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Later Celtic Britain

The Welsh Explorers

by Peter Kessler, 23 January 2004

In AD 1170, the Welsh prince, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd (son of Owain, ruling prince of Gwynedd) set out from North Wales on a voyage of exploration.

While crossing the Atlantic his fleet became ensnared in the North Equatorial Current. His vessels were drawn around the southern tip of what is now Florida to be driven aground in Mobile Bay.

No written records or stone remnants attest to this legendary journey. Rather, according to some observers, the legacy was a living one, etched in the faces and culture of North America's Mandan tribe.

George Catlin, a nineteenth century painter who spent eight years living amongst various native American Indian tribes, was among those who were impressed by the Mandans' remarkable traits. 'A stranger in the Mandan village is first struck with the different shades of complexion, and various colours of hair which he sees in a crowd about him,' wrote Catlin, 'and is almost disposed to exclaim that these are not Indians.' The artist also noted 'a most pleasing symmetry and proportion of features, with hazel, grey, and blue eyes'.

Catlin concluded that he had uncovered the descendants of Prince Madog's expedition and speculated that the Welshmen had lived among the Mandans for generations, intermarrying until their two cultures became virtually indistinguishable. In time, the tribe migrated north to the Dakotas, which is where Catlin encountered them.

Some later investigators supported the theory, noting that the Welsh and Mandan languages were so similar that the Mandans easily responded to the Welsh tongue. Further, it was observed that, unlike members of other tribes, the Mandan Indians grew white-haired with age and practised a method of fishing which was unique to Wales.

By the end of the nineteenth century, a smallpox epidemic had devastated the Mandan tribe, severing the link to their mariner forbears. But the belief in their Welsh heritage still persists and is celebrated by a plaque which was placed alongside Mobile Bay in 1953 by the 'Daughters of the American Revolution'. 'In memory of Prince Madog,' the inscription reads, 'a Welsh explorer who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170 and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language.'



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.