(The Search for the “Welsh Indians”)
Around 45 members gathered via Zoom on Thursday 18th March, to hear a fascinating presentation on the topic of “The Quest for Madog”.
Our speaker for this evening was Bob Morris. Bob is a native of Pwllheli and a graduate of Bangor University and has spent much of his distinguished career in further and higher education roles. He is also a broadcaster and an author of many publications.
The speaker began by asking the questions “who was Prince Madog and what was his quest?” He emphasised that these questions do not have a definitive answer, legend, myth and tradition have always played a large part of this story. However, as with much of history we have clues to assist through written, oral, and physical sources. We were taken back to the figure of his supposed father, Owain Gwynedd, a dominant Welsh ruler of Gwynedd in the mid-12th century. Bob discussed Owain Gwynedd’s struggles with Henry II, including the Battle of Tegeingl 1157, the itinerant nature of his courts and the importance of Deganwy as part of the frontier area between England and Gwynedd. We were shown slides on sites local to Deganwy such as Llys Euryn, Rhosfynach and Odstone, an arts and craft type house in Penrhyn Bay. It was interesting to learn that when the owners of Odstone built a rock garden they incorporated all the surviving stones from what may have been a quayside into the rockery. Is it possible Madoc sailed to America from here? The issue of the type of ship on which Madog sailed was an interesting one. We cannot know for certain whether it was, for example, a single-masted cog or a long ship, such as those in which the Vikings had sailed to America. The latter is more likely as it appears that the grandmother of Madog may have been a Viking princess.
Our speaker then turned to the question of why Madog made this voyage. In his book Cronica Walliae Humphrey Llwyd, from Denbigh, wrote the story of Madog. He considered that after the death of Owain Gwynedd Madog became very unhappy with the in-fighting, even fratricide, between his brothers. So, he sailed with 3 ships and a retinue looking for a land where he could exist in peace and harmony. He sailed west to North America, possibly landing in Mobile Alabama or Florida, and decided to settle there. He then made the decision to sail back to Wales and bring another retinue to join the original settlers. He never returned. Was he lost at sea? We shall never know.
However, the saga does not end there. The story of Madog’s quest lived on supported by several authors and some of Humphrey Llwyd’s ideas were taken up by Dr John Dee, astrologer to Queen Elizabeth 1. He used the term the “British Empire” to promote his view that Queen Elizabeth should lay claim to North America, much of which had already been claimed by Spain and Portugal. John Dee’s view was that she had the right to claim through her lineage as the Princes of Gwynedd were related to the Tudor monarchs.
In the late 17th century, the European powers continued to colonise the Americas. We were introduced to the intriguing character of Morgan Jones, a Welsh puritan preacher based in New York. The story goes that while travelling in the wilderness he was captured by Indians, tied to a stake and feared he would be burnt alive. He cried out in Welsh for God to help him and one of his captors understood him! Morgan Jones was released and subsequently described how the Indians lived in a Welsh-speaking settlement and claimed they were descendants of settlers led by a Welsh royal prince. So began the story of the “Welsh Indians”. This was all published in various London journals and became extremely popular with the London Welsh. Our speaker commented on the useful propaganda element to this as England were at war with Spain in the 1740s.
Another interesting character to whom we were introduced was that of William Augustus Bowles 1763-1805. Bowles married a princess of one of the Indian tribes and after the American War of Independence he came to London to give lectures on life as an American Indian. Various members of the London Welsh societies, were impressed with Bowles’ story and the tradition of Welsh-speaking Indians and there was enthusiasm for an expedition to find the Padouka tribe1. However, enthusiasm eventually waned -except for one man who offered to go. In August 1792 John Evans of Waunfawr sailed to America, funded by rich patrons2. We were then treated to the stories of this young man’s adventures, crossing mountains, going down the mighty Ohio river by barge, being locked-up as a spy in St Louis and his friendship with James McKay, a Scottish trader and trapper. We learnt of their journeys through the wilderness, trading with trappers and Native Americans, meeting with the Sioux nation, the setting up of Fort Charles and their buffalo hunts with the people of the Omaha. Eventually James McKay decided to stay at Fort Charles as there were rumours of another expedition challenging for trading rights and John Evans pressed on to try to find the fabled American Indians. He found the Mandan tribe (in modern North Dakota) who were thought to be the source of the story and we were shown slides of the way they lived in a type of roundhouse, like those seen in Europe and of their coracles, similar to those still seen in Cardiganshire today. John Evans stayed with the Mandan for 6 or 7 months and studied their language, eventually deciding that the language was not derived from Welsh. Eventually, facing problems with money, conflict with a British expedition from Winnipeg and no prospect of crossing the Rockies, Evans left the tribe and turned back East, never to return. He died 2 years later, his health ruined by drink and his time in the wilderness3. Shortly before his death aged 29, he wrote that he had failed to find the Welsh Indians and they were only a legend. However his achievements survived him, and John Evans travelled further in the Americas than any other European of that era and produced extensive notes and maps for those who followed him. After his death in 1799 these notes and maps remained in the governor’s mansion in New Orleans but 4 years later Louisiana was sold by France to the United States for 15 million dollars and Thomas Jefferson inherited these maps, plans and journals4. Jefferson commissioned the expedition of Lewis and Clark and gave them John Evans body of work to assist them in mapping Louisiana.
The speaker finished this absorbing tale by showing slides of various memorials to John Evans, including one from his birthplace in Waunfawr and the Mandan artefacts in the small museum there. We also saw slides of memorials to Madog including one in Mobile bay, Alabama, a possible landing site for the first Welsh settlers.
This was an inspiring tale, told by a wonderful speaker and the numerous questions at the end of the meeting showed how much the audience had enjoyed the evening. We are very grateful to Bob Morris for such an excellent presentation.
1 Notably one specific society, the ‘Gwyneddigion’, which John Evans joined when he arrived in London, possibly prompted by the poet/teacher Dafydd Ddu Eryri, who lived near Waenfawr, and who may have been John’s teacher when he was a boy
2 One rich patron in particular, Owen Jones (‘Owain Myfyr’), the wealthy Walbrook furrier, and leading light of the Gwyneddigion Society.
3 He got back to St Louis in July 1797 and he died in New Orleans in August 1799.
4 Origninally a French colony, Louisiana had been acquired by Spain in 1762, and then reclaimed for France by Napoleon in 1800, only to sell it to the USA in 1803. During John Evans’ time in America, it was under Spanish rule.
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