A Consideration: Was America Discovered in 1170
“History, not unnaturally, tends to be written by historians, but seldom by geographers, or seamen, or interpreters of legend, and much of the early history of the world has suffered in consequence.1”
In 1170 A.D., a certain Welsh prince, Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd, sailed away from his homeland, which was filled with war and strife and battles between his brothers. Yearning to be away from the feuds and quarrels, he took his ships and headed west, seeking a better place. He returned to Wales brimming with tales of the new land he found–warm and golden and fair. His tales convinced more than a few of his fellow countrymen, and many left with him to return to this wondrous new land, far across the sea.
This wondrous new land is believed to be what is now Mobile Bay, Alabama. Time has left several blank pages between the legend of Madoc and the “history” of America, with its reports of white Indians who speak Welsh, and these blank pages have been the subject of much controversy in certain circles over the five centuries since Columbus discovered the New World.
Although in 1500 it may have made a significant difference exactly who first discovered–and therefore lay claim to–the North American Continent, that time has passed. In 1995, the relevance of the subject rests in the area of its interest to a student of history, rather than its significance to the world. This admission made, the story of Madoc, and the chronicle of the “Welsh Indians” will be explored, and the connection between the two will be considered for its place in that blank chapter of history.
Owain Gwynedd, succeeded his father, Gruffydd ap Cynan as ruler of the Gwynedd province of Wales in 1138.2 His thirty-two-year reign was a bloody and turbulent time of constant warfare between the Norman barons and the Welsh chieftans. Though he strived during his rule for both the prosperity of his people and the unity of all Welsh kingdoms against the English3 his aims were hindered by the treacherous feuding within his own ranks. Although well known for his “. . .fierce and brutal penalties for disloyalty. . .”,4 he was nevertheless remembered as a mighty soldier and a great leader by his own people, and considered the “King of Wales” by those in England and other lands.5
Owain was said to have had seventeen sons, including Madoc, and at least two daughters, although few were considered legitimate by the churchmen of the time. This confused situation led to bitter dispute as to who among his sons would succeed him6 and his death in 1169 plunged his country into civil war.
It was this civil war from which Madoc fled. His story was repeated by bards and recorded throughout the next four centuries by various historians, but concise and detailed accounts would not be found until after the introduction of printing.7 Perhaps the earliest printed account of Madoc’s story is from Dr. David Powel’s The Historie of Cambria published in 1584:
Madoc. . .left the land in contention betwixt his brethern and prepared certain shipps with men and munitions and sought adventures by seas, sailing west. . .he came to a land unknown where he saw manie strange things. . . . Of the viage and returne of this Madoc there be manie fables faimed, as the common people do use in distance of place and length of time, rather to augment than diminish; but sure it is that there he was. . . .And after he had returned home, and declared the pleasant and fruitfulle countries that he had seen without inhabitants, and upon the contrarie part, for what barren and wilde ground his brethern and nepheues did murther one another, he prepared a number of shipps, and got with him such men and women as were desirous to live in quietnesse, and taking leave of his freends tooke his journie thitherward againe. . . .This Madoc arriving in the countrie, into which he came in the yeare 1170, left most of his people there, and returning back for more of his own nation, acquaintance, and friends, to inhabit that fayre and large countrie, went thither againe.8
Madoc’s story was related in A Brief Discription of the Whole World (1620); a version was told by Sir Thomas Herbert in the last section of his Relation of Some Years Travaile (1626), based on what Sir Thomas said were records of “200 years agoe and more”9; the Dutch writer Hornius tells of Madoc in De Originibus Americanis (1652); and Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations (1600) establishes the fact that the story of Madoc existed before the time of Columbus.10 Hakluyt, a geographer as well as an historian, had a reputation for being a perfectionist. His work is thoroughly researched and supported by foreign as well as British sources.11
Gutyn Owen was a renowned Welsh historian and geneologist with a well documented career and a number of famous works of Welsh literature to his credit. His writings are cited as sources of Madoc’s story by a number of authors, and the fact that his account of Madoc was written before 1492 “. . .refutes the criticism that the Madoc story was brought forward after 1492 in order that Great Britain could claim prior rights to the new world.12
” Among the writings of Madoc’s story are found suppositions of his landing in the West Indies, in Mexico, and in the Alabama-Florida region of North America. The scope of this paper dictates pursuit of the latter theory–more specifically, Mobile Bay, Alabama.
The choice of Mobile Bay as Madoc’s landfall and the starting point for his colonists is grounded in two main areas. One is the logical assumption that the ocean currents13 would have carried him into the Gulf of Mexico. Once there and seeking a landing site, he would have been attracted to the perfect harbor offered in Mobile Bay, as were later explorers Ponce de Leon, Alonzo de Pineda, Hernando de Soto, and Amerigo Vespucci.14
The second, and more convincing reason, is a series of pre-Columbian forts built up the Alabama River, and the tradition handed down by the Cherokee Indians of the “White People” who built them. Testimony includes a letter dated 1810 from Governor John Seiver of Tennessee in response to an inquiry by Major Amos Stoddard. Governor Seiver refers to a time he spent with the Cherokee in 1782, and relates a conversation he had with Oconostota, who had been the ruling chief of the Cherokee Nation for nearly sixty years. Seiver had asked the Chief about the people who had left the “fortifications” in his country. The chief told him: “It is handed down by the Forefathers that the works had been made by the White people who had formerly inhabited the country. . .” and gave him a brief history of the “Whites.” When asked if he had ever heard what nation these Whites had belonged to, Oconostota told Seiver that he “. . .had heard his grandfather and father say they were a people called Welsh, and that they had crossed the Great Water and landed first near the mouth of the Alabama River near Mobile. . ..”15
Three major forts, completely unlike any known Indian structure, were constructed along the route settlers arriving at Mobile Bay would have taken up the Alabama and Coosa rivers to the Chattanooga area. Archaeologists have testified that the forts are of pre-Columbian origin, and most agree they date several hundred years before 1492. All are believed to have been built by the same group of people within the period of a single generation, and all bear striking similarities to the ancient fortifications of Wales.16 The first fort, erected on top of Lookout Mountain, near DeSoto Falls, Alabama, was found to be nearly identical in setting, layout, and method of construction, to Dolwyddelan Castle in Gwynedd, the presumed birthplace of Madoc.17
The situation of the forts, blended with the accounts given by the Indians of the area, has led to a plausible reconstruction of the trail of Madoc’s colonists. The settlers would have traveled up the Alabama River and secured themselves at the Lookout Mountain site, which took months, maybe even years to complete. It is presumed the hostility of the Indians forced them to move on up the Coosa River, where the next stronghold was established at Fort Mountain, Georgia. Situated atop a 3,000 foot mountain, this structure had a main defensive wall 855 feet long, and appears to be more hastily constructed than the previous fort. Having retreated from Fort Mountain, the settlers then built a series of minor fortifications in the Chatanooga area, before moving north to the forks of the Duck River (near what is now Manchester, Tennessee), and their final fortress, Old Stone Fort. Formed by high bluffs and twenty-foot walls of stone, Old Stone Fort’s fifty acres was also protected by a moat twelve hundred feet long. Like the other two major defense works, Old Stone Fort exhibits engineering proficiency well beyond the skills of the Indians.18
The trail of the settlers becomes more speculative with the desertion of Old Stone Fort. Chief Oconostota, in relating his tribal history, tells of the war that had existed for years betweenthe White people who had built the forts and the Cherokee. Eventually a treaty was reached in which the Whites agreed to leave the area and never return. According to Oconostota, the Whites followed the Tennessee River down to the Ohio, up the Ohio to the Missouri, then up the Missouri “. . .for a great distance. . .but they are no more White people; they are now all become Indians….”19
Chief Oconostota’s testimony has been very thoroughly followed up by later historians,20 and several points have been corroborated with other reports of “bearded Indians” and their trek upriver in retreat from hostile natives. Throughout the years “. . .there was abundant evidence. . .that travelers and administrators had met Indians who not only claimed ancestry with the Welsh, but spoke a language remarkably like it.”21
It must be assumed that the remaining settlers were eventually assimilated by Indians, and that by the early eighteenth century very few traces of their Welsh ancestry remained. Although several tribes have been considered as possible descendants of the Welsh settlers, the most likely is the Mandan tribe, who once inhabited villages along tributaries of the Missouri River.22
These Mandan villages were visited in 1738 by a French explorer, The Sieur de la Verendrye, and he kept a detailed journal describing the people and their villages. At the time of Verendrye’s visit, the tribe numbered about 15,000 and occupied eight permanent villages. The Mandan chief told him that the tribe’s ancestors had formerly lived much farther south but had been driven north and west by their enemies.23 Verendrye described the Mandans as “white men with forts, towns and permanent villages laid out in streets and squares.”24 He indicated that their customs and lifestyle were totally different from other tribes he had encountered, and was the first of many to remark about the beards of their men, the grey hair of their older people, and the magnificent beauty of their women! The Mandans had several visitors throughout the next century, (including Louis and Clark in 1804), each one reiterating the striking differences in their culture and appearance.
The Mandans had been repeatedly driven out of their villages and forced upriver by their continual conflicts with the Sioux. By the 1830s, when George Catlin made his memorable visit, their numbers had decreased by two thirds. Catlin spent several years living with, studying, and painting various Indian tribes, and in 1841 published his classic work: Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians. He devoted sixteen of his fifty-eight chapters to the Mandans, explaining:
I have dwelt longer on the history and customs of these people than I have or shall on any other tribe. . .because I have found them a very peculiar people. From the striking peculiarities in their personal appearance, in their customs, traditions, and language, I have been led conclusively to believe that they are a people of a decidedly different origin from that of any other tribe in these regions.25
Catlin was so impressed by these differences that he speculated that the Mandan tribe could very well be the remains of the lost colony of Madoc.26 Although he had no Welsh ancestry himself, and no particular motivation for pursuing this theory,27 he went to great effort to investigate their origin and traced their migration up the Missouri and Ohio Rivers. His book contains several pages, including a vocabulary comparing numerous Mandan and Welsh words,28 in support of his theory. He reflects, “If my reasons do not support me, they will at least be worth knowing, and may be the means of eliciting further and more successful enquiry.”29
When Catlin left the Mandans in August, 1833, he did not know his would be the last, and probably most important, account of the Mandan tribe. They had survived a trans-Atlantic voyage; they had survived the Cherokee; they had survived an eighteen-hundred mile migration; they had even managed to survive the Sioux. Like so many other Indian tribes, they did not survive the smallpox epidemic introduced to them by traders in 1837. Now considered extinct, the Mandans do however, lay claim to the distinction of being the only Indian tribe never to have been at war with the United States.30
Throughout the centuries, scholars and historians have argued for and against the Madoc story. The classic work denying the entire idea was written in 1858 by the distinguished Welsh scholar, Thomas Stephens. So thorough and detailed was his essay, it was considered the best work submitted for a competition held on the subject. Ironically, his prize was denied as his article refuted the theme rather than proved it.31
Current naysayers include Samuel Eliot Morison, who emphatically dismisses the entire subject as nothing more than a fable. He accepts no connections between the White Settlers and the Chattanooga area forts. He renounces all associations linking the tales of the Welsh Indians to the Mandans, acknowledging only the report of John Evans indicating that he met no Welsh speaking Indians when he spent one winter with the Mandans in the 1790s. Although Evans’ character itself and motives for the report are questionable,32 Morison embraces his brief findings, while only mentioning George Catlin in his bibliography, stating that his Notes and Letters “. . .gave the legend a new lease on life. . .with phony comparative vocabulary.”33 Where Richard Deacon devotes an entire book to detailed research on the subject, Morison only mentions it in his notes, indicating that Deacon “. . .pulls all the travelers tales together. . .he feels there must be something in it, but cannot say what.”34 He attributes the claim of discovery to the eagerness of the Tudor court historians (of Welsh descent) “. . .to claim priority over Spain in the New World.”35 His basic attitude may be summarized with the following line: “As Bernard De Voto well observed, the insubstantial world of fairies and folklore is as real as the visable world to Celtic peoples.”36
Not everyone shares Morison’s view, for in November, 1953 a memorial tablet was erected at Fort Morgan, Mobile Bay, Alabama by the Virginia Cavalier Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which reads:
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.
1 Richard Deacon, Madoc and the Discovery of America, p. 237.
2 Ibid, p. 34
3 Ibid, p. 39
4 Ibid, p. 37
5 Ibid, p. 39
6 Ellen Pugh, Brave His Soul, p. 5.
7 Op. cit., Deacon, p 29.
8 Frances Gibson, The Seafarers: Pre-Columbian Voyages to America, pp. 187-188
9 Frederick J. Pohl, Atlantic Crossings Before Columbus, p. 171.
10 Op. cit., Gibson p. 188.
11 Op. cit., Deacon, p 68.
12 Op. cit., Gibson p. 191.
13 Op. cit., Deacon, p 180.
14 Op. cit., Pugh, pp 105-106.
15 Op. cit., Deacon, p 68.;Op. cit.,Pugh, pp. 107-108.
16 Op. cit., Gibson, p 203.
17 Op. cit., Pugh p. 112.
18 Op. cit., Deacon, pp 201-206.; Op. cit., Pugh, p 111-118.
19 Op. cit., Gibson, p 205.
20 Op. cit., Deacon, p 209.
21 Ibid, p. 114
22 Ibid, p. 210
23 Op. cit., Pugh p. 83.
24 Op. cit., Deacon, p 211.
25 Mooney, Michael M., George Catlin, 1796-1872, Letters and Notes on the North American Indians, p. 209
26 Ibid, p. 224
27 Op. cit., Deacon, p 215.
28 Op. cit., Mooney, p 228.
29 Ibid, p. 228
30 Op. cit., Pugh, p 100.
31Op. cit., Deacon, p 9.
32 Op. cit., Deacon, pp 137-150.
33 Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America, p. 106.
34 Ibid, p. 106
35 Ibid, p. 85
36 Ibid, p. 85
Deacon, Richard, Madoc and the Discovery of America: Some New Light on an Old Controversy, George Braziller, Inc., N.Y., N.Y., 1966.
Gibson, Frances, The Seafarers: Pre-Columbian Voyages to America, Dorrance & Company, Philadelphia, 1974.
Mooney, Michael M., Ed., George Catlin, 1796-1872. Letters and Notes on the North American Indians, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., N.Y., N.Y., 1975, First Edition.
Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America – The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600, Oxford University Press, N.Y., N.Y., 1971.
Pohl, Frederick J., Atlantic Crossings Before Columbus, W. W. Norton, Inc., N.Y., N.Y., First Ed., 1961.
Pugh, Ellen, Brave His Soul: The Story of Prince Madog of Wales and His Discovery of America in 1170, Dodd, Mead & Company, N.Y., N.Y., 1970.
by PRINCE MADOC AB OWAIN GWYNEDD OF WALES?
By: Jayne Wanner