Columbus discovered America. That was the standard thinking on the discovery of our continent for a long time, ignoring the fact that Indians were already here and considered the land already discovered. Then we learned that the Vikings had preceded Columbus, moving west from Iceland to Greenland to what is now the coast of maritime Canada, but they left no lasting settlements so lost the credit for discovery. A lesser-known and possibly apocryphal expedition was that of Madoc o Cymru (Madoc of Wales).
Stories and rumors abounded in the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s about white Welsh-speaking Indians. Tennessee governor John Sevier said that he asked an old Cherokee chief in 1782 about stone fortifications in the area and was told they were built by white people called Welsh who had crossed the Great Water and landed near Mobile. A shipwrecked sailor said he encountered Welsh-speaking people, and Francis Lewis, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, claimed he was saved during the French and Indian War by Indians who spoke Welsh.
A 15th-century Welsh poem tells of Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd, a legendary Welsh prince, and his discovery of America in 1170 and of his second voyage. David Powel’s “History of Cambria” (1584) said, “Madoc arriving in that Westerne countrie, unto the which he came in the yeare 1179, left most of his people there; and returning backe for more of his owne nation, acquaintance and friends, to inhabit that faire and large countrie, went thither againe. …”
English geographer Richard Hakluyt mentioned Madoc in “Hakluyt’s Voyages,” the popular name for a work with a protracted title typical of the era, published in 1589 in answer to claims that the English lacked the spirit of enterprise and adventure found in other European countries. The legendary Welsh expedition was also related in the epic poem “Madoc,” written by Robert Southey in 1805.
Author and artist George Catlin lived with the plains Indians in the 1830s and recorded Indian life and customs in great detail (with a title to match the wealth of detail) in “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of North American Indians Written During Eight Years’ Travel (1832-1839) Amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians of North America,” published in 1844. He believed that the Mandans, who lived on the west bank of the Missouri River, about 1,800 miles above St. Louis in present-day North Dakota, may have been descended from the Welsh.
In that landmark book he wrote, “I have been almost disposed … to enquire whether here may not be found, yet existing, the remains of the Welsh colony — the followers of Madoc; who history tells us, if I recollect right, started with ten ships, to colonize a country which he had discovered in the Western Ocean; whose expedition I think has been pretty clearly traced to the mouth of the Mississippi, or the coast of Florida …”
Catlin likened the bull boat of the Mandans, which was made from a wooden wickerwork frame and covered with buffalo skin, to the Welsh coracle, a round boat propelled in the same manner. All other tribes built the standard long, narrow canoes.
More recently, Richard Deacon explored the evidence for Welsh in pre-Columbian America in “Madoc and the Discovery of America,” published in 1966. He compared Mandan and Welsh words and pronunciations and presented an objective account.
James Alexander Thom, who has written some excellent historical fiction about the eastern woodland frontier, explored the legend of Madoc in “Children of First Man.” He depicted the arrival of Madoc and company on the Gulf Coast, the founding of their settlement, and the stone fortifications and ensuing battle. His book closes with the demise from disease of the Mandan tribe, and the legend of Madoc, whether true or not, is a vivid tale with an intriguing ending.
Historian Ralph Walker wrote in “American History Illustrated,” May 1980, that conclusive evidence one way or another for the Madoc expedition may never be found.
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