There are many myths in American history but perhaps not many as long-lasting as the one about the tribe of Welsh Indians living in the western frontier. In fact, it was so prevalent that a young Welshman named John Evans had come to the New World in search of them. Evans explored the upper Missouri before Lewis and Clark, who used a copy of the map to help guide them along the way.
The Welsh Indian myth originates from the story of Prince Madoc told by poets and first appeared in print in David Powel’s Historie of Cambria, published in 1584, when Powel discusses the plight of a Welsh prince by the name of Madoc trying to escape the fighting in his homeland over who would take over the throne left vacant by his deceased father, Owain Gwynedd (who is certifiably real), in 1170, three hundred years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
As legend would tell, Madoc discovered America and sailed back to Wales to raise a number of ships to go back and colonize the land of plenty. It is said the descendents lived on in the western lands, Other than their white skin and Welsh tongue, they were supposedly indistinguishable from the natives. Other versions of the story assert that they kept their European heritage.
The legend took more prevalence in the Elizabethan era to lay claim over the New World that Spain was also looking at (as well as saying Brutus of Troy and King Arthur had conquered American lands). The locations of Madoc’s landings vary in location from Newfoundland to the mouth of the Amazon River. There have been no archeological discoveries to proof this theory, even though Joseph Whitehouse (a member of the Corps of Discovery) wrote for the 5th and 6th of September 1805:
these Savages has the Strangest language of any we have ever Seen. they appear to have an Empediment in their Speech or a brogue or bur on their tongue but they are the likelyest and honestst Savages we have ever yet Seen…we take these Savages to be the Welch Indians if their be any Such from the Language. So Capt. Lewis took down the names of everry thing in their Language, in order that it may be found out whether they are or whether they Sprang or origenated first from the welch or not.Joseph Whitehouse, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard deVoto, Published 1953
Even another member of the expedition by the name of Ordway wrote on September 5, 1805, “these natives have the Stranges language of any we have ever yet seen. they appear to us as though they had an Impedement in their Speech or brogue on their tongue. we think perhaps that they are the welch Indians…” Same message put across about the same group of people.
President Jefferson believed the Madoc story and so told the expedition to look for evidence. The belief was the Mandan Indians were the likeliest to be the descendants based on the construction of the Mandan boats being so similar to the Welsh coracle, and the advanced construction of Mandan villages gave hints to their relationship to Madoc. However, there have been no evidence to support this.
There have been very interesting stories in support of the Madoc story. The first was in 1810 from John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, in a letter to a friend about a conversation with an old Cherokee chief about a group of men who called themselves “Welsh” that built forts along the Alabama River for protection against the ancestors of the Cherokee. Sevier would go on in 1799 to say he found the remains of six men who wore breastplates with the Welsh coat-of-arms. Somehow this occurred in the same year, except in Indiana.
The other interesting story was from a Mormon missionary of Welsh-American descendant visited the Zuni tribe in the southwestern US in 1878. Her name was Llewellyn Harris and she claimed the Zuni had many Welsh words in their vocabulary, but also they came from the people called “Cambaraga,” white men who came over the sea three hundred years before the Spanish. This was never verified.
At the Devil’s Backbone in Kentucky, just upstream from Louisville on Rose Island, is a rock formation where according to folk tradition a colony of Welsh-speaking Indians lived. It’s an interesting idea, but is it too far fetched? Before Madoc would have lived, Erik the Red established a colony on Greenland, the first permament European settler. Leif Erikson, his son, found a settlement called Vinland in the Gulf of St. Lawrence area. All this was by the year 1000, nearly two hundred years before Prince Madoc set sail from Wales.
Is it so crazy? What are your thoughts?
Ethan H. Gaines is the co-owner of Last Best Press, author of the Fog of War series (first installment Tears of the Saint out October 18, 2019), and the Marston series (under the pen name Ryatt Eddie Cash). He is an amateur historian living in Kalispell, Montana, with his wife and three children.