The legend of Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd: Welsh Indians at the Falls of the Ohio

One of the more popular legends of colonial America was that of Prince Madoc of Wales. Madoc sailed west from Wales in 1170, perhaps becoming one of the first Europeans to reach the Americas. The story goes that the death Madoc’s father, Prince Owen Gwynedd of Wales, triggered internecine strife among his successors. Desiring no part in the conflict, Madoc sailed west across the ocean with a small fleet of ships. Some time later he returned to Wales, telling of an unknown country, pleasant and fertile. Convincing some of his countrymen to accompany him, he set sail again and never returned.

Fort_mounds

These earthen fort mounds at Devil's Backbone along the Ohio River were also believed to be the work of Welsh colonists. Those desiring an authoritative source for the collection of the legends concerning Madoc should consult Reuben T. Durrett’s Traditions of the earliest visits of foreigners to North America, Filson Club Publications no. 23.

The story does not end here, however. With the colonization of the Americas, the legend of Madoc was renewed. It became common belief among the early settlers that Madoc’s explorers had intermarried with local Indian tribes. Their descendants were said to still reside somewhere in the country. Stories emerged among the colonists detailing encounters with the Welsh-speaking descendants of Madoc. According to historian Reuben T. Durrett, the Madoc tale was especially popular among the early settlers of Kentucky and was often told on long winter nights.

The Falls of the Ohio area became especially connected with the Madoc mythology. A story related to early settlers by local Indians meshed with the Madoc legend. A tribe of “White Indians,” remarkable for their light hair and blue eyes, was said to have resided in the falls area at one time. However, hostilities broke out between the “White Indians” and another neighboring Indian group. A final battle between the two tribes occurred on Sand Island at the Falls of the Ohio where the “White Indians” were massacred. Contemporaries to this account soon connected the story of this “White Indian” tribe with the Madoc legend, believing they had found the descendants of the Welsh voyagers.

Further discoveries seemed to confirm this conclusion. A large burial ground was found on the North side of the Ohio, opposite the Falls, with the haphazard arrangement of the skeletons indicating they may have been the remains of the “White Indians” who were massacred. Earthen fortifications discovered at Devil’s Backbone were also believed to be the work of the “Welsh Indians”. Most intriguingly, an account circulated of six skeletons found near Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1799. Each skeleton was said to have been encased in a brass breast plate emblazoned with the Welsh coat of arms. The present-day location of this armor is unknown, if indeed, it ever existed at all.

swiftly tilting planet

The Madoc story survives in popular literature. Madeline L’Engle’s 1978 novel for young adults incorporates the legend.

I find that the Madoc story raises a number of intriguing questions. Why did the early settlers believe the Madoc legend? Why was it so popular?

Perhaps the story struck a chord with a group of people who were inhabiting a new country—a people who might have delighted in finding something familiar in a strange place. Perhaps the story also served as an explanation for evidence of advanced civilization among the Indian societies of the Americas—evidence that did not mesh with the prevailing view of the Indian as barbaric and uncivilized.

Perhaps most importantly, the Madoc legend was simply a good story. Stories were undoubtedly one of the main forms of entertainment at the time. The Madoc legend is a compelling story with an element of mystery. Like the tale of the lost colony of Roanoke, the ending is unknown. One cannot help but imagine what might have happened to Madoc and those who sailed with him.

Jana Meyer

Jana Meyer is an Associate Curator of Collections. She received a degree in History from the University of Louisville and a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky. Jana specializes in arranging and describing the Filson’s manuscript collections. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and hiking with her husband and three-legged dog, Rascal.

43 comments on “The legend of Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd: Welsh Indians at the Falls of the Ohio

  1. Marie Maddox Lewis

    My question is, if no person from Wales had been to the “New Wrold”, then how did they know the name, Prince Madoc, or any Welsh words?

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Marie,
      Thanks for your question. Prince Madoc’s name is known because of the legends about him in Wales. As you mention, there are also a number of accounts of encounters between settlers and Native Americans who spoke Welsh. However, it would be interesting to know how many of the settlers who had these encounters were fluent Welsh speakers themselves. I think the popularity of the Prince Madoc story at the time had more to do with these accounts than any other factor.

      Reply
  2. Will

    Could this legend be connected to the Solutrean Theory proposed by the Smithsonian Institute Archaeologist Dennis Stanford? A lot of Clovis artifacts have been found in Kentucky.

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Will,

      Thanks for your comment. Sorry I’ve taken a while to respond–I had to do some reading on the Solutrean theory! From what I’ve read, the Solutrean theory was first proposed in 1998, and argues that the Clovis people (at the time, thought to be the first Americans) emigrated from Europe, not Siberia. The primary evidence found to support this theory was the similarities of tools used by the Clovis people and the Solutrean people who inhabited France and Spain.

      I’m not seeing a connection between the Solutrean theory and the legend of Prince Madoc. The Welsh legend relates that Prince Madoc sailed to the Americas in the 1100s. The Clovis flourished in the Americas some 13,000 years ago, much earlier than Madoc’s explorers would have arrived. But it is certainly interesting to hear of other theories connecting Europeans to the early settlement of the Americas!

      Interestingly, the Solutrean theory has fallen out of favor in recent years, as well as the Clovis-First theory. Archeaologists have found evidence of pre-Clovis peoples in the Americas (sites such as Monte Verde, Chile, and Buttermilk Creek, Texas). Genetic testing has also become more advanced in recent years, and new studies show that Native Americans are related to peoples in Siberia–further evidence discounting the Solutrean theory. If you’re interested in doing some reading, you may want to check out this article in Scientific American: Pringle, Heather, “The 1st Americans.” Scientific American (Nov. 2011), p. 36-45.

      Reply
      1. Little Bull

        I am a descendant of Chief cornstalk through his daughter Blue Sky most of my family has blue eyes I also married a Blackfoot woman who has purebred dark brown eyes and we have a daughter together who came out with my blue eyes doctors have explained it as a genetic anomaly since Brown should have overpowered the blue jean but it can’t in my genetics it may have something to do with that Welsh integration at the time and it’s prevailed over the years

        Reply
        1. Jim

          Please consider DNA testing for yourself and your wife. This may help settle the matter. Also the Madoc Indians living on the Missouri used round portable boats, very much like those used in Wales. Maybe Columbus knew where he was going.

          Reply
      2. danyelle robinson

        It is my understanding that the Genome project also found that 1/3rd of Native American DNA is exclusive to America. Natives did have boats and were avid seafarers. Why do we assume that Siberians walked here on a bridge with little to no real evidence of a land bridge existence, but readily discount known abilities of natives to build and navigate ocean worthy boats? According to the oral histories of Alaska Natives, they often traded with neighbors in Siberia.

        Reply
  3. David Pryce

    As a born and bred Welshman currently living in Colorado., I find the legend particularly interesting. So much so that I just published a novel, called ‘Forgotten Dragon’ that perhaps might be of interest to some of your readers.
    It is the first in a series of three which chronicles the adventures of Prince Madog and his companions in their journey to the New World. The first book is set in North Wales, in the aftermath of the death of Owain Gwynedd.
    More details can be found on my website: http://www.wales2america.com
    Very best regards
    David

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi David,
      Your book sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing!
      Jana

      Reply
    2. Ryan

      Interested to read this. I am decended from Madoc’s father and have traced my family back to him. I have heard that landfall was first made in Mobile Bay in modern day Alabama.

      Reply
      1. johnnie wood

        Read the story of cumphrey caves in blount county alabama,this may be a connection you are looking for.

        Reply
    3. Jerome Powell

      Lewis and Clark expedition recorded meeting blue eyed Indians who spoke Welch.

      Reply
  4. Andrew

    Hello.

    If you care to retell a legend, it would be more honest not to conveniently leave out the strongest proof of its truth.

    Since you dismiss the notion that this legend has any basis in fact, how do you account for the Mandan Tribe in the Dakota region, and George Catlin’s description of them and their language? How do you account for the Mandan’s own explanation of how they ended up so far West, when their roots were in the Ohio Valley near the Shawnee?

    Catlin was quite fluent in Welsh, and unmistakably recognized Welsh words intermingled in the Mandan’s language. There were also exceedingly close similarities between the Mandan’s circular raft which contained their “Sacred Bundle” and the vessels widely used by Welsh to fjord streams and rivers.

    Do you think it was a freak accident that Four Bears, the Mandan Chief with whom Catlin camped, and the vast majority of Mandans had skin more pale than Catlin’s, long blonde hair and green eyes?

    Did Merriwether Lewis and William Clark conjure the same images? It was their encampment with the Mandan in the winter months before setting out along the Columbia River to the Pacific which led Daniel Webster to strongly suggest to Catlin that he make the same encampment.

    Are you aware of the North American Indian pronunciation for “Alleghany”, the region of Appalachia from Pennsylvania through northern Kentucky? They pronounce it “Owengwynneh”. Another pure coincidence?

    Who carved all the Celtic imagery into the cliffs along the Ohio Valley? Tecumseh?

    And how did Roman battle armor manage to find its way underneath the land along the bluffs of the Ohio Falls on which General George Rogers Clark lived post-Revolutionary War? Did North American Indians have metal works to make such armor? Were they known to wear it into battle?

    Did no one ever tell you the English translation of the Indian word “Ken-tuck-y”? It means “sacred hunting ground”. Shawnee and Miami Indians have explained that, after the massive conflict between Shawnee and pre-Mandan pale Indians, no one was allowed to live in what is now known as Kentucky, but all Indians were allowed to hunt there.

    Do you believe that Madoc, whose travels here in 1170 are irrefutable (since Welsh records record his setting sail for “Iarghal — Land Beyond Sunset”), simply fell off the face of the Earth?

    I highly recommend James Alexander Thom’s novel “Children of First Man”.

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Dear Andrew, thanks for mentioning George Catlin and the Mandan. I chose not to discuss the Mandan in my post since I was focusing on the legend here at the Falls of the Ohio. Catlin is certainly among the more credible sources of the legend, although his conclusions are disputed today.

      Reply
    2. Larry Patchett

      I am lucky to have reprints of George Catlin’s journals. Of his impression of the Mandan, he says “I have been struck with the peculiar ease and elegance of these people…with the diversity of complexions, the various colors of their hair and eyes, the singularity of their language and their peculiar and unaccountable customs…I am fully convinced that they have sprung from some other origin than that of other North American tribes or that they are an amalgam of natives with some civilized race…Their traditions, so far as I have yet learned them, afford us no information of their having had any knowledge of white men before the visit of Lewis and Clarke, made to their village thirty-three years ago. Since that time there have been but very few visits from white men to this place and surely not enough to change the complexions of a nation. And I recollect perfectly well that Governor Clarke told me, before I started for this place, that I would find the Mandans a strange people and half white.” I have done some preliminary research into Clark’s journal during that first Winter with the Mandan. Nothing so far. I too wonder if the Mandan and Welsh names for the Coracle are at all similar? White people called the Bow Boats. They are a compelling bit of evidence. In other versions of the Battle at the Falls, the White Indians were not massacred but forced to leave the area after the defeat.

      Reply
  5. Mario

    Google John Seviers conversation with a Cherokee chief, the moon eyed Indians aka welsh were real and lived in the north Carolina and Tenn mountains and some of there decendents are alive today in Gatlinburg Tn, they are known as milundgen people, and please pardon me if I misspelled it..
    I have found mounds that the Cherokee chief told John Sevier the White Indians made.

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Thanks for commenting Mario! I think you are referring to the Melungeons, who are of mixed-race ancestry, although I don’t believe it is generally thought that they are descended from Madoc and the Welsh.

      Reply
  6. John Owen

    There is an oral tradition in my family that we are descended from madoc ap owain. Unfortunately written records are hard to find. Although it is interesting to note that genetic testing has revealed a mainly welsh – Cherokee ancestry.

    The oral tradition states that after leaving wales with those loyal to him, prince madoc settled in the Virginia’s in what is now known as old stone fort state park. After initial misunderstandings with local Cherokee tribes( who referred to him as the white devil), a peaceful accord was struck and intermarriage began. To this day There are many Cherokees who speak a hybrid language of welsh-cherokee and have the last name Owen.
    This last name seems to be an anglisation of owain , ap meaning ” of the house of” or”of the family of” was dropped over time.

    As stated this is just an oral tradition,and I am searching for any actual evidence of my family’s tradition,hence my arrival on this site. I was unaware of the falls of the Ohio connection .

    I hope this “account” of my family’s oral traditions will be of help to those researching this topic.

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Thanks for sharing your story John. I think you will come across a number of legends concerning Madoc during your research. The Falls of the Ohio story is only one of many.

      Reply
    2. I H Owen

      Sorry just visited your site looking history of welsh /Indian American history and noticed the comment about Ap before a name in welsh and would like to pass on to you that it refers to father as “son of “. It was the way we welsh recorded family line .

      Reply
      1. Jana Meyer

        Thanks for sharing this clarification!

        Reply
  7. Jeff P

    I’ve been intrigued by this Madoc legend and, in particular, the part of the story which relates that there was not only earthen works near the falls of the Ohio but also a fort/castle that was built of stone on the small penninsula jutting into the Ohio River that is now called Devil’s Backbone. The stone at this site was bought by railroad builders who removed the large amount of quarried stone and used it to build the piers which carried the Big Four Bridge over the Ohio between Jeffersonville and Louisville. The railroad knew about the stone because the site was documented, in 1873, by the U.S. Geological Survey. This is not conjecture based on oral histories. This is a matter of public record.

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Jeff, thanks for commenting. Devil’s Backbone is upriver from Louisville, and is now part of Charlestown State Park in Clark County, Indiana. (Hiking trails do not provide access to the site.) I am interested to hear that stone was quarried from the area and used in construction of the Big Four Bridge. I had not come across that before and am curious where you heard about it.

      Reply
  8. Duke

    Many years ago I decided to look into this claim. First I took the map supposedly “surveyed” by E.T. Cox and overlaid it on satellite images and topo maps of Devil’s Backbone. No matter how I twisted and deformed the Cox map it would not conform to the actual terrain. So I looked into the background of Edward Travers Cox. He was the State Geologist of Indiana (1868-1880). Educated in Robert Owen’s community of New Harmony, Indiana. Had no background in archaeology, geography, surveying or cartography … only geology and chemistry. While the “dinosaur wars” were going on in the west “mound wars” were happening in the mid-west. Cox wanted to be famous for discovering mounds in Indiana. (already found in Ohio and Illinois) He saw mounds everywhere. This is shown in a map from 1874. http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/images/item.htm?id=http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/images/VAC3073/VAC3073-M-01155&scope=images/VAC3073
    Although there have been successful archaeological finds in the area (http://www.indiana.edu/~archaeo/prather/Prather%20Report.pdf), they are not in the locations he designated on the map. There are also many other examples of Cox going beyond his field.
    http://old.wikimapia.org/#lat=38.3127516&lon=-85.7940878&z=19&l=0&m=b&search=Copperas
    http://old.wikimapia.org/#lat=38.2861044&lon=-85.7722204&z=20&l=0&m=b&search=blooms%20eddy
    http://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/killed-by-a-meteorite/
    I also looked into the bridge story. There are records of the stone used to build the Big 4 Bridge. All of it came from local quarries not up river. This is an attempt to explain the nonexistence of a fort structure today.The site of the “stone fort” is now open to the public. There is no sign of stone work or quarrying anywhere along the Devil’s Backbone. I have more but that should be enough to credit this legend to an egocentric Victorian. The Madoc legend and the supposed armor find (that conveniently disappeared) have been incorporated into the story over the years.

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Duke, thanks for commenting and for the links you shared. I think there is always a danger–in archaeology or any other field–of interpreting findings in a wishful manner. Just because we want something to be true doesn’t necessarily mean that it is! I think that the popularity of the Madoc legend at the time resulted in people (even many educated people in their fields), being a bit too hasty in their conclusions.

      Reply
  9. Susan Jenkins

    Just curious. Has DNA testing been done on the skeletons found in the large burial ground on the North side of the Ohio opposite the Falls?

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Susan, thanks for your question. I do not believe that any DNA testing has occurred. From what I have read, it does not sound like the remains found in this location were disinterred. With the passage of time and the frequent flooding of the river, the precise location of the burial ground may not even be known anymore. If you would like to read more about rumors of a burial ground on the North side of the Ohio opposite the Falls, these two books discuss it in more detail:

      Reuben T. Durrett, Traditions of tha Earliest Visits of Foreigners to North America,
      Filson Club Publications, No. 23 (Louisville, 1908), p. 48-52

      Henry McMurtrie, Sketches of Louisville (1819, reprint edition, G. R. Clark Press,
      Louisville, 1969), p. 104-106

      Reply
  10. Hinds

    I love learning about new things, and opening my mind to more understanding. I’m grateful for the people who go out and, literally, dig up this enlightening information. I express my appreciation for the time, energy, and effort they put in to bring us this knowledge. Learning about their discoveries brings me closer to the Truth! And for that I am grateful.
    In the scriptures, it says that not one jot or tittle shall go unfulfilled of the word of the Lord. The reason I bring this up is because the Lord told Israel that He would scatter them throughout the four corners of the World, but that in the last days, He would gather them again from among the nations, and that the Messiah would come to reign personally upon the Earth, to be their Judge and Lawgiver.
    Doing some research of my own, I’ve learned that among the Native Americans, they carry DNA strands that scientist have categorized into 5 groups: Haplogroups A,B,C,D, and X. The one that is a mystery to them is the Haplogroup X, which is found primarily among the Algonquin tribes. Unlike Haplogroups A,B,C, and D, which can be directly traced back to Asia, Haplogroup X (specifically X2a) has no traces in Asia. Instead, it is traced back to the Middle East, specifically Israel. I believe this is a remnant of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

    Below is a link talking about Haplogroup X:
    https://youtu.be/3_yZXNdpRo4

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Dear Riley,
      Thanks for your comment and the link. It is interesting that Haplogroup X which is found among American Indian populations (esp. North America) is not commonly present in East Asia. However, Haplogroup X is not entirely absent from the region. X2 does occur in Asia among the Altai people who live in southwestern Siberia, which may account for its presence in the mtDNA of American Indians. People from Altai are genetically the most closely related to American Indians.

      See for example:
      “Mitochondrial DNA Variation in the Aboriginal Populations of the Altai-Baikal Region: Implications for the Genetic History of North Asia and America” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (2004).
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15126280

      Reply
    2. Jennifer

      I have just traced my family back to Madoc in Wales. His family goes back to the Celtic Druids priests/kings The Druids priests name has been corrupted over time to mean sorcery but in actually were from the Israelites. I have found that Madoc was a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea through his daughter Anna. Joseph of Arimathea started a church in Glastonbury England and the Druids were also there. Jesus was said to have been taught from them. Jesus was a nephew of Joseph of Arimathea. I am also of Cherokee and Shawnee descent .The Shawnee lived in North Alabama at one time. There is where my family is from.

      Reply
  11. Cathy knight

    I Also have A- blood I am scottish and welsh Creek and uchie! My greatgreatgreat grandfather was Timpoochie Barnard scottish and Creek chief

    Reply
  12. Kisa

    I think it’s important to remember that the British used this legend to augment their “but-we-were-here-first” argument for taking land in North America after the Pope had already given it to the Spanish. It was a very useful story to keep alive for colonizers.

    As a person with both Welsh and indigenous heritage, and with a degree in Native history, I implore white people to simply ask NDNs about their stories from this time. It’s an important view that you’re leaving out, and don’t be so ethnocentric as to only give things that are written down any value (oral culture has value as well). I wince when I see the supposed “native american pronunciation” of Allegheny. Did you know there were more than 200 pre-contact indigenous languages, very different from one another? So whose pronunciation are you talking about? Do you speak any Native languages?

    Did you know there was the equivalent of the plague occurring in North America just before contact that decimated many peoples?

    Please don’t take Catlin’s conversation with one Tsalagi as “proof” of anything, and please can someone locate the “armor” that was found in the burial? You might be surprised at what you learn, and the truth is always more fascinating.

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Kisa, thanks for commenting. I’m glad you bring up oral traditions, which I think have been long underappreciated. The views among historians towards oral histories have been changing in recent years, with more weight given to the spoken word. I think this can only be a good thing for native peoples who have such rich oral traditions.

      Reply
  13. Nancy

    I firmly believe that oral history cannot be discounted. We tend to believe that unless something is written down it is not authentic. However, if a culture has no way or ability to memorialize history in writing, they tend to be very concise in their oral history and traditions. I have found that out myself in doing my family’s own genealogy which I confirmed much oral history on. Also see this article.

    http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/09/10/inuit-were-right-shipwreck-find-confirms-168-year-old-oral-history-156837

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Nancy, that article is very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  14. amy jo

    What do you say to the argument of there being a mix of two different people named madoc the other being the actual first in 560 ad to bring 70 ships to americas to populate

    Reply
    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Amy Jo, I’m not familiar with this earlier story you mention. Could you elaborate further or perhaps share an article about this? I will say that legends are sometimes based on the actions of more than one individual.

      Reply
  15. Joe

    I grew up in Clark County, IN and have read everything I could get my hands on concerning Prince Madoc. Dana Cooper has a great book on the subject. I also found some very compelling evidence in Baird’s History of Clark County. I am close friends with the Works family that were the original settlers in the area in the late 1700s. So many stories that all fit together. I am convinced they are true.

    Reply
  16. Chris Dunlap

    This comment is for Duke. You raise some very valid point that should be taken into account, however there is ample evidence of quarrying at Devil’s Backbone. I suggest you go on one of the occasional tours of it that the forest rangers offer, they have old rusted funnels that they used to slide the rock down to boats at the bank, there are also holes in the rock face that they used to rig up elaborate pulley systems. The reason it isn’t open to the public is butts up to a private hunting range. Out of all of the historic controversies surrounding the legend, the quarrying at Devils Backbone isn’t one of them.

    Reply
    1. Duke

      I played and hiked that area as a kid and a young adult. (long before it was a park)
      The guards never came down there unless they had a reason to so I never got caught.
      I never saw any evidence of quarrying or building at that site. There are boat moorings
      all around the area but nothing to suggest anything more than landings.

      Reply
  17. Uriah Luallin

    Have you ever researched the mystery stone in Lincoln County Kansas? Your comments would be very interesting regarding this strange phenomenom Uriah Luallin

    Reply
  18. Uriah Luallin

    Also the bizarre use of the long bow by the Karankowa indians of southern texas

    Reply
  19. Ginger

    Peter Wynne, a member of Captain Christopher Newport’s exploration party to the villages of the Eastern Siouan Monacan above the falls of the James River in Virginia, writes to John Egerton, 1st Earl of Bridgewater, informing him that some members of Newport’s party believe the pronunciation of the Monacans’ language resembles “Welch”, and have asked Wynne to act as interpreter.[6] from: Mullaney, Steven The Place of Stager University of Michigan Press 1995 ISBN 978-0-472-08346-6 p. 163 [1]

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Jennifer Cancel reply