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THE ENSIGN MESSAGE

THE STORY OF MADOC

By

The Washington Post

5 February 1967

Alongside a southern Alabama road is a marker erected in 1953 by the Virginia Cavalier chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.). “In memory of Prince Madoc, a Welsh..,explorer, who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170, and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language.”

A cynic might understandably be tempted to discount such a startling announcement, boosting Anglo-Saxon accomplishments at the expense of Columbus’ voyage 322 years later, when it comes from the offices of the good Daughters. But in its second paragraph, the marker sends the caviler  to another source: Authority is Encyclopedia Americana ….”

The Americana is rather ho-hum about the matter, telling us that Madoc was a “Welsh Prince who in consequence of some civil dissentions went to sea with ten ships and 300 men in 1170, and discovered America. He made a second voyage to and from this unknown land but finally was lost to the knowledge of his countrymen ….”

The short entry concludes, rather indecisively spilling the wind out of its brave initial assertion: “Thomas Stephens, in “Madoc: An Essay on the Discovery of America in the 12th Century” (1893), asserts that the story of  Madoc  is a baseless  fable.”

Now “Madoc and the Discovery of America” by an Englishman, Richard Deacon, to be published in London this month [ Feb. 1967-ed.) assembles impressive evidence to support the claim that Madoc made the round trip from Wales to Alabama. He ransacks five disciplines for clues to the mystery: ancient legend and literature, pragmatic testing, ethnology, archaeology, and linguistics.

Accurate records were rarely kept in the 12th century, so one is thrown on the mercy of bards who told tales of great accomplishments. There is an impressive number of such references to Madoc, probably the illegitimate son of a powerful warlord. Poem after poem connects him with the sea and puts him on a long voyage across the Western Ocean to a strange land. He remained a symbol of seafaring life under the Tudors. In 1865, a stone tablet from Lundy (whence Madoc may have embarked on his voyage) was found with a legend in old Welsh carved before the 14th century, according to Deacon, translates it: “It is an established fact, known far and wide, that Madoc ventured far out on the Western Ocean never to return.”

Epic poems, of course, were written to glorify their subjects and poets are no strangers to fiction, but the fact remains that Heinrich Schliemann found them with the  help of  Homer  and, more  recently Norwegian archaeologist Helge Ingstad , used Scandinavian legends to locate remains from Leif Erickson’s visits to America. Ingstad believes the bards to have been comparable to journalists today, men who took some pains to discover facts before they wrote.

There is no doubt that a long voyage in a small boat is possible. Ethnological support from the Madoc landing rests on many reports from early settlers of a tribe of white Indians having European features and speaking a language close to or identical with Welsh . Deacon ventilates the theory that Madoc’s compatriots moved in-land through western Georgia and southern Tennessee, finally settling near the Missouri River.

Many tribes have been called the white Indian, but Deacon puts his chips on the Mandans, who were visited in 1738 by the French explorer La Verendrye. They had light complexions and lived in small towns with carefully laid out streets which were kept clean, as were their impressively large and sophisticatedly constructed houses. They had some words in common with the patois of Brittany, in  France.

Deacon discredits most of the tales of travelers who claimed to have encountered white Indians, especially those who said they found a tribe possessing Bibles and worshipping Jesus, but reports from such men as the painter, George Catlin, who spent eight years among the Mandans, seem unimpeachable.

Deacon cites archaeological discoveries to prove his case. Probably the most important is his claim that there are “at least three forts in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee which archaeologists have testified are of pre-Columbia origin.”

“All three,” he says, “are believed to have been the work of the same group of people and built within the period of a single generation. What is most remarkable about these fortifications is that they have outlasted many defense works built by the European explorers  of the  16th century.”

The author also places in evidence what appears to be a 12th century port record from a place called Aber-Ker-ric-Guignon which refers specifically to Madoc, names his ship as the Guignon Gorn” (legend has it as the Gwennan Gorn) and asserts that it was lost at sea in 1171.

Finally, Deacon cites the references in Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World and elsewhere to the prevalent use of Welsh words by Indians and others long before the Welsh came to America in any strength.

The book is constructed as a reply to that Thomas Stephens who called the Madoc tale “a baseless  fable”. Deacon  admits that  “no other nation in the British Isles has such a shadowy elusive historical past as Wales. It is almost impossible to say where  legend  ends and  fact begins.

The way to the truth is blocked again and again by manufactured evidence and  false reports. Madoc is said by various historians to have landed in more than 15 places, and 13 tribes [ !] have been called “Welsh Indians”.

Estimates of the number of ships used by Madoc and his  men  vary  widely.  Stephen’s  most  basic  depreciation of the Madoc legend is  that the primitiveness of ship-building and navigation in the 12th century would have made the journey impossible. There are no drawings of ships from Madoc’s time but critics claim that the voyage would have been “too arduous without a compass”. Deacons answers that the Norse did very well, thank you, without compasses and, besides he claims, there is some evidence that Madoc may have had a primitive kind of lodestone to supplement his use of the stars and birds as navigational aids.

Stephens makes much of the fact that there were six different Madocs in 12th century poems. Deacon believes that his Madoc was the son of Owain Gwynedd, that he was handsome, courageous and probably a bastard. There are references to a Madoc who, like Oedipus, was sent by his father to be killed in infancy but miraculously escaped. Certainly he would have had a motive for fleeing his patrimony.

But Stephens is unpersuaded and asks repeatedly: Why did he make the trip? Why did he sail west with no prospect of finding land? Deacon answers that he went because he was curious, the reason why people explore anything unknown, and that there were many rumors of a fabulous land across the sea.

Another of Stephen’s challenges and a very fair one is that the Madoc legend was the product of self ­ serving Tudor historians who wished to extol their monarch’s Welsh heritage at the expense of the Spanish claim that Columbus had discovered America.

The first published Tudor account of Madoc’s exploits, by Sir George Peckhath, appeared in 1583 when England and Spain were bitter foes. it said in part: “Whereupon it is manifest that that country was long before by Brytaines discovered; afore either Columbus or Americus Vesputitis led any Spaniarde thither.”

Deacon ‘s rebuttal that the English were disinterested historians because they made no plans to use their claim to gain territory from the Spanish is quite flimsy. Exploration had an enormous hold on the Tudor imagination: Englishmen worked hard to prove themselves first with the most, and the fact remains that much of Deacon ‘s evidence about Madoc in Wales comes from partial sources.

Critics also cite evidence contradicting the existence of Welsh Indians. Luis de Rojas, writing to the King of Spain in 1625, said soldiers and  sailors had combed the Georgia-Carolina interior for 150 leagues but “found no traces of the rumored gente Minco y cabella.”

Stephen asserts that  the  contradictory  nature of the reports about white Indians, with their many obvious fabrications, leaves the claim wholly unproved. But Deacon answers that many of the reports came from men of unquestioned integrity, and that if we accept only a third of those, we must believe that such a tribe existed and was probably the  Mandan nation, which was finally obliterated by war­- like tribes  in the  19th century.

Finally, Stephens argues that what words some Indian dialects had in common with Welsh were accidental and rightly points out that no common grammar or syntax have been found. He believes that whatever traces of Welsh ancestry or words were found in America came over with Elizabethan colonists, not with Madoc. Deacon answers that practically no Welshmen came to these shores  until well after the reports of Welsh Indians had become commonplace.

The details of the linguistic enigma lend credence to Deacon’s thesis. What George Catlin learned during his stay with the Mandans demolishes Stephen’s flat assertion that Indians were ignorant of pronouns and abstract words. The  Mandans  had  a full complement of pronouns and their pronunciation was markedly similar to the Welsh  equivalents.

Another visitor to the Mandans found other striking similarities between the languages. The word for “water” and “river” were identical, as were the words for “blue”, “estuary” and “bridge”. All terms perhaps  left from a seafaring  heritage.

In addition, Catlin found a complete phrase, mentioning Madoc, used by the Mandans as an exclamation. The Mandans would commonly call upon ‘the Great Spirit of the Race’ (Madoc Maho Paneta am byd), which in Welsh would be “Madoc Mawr Penarthur am byth” (Madoc, the Great Spirit forever).

Deacon tells us that when the Spaniards settled in Alabama in 1559, they found hidden in a cave a number of ancient eggshell-shaped boats called “coracles” which are used today by the Welsh to fish small streams. Catlin reported that the Mandans used such boats while he was their guest and that the vocabulary associated with them was almost identical with Welsh, which he didn’t know at the time.

Deacon cites compelling ethnological considerations in favor of his case. Fourteen reports of white Indians refer to them as bearded or white haired or both, which would make them unique among Indians, who are beardless and have no white hairs. Lewis and Clark, during their search for a Northwest passage, stayed among the Mandans, who told them they regarded all other Indians as foreign enemies.

Catlin, who agrees with many others that Mandan women were of exceptional beauty, told of blond and reddish hair among members of the tribes and said they told stories of having been descended from white men across the sea. A 20th century scientist, Rued Hjalmer Holand, declared flatly that “all  archaeologists   are  agreed   that   the   Mandan Indians have been in pre-historic contact with Europeans. Their frequently recurring blue eyes and their blond  complexions  prove this.”

But there have been similar theories, discounted by Deacon, that Mexico’s Indians are descended  from white men. The Spanish explorer Cortez supported a legend that Montezuma was directly descended from a race “very fair in a little island in the North …” (the quotation is from a letter, supposedly by Cortez, which quotes Montezuma). Peter Martyr, writing in 1493, from the court of Spain just after Columbus’ return from the Americas, said that the natives of Guatemala “celebrate the memory of one of their ancient heroes whom they call “Matec”.

In the London Daily Times recently, an article about the dark-skinned, Melungeons of northern Tennessee, a people of strange customs, said that “some authorities even suggest that the community was started by Prince Madoc, the Welsh chieftain, whose party sailed west in the 12th century and into the continent up the Mississippi.” The Melungeons are dark, but have the thin-faced features of Europeans.

But the Madoc legend rests finally on a massive accumulation of suggestive evidence rather than on anything as tangible as a Vinland Map. If one can believe  George   Catlin,   one  can  believe   that  the Mandans had some knowledge of the Welsh language and that they differed in appearance and traditions from other  Indians.  No  objects  remained to support Deacon’s thesis except the fortification  sites mentioned above, and they have been built over recently.

Understandably,  Deacon  makes a great deal of  these forts. He quotes a Col. Bennett H. Young (without providing us with dates or the Colonel’s qualifications): “A remarkable prehistoric stone fortification in the State of Kentucky is situated in Madison County about three miles east of Berea.” After commenting on their sophisticated layout and construction, Young concludes: “The old forts in Kentucky were not built by Indians but by a past people greatly skilled in arts.”

Archaeologists digging at Old Stone Fort in Tennessee in 1819 found moats and intricate walls, but most significantly they found a large tree growing out of a hollow in one of the walls. They theorized that in the long ago, some seeds must have been dropped in a small open space in the wall. They cut the tree down and dendrochronologists calculated that it dated back before 1482, probably much before.

But that does not, of course, prove the Madoc or the Mandans built the fort. Perhaps the Norse journeyed farther south than we now believe. Whatever the truth, Deacon has converted  at least one skeptic reader to  a celebrant of Madoc Day.

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