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The search for the ‘Welsh Indians’

Plaque commemorating the Doeg people

Plaque commemorating the Doeg people

During the seventeenth century, various explorers claimed to have encountered Welsh-speaking native Americans. The first known account came from a Reverend Morgan Jones, a minister from near New York who had been appointed a naval chaplain in 1660. After being captured by a people known as the Doeg, part of the Powhatan people, in what is now South Carolina in 1666, he cried out in Welsh “Have I escaped so many dangers, and must I now be knocked on the head like a dog?. A ‘war-captain’ heard him and understood the language, as a result of which he spared Jones’s life. Jones then went on to preach Christianity to the Doeg in Welsh for three days a week over four months. Unfortunately, he did not report this event for twenty years, when he wrote a letter on 10 March 1686 to Thomas Lloyd, another minister in New York. By this time, Paul Marana, an Italian writer living in Paris, had already published his opinion that the Doeg were of Welsh origin in 1673 and it is possible that this influenced Jones’s recollection of the events of twenty years earlier. Jones’s letter was not published until 1740.

A similar account, relating the story of a shipwrecked Welsh sailor from Brecon called Stedman, asserted that in the early 1660s, he was washed up and astonished the locals by speaking their language. They are said to have told him that their ancestors had come from Gwynedd in Prydain Fawr (‘Gwynedd in Great Britain’). This was not reported until 1777, in a letter from Charles Lloyd to a Reverend N Owen; the same letter includes the more complex story of Oliver Humphreys, a merchant from Surinam who learned the language of a people on a remote part of the Florida coast and later discovered it to be similar to Welsh. The most notable thing about these stories is that they were universally reported years after the purported events (and in one case more than a century after), when they could no longer be verified.

In 1753, Robert Dinwiddie (1693-1770), Governor of Virginia, asked for a report into into Welsh Christians supposedly discovered west of the Mississippi in 1750. The report so convinced him that he put up £500 to finance an expedition to find them, but he returned to England in 1758 before the expedition could be mounted. From these accounts, it is evident that the middle of the eighteenth century was a time when stories of Welsh speaking Native Americans were circulating, were popular and, most importantly, were believed to be true.

Mandan boats

Mandan boats, supposedly like Welsh coracles

Enter the Mandan people

Around 1780, the search for “Welsh Indians” became fixed on the Mandan people of North Dakota. They were notably fair skinned by comparison with neighbouring peoples, which has led to them being dubbed “The White Indians”. Speaking a language of the Sioux family, their heartland was the basin of the River Missouri and its tributaries Knife River and Heart River. Unlike other plains Indians, the Mandan were agriculturalists, living in villages when first encountered by the Canadian trader Pierre Gaultier de Varennes (1685-1749) in 1737, which made them all the more unusual; they also used oval skin boats with wooden frames, similar to the traditional Welsh coracle. These features quickly brought them to the attention of European settlers, who conjectured that these might be the descendants of Madoc’s followers.

The story becomes popular in Wales

The publication of An Enquiry into the Truth of the Tradition concerning the Discovery of America by Prince Madog ab Owen Gwynedd about the year 1170 by John Williams (1727-1798) reawakened interest in the story in Wales, undergoing a nationalist revival at that time. Samuel Jones (1735-1814), a Baptist minister at Pennepek (Philadelphia, USA), became involved in the search for the “Welsh Indians” after receving a letter from William Richards, claiming that “…if such a nationality exists, and there seems now to be no great room to doubt the fact, it will then appear that a branch of the Welsh Nation has preserved its independence even to this day”: the search for the descendants of Madoc was becoming mixed up with developing Welsh nationalism. In 1792, the explorer John Thomas Evans (1770-1799) was sent to investigate their language, as it was supposed to contain recognisably Welsh words. He was imprisoned by the Spanish as a spy in 1794, but managed to persuade the authorities that he was searching for the “Welsh Indians”; it happened that they were financing a party under the Scottish fur trader James McKay, who was also seeking a newly discovered people who were supposed to be the fabled Welsh speaking Indians. This people, identified with the Mandans who had actually been discovered in 1737, had been rediscovered by a French trader, Jacques d’Église in 1791.

Arriving among the Mandan on 24 September 1796, John Evans spent some months without finding any trace of Welsh cultural influence. As a result, he wrote back to Samuel Jones of Pennepek, who was one of his contacts in America, on 15 July 1797 that “Thus having explored and charted the Missurie for 1,800 miles and by my Communications with the Indians this side of the Pacific Ocean from 35 to 49 degrees of Latitude, I am able to inform you that there is no such People as the Welsh Indians”.

A romantic revival

There the matter ought to have rested. With the westward expansion of the young United States of America, contact with the native peoples of the plains became more frequent (and, as often as not, hostile). The hoped-for “Welsh Indians” failed to materialise, as did the “Lost Tribes of Israel”, the descendants of Leif Erikson and other putative European settlers of the distant past. Madoc was relegated to the realm of romantic poetry and fiction until the artist George Catlin (1796-1872) spent some time with the Mandan in 1832 and convinced himself that the earlier reports of their Welsh linguistic affinities were correct, after all; he even suggested that the tribal name was “a corruption or abbreviation, perhaps, of ‘Madagwys,’ the name applied by the Welsh to the followers of Madawc”. He suggested that Mandan ceramics were similar to those found close to the Gulf of Mexico, confirming to him that they were descendants of Madoc who had migrated northwards from their landing point in Mobile Bay. Six years later, smallpox hit the Mandan and with fewer than two hundred left, they amalgamated with their neighbours the Hidatsa and Arikara.

The bubble is burst in Wales

The memorial plaque marking Madoc’s supposed landing place at Mobile Bay (Alabama, USA)

The memorial plaque marking Madoc’s supposed landing place at Mobile Bay (Alabama, USA)

The death-knell for the story came at the Langollen eisteddfod of 1858, where a competition for the best essay on Madoc ap Owain resulted in a controversial entry by the chemist and amateur historian Thomas Stephens (1821-1875). One of the judges awarded Stephens the prize, another awarded it jointly with a pro-Madoc submission, while a third resigned; however, the main committee rejected the award to Stephens on the grounds that it was “not on the given subject” and when Stephens objected, they ordered the band to play. The audience demanded to hear Stephens, who attacked the committee for wishing to suppress the uncomfortable truth that Madoc was unattested in medieval chronicles and therefore did not exist. Since then, there has been little enthusiasm for reviving the stories of Madoc on this side of the Atlantic.

Things were rather different in the United States of America. Spared the fallout from Stephens’s essay, the views of earlier generations were repeated into the twentieth century. In 1953, the Daughters of the American Revolution set up a commemorative plaque to Madoc near Fort Morgan on Mobile Bay (Alabama, USA). The plaque, pictured here, was later removed and is now understood to be in storage. Perhaps the story of Madoc no longer finds favour among the American public.

16 Responses to Welsh “Indians”?

  • Rockie says:

    Much liberal education makes one stupid. Your education doesn’t give you the right to think that someone else can’t do a better job than you. We have found out how much educated scientist can decieve us. I am talking about the global warming hoax. I refuse to believe anyone just because they say they are smart. Sorry

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      Lack of education doesn’t exactly do much for knowledge, does it? But in this instance, it’s not a matter of education. It’s a matter of evidence. If someone is going to make a claim for something, they need to back up that claim. It’s no good just to assert something, Knowledge isn’t based on the authority of a person but on the strength of evidence. For the “Welsh “Indians””, the evidence is very, very weak and open to such serious question that it can’t be taken seriously.

      As for global warming, how is it a hoax? It’s happening, whether you like it or not, because there is that inconvenient thing called evidence. Wish it away as much as you want, but it’s still there, still measurable and still sticking in the throats of the climate change deniers; what’s in dispute is the scale of human contribution to the warming and the ultimate effect of climate change.

  • Louis Tyson says:

    I think this is a really interesting story, since I am of Welsh ancestry, and while the accounts are iffy since their is not really a lot of evidence (anymore), I do believe that it is possible just because of the fact that traders form the Scandinavian countries had been trading/raiding for centuries before Columbus.

  • Angie Adkins says:

    Doeg Indians are part of the Powhatan tribes not Tuscarora..Tuscarora are a Siouan and Powhatan are Algonquian..

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      Many thanks for this. I’ve updated the article accordingly.

      • crzy2364 says:

        Virginia Indians referred to as the Doeg (but also Dogue, Taux, and other names) occupied villages and settlements along the Potomac and Occoquan Rivers in Northern Virginia near Washington DC..The Doeg werent from South Carolina..

  • mark says:

    Im Welsh and looked at many sites about this. The truth is we never know as u say no proof. Same its not been found. Would b a lovely rewrite of history.

  • Joseph Strode says:

    If this long told story of Madog’s journey to “Avalon”, otherwise known as the North American Continent, are not true, how is it possible that the reliefs on the oldest churches in Wales contain Images of corn? Corn was brought back from North America in the 1500s, right? These churches were built before that time in the 1300s. Is that evidence? Ancient accounts of hostiles burning fields of corn in what we now call Wales have been questioned, but why? Why are Roman accounts of history excepted when we know those that reported so much in Britain must have been biased on many levels, even calling the Brits savages? If they were so savage, how did the Roman government trade gold for Iron for so many years. We need to look at all the evidence regarding this Welsh tribe before making a decision about what is or is not true. I believe the evidence for this tribe’s existence is extensive and from many unbiased points of view. Addressing this issue of being educated, one should educate themselves in a subject before making decisions about issues related to that subject. It all depends on how independent and scrutinizing the student is in drawing conclusions. Just because some people believe themselves educated doesn’t mean that they aren’t just brainwashed.

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      Which fourteenth-century Welsh churches specifically contain images of corn? It sounds as if you’re getting muddled with the silly claims about Roslyn Chapel in Scotland.

  • http://ia600401.us.archive.org/35/items/anenquiryintothe14032gut/14032-h/14032-h.htm

    This appears to be the enquiry of John Williams. From it:

    “In a letter, dated Octob. 1st, 1788, a Friend of theirs, a Native of Wales, who lives on the Banks of the Ohio, informed them that he had been several times among Indians who spoke Welsh; and that there was at the time when he wrote, a person in Virginia from the back settlements who had been among a Tribe of Welsh Indians, whose situation he laid down on the River Misouris, or Misouri, about 400 Miles above its junction with the Mississipi; that is between 40 and 50 degrees North Latitude; This Tribe seems to have been that which Captain Stewart saw, and which is also mentioned in Mr. Beatty’s Journal. ”

    If John Evans explored 35 to 49 degrees latitude, he appears to have covered a fair bit of the alleged ground. Although 1 degree latitude in pristine (likely tree covered terrain) is a fair bit to miss, too.

  • Charles says:

    John Evans was born in North-west Wales in Gwynedd and I, too am from that part of the world though North-east Wales. He has intrigued me for many years – nearly as many as Arthur. He lived with the Mandan and traveled considerable distances but never found any Welsh Indians. The Mandans are certainly not Welsh and despite attempts to prove otherwise their language and culture is not like that of Wales, especially Medieval Wales.
    One of the daftest things said about the Welsh Indians is that the were capable of understanding 18th century Welsh with no problem not having spoken anything but 12th century Welsh. No, sorry, John Evans was a fascinating adventurer but there were no Welsh Indians.

  • gail matthias says:

    my last name is Matthias. my father told me just recently that I am welsh. I was reading about the welsh Indians. I have always felt a connection to Indians and didn’t know why? Is it possible that I may be part indian. People have asked me if I was indian because of my olive skin and high cheek bones,except i have green eyes. I am really interested in this. How would I find out anything. Thanks gail

    • You can have your DNA tested nowadays for about $35 and they can tell you what regions of the world your family heritage includes, or at least bloodlines. People move about so much, particularly in the US, in the last 100 or even 200 years. You may know some or all of that though.

      • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

        And, interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be a western European component in the DNA of Native Americans from the midwestern USA.

  • Of course there were ‘Welsh Indians”! Francis Lewis met them at Fort Otsewgo during the French and Indian War. When he died George Washington (A mythical figure if their ever was one) called Lewis in epitaph ” A right prudent Whig” When was the last time someone called you that? Francis Lewis signed the Declaration of Independence for New York State! Oh yeah he spoke Welsh fluently. He was from South Wales, and spoke Welsh and even Gaelic. His granddaughter, Julia Delafield, said so in her biography of Francis and his son Morgan Lewis (a hero and Governor of New York and founder of Welsh Society of New York). Now what we do not know if these Welsh speaking Indians learned the language from French fur traders who maybe spoke Breton, and it sounded similar, or were the survivors of Roanoke, which had Welsh setters. That said it is possible fragments of medieval Welsh would survive to permeate Native language from Madocs day. Not much more because we see in America how fast languages become fragments to grandchildren! Yet the idea of Madoc being something to snicker about is absurd. We know the Vikings certainly came to Canada and that was two centuries earlier. We also know two cebturies later men of the Arthurian west, such as Bristol were sailing to fish and explore here regularly. The argument that Evans did not find them makes sense since he was a paid agent for Spain who did everything to end British presence in the west come to think of it they did everything to end British presence period! It was west country seamen like Francis Drake who made there efforts let us say harder.
    Hell Jefferson sent “Lewis and Clark west to explore the Louisiana Purchase, another part was for Meriweather Lewis to find Welsh Indians. Meriweather Lewis spoke Welsh and he and Jefferson used A Welsh book for code to each other. I know because I had the book and sold it in my Three Geese In Flight Celtic Books shop. It is called “Thomas Jones The British language and it’s Lustre” Lewis most likely was murdered on his way to Jefferson by another money and power hungry traitor, James Wilkinson (if Evans really was indeed a traitor to his culture, but definitely WAS working for Spain) definitely was known to be in the pay of Spain. James Wilkinson was powerful and at one time was the head of the U.S.Army and a man Jefferson and Washington kept close so as to be able to keep an eye on him..No ,even John Dee told Elizabeth two hundred years earlier that Madoc had come to seek Arthur’s even earlier colony and this was a justification to counter Spain’s claim to the ‘New World’. Spain took that Madoc legal threat seriously even if no one today does. You know cynics have a way to make people believe if something is wonderful it can’t be true. It does not mean either that it is definitely true but at very least, the story is, and that is reason not to snicker.

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      Of course there weren’t “Welsh Indiansd”. No matter what the anecdotal evidence, it’s never quite as robust as you claim.

      Compare the alleged two expeditions of Madoc to the single de Soto expedition of 1539-42. There is not one single artefact, one single encampment of twelfth-century European type in the whole of North America. Yet Madoc is supposed to have had two expeditions, the second of which resulted in permanent settlement. Where are the traces? De Soto landed in western Florida and passed through large areas of the southern USA. The route can be traced by the scatter of contemporary artefacts. This was not a permanent settlement, but a journey of discovery, hoping to find riches similar to those of the Inka kingdom in the north. To that extent, it was a failure.

      But look at the unintended effects of de Soto’s expedition: some of the domestic pigs taken on the expedition escaped, became feral and are the ancestors of razorback pigs in the southeastern USA; European diseases that were endemic but not harmful to de Soto’s men, including measles, smallpox and chicken pox, devastated the indigenous population; the very act of contact has been thought responsible for social change among Native American groups. Where are the effects of Madoc’s two voyages and the eventual settlement?

      I have no idea why you accuse me of “snickering” at the story. The story is not supported by any evidence whatsoever. That makes it likely to be false.

Agree or disagree? Please comment!