America Discovered by a Welshman?

The short answer? No. Even if Prince Madoc of Wales did indeed make it to North America in the 12th century, as most accounts maintain, the Vikings beat him to it by about 200 years. But did the Welsh come in a respectable and very British second place? Probably not…

Wikipedia (as of 4.6.07) has a good summary of the legend and assessment of the evidence. Basically the claim goes that a medieval Welsh prince landed in North America and founded a settlement there, leaving behind physical evidence and tales of white, Welsh-speaking indians! So, who’s backing this theory?

Most of the proponents of the theory are long dead antiquarian-type writers, but the highest profile modern-day supporter seems to be Alan Wilson, who has written extensively (and misleadingly) about King Arthur. He is yet to put pen to paper re Madoc, but appears in media articles and various websites about the legend. His version posits an earlier “Madoc”, of the 6th century AD. But as a fellow poster on the JREF sceptical forum has pointed out, Madoc as an historical figure appears to be no better documented than King Arthur or Robin Hood. In other words, we can’t even be sure he existed, let alone made to America.

For me, the most striking parallels with other pseudohistorical and cult archaeological theories (and indeed conspiracy theories) are the superficially convincing pieces of “evidence”, usually visual in nature. Interesting or impressive enough to sow seeds of intrigue and a sense of forbidden knowledge, something greater than ourselves and our dull, modern lives. Ideally, it will play on some pre-existing notion or agenda in the audience’s minds (holocaust denial being the most extreme example). The ludicrous Noah’s Ark in Turkey is a prime example – an impressive but entirely natural feature attributed biblical significance.

In this case, the amateur historians in question claim that a natural rock formation with native American archaeology is somehow a Welsh fort, that Tennesse native American burial mounds are in fact British (Bronze Age) burial mounds, and that their round wood-and-hide Bull Boats were in reality Welsh coracles. All of these would be possible to prove with proper archaeological investigation – needless to say neither the “amateurs” nor real archaeologists have set out to do so. It’s enough simply to suggest the possibility, and both believers and casual (dare I say “Reader’s Digest”) readers will be sucked in – the former because they need little encouragement, and the latter through inability or unwillingness to look deeper.

This leads into another familiar aspect of cult archaeology – the notion that ancient and/or “other” cultures would not have been able to achieve these things without outside (European, Atlantean, alien, spiritual, whatever). As someone with a great deal of respect for the accomplishments of ancient cultures, I find this attitude both ignorant and inadvertently bigoted.

What other evidence is there for this theory? Reports of “white” indians are quite common in the historical literature – no doubt the result of explorers encountering the variety of human genetics in a generally darker-skinned group of populations. With regard to the Mandan tribe, the tribe that Madoc’s settlers supposed integrated into, the claim is not only that some were white, blue-eyed and bearded, but that they spoke Welsh. My personal assessment of this, without having access to original sources, is that the Westerners were falling into the old trap of pattern-recognition; they had never heard that particular language before, and reported it as either sounding like Welsh, or actually being the Welsh language. In the absence of any quality evidence, these anecdotes can and probably should be discounted, except as an interesting insight into the minds of 18th century white men. The most oft-quoted figures to have spoken of Welsh indians were those accompanying Lewis and Clark on their 1806 expedition. In fact these men did not stumble upon such natives, but were actively searching for them based upon stories that were apocryphal even in their time. The quote found at this website is about as definitive as their results were to be – not very!

Finally, there is even a touch of conspiracy theory about this whole palaver. Because of the political and national consequences of a story like this actually being verified, some Welsh people are understandably keen to do so. Sadly, because the evidence is so lacking, it’s necessary for such supporters to reach, and reach badly. The Madoc story has been ignored, treated as myth, criticised, and pooh-poohed by serious academics since it first emerged, and this is naturally viewed as deliberate suppression of (Welsh) history by a very few (I’m sure most are quite happy with Madoc as a mythical figure, or simply don’t give a monkey’s!). Fansite madoc1170.com highlights one little conspiracy theory – that the 18th century explorer John Evans, who came back from America having tried to find evidence of the Madocites with nothing to report. The webmaster accuses him in a roundabout way of wilful suppression of evidence. Quite bizarre, but typical of those who badly, desperately want their particular myth to be real.

So what can we learn from this particular convoluted tale? First, Wales has made a valuable contribution to British and world history, but they were not the first Europeans in the New World. Second? The Vikings were. And they kicked serious bottom.

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7 Responses to “America Discovered by a Welshman?”

  1. Native American myth / traditionsupports Bigfoot? A critical look. « The BS Historian Says:

    […] or even lived side-by-side with such creatures, reminded me of the Welsh Prince-Finds-America post I wrote a while ago. It sounds plausible, but once you start to do some research, or even just ask […]

  2. sizalo Says:

    After reading this article you are talking complete bull crap, the Vikings did not discover America they discovered Canada not America the tribe was wiped out before they even got to America.

    the Vikings landed in Newfoundland and was wiped out by a tribe the tribe even written it down.

    Even a 10 year old knows that,

    Only people who could have found America was Prince Madoc of Wales or Columbus end of story.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Oh dear. I think you need to bone up on the difference between “America” and “The United States of America”. Even a ten-year-old knows that.

  3. Richard Welch Says:

    Whether or not the Madoc tale is true (which I personally doubt), there is a good deal of evidence that Celtic voyagers reached America more than a few times before Columbus. Some of these voyages may even date to BC, accounting for the widespread reports of a Celtic tinge in a number of Amerindian tribes. (See Roots of Cataclysm, Algora Publ. NY 2009.)

  4. James Says:

    Hello,
    I accidentally stumbled upon your article and read through what i thought was an historian’s opinion based on historical fact. The feeling I was left with by your rhetoric was nothing short of bitter discourse, quite professionally displayed, almost.
    First of all, in your own words “as most accounts maintain”, the prince madoc did indeed travel to America, the reason most accounts maintain this is because it is well documented in Welsh text but i agree this does not mean that the welsh discovered America. Secondly, there are numerous claims to the discovery of america that pre date the vikings so perhaps to give a fair round up of events you could have included those other claims instead of attempting to write history yourself which you are clearly unable and unqualified to do.
    You then go on to state that wikipedia has a good summary of this legend which “claims” that the Prince Madoc landed and established a colony in North America, not a great place to establish historical fact for research by an academic such as yourself and to top it off you put the whole idea down with the words “probably not”. Probably not, is most definitely and unequivocally the wrong way to reassure someone of your surety that these historical “claims” are false. In fact, they are in totality, unprofessional and incorrect.
    I wonder if you would be so good as to inform me of the long dead antiquarian type proponents of this theory are. It is historical fact that the Story of King Arthur was taught in schools in wales as historical fact up until the 1920’s. I have living relatives that can prove this so where do you draw your conclusions that this is Legendary. Is Atlantis a Legend? Or did the Greeks just speak of them and that they traded with them just for fun.
    Could you also tell me exactly what Alan Wilson has said about king Arthur which is misleading?
    I just happen to live in North Wales and Madoc is everywhere. He was born in a keep in Dolwyddelan about 20 miles from where i live. The town of Porthmadog which literally translates to the port of Madoc is 40 miles away which lies on the shores of the Irish sea, the neighbouring town is Tremadog which translates to the town of Madoc and a local pub near me is named the prince madoc. The reason the town’s names end in “g” and not in “c” is because of Welsh language Mutation. The reason the port is called Madocs port is because he established it. Perhaps you could research it on Wikipedia, im sure it will give you an excellent insight to form your inadvertently bigoted opinion, but, then again, perhaps your inability and unwillingness to search past wikipedia may restrict you from finding a hint of evidence to support or entertain what are real places on planet earth with real reason and historical fact and importance behind them.

    Now, the claim that there were members of the group of settlers who integrated into the tribes and that there descendants spoke Welsh. You have without any reasonable sense put down these claims for your own bigoted opinions, you are ridiculing yourself for not objecting these claims with evidence. Your rhetoric and bigoted views are nothing short of abhorrent and to class yourself as anybody that should be taken with any sort of authority or credence was lost on me in the first paragraph. To give a personal assessment you must hold yourself in the highest degree but the only replies you have on this page are negative toward your rather pathetic and uninformed opinions.

    Yours sincerely
    James McGuigan

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