If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that few are content with their lot in life, including, and perhaps especially, princes. This proved true in 1170 when the great Welsh king Owain Gwynedd died, leaving over a dozen such discontent princes, legitimate and otherwise, to duke it out over succession to the throne. Apparently one of the contenders, however, grew disgusted with all of this fraternal strife and bloodletting, deciding to express his discontentment differently. Taking his brother Rhirid with him, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, more commonly known as “Prince Madoc,” left the country entirely and set sail for new lands.
What new lands, you ask? How about the sunny shores of Mobile, Alabama, for starters!
Unless you had a very special education indeed, this is probably not one of the stories you heard in history class growing up. Most likely you were taught the standard line that Christopher Columbus, sailing under Spanish colors, was first to discover America. Or perhaps you even caught wind of the fact that Viking Leif Erickson planted a colony in North America nearly five hundred years prior. But who has heard of Prince Madoc?
Now you have.
After returning to Wales with fabulous tales of lush green valleys in a strange new world, Madoc gathered enough Welshmen to fill ten more ships and sailed again for America, this time to stay for good. Initially landing near Fort Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay, Madoc and his fellow settlers gradually migrated up the Alabama and Coosa Rivers, inhabiting caves here, building forts there, and eventually intermarrying with Native American tribes, all the while generously leaving behind clues for folklorist archeologists and the legend’s most faithful believers all across what are now the Southern and Midwestern United States.
American settlers in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries repeatedly heard stories of the “white Indians,” fair-haired, blue-eyed Native Americans whose ancestors had at times lived in the caves (“underground”), spoke a language almost identical with Welsh, and built little round boats (unlike the elongated canoe) that resembled remarkably the ancient coracle common to Wales. The nineteenth-century painter George Catlin lived among the Mandan people for years and believed they were descended from the Madoc crew, noting their features, customs, language, boats, and villages were uncommonly Welsh-like. Unfortunately, the Mandan tribe, like so many others, was decimated by trader-borne smallpox in the 1830’s.
Remnants of the forts still stand, however. One of the forts is almost perfectly identical, in terms of setting, layout, and construction, to Madoc’s birthplace, Dolwyddelan Castle in Gwynedd, Wales. Fort Mountain, Georgia, in the Chattahoochee National Forest boasts 800 linear feet of 800-year-old wall in ruins guarding the southern approach to a forbidding crag. And there are actually several of these fort-like structures scattered here and there. Did the Welsh really build them? Was Madoc really the first European to see Gulf shores and the virgin interior of the American South?
Of course, the legend has its naysayers. Modern historians like to take the view that the myth was “invented” during the Elizabethan era to support English priority among the competing claims to the New World among European nations. Other historians have argued Penrhyn Bay at Rhos-on-Sea in the north of Wales, from which the Welsh prince was supposed to have set sail, could never have supported a ship large enough to cross the Atlantic. But researchers have found references to Madoc that pre-date both Elizabeth and Columbus. And not long ago excavations revealed evidence of an ancient harbor in the hero’s hometown of Rhos-on-Sea, apparently debunking the debunkers on that point as well. Indeed, support for the historicity of the legend may be growing rather than shrinking.
Whatever the case, there have always been plenty of Alabamians to take up the Welsh-Discovery-of-America cause. In 1953 the local Mobile chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a plaque to Madoc’s glory: “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.” Not surprisingly, there is an identical plaque in Rhos-on-Sea.
Engineer and Rhos-on-Sea native Howard Kimberly grew up with the plaque and the legend. Founder of the Madoc International Research Association, Kimberly collaborates with others devoted to the story, whether in America or the British Isles or wherever. His search led him into talks with Ken Lonewolf, a Shawnee “wisdom-keeper” who lives in Pennsylvania.
Lonewolf, whose DNA indicates Welsh ancestry, believes he is descended from the original Madoc-led Welsh settlers. He notes government records of the sale of his ancestral village at the turn of the nineteenth century. The signature on the legal document is that of the last chief of the Shawnee: “Chief White Madoc.” Apparently the name and the legend meant something to the Shawnee as well.
So when giving thanks for Columbus, and remembering Leif Erickson too, maybe we need to start including the noble Prince Madoc, the Welsh warrior who took up exploring instead of fratricide and bumped into Alabama and America. Who knows? Stranger things have happened when discontent, the thrill of adventure, and the hope for a little elbow room all combine to drive a body out into the ocean waves and river valleys and mountaintops of the world. Three Southern cheers for Wales!