Three hundred and twenty years before Columbus, it is said, a Welsh Prince sailed across the Atlantic and into the Gulf of Mexico. His voyage of discovery and two subsequent returns were not recorded outside of his own homeland, but nevertheless, they were recorded. Like the Vikings whose similar adventures were described in their Sagas, the Welsh voyages were almost always considered fiction. The Vikings sailed in search of new lands; others, including Basque and Breton fishermen, had fished the Grand Banks for cod long before Columbus, but the Welsh Prince sailed for peace.
The Prince was Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd, or simply Prince Madoc. His adventure begins in Wales in 1170, after the death of his father Owain Gwynedd. Upon the ruler’s death his sons battled for the throne that might have gone to the eldest if he had not been regarded as unfit to rule. Another son had been born to an Irish mother and was thus also deemed disqualified. That particular son, David, had gathered those loyal to him and killed another of the brothers, so Madoc decided discretion was the better part of valor, and left Wales.
Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd sailed westward until he came to the “country,” which the Spaniards would later claim as their own “discovering.” Richard Hakluyt, a late sixteenth century writer, who documented numerous ocean crossings, recorded his story. Besides his work as a historian, Hakluyt was also in the employ of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham. He didn’t particularly enjoy his work as a spy, but it did give him access to documents not available to other historians. Hakluyt insists the Prince Madoc made it all the way across the Atlantic, and that he then returned, and more than once.
After reaching the Gulf of Mexico, Madoc headed back to Wales where he described the beautiful lands he had seen. He then gathered a large group of followers and set about making a voyage of exploration and colonization. Again he crossed the sea but this time with ten ships and the company of both men and women.
A Documented Voyage, Ignored
Madoc’s story might have been entirely forgotten except for the fact that it had been written down by monks who had labored in the abbeys of Wales. The monasteries of the British Isles and Ireland preserved much of the medieval culture of the period although time and catastrophe, punctuated by periods of disinterest, seem to have prevented much of their lore from surviving to modern times. A Welsh bard, Gutton Owen, in the employ of King Henry VII, came across the story while researching the genealogy of the king. The tale of Madoc was found recorded in the Benedictine Abbeys of Conway and Strat Flur. These in turn had been used to revise Caradoc’s History of Wales. Welsh bards long before Columbus also sang the travels of Madoc.
The Prince’s story was then recorded in Hakluyt’s Voyages compiled in the late sixteenth century in the era of John Dee and Queen Elizabeth I. Hakluyt is the most famous of early chroniclers of discoveries of Europe’s explorers. He is criticized because he often included what were considered the fanciful details which sailors brought home—many of which were later proven true—and were avoided by serious historians. Such details are not the only reasons the stories were doubted, though. Some believe they were concocted entirely as another English attempt to build a claim for a piece of the New World, despite having been preceded by Columbus.
One criticism of Hakluyt is that he claims it was in what is now modern Mexico that the prospective colonists landed. If a Welshman had been to America before the Spaniards, it might have added weight to British claims on that territory. The author also suggested that it might account for the practices and sacraments carried on by the Aztecs, which included Christian symbols and elements. Montezuma, after all, said that white men had come before to bring education to his people. These bearded white men had left and promised to return. The Spaniards, as we know, would prove not to be the benevolent teachers he was expecting.
In 1580, Dr. John Dee, alchemist and astronomer to Queen Elizabeth, would include the Madoc tale on his map. Dee believed Madoc had inhabited “Terra Florida or thereabouts.” He led Elizabeth to believe that because of King Arthur’s Avalon and Madoc’s colonization, England had a role to play in the New World. Elizabeth, for her part, was torn between keeping peace with Spain and sending Sir Francis Drake to pillage their treasure ships.
In 1583, Dee’s map was followed by the publication of Sir George Peckham’s True Reporte. Peckham had relied on an account of a David Ingram who had been left behind by Sir John Hawkins’ fleet in 1568. He told of walking 2,000 miles and claimed to have encountered fantastic sites with pillars of gold and a tribe whose language contained Welsh words. He heard of birds that were referred to as penguins, the Welsh name for the Arctic birds. Penn meant Head and Gwyn meant white.
A British historian, David Powel updated a much older Welsh document in 1584, called the Historia Cambria. The author of this History of Wales was a Caradoc of Llancarfan, and his writings included the three voyages of Madoc that culminated in the settlement of the New World with men, women, and livestock.
Where Did Madoc Land?
The favored theory is that he made it into the Gulf of Mexico and landed in the vicinity of Mobile, Alabama. He may have explored the Mobile Bay and sailed upriver, but then headed back to the Gulf and then found the Mississippi River more navigable. It is claimed that he “founded” the city of Paducah in Kentucky.
In the Paducah area, the Native American tribes believed a white Indian tribe was once defeated by a red tribe. One writer in the early twentieth century described a battle between the two tribes along the Ohio River. On the site of the battle, he claimed that armor depicting the Welsh coat of arms was borne by skeletons of the dead.
The Shawnee Chief Blackhoof also told of a white race that had lived in Florida and used iron tools. A Cherokee chief Oconostota spoke of white people that had crossed the ocean and landed in Mobile Bay. Despite building stone fortifications on the Highwassee River, they were forced to move on and finally settled in Kentucky.
The tribe that did survive in the area is the Mandan. They were unusual, having members with red hair and blue eyes, not common traits among most Native American tribes. When the nineteenth century painter, George Catlin, returned from living with the Mandan, his portraits were considered fake because his Indians appeared more European than American. His published works about the tribe declare his belief that they were descended from Europeans. Their canoes were described as resembling the Welsh hide boats, rather than hollowed out logs. He even claimed that the name “Mandan” derived from Madawgys, which was given to the Prince’s followers.
The Mandan people even have their own flood account. The story includes a leader Numank getting his people to build an ark and save themselves from impending disaster. In the annual celebration of this event, Numank is depicted as a white man.
There is more evidence that the Mandan tales and the stories told by author and painter Catlin are truthful. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that he met with a tribe whose language was clearly derived from Welsh. In the 1660s, a Welsh sailor shipwrecked on the American shores claimed that he met a group of Indians who spoke Welsh and had a tradition of having sailed from the east. In 1669, Rev. Morgan Jones, a chaplain to the governor of Virginia, met up with a Tuscaroan tribe called the Doeg who understood his Welsh tongue. He preached the Gospel in Welsh for a decade and wrote about his experience in 1686.
In 1721, Father Charlevoiux, a Catholic priest, encountered the Iowa tribe. They claimed that three days away were the Omans who had white skin and fair hair.
A French explorer, Sieur de la Verendrye, in 1735 described the language as resembling the Cornish language of Brittany, a language with similar roots to the Welsh language. Another French explorer Pierre Gautier de Varennes met up with Mandan people in North Dakota. He claimed they lived in domed houses on lined streets. They honored an ancestral spirit Madoc Maho and understood Welsh. Madahando actually means a “person of renown, a chief” so it may be a case of deciding which came first.
A Revolutionary War captain, Isaac Stewart, traveling up the Red River from the Mississippi was captured, like the chaplain, and was ransomed from the Mandan. His name for the tribe was the McCedus. He described them as nearly white and red haired. They told him that they were from the east and showed him writing in a language he did not understand.
Daniel Boone also spoke of a blue-eyed American Indian tribe. He believed that they were Welsh in origin although he admitted: “I have no means of assessing their language.”
In 1804, then-president Thomas Jefferson sent out an expedition to view what the country had just bought as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, later commented on blond-haired, blue-eyed native women.
A Benjamin Sutton described Welsh speaking natives that owned a Bible.
The list goes on.
In Tennessee, there is a fort built long before Columbus reached the American shores. When it was excavated, the walls were found to be 2,000 feet long, with one gate and a surrounding moat. Archaeologists discovered no signs of occupation of the fort and claim it to be older than either Madoc or the Vikings. Nevertheless, it is built in a fashion typical to Wales. The Old Stone fort is near the river city of Chattanooga. In De Soto Falls, Alabama, another ruined fort was found dating to the twelfth century. In Georgia, a third fort unlike anything constructed by Native Americans was found at what is now called Fort Mountain.
The sites in Alabama and Georgia are described as being more representative of twelfth-century Great Britain than Native North American Indian.
The Mandan were eventually victims of a European import, smallpox. They did not survive to confirm or deny their origin, so we are left with the testimony of a handful and the paintings and writings of George Catlin.
In 1832, Catlin may have had the last word. He witnessed firsthand a people with light complexion, the women even more so. Their way of stretching hide around a wooden frame to build a boat was exactly like the Welsh oracle. He compiled a list of Welsh-Mandan word similarities, including pan—the Mandan word for head, which was pen in Welsh.
The Welsh word for boat was corwyg, the Mandan word was koorig. The word for paddle in Welsh was pronounced “ree” and spelled rhywf. The Mandan word was ree. The color blue in both Welsh and Mandan was glas. Bread in Welsh was barra and in Mandan bara. The adjective great was mawr in Welsh and mah in Mandan.
It was six years after Catlan’s visit that small pox nearly wiped out the tribe. Survivors banded together with Hidatsa and Arikara, which also had been hurt by the epidemics.
An Unrecorded Migration
It is possible that the three voyages of Madoc brought thousands of Welsh to the Americas. From the port of Mobile, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle, they headed up rivers great and small leaving an imprint that was preserved in structures, language, and among blue-eyed peoples. Outnumbered they might have been assimilated in culture and occasionally defeated in battle.
While Columbus sailed the ocean with the blessing of the King and Queen of Spain and the financial backing of Italian bankers, it is not remarkable that the results of the voyage became quickly known throughout Europe. Similarly the sagas of the Vikings left records of their early ocean crossings, and despite the criticism, the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows and other evidence in Canada gave credence to their tale. Unofficial voyages however have a greater degree of skepticism to overcome. Written records of Madoc are discredited and seen as serving nationalistic goals despite dating to pre-Columbian times. Eyewitness accounts are not believed. Legends of American Indian tribes are simply regarded as tales.
Had Madoc’s people not assimilated into the culture, we might be celebrating Madoc’s Day. In the harbor of Mobile Bay, Alabama, a plaque was dedicated to Madoc in 1953. It declared him, “Discoverer of America in AD 1170.” It was damaged by a hurricane in 2008 and later placed in storage by the Alabama Parks Services, who considered it an embarrassment. From that year on, there has been a movement to get it replaced, but so far there are no plans from the powers that be to follow through.