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.