele as the point of their “eternal leave of Wales.”
Sir Thomas Herbert told the story this way. “After a long sail, and with no less patience, and blessed with some happy winds, Madoc at last descried land in the Gulf of Mexico not far from Florida.” That means that Madoc avoided the northern currents west of Ireland, sailed south to the Canaries, and let the easterlies take him to America.
Next, deduced Sir Herbert, the Welshman would have looked for a sheltered harbor. It is believed [as we are about to show you] that Madoc and his band ended up in Mobile Bay in today’s Alabama. The harbor is surrounded by protective hills and would be a favorite for future explorers.
The next part of the story is even more legendary. After settling some of his people in the “western countrie,” Madoc returned to Wales to recruit more settlers. This was either before or after his party built a small fort that still exists on the Alabama River. Back in Wales, he told his brother Riryd [who was the Lord of Clochran in Ireland] about the congenial climate and beautiful land he had found. Madoc convinced Riryd to migrate with him back to the “Western Countrie.”
One version of the legend states that they filled seven ships and sailed from Lundy south of Wales, an island guarding the Bristol Channel. [We included Lundy in the map above.]
But an old port record from “anno 1171” indicated that they left in two ships from [present day] Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey. The port record was written in French Latin [typical for charts of the day]. It stated that “in Aber-Kerrick [Abergele], a ship called Guignon Gorn, owned by Madauc [Madoc], and another ship called Pedr Sant [Saint Peter], owned by Riryd son of Oueni Gueneti [Owen Gwynedd] went missing.” According to their nephew Lywarc’s poem, which was published after their departure, the princes were never heard from again.
The people of Wales and Europe kept Madoc’s legend alive through ballads and poems.
- One ballad, referred to as The Romance of Madoc, appeared as early as 1255, eighty-five years after Madoc left for the final time. A minstrel named Willem, who lived in Flanders, translated the ballad from Welsh to Latin.
- In the 1400s, the Welsh poet Maredudd ap Rhys ferch Powys [Powyrs was the cantref south of Gwynedd] wrote about Splendid Madoc “who desired not land but only the worldly wealth of the sea.”
- A manuscript dated 1477, fifteen years before Christopher Columbus’ departure, stated that Madoc, Owain’s son, “explored unknown lands.”
- In 1493, while exploring Guadeloupe Island in the Caribbean Sea, Christopher Columbus came upon the wreckage of some ships “from a Christian nation.” He wrote in his log that he wondered if they were the ships of Prince Madoc of Wales.
There are two versions of what happened next. One version is that Madoc, Riryd and their fellow countrymen sailed directly to Mobile Bay. The other version is that they first ended up in Mexico. The second version speculates that Prince Madoc was the source of the Aztec legend of Quetzalcoatl.
Quetzalcoatl was a white man with a beard who arrived from the northeast to the shores of Cholula [Mexico]. He sailed in a boat with a square sail. The Cholulans thought he was a god because of his white skin and beard. American natives could not grow beards and their hair did not turn white with old age. After living with the Cholulans for some time, Quetzalcoatl left in his boat with the promise that he would return in a ship from “the east.”[Later, in 1519, when Spanish explorer Hernando Cortéz arrived in Mexico, the Azecs thought he was Quetzalcoatl.]
One of the reasons for the theory that Prince Madoc was the original Quetzalcoatl is the similarity of the winged red dragon on his Royal Badge of Wales to Quetzalcoatl’s feathered serpent symbol. Banners of the Royal Badge of Wales would have flown from the Welsh princes’ ships and or the dragon may have been embroidered on their square sails.
Quetzalcoatl(8) [left] and the serpent on the Royal Badge of Wales(9) [right].
However, the serpent imagery had been around America since the time of the Olmecs. This relief of a feathered serpent was found among their ruins at La Venta. It is thought to be the earliest known image of the serpent found so far.
Monument No.19 from the Olmec of La Venta – a feathered serpent, dated to between 1000 and 600 BCE.(9)
The Welsh Indians in America
This is where the Welsh legend ends and the American legend begins. Whether or not Madoc took a detour to Mexico, it is believed a group of Welshmen ended up in Mobile Bay, Alabama. Over a period of a hundred or more years, they migrated up the Alabama River to Georgia, then into Tennessee, then stayed for a while along the Ohio River in Kentucky. After “white Indians” were chased out of Kentucky by the “red” Cherokee Indians, some ended up on the Heart River in North Dakota.
Let us start with the evidence of Welshmen making themselves at home in Mobile Bay. The first clue is a small detail. Researchers wonder if the Dog River at the head of the bay, which used to be called Mad Dog River, was previously called the Madoc River.
Mobile Bay would have been a logical shelter for a Welsh ship to pull in after the ocean currents pushed her across the Atlantic. Ponce de Leon, Alondo de Pineda, and Amerigo Vespucci thought so. Possibly Hernando de Soto did, too, though the bay was not on the route that De Soto supposedly followed when he explored the south-western corner of North America between 1539 and 1542.
According to Ellen Pugh, in 1529, Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribeiro(9) labeled Mobile Bay Tierra de los Gales [Land of the Welsh]. That was ten years before De Soto arrived in Florida.
The most important clues that the Welsh settled in Mobile Bay are three ancient fortifications, one fort on the Alabama River near Mobile, and two matching forts upriver. All three structures appear to have been built by the same group of people – people who needed strong defenses because they felt they were in “deadly peril.” Many visitors to the sites, including professional archaeologists, believe the forts were built a few hundred years before Columbus arrived. The methods used to build the forts were far too sophisticated for the Indians living in the area between 1100 and 1600. [Maybe they were built even earlier by the Vikings or by Bronze Age visitors.]
Pugh argued that “it would have been humanly impossible” for the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto to build any of the three forts during the short time he and his company camped in the area. De Soto kept a detailed day-by-day journal of his journey. He did not mention building any such fort. However, he did say that he “came across” such a fort. “Besides,” Pugh added, the forts “were defensive works, and De Soto was always on the offensive.” Even so, the first fort on the route from Mobile Bay to North Dakota is called De Soto Falls Fort. [The Little River cascades over a precipice on the mountain, creating the falls.]
The fort was erected on Lookout Mountain 1000 feet above where the Alabama River meets the Coosa River. Its location indicates that the Welsh needed a place easier to defend than Mobile Bay. Josiah Priest, who saw the fort in 1833, wrote that it consisted of “a stone wall built on the very brow of this tremendous ledge. The whole length of the wall is thirty-seven rods [16.5 feet](10) and eight feet [total 618 feet], including about two acres of ground. … Within thirty feet of the top of the rock are five rooms which have been formed by dint of great labour. The entrances of these rooms are very small, but [inside, they connect] by doors or apertures … Twenty men could have withstood the whole army of Xerses(11), as it was impossible for more than one man to pass [along the edge of the precipice] at a time, or he might, by the slightest push, be hurled 150 feet down the rocks.”
A Kentucky surveyor compared the De Soto Falls Fort to Dolwyddelan Castle, where Madoc was [most likely] born. He found that the forts were “nearly identical in layout and placement. Both were equally inaccessible, being built atop a high, precipitous rock; both had small entrances and the same arrangement of ditches or moats. And the same materials and method of construction (local stones, squared, and held together in a distinctive pattern by hard mortar) were employed.”(12)
The second fort, called Fort Mountain, was built farther up the Coosa where the river enters today’s Georgia [at present day Montgomery]. This fort was constructed more quickly than the first and without mortar. Hugh Reynolds, who saw the fortification before it was hidden by vines, found the structure “on top of a peak in the Cohutta Range 2838 feet in height … a stone wall 855 feet long, quite evidently built to protect the builders from an invading force.” Like the first fort, Fort Mountain was only accessible on one side of the mountain. “The stones are flat. … the wall was originally the height of a man’s head. … The wall was built with the skill of military engineers with such angles that all parts of the wall could be defended. Such a defensive work was fully up to the standards of early European military science and far beyond the ability of the Indians to construct unaided…. The Cherokee legend is that it was built by people with pale faces whom the Indians overcame and chased out of the country.”
Between the second and third forts were – they have since been destroyed – five hastily built, defensive structures near what is now Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1893, those structures were mentioned in a book about Tennessee by Judge John Haywood. He wrote that there were, “five forts in the Chattanooga area which had been built by white people living there before the Indian occupation.” The first was at the mouth of the Chickamauga Creek. The second was on the Tennessee River, at a village named Dallas. The third was twenty miles from the mouth of the Chickamauga Creek. The fourth, called Savannah Fort, was on the Hiwassee River. And the fifth was at “Pumpkintown” [a name for the Cherokees with their tawny-colored skin] near present-day Athens, Tennessee.
It has been speculated that the Welsh settlers abandoned the “lesser defenses” to build their final major bulwark, Old Stone Fort, on the Duck River at what is now Manchester, Tennessee.
Old Stone Fort, like the first two forts, was constructed on a high precipice. Ellen Pugh wrote that it has “a wall of stone, flint, and shale, twenty feet high and twenty feet thick; and a moat connecting the two streams. The moat is twelve hundred feet long, up to twenty feet wide, and twenty feet deep. Also like the others, the fort was well designed by experienced engineers more advanced technologically than any of the American Indians were. … All three forts are identical to ancient ruins in Wales.”
In 1819, a tree that had been growing within a hollow in the wall of Old Stone Fort helped identify the fort’s age. When the tree was cut down, tree experts counted 337 annual rings, dating the tree back to 1482, long before De Soto, and ten years before Columbus.(13)
A more curious find were three Roman coins excavated from the cellar of the ruins, coins that would have been minted in Wales during the Roman occupation of England. Why would the Welsh bring coins with them that were almost a thousand years old. Were they brought by European visitors closer to 100 CE?
In 1782, Oconostota, a chief of the Cherokee Nation for over sixty years, explained to the then governor of Tennessee, John Sevier, that the Cherokee chased the Welsh-speaking white men away from Tennessee. Oconostota quoted the following tale from his Cherokee forefathers:
“There were once some White People who called themselves Welsh, who had crossed the Great Water [ocean] and landed near the mouth of the Alabama River near Mobile. Over time, those White People moved to the country now called Carolina. Things were peaceful enough until the local Cherokee discovered that the Whites were building a lot of boats. Fearing that the Whites were going to descend on the Tennessee River [their major hunting ground], the Cherokee assembled their warriors, took a shortcut to Muscle Shoals [thirty miles south of today’s Tennessee border in Alabama], and intercepted their passage. A battle ensued between the Whites and the Cherokee that lasted several days with ‘various success.’”
“At length,” wrote Governor Sevier, who was relating Oconostota’s story to Major Amos Stoddard in a letter written in 1810, “the Whites proposed to the Indians that if they would exchange prisoners and cease hostilities, they would leave the country and never return.” The two nations parted as friends. The Whites descended the Tennessee to the Ohio River, “thence down to the Big River [Mississippi], then they ascended it up to the Muddy River [Missouri] and thence up that river for a great distance.”
“By that time,” concluded Governor Sevier, “there were no more White people: they are now all become Indians, and look like other red people of the country.”
The crumbs get smaller. Ellen Pugh asserted that at least one group of Welsh were “forced from Tennessee northward into Kentucky, then down the Ohio River” to Sandy Island at the Falls.
There are reports of fortifications in Kentucky that “were not built by Indians, but by a past people greatly skilled in the arts,” wrote Reuben Thomas Durrett (1824-1913), who researched Prince Madoc exhaustively. “The Kentucky pioneers were full believers in this tradition. In the family circle by the warmth and light of the huge log fires of the cabins, the story of Prince Madoc was told on long winter nights to eager listeners who never wearied of it.”
One story was about the Battle at the Falls of Ohio between the White Indians and the Red Indians. “Nearly the whole of the White Indians were driven upon Sandy Island and slaughtered,” recollected Colonel James F. Moore. General Clark, the older brother of William Clark, had heard the same story from Tobacco, a chief of the Piankeshaws. A Major Harrison added that there was a graveyard on the north side of the Ohio, opposite the Falls, where thousands of human bones were buried in such confusion as to indicate that the dead were left there after a battle.” [You can find more stories recorded in John Filson’s History of Kentucke [sic], published in Wilmington, Delaware in 1784.]
In 1842, Thomas S. Hinde, an antiquarian from Illinois who had studied the American Indians in Kentucky and the Western States, wrote, “It is a fact that the Welsh under Owen ap Zuinch, in the twelfth century found their way to the Mississippi and as far up the Ohio as the Falls of that River at Louisville, where they were cut off by the Indians; others ascended the Missouri, were either captured, or settled with and sunk into Indian habits.”
Referring to the battle of Sandy Island between the White and the Red Indians mentioned above, Hinde wrote, “In 1799, six soldiers’ skeletons were dug up near Jeffersonville, each skeleton had a breast-plate of brass cast with the Welsh coat-of-arms, the Mermaid and Harp with a Latin inscription, in substance, “virtuous deeds meet their just reward.” Unfortunately, no chemists analyzed the metal of the armor, and the armor has since been lost.
Even before Governor Sevier wrote to Major Stoddard in 1810, the Welsh, the English, the Spanish, the French, and then finally the Americans were looking for the “Welsh-Indians.” Some arrows pointed to the Padoucas [possibly Apaches or Comanche Indians] in Nebraska and Tennessee. But more arrows pointed to the Mandans on the Heart River in today’s North Dakota.
The Legend in Spain
Another reason we know the Madoc legend was taken seriously in Medieval Europe is that after Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1492, the Spanish sent expeditions to America in search of the gente blanca á cabello [white people with beards]. A Welsh presence would have influenced Spain’s “right of discovery, exploration, and occupation” of the lands Columbus discovered.
- In 1557, Parda de Luna sailed from Mexico in search of the gente blanca. He followed the Alabama River to where it became the Coosa River at present day Montgomery, and then continued until he reached present day Chidersburg, Alabama. He found nothing.
- In 1599, Biud de Haro from Castile, in the Anatomie of Spayne, [translated into English by Harry Bedwood, gentleman] discussed the “presumptions to prove the Spaniards not to be the first discovers of the Indies.” De Haro declared Madoc, son of a Prince of Wales, to be the true discoverer.
- In 1624, Herbert Eugene Bolton wrote an introduction to Arredondo’s Historical Proof of Spain’s Title to Georgia, in which he wrote “soldiers and sailors dispatched by Governor Salinas in 1624 scoured the [present] Georgia-Carolina interior for a hundred and fifty leagues [more than three hundred miles], but they found no trace of the rumored gente blanca á cabello.
- In 1628, the same Herbert Bolton wrote, “Pedro de Tores, with ten sailors and sixty Indians traveled four months in the back country .. of [what is now] Georgia and Alabama … two hundred leagues” but also failed to find any gente blanca.
The Spanish continued their search for the gente blanca through the 1800s, as you shall see.
The Legend in England
The Madoc legend became very popular in Queen Elizabeth’s court (reign 1558-1603) because, if true, it would mean that England [which then included Wales] had staked a claim on America 327 years earlier than John Cabot made his claim in 1497.
- In 1559, Humphrey Llywd (1527–1568), a Welsh cartographer, author, antiquary and Member of Parliament, included the Madoc Legend in his Cronica Walliae.
- In 1569, an illiterate English common seaman, David Ingram [whose story we tell in our web-book Before Winthrop] reported meeting Indians on the east coast of North America. The Indians used Welsh terms for a variety of objects and “other Welsh words.”
- In 1580, navigator John Dee wrote a treatise to Queen Elizabeth in which he claimed that Madoc set up his colony in “Terra Florida.”
- In 1584, Dr. David Powel wrote The Historie of Cambria, Now called Wales, in which he listed all of Owain’s sons and stated that Madoc, “left the land in contention between his brethren and prepared certain ships with men and munitions, and sought adventures by seas, sailing west.”
- In 1589, Richard Hakluyt included Madoc’s story in his Principall Navigations.
- Captain John Smith, in 1621, and Samuel Purchas, in 1625, mentioned the Madoc legend in their writings.
- In 1652, Dutch scholar Hornius wrote in his De Origibus Americanis [published in The Hague] that, “Madog, a Prince of Cambria [Wales], with some of his nation, discovered and inhabited some lands in the west.” He said there was little doubt that Madoc’s “name and memory are still retained among the people living there.”
With the exception of David Ingram’s Welsh-Indian sight in 1589, the popularity of such testimonies did not begin until the middle of the 17th century.
- Some time between 1660 and 1665, a sailor with the surname of Stedman, from Brecon in south Wales, shipwrecked between Florida and Virginia. The friendly Indians who helped him spoke a language so similar to his own that he understood them and they understood him. The Indians told Brecon that their ancestors had come from the county of Gwynedd in Prydain Fawr [Welsh for Great Britain – literally Britain Big].
- In 1666, Reverend Morgan Jones was taken prisoner by a group of “Doeg” Indians in Tuscarora Country “on the Pamlico River, not far from Camp Hatteras” in the Virginia wilderness [later Carolina]. When the Indians heard Jones speaking Welsh, which they could understand, they decided not to execute him. Jones stayed with the Doegs four months preaching in Welsh.(14) In his book Traditions of Earliest Visits of Foreigners to North America, Reuben T. Durrett wrote that the only Doeg Indians he knew of were located in Prince George County in Maryland. He wondered if the Doegs were originally called the Madogs.
- In 1673, an Italian-born Turkish spy named Giovanni Paolo Mara living in Paris, published a collection called Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy, in which he referred to the “Doeg Indians who were descended from the Welsh.” Supposedly, Mara was not connected to or even aware of Reverend Jones.
The Mandan Indians – the last of the Welsh Indians
- In 1738, while traveling from Portage la Prairie [in present-day Manitoba, Canada] to present day North Dakota, a French explorer and agent of a Canadian fur company named Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vérendrye was told by the Assiniboine [aka Stone Sioux or Nakota] Indians that the Mandan Indians were white like himself. La Vérendrye reached the Mandans and wrote a fifteen-page report, in which he noted the following.
- The Mandans were not nomadic hunters like their neighbor Indians. They lived in fixed villages for long periods of time and farmed.
- They claimed their ancestors had been driven from farther south and east by their enemies.
- They claimed to be the first human inhabitants along the Heart River [present North Dakota].
- The villages, holding a total of some 15,000 people, were well laid out in clean, neat streets and squares.
- Their houses, over a thousand in all, were built to a regular plan shaped like bee-hives and covered with earth [unlike simple wigwams].
- They built their villages on the headlands overlooking the river, which helped protect them against enemies.
- They surrounded their villages with pickets, trenches, and even moats.
- The men grew beards, and the older people had gray hair, whereas other Indians were beardless and did not turn gray.
- In about 1750, a Welsh man named Mr. Binion, who had traded with the Indians for over thirty years, came across an Indian tribe west of the Mississippi River who spoke Welsh. “They lived in stone-built villages and were better clothed than the other tribes. One ruined building looked like an old Welsh castle, and another like a ruined church. They had heard their ancestors came from Wales, but they had no idea where Wales was.
- Between 1770 and 1775, Captain Abraham Chaplain of Kentucky, while stationed at a garrison in Kaskaskia [in present day Randolf County, Illinois](14), met some Indians who communicated in Welsh with two Welshmen under Chaplain’s command. “Each group understood the other instantly.”
- In 1764, a Maurice Griffiths, who had immigrated to Virginia from Wales when he was sixteen, ventured with five Shawnee braves to the Rockies, where they came upon “three white men in Indian dress” who spoke pure Welsh with a few extra words Griffiths could not understand. He and the Shawnees accompanied the white Indians several days to an entire village of Indians “having all the European complexion.” Griffith noticed their language sounded similar to Welsh. When he addressed their council in Welsh, each understood the other with mutual surprise. The leaders told Griffith their tribe’s “ancestors had come up the [Missouri] River from a very distant country. They had intermixed with no other people by marriage and there was not a dark-skinned man in the nation.” They lived in houses with upright posts covered in bark.
- In about 1764, Captain Isaac Stewart of the Provincial Cavalry of South Carolina and a Welshman named John Davey, “came to a nation of Indians, remarkably white and whose hair was a reddish colour, at least mostly so; they lived on the banks of a small river that empties itself into Red River(15) [Minnesota].” John Davey understood their language “it being very little different from the Welsh.” The Indian chief told Davey that the forefathers of his nation had come from a foreign country and landed on the east side of the Mississippi, describing particularly the country now called West Florida. They fled Florida when the Spaniards took possession of Mexico. The chief “brought forth rolls of parchment which were carefully tied up in otter skins.” But neither Stewart, who did not speak Welsh, or John Daveys, who was illiterate, could “get the meaning.” Stewart wrote that the women had “high-brows, blueish eyes and perfect lips.”(16)
- In 1771, a group of Welshmen living and working in London, formed the Gweneddigion Society, which would soon after send a search party to find the Welsh-Indians in America. Member Dr. John Williams of Sydenham, a suburb of London, published his thirty years of research in a manuscript titled, An Enquiry into the Truth of the Tradition Concerning the Discovery of America by Prince Madog ab Owen Gwenedd about the Year 1170.
John Thomas Evans
In 1792, at the behest of the Gweneddigion Society, twenty-two-year-old John Thomas Evans left the Caernarvon district of North Wales [south of Gwynedd] for America to search for the Welsh-Indians. Through his own research, he ruled out the Padouca Indians in Tennessee, whom some thought were the Madoc descendants, and headed instead to the Missouri River to find the Mandans. His dramatic adventure, well described by Ellen Pugh, took five years. Here is the gist of it:
In 1793, Spain owned the land west of the Mississippi. Spanish authorities thought Evans was a spy and held him in jail for two years before deciding he might be useful. The Spanish wanted the Mandans’ to help establish a trade route to the Pacific. They hired Evans to serve as second in command under the Scotsman James Mackay, a Canadian trapper, whom the Spanish had granted the title Principal Explorer and Director of Indian Territory in the Spanish Missouri Company. In 1795 Evans and MacKay left St Louis for the headwaters of the Missouri. The team split up to survey different areas.
Carefully surveying and charting as he went, Evans continued on his own to the Mandan village. He arrived in September of 1796. He spent six months studying their ways. Most of the time everyone got along, except there was one incident with a trader named Réné Jessaume, whom we will hear about again.
By the time Evans returned to St. Louis in 1797 and reunited with MacKay, the Spanish territory had been taken over by the British. The Spanish company went bankrupt. Evans and Mackay were without jobs. They could not return to Wales and Scotland without being considered traitors. YET – and here the mystery begins – the Spanish paid a very tidy sum for Evan’s report.
Evans reported to the leaders of the Welsh Society in Philadelphia, “In respect of the Welsh-Indians, I have only to inform you that I could not meet with such a people; and from intercourse I have had with Indians from latitude 35 to 49, I think you may with safety inform our friends [the Gweneddigion Society and the Welsh Society of Pennsylvania] that they [the Welsh-Indians] have no existence.”
YET, a bar-mate of Evans said that Evans “bragged to his friends in St. Louis that the Welsh-Indians would keep their secret to their graves because he had been handsomely paid to keep quiet on the subject.” Evans also said that “in a few more years there would be no more trace of any Welsh ancestry or language as time and disease would eventually remove all traces.”
Meanwhile, the Spanish Governor of New Orleans, for whom Evans worked after his adventure, wrote, “It is in the interests of His Catholic Majesty that the reports of British Indians in Mandan country be denied once and for all. If, however, as seems possible, the subject of association with the Mandans is not mentioned by the British, it might be more expedient to refrain from referring to this tribe, but to relate the denial only to the Padoucas who have already been said by the British to have an association with the Welsh.”
John Thomas Evans died only a few years later, in 1799, at the age of twenty-nine. He took the truth of his research with him to his grave.
Welsh-Indian Sightings Continued
In 1798, David Thompson, born of a Welsh father in London, was guided by the trapper Réné Jessaume mentioned above to visit the Mandans. Thompson worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Canada. In his journal, Thompson noted that the Mandans lived in but five villages. The smallpox had already greatly reduced their numbers.
In 1801, Lt. Joseph Roberts, from North Wales, “encountered a face-painted, Welsh-speaking Indian chief in the dining room of a Washington D.C. hotel “speaking the ancient British language as fluently as if he had been born and brought up in the vicinity of Snowdon.” The Indian’s tribe, situated about eight hundred miles southwest of Philadelphia, called themselves the Asguawa [aka Asguaw] nation. He told Roberts that, though he had never heard of Wales, the tradition of his people was that their ancestors came “from a far distant country, very far from the east over the great waters.”
When Roberts asked the chief how he had retained the ancient language, the chief told him, “they had a law or established custom in their nation forbidding any to teach their children another language until they had attained the age of twelve years and after that they were at liberty to learn any language they pleased.” The chief painted his face yellowish-red. He shaved his head except around the crown “and there it was very long and plaited.” He decorated the plaits with ostrich feathers. Roberts and the chief remained friends for some time, seeing each other every day and taking walks in the woods, where the chief showed Roberts the “virtues of various herbs.”
President Jefferson’s Search for the Welsh-Indians
On January 13, 1804, President Thomas Jefferson, who had some Welsh ancestry and “could speak the ancient language,” wrote a letter to his former secretary Meriwether Lewis, also a Welsh-American. In his letter, Jefferson asked Lewis to investigate the whereabouts of the Welsh-Indians known as the Mandans that were reportedly twelve to fifteen thousand miles from the mouth of the Missouri River. Jefferson enclosed a copy of John Thomas Evans’ detailed map. According to Ellen Pugh, the map was “so accurate that Lewis would barely make any corrections during his journey.”
In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent the fall and winter with the Mandans. They named the “hut” that they built near the Indian lands Fort Mandan. No direct report about their visit remains. But later in time, William Clark guided other explorers to the “half-white” Mandan Indians. In his old age, Clark remarked to the historian Frederick Steines that the Mandan women were “the handsomest women in the world.”
- In 1805, a Frenchman who worked for English traders reported a village of Indians known as the Mandans on the Missouri River just a few days journey from the Assiniboine River. These Indians “were not in the least tawny, but rather of a yellowish complexion; that they wear their beards and that great numbers of them had red hair on their heads.”
- In 1806, Alexander Henry, a trader for the North West Fur Company, visited the Mandans. He added to the above that the Mandans did not have the coarse hair of Indians, that it was finer, more dark brown than black, and that a few had fair hair. Rather than black eyes, the Mandans’ eyes were brown and sometimes grey.
- In 1811, Henry M. Brackenridge and John Bradbury visited the Mandans. Their notes also substantiated the above, with the addition that the Mandan chief, Big White Man, was six feet, ten inches tall, a fine looking Indian, and very intelligent. His complexion was fair, “very little different from that of a white man much exposed to the sun”
- In 1819, two Welshmen living in Utica, New York, which, according to Ellen Pugh is still considered the “Welsh capital of the United States,” went in search of the Welsh-Indians on the Mud River, twelve miles from the Missouri: John Roberts, a contractor for the Erie Canal, and William Parry, his assistant. The men were told by the explorer William Clark, who had since become the Governor of the Missouri Territory, that the Mandans lived near the Rocky Mountains, and that they were Welsh-Indians. In spite of an exhaustive two-year search and much advertising for information, Roberts and Parry found nothing. Historical records on Parry run dry. But we will hear more from Roberts who moved to Sacramento, California.
George Catlin and the Mandans
Meanwhile, in 1830, former-lawyer-turned-artist George Catlin left his wife and children in Albany, New York, so that he could go off to paint the American Indians “before their culture was disrupted by progress.” As Ellen Pugh wrote, “The newly developed steamboat and the coming of the railroad would take hordes of white emigrants into the Indians’ midst, destroying their way of life.” Catlin traveled first to St. Louis, where he met with the promoted General William Clark, who held the title Administrator of Indian Affairs in the Western Territory. [The Western Territory reached from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and from Canada to Mexico.] General Clark repeated to Mr. Catlin what he had told Roberts and Parry, that the Mandan tribe was “half-white.”
In March of 1832, after spending several years painting the Indians in the vicinity of St. Louis, George Catlin rode the steamboat Yellowstone on its first trip up the Missouri River. He debarked at Fort Union, where the Missouri joined the Yellowstone River. During the “nearly two thousand-mile descent back to St. Louis, which he traveled in a canoe,” Catlin stopped and spent time painting the Mandans. He wrote in his book Letters and Notes on the Manners of the North American Indians, published in Philadelphia in 1857, that the Mandans were “distinctly different from any other tribe,” with complexions and hair of “many shades,” and that the women often had white skin with hazel, blue, or gray eyes.
Catlin noted how the Mandans fished in a boat that looked like the coracle used in Wales. Unlike any boat used by other Indian tribes in America, it was made of willow or other flexible boughs that formed a frame shaped like a round tub. Buffalo skins were stretched underneath the frame(18). “The women carried the tub on her shoulders to the river. Stepping into it, she propelled it by inserting a paddle into the water in front of her and drawing the paddle toward her,” just as a Welshman would paddle a coracle. [Other Indians rowed from the side of the canoe, not the front.]
George Catlin left the Heart River convinced that the Mandans were the descendants of Prince Madoc.
The Demise of the Mandans
According to Reuben T. Durrett, “[George] Catlin, in his North American Indians, mentioned the destruction of the Mandans by smallpox as late as the summer of 1838. “They were confined within their villages by the hostile Sioux when a [steamboat] from St. Louis landed traders with the smallpox among them. Not being able to get out and scatter in the country on account of the besieging enemy, they died in their quarters, not by individuals, but by families. Deaths were so fast and so numerous that no attempts were made to bury them, and the dead lay in heaps to putrefy in every wigwam. Out of the whole nation only about thirty were left alive, and these sought self-destruction [suicide] by rushing upon the besieging enemy and thus securing death. The whole nation perished in a few days, and passed forever from the number of living tribes [in America].”
Ellen Pugh added that the survivors, who could have numbered 125, were taken captive by the Ricaree Indians [aka Arickaree Indians, descendants of the Pawnee Indians of the Platt River] who moved into the empty Mandan lodges. The 1850 US census recorded 385 Mandans living, mostly of mixed blood. The 1964 US census recorded 396 Mandans living, also of mixed blood. The Mandan Indians were the only tribe that never warred with the United States.
The Legend Continues
- Between 1852 and 1853, a Mr. Gilman claimed he came across “three very light-complexioned Indians, a woman and two young lads,” in a place forty miles from Salt Lake City. Gilman was told they spoke Welsh.
- In March 1856, a letter from Sacramento, California, by the John Roberts mentioned earlier, appeared in Y Cenhadwr, a Welsh monthly magazine published in Steuben, Oneida County, New York. It stated that a Richard P. Pierce of Anglesey, North Wales, while crossing America overland, came across a Welshman living among a tribe of “white Indians about two days’ journey to the south [of Salt Lake] who spoke Welsh.”
- In 1868, Benjamin F. De Costa publicized the Madoc legend in The Pre-Columbian Discovery of America by the Northmen.
- In 1904 a revision was published of a book by the late John Clark Ridpath (1840-1900), an American educator, historian, and editor. Titled The New Complete History of the United States of America(18), it further publicized the legend of Prince Madoc. Ridpath passed the story off as pure myth.
James Girty from Pennsylvania made a list of 350 words and phrases that he heard spoken by Indians who had light-skin. Next to the list, he wrote the Welsh equivalents that were similar. This list is included on pages 92, 96-97 of Ellen Pugh’s book, Brave His Soul.
Of particular interest were :
koorig = corwg = coracle
burra = bwrw = fishing area
pisg = pysg = fish
[Indian word = Welsh word = English word]
Lasting Memories of Prince Madoc
In 1953, the Virginia Cavalier Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed a brass plaque on the wall of Fort Morgan in Alabama’s Mobile Bay, “in memory of Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer, who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170 and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language.” They cited as their authorities: Richard Hakluyt (1552-1516), Ridpath’s History of the World, the 1918 Encyclopedia Americana, and the ancient Roman coins found in the fort in Tennessee. The plaque mentioned how the forts in Tennessee and Alabama resembled Welsh forts of the 9th and 10th centuries. It also mentioned the white Indians living on the Tennessee and Missouri Rivers [the Padoucas and the Mandans].
Friar of Wales
Another Welsh legend stated that a friar who had knowledge of the “black arts” used those arts to reach North America in 1360 and then ended up at the North Pole. If anyone knows more about that legend, we would love to hear from you.
- Pugh, Ellen T. with the assistance of David Pugh. Brave His Soul: The Story of Prince Madog of Wales and his Discovery of America in 1170, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1970.
- Durrett, Reuben Thomas AB, LLB, AM, LLD. President of the Filson Club. Traditions of the Earliest Visits of Foreigners to North America: the first formed and first inhabited of the continent, Filson Clubs Publication No. 23, John P. Morton and Co., Printers for the Filson Club, Louisville, KY, 1908. Available for free on Google Books.
- Armstrong, Zella. Who Discovered America. Lookout Publishing Company, 1950
- One account included: Rhodri, Cynoric, Riryd, Meredyz, Edwal, Cynan, Rien, Maelgon, Lywelyn, Iorwerth, Davyz, Cadwallon, Hywell, Cdell, Madog, Einion, and Phylip.
- Sometimes spelled Cristen.
- Sometimes spelled Hywel, or Howel.
- By Eddo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
- http://en.wikipedia.org/, File:Royal_Badge_of_Wales_(1953).svg
- This author has not been able to find a map by Ribeiro with this label.
- One rod = 5.0292 meters = 16.5 feet.
- Persian King (519-465 BC) featured in the biblical book of Esther.
- Pugh, p.112.
- Pugh, p.
- The original letter stated Cape Antros and the Pantiago River, which is in Wales, not Virginia. These Indians could have had something to do with the lost colony of Roanoke.
- Stewart could have mistaken the small river for the Heart emptying into the Missouri River. The Red River runs from Winnipeg, Canada, through the center of Minnesota, east of North Dakota.
- Reuben Thomas Durrett stated that these Indians were in the vicinity of the Padoucah Indian Tribe of reputed White Indians on the Rio del Norte, who according to General Bowles, an intelligent Irishman living among the Cherokees, spoke Welsh.
- The construction is also similar to a kayak. Many believe the blue eyes of the Mandans are from Nordic DNA.
- Ridpath, John Clark. The New Complete History of the United States of America, Johns Brothers Publishing Company, Washington D.C. 1905
- There are “Welsh Caves” in De Soto State Park in Alabama.
- The town Madog in Ontario was named after Prince Madog.
- It is believed that Welsh-Indians built Devil’s Backbone on the Ohio River at Fourteen Mile Creek near Louisville, Kentucky.
- The University of Wales’ christened their research vessel the Prince Madog.
- Porthmadog [Madog’s Port] in Gwynedd County, Wales, may have been named after Prince Madoc. But the village within it, Tremadog [Madog’s Town], was not. Tremadog was named after William Madock, a possible descendant, who founded the town after purchasing the land in 1798.
- Owain Gwynedd is listed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a biographical reference for deceased persons notable in British history. [http://www.oxforddnb.com]
Additional Reading Suggestions
- Ellen T Pugh’s Brave His Soul: The Story of Prince Madog of Wales and his Discovery of America in 1170, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1970.
- David Pryce has recently published a novel, Forgotten Dragon, the first in a series of three books that chronicle the adventures of Prince Madoc and his companions in their journey to the New World. The first book is set in North Wales in the aftermath of the death of Madoc’s father, Owain Gwynedd. Check out his website.
Next article: The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Crusades