Chapter 15: New World


Continued from Chapter 14: New Archives

Lest you think I have pulled obscure information to prove a questionable theory, may I refer you to the 1968 June issue of National Geographic whose editors must have thought this topic had merit. Their reporter visited Portmadoc in Wales. “It is sad to see the romance go out of a port from which or thereabouts, it is said, a Welsh prince sailed to America 300 years before Columbus. His name was Madoc or Madog ap (son of ) Owen Gwynnedd.” Notice the similarity in names. Around 1200, there were no surnames so it is confusing. However, I thought a journalist of his stature would have investigated. His professed theory was that everything local worth knowing is best obtained from an old cabbie, so this reporter interviewed cab driver Bill Jones who absolutely confirmed the tale. But then caution overcame investigation, and the published story reads “this saga lies in the twilight of legend.”

He is not the only one to spew doubt on an epiphany. Several historians will acknowledge a visit to the New World by Madoc, but there is disagreement where Madoc landed. Richard Hakluyt, geographer in 1600, took a poem of 1477 written in Latin and deduced Madoc landed in the West Indies. (Goldsmid’s Hakluyt, 1899). Likewise, English Poet Laureate Robert Southey wrote in 1805 an epic poem of two volumes making Mexico the location of Madoc’s discovery. I don’t know how much proof Columbus had to produce. What is the point, right? It’s over.

Now then, among Mary Glenn’s archives is also an Associated Press article from The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, dated September 3, 1989. (Possibly contributed by her cousin/family historian Lt. Col. Stancill Nanney who lived in Atlanta). The headline was eye-catching: “Legend of Yellow-Haired Giants Adds Spice to Indiana’s Folklore.” And then the next line in smaller font: “But Experts See No Evidence of Medieval Welsh Colony.” In my experience, an expert is somebody from out of town carrying a briefcase, but then I am a skeptic. A romantic skeptic. I want to believe in Welsh settlers making friends with the Indians.

The article (Charlestown, Ind) starts out, “On a rugged bluff overlooking the Ohio River…” “Popular legend says there lie the remains of a large stone fort and a lost colony of Welshmen who sailed to America three centuries before Christopher Columbus.” It is fourteen miles upstream from Louisville, KY, a high peninsula less than twenty feet wide at the top, five to seven acres that are perfect for defense.

This article includes a reference to author Dana Olson’s book, “Prince Madoc: Founder of Clark County, Indiana,” in which Prince Madoc is recognized as “son of Welsh King Owain Gwynedd and one of his brightest naval commanders,” who made at least two trips to the Americas from 1165 to 1169. “When King Gwynedd died in 1169, his sons began to feud over the throne. A disgusted Prince Madoc, looking for more tranquil surroundings, sailed from Lundy Island south of Wales with three of his brothers and ten ships. They are listed as missing in Britain’s ancient maritime logs.” The first expedition successfully landed in Mobile Bay. It is speculated that he returned to Wales, and it was his second expedition that was lost. Or third. Nobody knows.

Nanney Coat of Arms

Nanney Coat of Arms

“In 1799, early settlers found six skeletons wearing breastplates with a Welsh coat of arms. Indian legends told of “yellow-haired giants” who settled in Kentucky, southern Indiana, southern Ohio and Tennessee—a region they knew as “the Dark and Forbidden Land.” In 1873, state geologist E.T. Cox and assistant William Borden found a prehistoric fortification at the top of the cliff. The walls were pirated by early settlers reusing the huge stone stones for newer construction across the rolling countryside. “The site and its shadowy history have lain virtually undisturbed since 1940, when the US Army bought 10,000 acres to build a munition plant.” (Another story to investigate. Writers never rest)

The area is known as “Devil’s Backbone”. “The older folks told children not to scale its walls, that the devil had put a curse on the place,” wrote Margaret Sweeney in her 1967 book, Fact, Fiction and Folklore of Southern Indiana.” Their prophecy was fulfilled by disobedient children.

My neighbor Wade Nanney went to Berea College, on the border of “the Bluegrass and the mountains in eastern Kentucky. Every year they call off classes on “Mountain Day” in October, and the student body hikes over to the little Indian Fort Mountain.” Wade said he now is “pretty certain that the old fortifications were made by the Welsh, not the Cherokees!”

Unfortunately, amateur historians are relegated to the back seat here, and the professional archaeologists are driving the School Bus of Truth and Fact. Excavations conducted in Indiana by the anthropology department at the University of Tennessee concluded the stone fort was built in the third century A.D. by an Indian culture that would have predated Prince Madoc and a lost colony of Welshmen. And the experts are never wrong. They just change their minds from time to time.

The rest of us have the option of choosing what to believe. And here I bring you Wade’s “favorite Welsh-Indian tale” passed down from preacher Morgan Jones, a clergyman in 1660. This story was published in the Turkish Spy about 1730 and widely copied.

“He was among those very early explorers who penetrated the wilderness ahead of any settlers. Indians captured a group of men including him. He and his comrades were sentenced to death. Being no fading violet, the preacher launched into a vehement tirade saying (in his native Welsh), “Have I come all this way and gone through all I have just to be hit in the head like a dog?” Two of the native types standing around understood him! He was speaking in their ‘sacred tongue.’ The captives got sprung.”

Shout out to Kara, a reader who responded to my request for a photo of the Mobile Historical Marker. She went above and beyond the call with a link and a report of seek and find.

There you have it. Believe what you choose.

Below is Karl Bodmer’s painting of Fort Clark on the Missouri (February 1834)

Fort Clark on the Missouri  Artist Karl Bodmer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fort Clark on the Missouri Artist Karl Bodmer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



Copyright October 25, 2014, Georgia Wilson


This entry was posted in Nanney Saga, Setting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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