Did a Welsh Prince Reach the New World Before Columbus?
The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506 AD) has already been dethroned as the European discoverer of the Americas. Most historians now agree that the first known Europeans in the New World were the Vikings led by Leif Erikson around 1000 AD. There is, however, another European who is also claimed to have reached the New World before 1492, the Welsh Prince Madoc (Madog). He is said to have gone to the New World with a fleet of ships between the years 1170 and 1171 AD. It has also been suggested that several Native American tribes may be descended from the members of his expedition. No conclusive evidence has been found for this idea so far, but it is an intriguing possibility.
‘The First Voyage’ Christopher Columbus bidding farewell to the Queen of Spain on his departure for the New World, August 3, 1492. ( Public Domain )
The Prince Madoc Story
The story of Madoc originated in a 15th century poem. According to the poem, Madoc was the son of the historical Welsh king Owain of Gwynedd. Owain had thirteen legitimate children and a number of illegitimate children. Madoc was an illegitimate son. He was born around 1145 AD.
In 1170, when the king died, a dispute among his sons arose over who would be the next king. This led to a civil war. Madoc was a man of peace and had no taste for violence, so he and his brother Riryd left with two ships sailing west and eventually reached what is now called North America, landing in Mobile Bay, Alabama. They returned to Wales in 1171 to tell of their adventures and to gather recruits to establish a new kingdom across the sea. One hundred men, women, and children left with Prince Madoc never to return.
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Imaginative drawing Madog ab Owain Gwynedd on his ship. ( Bay of Colwyn Cygnor Tref – Town Council )
A Welsh Presence in the Americas?
There is no mention of Prince Madoc in the annals of the 12th century, let alone any evidence of his landing in Mobile Bay, but this legend nonetheless remained a popular story into the Age of Exploration. It was even used by John Dee, an agent of Queen Elizabeth, to argue that the English had a rightful claim to territory in the New World over France and Spain. John Dee even went as far as to say that King Arthur and Brutus of Troy, the legendary first king of the Britons, had both established a British presence in the New World, further consolidating the English claim to the Americas.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, many Native American tribes were believed by European explorers to be descended from Welsh colonists led by Prince Madoc. Some explorers even believed that the Maya and Inca civilizations were connected to the Welsh Prince. The same was said of the mound-building civilizations of the eastern United States. Furthermore, when the first Mormon settlers came to Utah, they were so convinced that the Hopi and Zuni tribes were of Welsh descent that they sent people who knew Welsh to the tribes to identify any Welsh speakers. None were found. The tribe most commonly identified as possibly being descended or partially descended from Welsh settlers are the Mandan. The Mandan were a tribe that originally lived along the Missouri River. Their descendants mostly live in North and South Dakota today.
Shakoka, A pretty Mandan Girl, George Catlin 1832. ( Public Domain )
Many Europeans who encountered the Mandan including the artist George Catlin believed them to be of European decent. This was mainly because of their relatively light colored skin and the fact that their hair turned grey as they aged, which was not the case for most of the surrounding tribes. Other European explorers claimed that their language was very similar to Welsh and that, unlike the surrounding Native American groups, they had advanced architecture such as stone forts as well as permanent towns and villages with planned streets.
Mandan Bull Boats and Lodges by Karl Bodmer. ( Public Domain ) Some have suggested the Mandan bull boat to be similar to the Welsh coracle.
There were also stories of White Indians who had blond hair and blue eyes which were wiped out by surrounding non-white tribes in a battle near the falls of the Ohio River. This story became incorporated into the Madoc legend as the settlers in the falls area identified the White Indians with descendants of the Welsh expedition.