The Coracle, Prince Madoc, and the Mandans - Sarah Woodbury

The Coracle, Prince Madoc, and the Mandans

Mandan NDLewis and Clark trekked up the Mississippi river in 1804 and spent the winter of 1804-05 at Ft. Mandan (present day Washburn, North Dakota).  Lewis believed that the Mandan people were descended from Madoc ap Owain Gwynedd, who purportedly sailed from the new world in 1170 after the death of his father, and to escape the murder and infighting among his brothers for the throne of Wales.  Given that all but one of his brothers ended up dead within 5 years, this might have been a good plan, all around.

Now, if Madoc’s family hadn’t been associated with the Danes of Dublin, the notion of such an expedition would have been even more far-fetched.  Madoc’s great-grandmother was Ragnhild, “the daughter of Olaf of Dublin, son of King Sigtrygg Silkbeard and a member of the Hiberno-Norse Uí Ímhair dynasty. Through his mother, who appears in the list of the fair women of Ireland in the Book of Leinster.”  His grandfather, Gruffydd, “claimed relationships with many of the leading septs in Ireland. His great-great grandparents on his mother’s side include the High King of Ireland, Brian Bóruma, and the King of Dublin and King of Northumbria, Olaf Cuarán, and Gormflaith.”  (Hudson, Benjamin T.  (2005). Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic (Illustrated ed.). United States: Oxford University Press).  The norsemen had landed in North America over a hundred years before, stories about which Madoc would have heard.

Welshmen were not the same kind of sailors as the Danes, but one of the pieces of evidence that Meriwether Lewis and others (George Catlin) hit upon that made him think that the Mandans were indeed descended from Welshmen (in addition to their anomalous hair and eye color), were their coracles, round boats not unique to Wales, but used in the British isles for thousands of years and not found elsewhere in North America.  See for a description.  And here for a long discussion about this issue:

That this story is anything more than a myth remains unlikely.  The origin of the story is not known, but it rose to prominence during the Elizabethan era, when England was competing with Spain for the conquest of the New World.  That a Welsh explorer had come to America first . . . well, that would strengthen the claim.  That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but as with Arthur, propaganda is a powerful tool.  “The earliest certain reference appears in a cywydd by the Welsh poet Maredudd ap Rhys (fl. 1450-83) of Powys, which mentions a Madog who is a son or descendant of Owain Gwynedd and who voyaged to the sea. The poem is addressed to a local squire, thanking him for a fishing net on a patron’s behalf. Madog is referred to as “Splendid Madog… / Of Owain Gwynedd’s line, / He desired not land… / Or worldy wealth but the sea.”

The Mandans as a people, did not survive the 19th century and there is no other evidence that might help us.  “The great plague of smallpox struck the Three Tribes in June of 1837, and this horrible epidemic brought disaster to these Indians.  Francis A. Chardon’s journals state that on July 14, a young Mandan died of smallpox and several more had caught it.  The plague spread with terrible rapidity and raged with a violence unknown before.  Death followed in a few hours after the victim was seized with pain in the head; a very few who caught the disease survived.  The Hidatsa scattered out along the Little Missouri to escape the disease and the Arikara hovered around Fort Clark.  But the Mandan remained in their villages and were afflicted worst; they were afraid of being attacked by Sioux if they ventured out of their villages.  By September 30, Chardon estimated that seven- eighths of the Mandan and one-half of the Arikara and Hidatsa were dead.  Many committed suicide because they felt they had no chance to survive.  Nobody thought of burying the dead, death was too fast and everyone still living was in despair.  The scene of desolation was appalling beyond the conception of the imagination.  The Mandan were reduced from 1800 in June to 23 men, 40 women, and 60 to 70 young people by fall.  Their Chief Four Bears, had died. (Shane, 1959, p. 199).”

16 Replies to “The Coracle, Prince Madoc, and the Mandans”

  1. Hi…thanks for the time you put into this article. It was well-researched and written. I knew of Madoc and the Mandans decades ago by reading George Catlin’s journals. I grew up in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, have both Welsh and NA ancestry, and visited many of the locations he mentioned in his journals including the Pipestone quarry in Minnesota. One quick note: If you can, the “George Carlin” reference should be corrected to Catlin. Thanks.

  2. I believe it to be true the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. Among the men dance or found old welsh Bibles. They had mini welsh words. Louis and Clark reported seeing two bodies with welsh armor on them one with a dolphin in another the harp.

  3. Another addition to the story; and perhaps a HELP or a Hindrance; is the story of PORTH MELGAN, Whitesands, St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales.

    Prince Melgan MAY have been the 2nd/3rd Cousin of Madoc. When he sailed with his say 10 ships [very Vikingish] down the West Coast of Wales from modern day PORTH MADOC, he called at various ports to top up on provision for his journey to the Americas / via South West Ireland.

    Thought that Prince Melgan joined the venture, and sailed with the Fleet to ‘The New World, about 1170 ….The Rest could be history, and Prince Melgan would have been very aware of the use of CORACLES, he was not a long distance away from CENARTH, which remains to this day a centre for/of Coracles., and there’s more……..

    1. The fact the Mandan encompassed may Euopean physical features is one thing, Vikings had reached the Americas and were great sea traders, but when you add the coracle to the equation you scratch your head as the coracle was alien to the Norse. Then you look at the Native Mandan language and the numerous words and their meening being near or identical to Welsh…. To dismiss the Madoc link is foolhardy. .

  4. I reuctantly agree that this legend is probably not true, but I like John Good’s take on it in ‘eto’ (volume 1, issue 1).

  5. A few years ago while in Minneapolis sitting at the Hotel Bar awaiting the start of my eldest son’s rehearsal dinner in the adjacent banquet hall, I engaged in conversation with a nice lady sitting a few chairs down. We discussed a whole host of things including our mutual taste for German Wheat beers. That eventually got us to Mead and then I asked her country of origin. She said she was from Wales. I said “Oh, the home of the heart throb Tom Jones and Price Madoc”. She almost spit her beer out. ” You know of Madoc?” I said ” Of course, he is the unsung discoverer of America”. This time, she did spit her beer out!
    Well, you can imagine where the conversation went from there. This lady said that in Wales from elementary school on, they teach Madoc as Americas first explorer.
    She was so very proud to tell me and very excited I was versed in these matters. I got the impression I had just accidentally used the best pick up conversation of my life to a very attractive lady. I only got a few minutes to fantasize before my wife walked in the bar and said the dinner was ready to start.
    My wife is a Brit and I am a Viking son with kin from Sweden. I always tell my wife that when the Long Ships pulled up to her coast lines, the monks hauled ass but the winches didn’t seem to run all that fast, tripping and falling along the way. “Hahaha, der de go, pretending to fall down” “Ve vill party tonight”…………………………..

  6. Not so fast! The reported ages of Mandan elders when Lewis and Clark were preserved by their gracious hosting in that first deadly winter, were beyond the well known time frames of French contact by adventuresome woodsman/trappers. The same elder men and women with light hair, green eyes, etc., were not a mixed race of Mandans and French. Catlin goes on to describe their very interesting religious practices that are right out of the Bible. Even the gruesome “pectorial hanging” in their lodges of young braves was believed to be a quasi-crucifixion. Their belief in the Great Spirit taking refuge in the Great Canoe during the great deluge was a depiction of Noah. Men and women eating and washing practices were very Levitical. All the evidence points to an influence of Christian beliefs into a native American culture. Even modern day missionaries describe cultures taking in some of the Christian beliefs and still maintaining some of their own. Even the lodgings of the Mandans were very different than other tribes. Abandoned settlements along the lower Mississippi and Missouri rivers during Lewis & Clark’s days were the same as those they sheltered in. Log and earthen mounds and timbered ceilings very much like Norse communities. Something 12th century Welshmen would know something about as Welsh and Viking contact through raids and prisoner taking had been taking place for approx. 250 years.
    It is my belief that Madoc was the first white explorer to America and “mingled” with native Americans. Even as far as the Choctaws, Cherokees and Creek nations. Remote living Welsh have been recorded living in the Appalachians for centuries. Even well before Sir Walter Raleigh. Welsh men have been taking native wives for hundreds of years and not by force. Spain, France and Briton all wanted the glory of the New World. Madoc beat them to it and did so humbly. The only way new whites could have survived with Indians.

    1. Hi Bryant! Thanks for commenting. I don’t dismiss the idea out of hand, and have probably read many of the same books you have. It would be extraordinarily cool if it were true.

  7. “That this story is anything more than a myth remains unlikely.”

    Glad we are agreed on that. I would really like this to be true BUT we all know that it almost certainly isn’t.

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