The ‘theory’ had bolstered the British position in North America.

Painter and author George Catlin loved Indians, and he loved the Mandans, but he wasn’t quite sure the Mandans were Indians. In his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of North American Indians, published in two volumes in 1841–42, the well-traveled Catlin wrote of the tribe:

I am fully convinced that they have sprung from some other origin than that of the other North American tribes, or that they are an amalgam of natives with some civilized race. …A stranger in the Mandan village is first struck with the different shades of complexion and various colors of hair which he sees in a crowd about him and is at once almost disposed to exclaim that ‘these are not Indians.’ There are a great many of these people whose complexions appear as light as half-breeds; and amongst the women in particular, there are many whose skins are almost white, with the most pleasing symmetry and proportion of features; with hazel, with gray and with blue eyes….Why this diversity of complexion I cannot tell….There have been but very few visits from white men to this place, and surely not enough to have changed the complexions and customs of a nation. And I recollect perfectly well that Governor [William] Clark told me, before I started for this place, that I would find the Mandans a strange people and half white.

Catlin settled on a theory that Clark himself, with Meriwether Lewis, had rejected three decades before—that the Mandans must be the legendary “Welsh Indians,” said since the time of Queen Elizabeth to be descended from her own Welsh relatives and the first whites to have landed in North America, before the wicked Spaniards laid claim to the continent and its riches of gold, furs and timber. President Thomas Jefferson had told Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for the Welsh Indians, and they duly reported back to Jefferson that they hadn’t found any. The Lewis and Clark Expedition did leave detailed descriptions of the Mandans—with certain of their sexual customs described in Latin to avoid embarrassment—but uncovered no evidence of Welsh ancestry.

Catlin was perhaps the last serious ethnographer to think the luckless Mandans might be the Welsh Indians, or to consider them much at all, as two years after his last visit to the Mandans, the catastrophic smallpox epidemic of 1837– 38 all but exterminated them. The 150 surviving Mandans—10 percent of the tribe that existed before the epidemic, many of them disfigured or sterile— banded together with the Arikaras and Hidatsas to withstand the Sioux. Intermarriage between the Three Affiliated Tribes and with the Lakotas and whites compromised any unique genetic heritage that could have been traced back to medieval Wales. The last full-blood Mandans died in the mid-20th century.

The legend was born in 1580 when Dr. John Dee, a London-born Welsh “scientist”—whatever that meant in the days of alchemy and astrology—approached Queen Elizabeth, who was of partly Welsh heritage through Henry VII. Dee told the queen about Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd, who supposedly set sail from Britain in 1170 and established a Welsh colony in North America. Owain Gwynedd was a real ruler of Wales, but his supposed son Madoc doesn’t show up on any historical records before Dee introduced Queen Elizabeth to his legend. The story went that the mysterious Madoc took 100 men on his first voyage of discovery, returned to Britain with news of a rich and abundant land to the west, sailed away again at the head of a 10- ship fleet loaded with men and women and then vanished.

Subsequent British explorers reported pale Indians who, in some cases, spoke a guttural language that sounded like Welsh. In 1608, just after the settling of Jamestown, Peter Wynne, a voyager with Captain Christopher Newport’s expedition to Virginia, shared reports of Indians whose language resembled Welsh and who called themselves the Mandoag (Madoc?). During the first two centuries of North American exploration, reports identified 18 to 20 tribes—extant and extinct—as “Welsh Indians,” and explorers from Alabama to the Mandan country on the Missouri River reported finding Welsh-style earth-and-stone barricades.

The search for the Welsh Indians ramped up in the 1760s after Scottish poet James Macpherson offered what he termed a “translation” of the works of Ossian, a blind bard from the days when the Celts ruled most of Britain and Ireland. The Ossian poems were a huge hit with Romantic Continental Europeans, though reigning English critic Samuel Johnson insisted that Macpherson was “a mountebank, a liar and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries.” Asked if any man of his own time could write such stirring verse, Johnson famously replied: “Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children.” Regardless, the Ossianic poems touched off a fad for all things Celtic, and the search for the Welsh Indians became a quest. Tennessee Governor John Sevier later reported the alleged discovery of five skeletons in brass armor bearing the Welsh crest and related his conversation with a Cherokee chief who claimed that an ancient light-skinned tribe he called “Welsh” had built forts along the Alabama River. As the Welsh don’t refer to themselves by that name (it’s a Germanic word meaning “foreigner”), the chief may have been putting him on.

Although Lewis and Clark had rejected the Mandans’ alleged Welsh origins, Catlin bought in based on impressive circumstantial evidence. First, they had lighter skin and hair than members of other tribes —although he conceded that only about 10 percent of the Mandans had pale eyes. Second, the Mandans were somewhat shorter than other Indians, just as Welshmen were somewhat shorter than Irishmen. Third, the Missouri River Mandans used boats made of leather stretched over frames of bent saplings, much like the Welsh coracle used by the fisherman of Catlin’s own era. And finally, Catlin identified a dozen Mandan words he said resembled Welsh.

The Mandans were intelligent, friendly to whites, farmed extensively and built well-constructed villages with stockades instead of roaming the Plains with collapsible tepees in tow. Shortly after Catlin endorsed the Mandans as the mixed descendants of the legendary Welsh followers of Madoc, the 1837–38 epidemic hit and ended his scholarly triumph with an awful tragedy.

No scholar today believes the Mandans had Welsh blood. Indeed, the supposed impetus of the Welsh Indian theory was to confer North American discovery rights on the British—that is, before anyone discovered evidence of Viking Leif Ericson. The working principal that kept the Welsh Indian theory alive after the American Revolution seems to be that mere Indians were primitive creatures, incapable of an existence beyond hunting and gathering. The eradication of the farming tribes along the Missouri served to extend this conceit to future generations—who conveniently forgot about the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs.

Catlin claimed the Mandans had never seen a white man before Lewis and Clark in 1804, but French traders had interacted with them for nearly a century. They, along with enlisted men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, may have “left behind” the pale eyes and hair.

As for the sophisticated infrastructure, farming tribes often built stockades, and in the intense cold of the Missouri River valley in the dead of winter, it couldn’t have taken the Mandans and other farming tribes long to learn to insulate log structures by covering them with dirt. The Navajos also built earth-covered wooden houses, but nobody ever mistook them for Welshmen. And the coracle was a no-brainer to any Indian who had used a waterproof leather bag to boil water in the days before iron pots, especially in regions lacking birch or elm trees or logs large enough to hollow out.

Catlin’s glossary was also wishful thinking, for the Mandan language as reconstructed in part from his own notes is clearly a Siouan language. Any Oglala or Hunkpapa would have understood that Catlin’s friend and artistic subject Matotope was named “Four Bears.” Mato is straight Lakota for“Bear” and has nothing whatsoever to do with “Madoc.”


Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.