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A Profound and Enduring Impression

The vast frontier of the American West has always been a fertile breeding ground for rumors, legends, myths, and tall tales. In particular, there has been no shortage of outrageous stories regarding interactions with America’s indigenous tribes that often strain the limits of credulity. One of the most preposterous rumors of all revolved around the notion that certain tribes west of the Mississippi River were descended from Welsh colonists who first arrived in America during the 12th century.

According to Welsh legend, a royal prince by the name of Madoc supposedly took to the high seas and departed from Wales for new pastures in 1170 after the death of his father led to a bloody power struggle. The tale of Madoc, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, evolved to incorporate the idea that he had actually navigated his way to America and established Welsh colonies, thus conveniently providing a British presence in the New World that predated any and all Spanish claims. In all likelihood, Elizabeth I and her advisors initially deployed the Madoc story strictly as propaganda in order to trump their Spanish rivals. However, the modified Madoc legend ended up taking on a life of its own, especially amongst Welshmen and Welsh-Americans who were exceedingly proud that one of their own might have been the true “discoverer” of the New World.

Over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, countless rumors were circulated regarding the existence of so-called “Welsh Indians,” descendants of Madoc’s colonists who were believed to have mixed with local Native populations and yet still clung to vestiges of Christian traditions, established fortified European-style towns, and spoke the Welsh language fluently. At first, attention focused on tribes of the Eastern seaboard near locations where Madoc’s colonists were thought to have landed, such as Newfoundland, New England, the Carolinas, and Florida. In John William’s Farther Observations on the Discovery of America, by Prince Madog ab Owen Gwynedd (1791), the famous accounts of Reverend Morgan Jones and Captain Isaac Stewart feature prominently. Jones had claimed to have been captured in 1660 by Indians in Tuscarora country while visiting South Carolina. His imminent execution was prevented only after the Indians heard him praying in the Welsh tongue, which they miraculously understood. Stewart likewise claimed that he was captured around 1766 before being rescued by a Spaniard and a Welshman named John David. During their subsequent adventures, the company crossed “the Mississipi near Rouge or Red River, up which we travelled 700 Miles, when we came to a Nation of Indians remarkably White, and whose Hair was of a reddish Colour.” John David was reportedly astounded to find that these people were also able to speak Welsh.

First and Second Chief of Mandans

Photographer Stanley J. Morrow (1943-1921), active in the Dakota Territory region during the late 1860s and 1870s, alluded to the Welsh-Mandan theory in a caption on the back of this image, which reads, “1st and 2nd Chiefs of the Mandans, descendants of a colony of Welch.” This caption indicates that enough people were familiar with this idea to warrant Morrow using it as a marketing point.

The Welsh Indian hypothesis continued to gain adherents throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Reverend B. F. Bowen’s America Discovered by the Welsh in 1170 A.D. (1876) argued that tribes ranging from the Allegheny Mountains to Florida, from the Gulf of Mexico to the American Southwest and the Great Plains could all potentially be Welsh Indians. The empires of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas in Mexico and South America were also considered to have been founded by Madoc’s Welshmen. According to Bowen and other like-minded individuals, there appeared to be no other logical explanation for how these civilizations reached such heights of almost European-esque sophistication and complexity. Bowen even pointed to the structures left behind by the Mound Builder civilization in Kentucky and Ohio as proof that Madoc’s descendants must have migrated westward while under attack from the Iroquois before eventually escaping up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. This migration theory, of course, also helped explain the conspicuous absence of Welsh Indians east of the Mississippi.

Reverend Bowen also referenced a letter published in the Kentucky Palladium in 1804 by a Mississippi judge, which stated that “No circumstance relating to the history of the Western country probably has excited, at different times, more general attention and anxious curiosity than the opinion that a nation of white men speaking the Welsh language reside high up the Missouri.” In fact, many early explorers of the American West, such as Lewis and Clark (who were instructed by Thomas Jefferson, himself of partial Welsh descent, to be on the lookout for Welsh Indians), considered the discovery of Madoc’s descendants a bonus subplot of their missions.

George Catlin, the famed frontier explorer and artist who lived amongst a number of Plains Indian tribes during the 1830s, was convinced that the Mandan tribe of the Upper Missouri region were the long sought-after Welsh Indians. Catlin spent a considerable amount of time dwelling among the Mandan. In his Illustrations of the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians (1876), he pointed to the tribe’s engineering feats (including their one-man fishing boats which resembled the Welsh coracle); impressive agricultural infrastructure; curious religious customs (which to Catlin represented a bastardized version of Christianity); relatively light complexions; and apparent corollaries between the Mandan and Welsh languages as evidence of the tribe’s Madocian lineage. Catlin wholeheartedly believed that the Mandan must have “sprung from some other origin than that of the other North American tribes, or that they are an amalgam of natives with some civilized race.” He also claimed that William Clark had “told me, before I started for this place, that I would find the Mandans a strange people and half white.”
Rendering of a Mandan settlement called “Mih-Tutta-Hangkusch"

The works produced by Swiss-French artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) during the Weid Expedition of the early 1830s are considered to be some of the most important and accurate visual depictions of indigenous peoples and natural landscapes from the early days of exploration in the American West. In this detail of a rendering of a Mandan settlement called “Mih-Tutta-Hangkusch,” villagers can be seen operating the fishing boats that George Catlin and others so strongly believed to be derived from the Welsh coracle.

The photography of Stanley J. Morrow, a western frontier photographer based in Yankton, Dakota Territory, during the 1870s and 1880s, further perpetuated the Welsh Mandan theory. Two S. J. Morrow stereographs from the Richard Pohrt Jr. Collection of Native American Photography referred to the Mandan explicitly as being “descendants of a colony of Welch” and “supposed descendants of a Welsh colony.”

Needless to say, all theories regarding the existence of Indian tribes descended from a renegade 12th-century Welsh prince have long proven to be false. English skeptic Thomas Stephens vigorously disputed many of the popular narratives of his day and age that were associated with Madoc and the Welsh Indians in his Madoc; An Essay on the Discovery of America by Madoc ab Owen Gwynedd in the Twelfth Century (1893). Reverend Morgan Jones’ captivity story was shown likely to be nothing more than an elaborate hoax, while Catlin’s comparative linguistic analysis of Welsh and Mandan was demonstrated to be a laughable misrepresentation of the facts. However, Stephens found his efforts at undermining the Madoc legend’s legitimacy surprisingly difficult, particularly with regards to individuals of Welsh extraction who continued to defend it. According to Stephens, “The tales told respecting the Welsh Indians found favour with many persons . . . but in Wales itself they produced a profound and enduring impression.”

Welsh and Mandan Comparison Chart

Comparative analyses of Mandan and Welsh words with supposedly similar phonetics and meanings, such as this table included in Bowen’s America Discovered by the Welsh, were considered by Catlin and others to be irrefutable evidence of the tribe’s Welsh heritage.

It is remarkable to think that a 12th-century Welsh legend coopted by Elizabethan England for political purposes before later evolving into outlandish origin stories about Native American tribes continues to endure to this day. Indeed, despite the abundance of readily accessible evidence to the contrary, Welsh Indian theories (especially the Welsh-Mandan hypothesis) still have plenty of devotees. In 1974 a Welshman named Bernard Thomas crossed the English Channel in a coracle as a publicity stunt to draw attention to the idea that the boats used by the Mandan on the Missouri River could have been derived from similar fishing vessels introduced by Madoc. Just within the past decade a small group of Welsh researchers have tried to establish a genetic linkage between the Welsh and Mandan peoples using modern DNA analysis. Thus, even in this modern Age of Information, some legends carry more weight than the truth.

Jakob Dopp
Cataloger, Graphics Division