Remembering Welsh America

'U.S Flag' by Ian Ransley / CC
Ian Ransley / CC

Columbus discovered America in 1492’ is a line most likely to appear in standard school textbooks. In actual fact, it was his voyage of 1492 that registered his recognition, even though he never set foot on the mainland of the Americas until 1498. Although some will debate aspects of the story, what is not in the standard school textbooks is the fact that almost three centuries before Columbus’s great claim to fame, there was another from the European world to set foot on the ‘New World’.

Prince Madoc, acclaimed son of Owain Gwynedd, ruler of the northern part of Wales of the same name, has claim over the discovery of the Americas. His travels would have brought him to the New World in 1170, three-hundred and twenty-two years before Columbus reached the off-coast island now known as Cuba.

The story began in 1170 when a small fleet of ships departed from Rhos-on-Sea, Wales, with Madoc spearheading the expedition. They sailed westward and arrived at what is now possibly Florida or Alabama. From there, they settled, expanded, and later on Madoc returned to Wales to recruit more settlers. Ten ships of men and women, they followed suit to the New World and explored by working their way upriver.

However, due to the historical circumstances of the time and since, there is now little supporting evidence for such an endeavour, leading to a large amount of speculation amongst those privileged enough to know of it. The main factor to consider is the dissolution of the Catholic Church under the royal decree of Henry VIII in 1537, which led to the desecration of many monasteries in Wales, where their records would have been kept.

Although that of Britain and the rest of Europe can find limited evidence, and even Wales itself has let Madoc’s tale became a myth amongst folklore, some insight can be found in America. There are no official records in America to justify such things, but some tribes of Native American Indians retell tales that support the theory.

In 1792, John Sevier, governor of Tennessee, recalls a conversation he had with a major chief of the Cherokee – he explains that the ancient fortifications at the High Wassee River were the site of a great battle between the Cherokee and some White men. The chief claimed that they had travelled across the ‘great water’ and called themselves Welsh. After the battle, they headed north via the Missouri. Although this does place the Welsh in America well before the time of Columbus, the verbal tradition of history can cause some conjecture.

History offers little evidence to prove that Madoc’s expedition in 1170 did indeed discover America, but there is too much supposition in the limited proof to say otherwise. There are, however, some records that remain as a solid backing for the argument, despite verging on the edge of surreal. In 1666, Reverend Morgan Jones was captured by a tribe of Indians; he was spared upon praying to God in Welsh, as the tribe of Indians could too speak Welsh. This was the first of many encounters with the ‘Welsh Indians’. The story of the Welsh Indians begins with the Welsh explorers heading upriver after the battle with the Cherokee; they settled with tribes of Indians and over the centuries became fully assimilated amongst them.

Many others claim to have had contact with a strange tribe of Indians, which was later known as the Mandan. In 1739, the French Canadian military officer, fur trader and explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye encountered a tribe on the upper Missouri, whose fortifications were not like Indians, and that the tribe itself was a mix of black and white; he noted that there were several blonde and fair headed people in their ranks and even observed that the women did not have Indian features. Similarly, in 1764, the Welsh immigrant Maurice Griffith travelled with another tribe to trace the source of the Missouri river, finding three white men in Indian dress, who led them to their tribe and had a similar complexion.

Upon arrival, Griffith and his companions were to be put to death, but after conversing in Welsh they were befriended. Jacques d’Eglise, French fur-trader, also supports their stories; in 1792, he too made contact with the Mandan. George Catlin, who wintered with the Mandan, noted peculiarities in looks and custom along with similarities to the Welsh design of buildings and boats. He also noted that one in a dozen were blonde.

Many others have research to disprove this concept, despite finding advanced culture and civilisation. The Mandan no longer speak Welsh, which would have been a secondary language to them anyway, and there is nothing particularly biologically special about them. This research was, however, done after the smallpox epidemics of 1804 and 1837, which would have wiped out several generations, limiting the gene pool and greatly affecting their results.

Although all of the evidence does not directly indicate Madoc’s journey as a fact, it does offer little other explanation. The Cherokee placed the Welsh in a battle before heading up river, which seems to be something that concurs with most stories and encounters. The tribes up north speak Welsh, or at least used to speak it, and although this does not prove the existence of Welsh Indians, it does prove that they were there before anyone else.

However, the apparent European traits seen in the Mandan tribe, as well as their neighbouring tribes of the Hidsatsu and Arikara, suggests that the myth of the Welsh Indians is as good as true, which is more than enough evidence to suggest that Madoc’s expedition in 1170 unveiled America well before anyone else.

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Ross Graham 5 Articles
Ross Graham's hometown is a tie between the cultural city of Edinburgh, the rural county of Shropshire and the vibrant Hong Kong. He graduated from Queen Margaret University in Film & Media. He fights crime by day at the office and is an avid watcher of science fiction.

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