Exploring the Mysterious North American Moon-Eyed People Legend
There are legends and tales in the world that are old, tattered and near forgotten. Once proudly passed down the generations, these legends were slowly taken over by the unforgivable passage of time. And some of the most enigmatic tales can be traced to the North American continent, where they were once carefully maintained by the Native American tribes. When the European peoples first set foot on the American continent, they came into contact with various tribes, many of them completely different in customs, appearance, and language. And from this time of first contact, some quite unique legends have survived, being documented in their original form by these earliest chroniclers. Undoubtedly the most mysterious of all Native American legends is the story of the “moon-eyed people,” mysterious white men that warred and intermingled with the Native Americans long before the Europeans arrived. Can there be any truth to the myth?
A stone pair of moon-eyed people who are found in Cherokee legend and also in other historical stories. (Strange Carolinas)
What do we Know of the Moon-Eyed People Mystery?
When making contact with the Native American Cherokee tribe, European settlers took notice of a peculiar oral tradition that has been present within the tribe for many generations. Even at that time, around the mid 1700’s, this tradition was dim and maintained by only a few village elders and chiefs. They all spoke of the mysterious moon-eyed people, a unique “race” of people that dwelt in the region of south-eastern America before the arrival of the Cherokee. The legend says that these men, ostensibly white, were “unable to see in daylight,” and that they warred with the Cherokee. The latter expelled these “wretches,” and settled in their lands, where they remained for generations after.
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The first European documentations of the legend is dated to 1797, when the noted American botanist and professor, Benjamin Smith Burton, writes in his book of these ancient moon-eyed people, apparently from a first-hand account. He cited a Colonel Leonard Marbury, who served as an intermediary between the American government and the Cherokee tribe. Burton writes: "the Cheerake tell us, that when they first arrived in the country which they inhabit, they found it possessed by certain 'moon-eyed-people,' who could not see in the day-time. These wretches they expelled.”
A later article states that Burton considered the mysterious race as being albino, explaining the fact that they could not see during daylight.
An albino Native American girl from the Hopi tribe photographed in 1886. (Reddit)
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However, Burton goes on to connect these accounts with those of the Welsh maritime explorer, Lionel Wafer. Wafer in his 1699 book “A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America” described communities of albinos that he encountered in the Isthmus of Darien, amongst the Kuna Indians.
“There is one Complexion so singular, among a sort of People in this Country, I never saw nor heard of any like them in any part of the World. [...] They are White, and there are of them of both Sexes; They differ from the other Indians chiefly in respect of Colour, tho' not in that only. Their Skins are not of such a White as those of fair People among Europeans, [...] but 'tis rather a Milk-white, lighter than the Colour of any Europeans, and much like that of a white Horse. For there is this further remarkable in them, that their Bodies are beset all over, more or less, with a fine short Milk-white Down, which adds to the whiteness of their Skins. The Men would probably have white Bristles for Beards, did they not prevent them by their Custom of plucking the young Beard up by the Roots continually. Their Eye-brows are Milk-white also, and so is the Hair of their Heads, and very fine withal, about the length of six or eight inches, and inclining to a Curl. And what is yet more strange, their Eye-lids bend and open in an oblong Figure, pointing downward at the Corners, and forming an Arch or Figure of a Crescent with the Points downwards. From hence, and from seeing so clear as they do in a Moon-shiny night, we us'd to call them Moon-ey'd. For they see not very well in the Sun, poring in the clearest Day; their Eyes being but weak, and running with Water if the Sun shine towards them; so that in the Day-time they care not to go abroad, unless it be a cloudy dark Day. But notwithstanding their being thus sluggish and dull and restive in the Day-time, yet when Moon-shiny nights come, they are all Life and Activity, running abroad, and into the Woods, skipping about like Wild-Bucks; and running as fast as Moon-light, even in the Gloom and Shade of the Woods, as the other Indians by Day, being as nimble as they, tho' not so strong and lusty. The Copper-colour'd Indians seem not to respect these so much as those of their own Complexion, looking on them as somewhat monstrous.”
Over time, there were many other documentations of these myths, all generally attributed to the Cherokee. Ezekiel Sanford writing in his “History of the United States Before the Revolution, ” and B. R. Carroll in his “Historical Collections of South Carolina” mention the “moon-eyed people” as a Cherokee tradition. They attribute the story they documented to the early American historian James Adair.
In 1902, writer James Mooney attempted to connect the earlier story of Benjamin Barton with other similar accounts he collected. His book, “Myths of the Cherokee,” revisits the work of another early American historian, John Haywood. The latter wrote in 1823, in his book “ Natural And Aboriginal History of Tennessee,” of “white people, who were extirpated in part, and in part were driven from Kentucky, and probably also from West Tennessee."
According to Cherokee legend they had to battle the moon-eyed people to settle where they first did, which is now the Cherokee Nation. (Legends of America)
The White Moon-Eyed People’s War with the Cherokee
Haywood gathered accounts of the Cherokee, passed through generations, which describe how they encountered “white people” on the Little Tennessee River. There they discovered fortifications that contained "hoes, axes, guns, and other metallic utensils." When arriving for the first time in this region the Cherokee met no other aboriginal groups.
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According to the tales, they found a series of fortifications that stretched down the Tennessee River all the way to the Chickamauga Creek. They also gave the precise locations of three such forts. Apparently, the invading Cherokee fought a war with these white people, driving them away to the mouth of the Big Chickamauga, where a certain treaty was made, allowing the white people to flee the area in peace. James Mooney also gathered two similar independent sources from older Cherokee that recall traditions of people who were “very small and perfectly white” that lived north of the Hiwassee River when the Cherokee first arrived in the area. They subsequently fled westwards.
However, one of the best sources for the tale comes from an early governor of Tennessee, John Sevier. During his time, many areas of the Appalachians were part of the Cherokee Nation. According to some sources, John Sevier visited a unique site in Georgia in 1782, the “Fort Mountain.” There he met a venerable Cherokee chief, Oconostota, who was 90 years old in 1782, and heard from him a unique story that the chief learned from his forefathers. The story "told of the fort being built by white men from across the great water." Oconostota said that these men “crossed the great water and landed first near the mouth of the Alabama River near Mobile.” Could these white men be the moon-eyed people?
One other Native American myth became inseparably connected with the story of the moon-eyed people. And this is also true of the myth of Welsh prince, Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd, an early medieval maritime explorer. According to numerous myths and tales, the young Welsh prince Madoc, fleeing internecine violence back at home, set sail towards the west, eventually arriving in North America. The purported year for his arrival in the new land is 1170, making his supposed discovery around 300 years earlier than Christopher Columbus!
The story survived as a hazy oral tradition within Wales itself, but also as a myth amongst the Native American Indians. Many accounts tell that the Welsh who set foot into America constructed numerous stone forts, akin to those they had at home, and that they warred and intermarried with the Natives. Some early European accounts describe Native tribes that were unlike all the other “red-skinned people,” that they were similar to Europeans, having beards, red hair, and blue eyes. Similar accounts also tell that such “Welsh Indian” tribes spoke a language oddly similar to Welsh, and that some explorers could even communicate with them in this language.
American adventurer, lawyer, painter, author, and traveller George Catlin thought the Mandan bull boat to be similar to the Welsh coracle leading to the connection between moon-eyed people and the Welsh. (Karl Bodmer / Public domain)
The Medieval Welshmen Intermingling with the Natives
For example, on November 26th, 1608, Peter Wynne, a member of Captain Christopher Newport's exploration party to the villages of the Monacan people, a native tribe who were Virginia Siouan speakers, wrote a letter to one John Egerton. In the letter Newport informs Egerton that some members of his party believed the pronunciation of the Monacans' language resembled Welsh, which Wynne spoke, and asked Wynne to act as interpreter. Tribes like the Mandan were considered by these early explorers to be the offspring of Welshmen intermarrying the natives, since the Mandan differed greatly in looks and customs from other Indians.
One curious location that could connect the theories of Welsh medieval explorers and the moon-eyed people is the so-called “Fort Mountain.” Located in Georgia, this mountain carries the remains of a formidable stone fortress on its very top. The stone wall measures some 270 meters (885 feet) and is quite reminiscent of European castle and fort building traditions. Could this be the remnant of Welsh medieval, moon-eyed explorers? Local legends claim that it is so, and plaques at the site confidently proclaim it. To that end, a unique discovery has been linked to both this and other similar fort remains in the region.
This discovery was mentioned, again, by John Sevier of Tennessee. He wrote in a letter to his friend, Major Amos Stoddard, that the Cherokee Chief Ocontostota, aged 90 at the time, shared the tradition that the stone fort remains along the Alabama River, which stretch into Georgia as well, were “built by a white people called "Welsh," as protection against the ancestors of the Cherokee, who eventually drove them from the region.”
John Sevier goes on to mention a curious discovery made in 1799 of six skeletons wearing brass armor, with the Welsh coat-of-arms etched upon each one. Due to this, Sevier confidently claimed that Prince Madoc and his Welshmen were the first white men to reach Alabama and Georgia. The same account was confirmed in 1824 by a noted author and historian Thomas Hinde. In a letter he wrote of a 1799 discovery of six soldiers that had “been dug up near Jeffersonville, Indiana, on the Ohio River with breastplates that contained Welsh coats-of-arms.”
A closeup of the mysterious moon-eyed people that may have been connected with an early medieval Welsh explorer. (Strange Carolinas)
Or were the Moon-Eyed People Stone Age North Americans?
Curiously, the legend of the moon-eyed people existed amongst the Cherokee of Ohio also. Here, some native elders and historians proposed that the moon-eyed people could be linked to the mound builders of the Adena Culture, dating to as early as 500 BC. Much remains a mystery concerning these mound-builders of ancient America. Could they have been prehistoric, stone age white people that crossed ice bridges and settled in this land?
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Excavating the mounds of this culture, curious finds were made. For example, the Criel Mound of West Virginia yielded remains of a “very large” skeleton of a "once most powerful man" that measured “six feet, 8 3–4 inches" (205 cm) from head to toe. Could the moon-eyed people be connected to the legends of prehistoric red-haired and red-bearded giants that left unmistakable traces across south-eastern North America? The mystery of the moon-eyed people is substantiated in so many ways and yet we still don’t fully understand who they were and where they came from.
Top image: A stone statue of the mysterious moon-eyed people who may have been an ancient white race that interbred with the Native Americans long before the Europeans came to North America. Source: Strange Carolinas
Johnson, B. 2022. The discovery of America…by a Welsh Prince? Historic UK. [Online] Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/The-discovery-of-America-by-Welsh-Prince/
Unknown. Legends of Fort Mountain: Prince Madoc of Wales. Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites.
Unknown. 1923. The Search For the Moon-Eyed Men of Fort Mountain. The Chattanooga News.