Morgan Jones was close to starving. It was 1660 and he and his boat crew had been stranded at Oyster Point, in modern-day South Carolina, for almost eight months, running low on food with no hope of rescue.
Eventually, Jones and five others set out “through the wilderness” for British colonies in the north, but were detained as they passed through the territory of a local indigenous tribe.
“That night they carried us to their town and shut us up close to our no small dread,” Jones wrote in an account of his journey published years later.
Told they were to be executed, Jones cried out in his native language, Welsh: “Have I escaped so many dangers and must I now be knocked on the head like a dog?”
One of his captors then approached him and said, “in the British tongue” that Jones “should not die.” Instead, he took him to his home, where Jones happily conversed “with them familiarly in the British (Welsh) language and did preach to them three times a week in the same language.”
After almost a month, Jones returned to his home in New York and wrote to a fellow clergyman, Thomas Lloyd of Pennsylvania, promising to “conduct any Welshman” to the place he had met their American co-linguists.
Jones’ account reignited interest in a more than half-a-century-old story popular on both sides of the Atlantic that Christopher Columbus had been beaten to the Americas by almost 300 years by a Welsh prince, and that therefore the New World belonged not to the Spanish crown but to the English. The rights of indigenous people who had been there for millennia not deemed worth considering.
Proof of this account was purported to be found in existence of Welsh-speaking communities living in America. The hunt for these so-called “white Indians,” who looked and spoke like Europeans, was an obsession for many early settlers, including explorers, priests and journalists – even Thomas Jefferson, the country’s third president.
At its root was not only a rivalry between England and Spain, but also a deep seated racism that sought alternative explanations for how supposedly primitive indigenous people had conquered the Americas and built grand civilizations throughout, the remnants of which European settlers were finding as they spread throughout the continents.
The story goes something like this. In 1170, Owain, ruler of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, in what is now north Wales, died. His sons quickly set about contesting the succession and plunged the country into civil war.
One of Owain’s youngest sons, Madog, was disgusted by the fighting and set off in search of something better. As Humphrey Llwyd put it in his 1584 history, “Cronica Walliae,” Madog “left the land in contention betwixt his brethren, and prepared certaine ships with men and munition, and sought adventures by seas, sailing West, and leaving the coast of Ireland so far north, that he came to a land unknowen, where he saw manie strange things.”
Finding the land lush and plentiful, Madog reportedly left a small number of his crew there to build a settlement and returned to Wales, where he gathered more followers and ships and set off west again, never to return.
The land which Madog sailed to, Llwyd wrote, “must needs be some part of that countrie of which the Spaniardes affirme themselves to be the first finders.”
“It is manifest, that that countrie was long before by Brytaines discovered, afore either Columbus or Americus Vesputius lead anie Spaniards thither,” he said, referring to the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose Latin moniker gave the continents their modern names.
Determined to prove the veracity of the Madog story – and therefore a claim that pre-dated that made by Columbus in 1492 for the Spanish crown – early British colonizers, who had begun arriving in the early 1600s, set about looking for evidence of ancient Welsh settlements.
As British explorers moved out from the original Jamestown settlement in modern-day Virginia and came into contact with more and more indigenous peoples, word spread that at least one tribe spoke a language similar to Welsh.
In 1791, John Williams, a Welsh Presbyterian minister, wrote that “words in common use on different parts of the continent, which are very near, or undeniably Welsh, in both sound and sense, could not happen by chance, and they could not be derived from any Europeans but from the Ancient Britons.”
While some of these words did appear to have similarities to Welsh – such as both using “bara” for bread and “croeso” for welcome – which Williams said were already used by the Mexicans when their country was discovered by the Spaniards. Williams, and other early historians, ignored that the translation of the vast majority of terms with similarities often didn’t make sense. There was much excitement, for example, that penguin sounded like “pen gwyn” – white head, in Welsh – despite the fact that a penguin’s head is black.
“There is extensive literature on travelers discovering American Indians who were fluent in some European or Asiatic language,” Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in in his history of European settlement of North America. “Uneducated travelers were apt to regard every Indian language as gibberish, and so compared it with some known language such as Welsh, Basque, Hebrew, or Finnish, that was also gibberish to them.”
Search for New Wales
Jones’ story was given the less-than-neutral headline “The Crown of England’s Title to America prior to that of Spain” when it first appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, a popular London periodical. It caused a sensation in the UK, emboldening both those who sought to claim the Americas for England, and those who saw any evidence of indigenous advancement as proof of European heritage.
Following the American Revolution of 1783, interest in the “Welsh Indians” continued among residents of the newly independent States. As the US expanded its territory westward, many assumed they would eventually encounter the tribe of ancient Britons.
In an 1804 letter to explorer Meriweather Lewis, then President Thomas Jefferson enclosed a map created by John Evans, who had been employed several years earlier by the Spanish colonial authorities to graph their new territory, “but whose original object I believe had been to go in search of the Welsh Indians, said to be up the Missouri.”
But while he may have been remembered by Jefferson for his search for the Welsh Indians, Evans was actually among the first to poke a hole in the myth.
“The hunt for the Welsh Indians had moved westward with Anglo-American settlement,” Elizabeth Fenn writes in “Encounters at the Heart of the World,” her history of the Mandan people, an Indian nation long believed to be descended from Europeans. “By 1794, its focus had narrowed to two Indian peoples: the Apaches of the Southwest and the Mandans of the upper Missouri.”
Born in North Wales near Caernarfon, Evans was an explorer and mapmaker working for the Spanish crown in its American territories. While he carried out his work, however, he was also, according to Fenn, “hell-bent on ascending the Missouri River to find the Welsh Indians.”
From 1795, Evans spent two years exploring and mapping the northern reaches of the Missouri, looking for a route to the Pacific. But while he did meet the Mandan people, he did not uncover any evidence of European heritage.
It was later reported that he had concluded such people did not exist.
The increasing volume of experiences like that of Evans with non-Welsh-speaking indigenous peoples throughout North America, should have been the end of it, but the myth proved surprisingly persistent.
Evans’ critics claimed that he had lied to protect the territorial claims of his Spanish paymasters, and stories of Madog continued into the 20th century.
“John Evans proved that Madoc is myth, which is an unpopular assumption to make,” one of his descendants, Gruff Rhys, frontman of Welsh rockband Super Furry Animals, said in 2014.
Rhys’ album “American Interior” focuses on Evans’ explorations and his debunking of the Madog tales.
“He’s an incredibly brave and romantic figure, who is almost beyond classification. His story is quite unique,” the musician told the BBC. “He failed in some ways but it’s a glorious failure.”
While the Madog myth can seem ridiculous, even comedic, to modern eyes, the sentiments underpinning the hunt for “White Indians” were far more pernicious and damaging.
“From the earliest European discoveries, rumors of ‘White Indians’ have circulated in America,” McLaird, the historian, wrote in 1988. “Always to the west of settled areas, there were supposed to be people who possessed advanced customs and technology, unlike the ‘uncivilized savages’ the frontiersmen had already met and fought. Sometimes these claims were buttressed by ‘eyewitness accounts’ of meetings with bearded, light-skinned Indians, some of whom possessed Bibles.”
This was true across the Americas. Traipsing through the deep Amazon jungle in the early 1900s in search an advanced civilization he called Z, British explorer Percy Fawcett was sure he would find evidence of Indians who had descended from Western civilization.
“Fawcett could never take the final leap of a modern anthropologist and accept that complex civilizations were capable of springing up independently of each other,” according to his biographer David Grann.
In 1924, Alexander Hamilton Rice, a contemporary and rival of Fawcett’s, claimed the “discovery of a tribe of White Indians at the headwaters of the Parima River in northern Brazil who spoke a language entirely their own and used cocaine as a relish for their diet of wild plantains,” the New York Times reported at the time.
The racial prejudice motivating these types of searches were clear in an article published by another explorer the following year.
Writing that he had discovered a number of White Indians in the jungles of Panama who spoke “a language related to ancient Sanskrit,” explorer Richard Marsh said they offered hints into “how white men evolved from the primeval brown race” and evidence of “at least two great white-influenced civilizations” in central and south America.
Marsh dragged several of these possible “descendants of the early Norwegians” back to Washington with him to be examined by scientists. A photo of them from the time shows that they, like many supposed “White Indians” spotted by explorers, were actually indigenous people with albinism.
All accounts of supposed European-descended indigenous Americans were based on highly selective use of evidence. Marsh ignored the non-albino relations of his White Indians, while proponents of the Madog myth focused on words in indigenous languages that sounded Welsh while discounting all that did not.
Often the evidence presented to the theory was contradictory: “blue-eyed Indians” allegedly descended from Welsh settlers overlooked that ethnic Britons tended to have brown eyes. Accounts of tribes believed to be the Welsh Indians which do not mention the Madog myth, such as those of explorers Lewis and Clarke, are also ignored.
The assumption that indigenous Americans were “backward” or primitive, ignoring accounts of early explorers and archaeological evidence, was used to justify a brutal, often genocidal replacement of indigenous people by European invaders. To this day, stereotypes about Native Americas continue to cause harm, as many indigenous people are marginalized and ignored.
Part of the attraction of the Madog myth was the romance inherent in setting off on an amazing journey and settling a new land.
But a group of people did do this, and a long time before a mythical 12th century Welsh prince was even born, crossing into North America from Siberia over the Bering Strait.
Their descendants spread out across the entire continent, building towns and cities and creating complex societies. They thrived for thousands of years before European invaders, and their infectious diseases, brought widespread death to the Americas, forever shaping their future.