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.