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The Explorer and the Welsh Indians

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Are There Welsh-Speaking Indians?

Who knew there were American Indians who spoke Welsh? John Evans thought he knew and, in 1792, he set out to find them among the Mandan tribe. It didn't work out as the intrepid explorer imagined.

A Mandan chief.

A Mandan chief.

The Legend of Madoc

The story starts with the death of the Welsh King Owain Gwynedd in 1170. The old guy's passing triggered a squabble among his sons. One of them, Dafydd seized the throne, causing Prince Madoc to depart in search of adventure.

Along with a bunch of companions, Madoc set off into the unknown of the Atlantic. Having crossed the mighty ocean, the Welsh sailors are said to have bumped into the American continent.

However, there's considerable doubt that this ever happened; here's how History of Yesterday puts it: “Where Madoc landed is inconclusive as there is no hard evidence of the legitimacy of this story . . .”

Believers in the yarn say Madoc and his crew made landfall in the Gulf of Mexico in what is now Alabama. The story continues that the Welsh migrants moved north as far as the upper Missouri River where they intermingled with Native Indians to create a tribe that spoke Welsh.

The folk tale turned up in a poem by Maredudd ap Rhys in the late 15th century. The verse contains the words “Splendid Madog (Madoc) . . . Of Owain Gwynedd’s line, He desired not land . . . Or worldy wealth but the sea.”

As more settlers arrived in North America, the fable of Prince Madoc kept being passed along. Missionaries and traders were showing up with stories of bumping into light-skinned Indians with blue eyes who spoke something approaching Welsh. These strange people were to be found in the Great Plains it was said.

The Legend of Prince Madoc

A Poet Triggers an Adventure

In 1791, the Welsh poet Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) latched onto the Madoc fable and proclaimed he was going to America to find the Welsh Indians.

This is where we meet John Evans, son of a Methodist preacher and 21 years old when Edward Williams made his announcement. The idea of finding the Welsh Indians excited the imagination of Evans and he volunteered to join Williams.

But, it turned out that Williams was a bit flaky. He was later found to have forged many poems he claimed were long lost medieval Welsh classics. He also had an opium habit.

Then, he decided he wasn't that interested in finding the lost tribe of Wales and backed out of the expedition. Evans, a man of stronger character although weak in judgment, decided to go on alone.

He arrived in Baltimore in October 1792 and began making plans for his project. He sought advice from locals and the advice he received was unanimous—attempting a trek of the sought he planned was madness.

The John Evans Expedition

Evans set off alone from Baltimore in the spring of 1793, almost completely ignorant of the challenges he would face and with less than $2 in his pocket. The escapade had disaster written all over it but he naively told the few that showed up to send him off that “God is my shield.”

Almost impossibly, he crossed the Allegheny Mountains, hitched a ride on a boat down the Ohio River until he reached the Mississippi. Then, he turned north and followed the Mississippi to St. Louis, where he intended to continue his journey up the Missouri.

St. Louis was controlled by the Spanish at the time and they welcomed the audacious traveler by tossing him in jail. The assumption was that he was a British spy and the Spanish, understandably, did not believe his story that he was on his way to find a tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians.

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Then, his captors had second thoughts. They decided to turn him loose in the hope he could find a route across the Rockies so that King Charles IV could claim the west coast for Spain. They made him second-in-command of a real expedition with four boats and 30 armed men. By November 1795, they were in Omaha territory and the group decided to overwinter.

Evans had no patience with the idea of watching the snow fly for 12 weeks so he set off, now on horseback, with a few companions to find his quarry.

The excursion didn't last long as they ran into a Sioux war party very disinclined to welcome the Europeans into their territory. So, they beat a hasty retreat to the winter camp. In the spring, Evans set off again, following the Missouri into the badlands of North Dakota. Eventually, he made contact with the Mandan people.

Evans traveled huge distances by following rivers.

Evans traveled huge distances by following rivers.

The Mandan Tribe

The best guess had been that the fabled light-skinned Indians who spoke Welsh were the Mandans. He found this tribe to be unlike most others in the Great Plains. They lived in huts rather than tepees and they farmed crops rather than hunted buffalo. Their language, although of the Siouian strain, was different and, for those looking for it, some pronunciation could be mistaken for Welsh.

After four years and travelling 8,000 miles from his home in North Wales, John Evans had found his elusive band of Welsh Indians. He spent the winter with the Mandan but, unaccustomed to their meagre diet and the bitter cold, his health started to suffer. He learned about their culture but he also learned, in the words of writer Simon Bendle, they “were about as Welsh as a haggis.”

He wrote that “by my Communications with the Indians this side of the Pacific Ocean . . . I am able to inform you that there is no such People as the Welsh Indians.” What a horrible disappointment it must have been to arrive at that realization.

He returned to St. Louis, and still in the pay of the Spanish, he moved to New Orleans. Bad luck in the form of poor health and being robbed of all he possessed left him destitute. He took to drink and died before his 30th birthday.

Artist George Catlin painted this Mandan girl in 1832. He commented that the girl was “twelve years of age, with grey hair! peculiar to the Mandans . . .”

Artist George Catlin painted this Mandan girl in 1832. He commented that the girl was “twelve years of age, with grey hair! peculiar to the Mandans . . .”

Bonus Factoids

  • The tale kept circulating such that President Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for these Welsh-speaking Indians as they began their epic expedition in 1804. They made contact with the Mandans and World History reports that the explorers “found skeletons wearing brass breasts bearing etchings of the harp, a Welsh symbol, and a mermaid. There was also an inscription indicating that their deeds were virtuous, so they earned these rewards. Clark and others, after an investigation, concluded that the skeletons were those of Modoc’s (Madoc's) men.”
  • The Daughters of the American Revolution is made up of women who can trace direct lineage to people involved in the struggle for American independence. In 1953, the society installed a plaque in Mobile, Alabama that extolled the virtues of Prince Madoc. The plaque was removed in 2008 over doubts about the authenticity of the story of his arrival in America.
  • The artist George Catlin lived with the Mandans for eight years. He concluded they were indeed descendants of Madoc's settlers.
Catlin painted Mandan Indians in boats that he said were remarkably similar to the coracles (see below) used in Wales.

Catlin painted Mandan Indians in boats that he said were remarkably similar to the coracles (see below) used in Wales.

A Welsh coracle.

A Welsh coracle.

Sources

Prince Madoc: The Legend of How the Welsh Colonized North America.” Christian Nelson, historyofyesterday.com, July 5, 2021.

Edward Williams/Iolo Morganwg/Iolo Morgannwg.” Jones's Celtic Encyclopedia, 2004.

EVANS, JOHN (1770 - 1799), explorer.” Dictionary of Welsh Biography, undated.

John Evans: In Search of the Welsh Indians.” Simon Bendle, greatbritishnutters.blogspot.com, January 25, 2008.

Enigmatic Welsh Mandan AmerIndian Tribe.” worldhistory.us, July 2, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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