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all know Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492 which subsequently opened the land to European colonization in the coming centuries. We also know that he was not among the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic, with the Vikings having achieved that feat nearly five hundred years prior through Leif Erikson whose attempted settlements in Vinland, today part of Newfoundland, remain as proofs. But other more fantastical claims about European colonization of the Americas exist and are shrouded in mystery, some of which continue to highlight the long shadows of ancient myth.

The Legend of Madoc

According to legend, Prince Madoc was one of the supposed sons of Owain Gwynedd, a King of Wales. When King Owain Gwynedd died in 1170 a dispute arose among his sons which saw his son Dafydd usurp the throne. Distraught by the infighting, Prince Madoc and his companions sailed West and reached America founding civilizations and living happily, eventually intermixing with the Native Americans.

Where Madoc landed is inconclusive as there is no hard evidence of the legitimacy of this story, but most of the adherents of this legend speculate that he traversed a similar path as Columbus and made his entrance into North America through the Gulf of Mexico up through Alabama. Some say his people reached the Ohio River Valley, and even more audacious theories say that he founded the Aztec civilization.

The Growth of Madoc’s Tale

“Saint Brendan and the Whale”, an Irish Seafaring Tale with Resemblances to Madoc’s Tale| Public Domain

The first explicit mention of Madoc was in a Welsh poem written by Maredudd ap Rhys a few years before Columbus set sail for the New World. In the poem it is said, “Splendid Madog(i.e. Madoc) … Of Owain Gwynedd’s line, He desired not land … Or worldy wealth but the sea.” After Columbus’s successful explorations into the New World, numerous other Nations flocked to attain wealth from the New World, claim land and install colonies. It is here that the Legend of Madoc flourished, as it gave the English a sense of legitimacy in claiming the Americas.

The stories of Madoc and so-called Welsh Indians filled the minds of many settlers, with many claiming to have spoken Welsh with some Indians, such as a 17th-century settler Reverend Morgan Jones, who claimed he was freed from the Doeg tribe of Virginia after speaking Welsh. Proponents of this legend also point to certain blue-eyed and blond Indians mostly of the Mandan tribe of the Great Plains, as well as phonetic similarities between some Indian languages and Welsh. Other claims have been about breastplates being found that resembled a Welsh coat of arms and structures that were said to have been built by Welsh settlers. All of these claims were so diverse and scattered, yet were not properly verified, so the ambiguity of this legend permeated so much that Thomas Jefferson had instructed Lewis and Clark to specifically inquire about Welsh Indians when they went on their Westward expedition.

Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Charles Marion Russell, 1918|Public Domain

In the following centuries, Madoc’s legend lived on through poetry and fiction, most notably Robert Southey’s poem Madoc. Attempted scholarly research has been done, but most today regard the legend as a hoax.

The Use of Legends to Impact the Present

The legend of Madoc comes from a similar vein of fantastic theories of pre-Columbian discoveries as the theory that ancient Phoenicians of the Mediterranean had contact with the Americas. Alleged artifacts such as coins and markings on rocks are put forth as evidence of this theory. However, like much of the supposed evidence that backs Madoc’s legend, these claims could never have been independently verified and most are hoaxes.

A prominent pseudo-Aristotelian text, De mirabilibus auscultationibus (On Marvellous Things Heard), which is now widely considered to have not been written by Aristotle but was attributed to him, espoused this theory. In the text, it is said:

“far across the Ocean lay a great island, discovered by the Carthaginians. That island had forest and all kinds of navigable rivers and different kinds of fruits. The Carthaginians frequented the island because of its riches, and some even inhabited it. But for reasons unknown, navigation to the island was later forbidden, and the Carthaginians abandoned the colonist who had settled there.”

It is possible that this tale may be true, but what is being referred to are likely the Canary Islands or the island of Madeira. It is hard to believe that the Carthaginians would have landed in the Americas let alone inhabited the land without leaving traces or encountering Native Americans.

Subsequently, 16th-century Spanish historian, Gonzalo Fernandez De Oviedo used old fringe legends such as those previously mentioned to solidify the claim that it was the Spanish who discovered the Americas, centuries before Columbus. Fearing disputes over pre-Columbian legitimacy, the Spanish used the legend of the pre-Christian Spanish king Hesperus to claim the Americas as having always been Spanish. In De Oviedo’s Natural history of the Indes he asserts “by the most ancient rights…God has restored this realm to the kings of Spain after many centuries.”

The Potential Harms of Speculative History

Though these theories are fascinating, there is not enough legitimacy to truly entertain them, and some of these theories may go too far and may give off a hurtful false impression that the Native Americans could not have crafted civilizations such as the Aztecs or built certain structures without the help of some European involvement. Although there are theories about Islamic, African, Asian, and Polynesian pre-Columbian contact with the Americas, a resounding amount of credence has been put forth regarding European contact without much evidence. This not only gave legitimacy to the various kingdoms of Europe in claiming the Americas but also allowed for a suspicion that the feats of Native Americans were due to some European influence.

A Plaque in Fort Morgan Mobile Alabama|Public Domain

Still, there is enough mystery and alleged substance for pre-Columbus theories of discovery to continue to flourish today. In 1953 members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group of women who had ancestors involved in the American effort in the revolution, saw it fit to install a plaque in Mobile, Alabama which eulogizes Prince Madoc. The plaque was however removed in 2008. The legend of Madoc lives on in the names of towns and streets and poems and books, but the truth is we likely will never know the historicity of these claims and the story of Madoc among many of the other claims of early contact with the Americas will always remain a legend. Yet, even vague legends are able to influence the present.


Reference list and Additional Reading

Aristotle, Aeterna Press. On Marvellous Things Heard

Colón Cristóbal, and John Michael Cohen. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting Narrative Drawn from the Life of the Admiral by His Son Hernando Colon and Other Contemporary Historians. London: Penguin Books, 1969.

David Powel. The historie of Cambria, now called Wales, 1811

Gonzalo Fernandez De Oviedo. General and Natural History of the Indes, 1535.

Jaime Gómez de Caso Zuriaga. Spanish Historians of the Sixteenth Century and the Prediscoveries of America Author(s) Penn State University Press, 2000

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