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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Prince Madoc Discovers America

In memory of Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer, who landed on the shores

of Mobile Bay in 1170 and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language.

Plaque erected in Mobile, Alabama, USA in 1953

Prince Madoc was the son of Owain Gwynedd, King of Gwynedd. The King, not content with just two wives, the maximum allowed according to Welsh law at that time, also kept four mistresses. He sired nineteen sons many of whom, including Madoc, were illegitimate. According to custom, all the children were openly acknowledged as the King’s. When the King died in 1169, rivalries between his sons eager to take the throne quickly escalated into open warfare.

Being illegitimate, Prince Madoc was not a contender for the crown and, unwilling to take sides in the increasingly bloody fights, he resolved to escape from Wales. Two stout ships were fitted out ready for a voyage. The Gorn Gwynant and the Pedr Sant had been built from sturdy oak trees hewn from the forest of Nant Gwynant. Prince Madoc had sailed in them before and was a skilled navigator already famous for his adventures.

Prince Madoc discovers America

The prince was a popular leader and men were eager to crew his ships. The ships departed from a quay on the River Ganol, now Rhos on Sea, and set sail west. They stopped at Lundy Island where Prince Rhirid, one of Prince Madoc’s brothers, joined them. From Lundy the two vessels sailed on past Ireland, steering steadily west heading for the edge of the known world.

The fight for the throne of Gwynedd continued. Owain’s designated son and heir, Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd, fell at the battle of Pentraeth, killed by his half brothers Dafydd and Rhodri. The war continued and other brothers were killed in battle or murdered until only Dafydd and Rhodri remained strong enough to claim the crown. Eventually, the kingdom was divided between Dafydd and Rhodri and an uneasy peace was established. Another generation would pass before the Kingdom of Gwynedd was finally reunified under Llyweln the Great.

Prince Madoc had almost been forgotten when, years later, he returned with a strange tale to tell. The Prince had crossed a great ocean to a distant land. A land inhabited by friendly people with dark skins who welcomed him and his crew. A land where, if you were hungry, you just had to reach up and pluck sweet fruits from the trees. He told of rivers that were full of fish and great plains covered with herds of huge beasts the natives called bufallo.

Some of the Prince’s crew had remained behind in the strange land and Prince Madoc announced, at once, that he would return across the great ocean to join his men. He invited others, who might want to start a new life, to come. Ten ships were prepared and quickly filled, ready for the long voyage. Once more Prince Madoc sailed away to the west.

After a long and dangerous journey, they landed at a place we now call Mobile, Alabama. From Mobile the ships travelled inland along mighty rivers. Mandan Indians guided the Welshmen. The settlers built forts to protect themselves against unfriendly Indians.They taught their Indian guides to speak Welsh and how to fish using coracles. The Welshmen took native wives and, over the years, the Mandans and the Welshmen merged to become one tribe.

Welsh Legends and Myths

Prince Madoc never returned to Wales but there is ample evidence of his arrival in America. In 1608 explorer Peter Wynne discovered a tribe in Virginia calling themselves Monacan Indians and wrote that they spoke ‘Welch’. In 1669 Reverend Morgan Jones was captured by a tribe called the Doeg. When he conversed with them in Welsh they understood his meaning. He stayed with the Doeg for several months before being released and returning to the British colonies. In 1799 Governor John Sevier of Tennessee reported the discovery of six skeletons wearing brass armour bearing the Welsh coat of arms.

A mound and stone fortification called the’Devil’s Backbone’ exists fourteen miles unpstream from Louisville, Kentucky built about the same time as Prince Madoc arrived using a design similar to castles that existed in North Wales. Cherokee Indian tradition refers to a tribe of ‘fair skinned moon eyed’ people, known as Modoc, who built a stone castle on Fort Mountain, Georgia. In 1832 German ethnologist, Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, travelled up the Missouri River and across the Great Plains. He studied the Mandan language and made a comparison list of common Welsh and Mandan words. In 1841, the painter George Catlin painted Mandan Indians fishing using a round boat refered to as a ‘Bull Boat’. Its design was the same as the Welsh coracle.

Other evidence exists, including DNA and radio carbon dating, to support the fact that Prince Madoc discovered and settled in America more than 300 years before Christopher Columbus arrived. In 1738 French traders visited nine Mandan villages along the Heart River containing 15,000 inhabitants. The Mandans had become a great Indian nation and had prospered and spread up into the Great Plains of America.

Welsh Legends and Myths

Sadly, in 1837, the Mandan Indian tribe was infected with smallpox by the crew of a visiting boat. The disease tore through the nation and only 125 Mandans survived the epedemic. The United States government then merged the Mandans with other Indian tribes and the last full blooded Mandan died in 1971. How much of Prince Madoc’s Welsh blood ran in his veins we shall never know.

The plaque commemorating the voyage of Prince Madoc was damaged by a hurricane in 1979 and removed, for safe keeping, by the US military. Since then, the Alabama Welsh Society has been campaigning for it to be replaced, in its original position, in honour of the first European to discover America.

"I have dwelt longer on the history and customs of these people than I have or shall on any other tribe... because I have found them a very peculiar people. From the striking peculiarities in their personal appearance, in their customs, traditions, and language, I have been led conclusively to believe that they are a people of a decidedly different origin from that of any other tribe in these regions."

George Catlin 1796 - 1872

American Artist.

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