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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Welsh Indians?

During the 17th and 18th century, it was believed that the Mandan Indians were part Welsh. They were considered “white Indians.” Thomas Jefferson had read about these Indians and wanted Lewis and Clark to find them.

In a PBS Interview, historian Dayton Duncan said this about the legends of the western United States:

“Well, it's odd. I mean, here's Jefferson, one of the smartest men of any age. He had, his library had more books about the West than any library in the world. And yet, what did those books tell him? They told him that there might be wooly mammoths wandering in the West. That there were mountains made out of salt. The volcanoes erupting. That there were Indians who had blue eyes and spoke a Welsh language. I mean, the West was a rumor, it wasn't a fact in Jefferson's mind, or in the mind of Europeans at that time.”

Why did some explorers think the Mandan were descendants of the Welsh? Besides the legend of Prince Madoc coming to the United States and intermarrying with the Indians, the boats the Mandans/Hidatsas and Arikaras built and used were very similar to the Welsh coracle

But the boats weren’t the only thing similar. Some of these Indians had bluish-grey eyes and were taller than other tribes. Also, these natives were the only ones to build permanent dwellings that resembled those of Iron Age Wales:

But to jump to the conclusion that a people are blood relatives because their customs are similar is faulty logic. Roundhouse construction is found all over the world. And skin boat construction is also common in many different cultures. The coracle, umiak, canoe, and kayak are four other types of skin boats that were used by ancient humans to navigate waters and there are probably more we don't know about because skin boats disintegrated with time.

In 1796, the theory of the Mandans being Welsh was dispelled by Welsh explorer John Evans who wrote: “Thus having explored and charted the Missurie for 1,800 miles and by my Communications with the Indians this side of the Pacific Ocean from 35 to 49 degrees of Latitude, I am able to inform you that there is no such People as the Welsh Indians.”

We don't know if Jefferson had read this report or not. We do know he wanted Lewis and Clark to find them and report back about them if they discovered them. 

What about those blue eyes? Isn’t it possible that the Vikings had met and intermarried with the Mandan? Our history books aren’t all-knowing. We weren’t there and without written records, what happened prior to the 1600s in North America is speculative or based upon archaeological discoveries. But I do admit that the Mandan lodges remind me a great deal of the Viking dwellings at L'anse Aux Meadows that I researched for my book, O Canada! Her Story.

Catlin, an artist who painted many portraits of the Mandan, believed they were the “Welsh Indians” of folklore, descended from Prince Madoc and his followers who supposedly sailed to America from Wales in about 1170. This view was popular until the 1800s, and was revived again in the 1900s. In fact, the Daughters of the American Revolution believed the legend to such a degree that they erected a plaque on the shores of Alabama where Madoc was believed to have landed. 

The plaque is no longer there (due to lack of evidence to support its claim) but the last report I discovered about it was that it is being restored by the Daughters of the American Revolution to be put on display in one of their museums.
We may never know how much European blood was mixed with Native Mandan blood at the time of Sacagawea’s journey. While it’s fun to speculate and think about, the thing I hope all students will remember is that no matter our heritage or ethnicity, it doesn’t change the fact that we all come from God, and that there are no such things as "pure races." Between wars and exploration, slave trades and arranged marriages, no one has only one blood line. Simply put, we are all one race. 

The human race. 


  1. How many adults will read and understand this? Great that you are sharing this with the youngsters in mind. History is something to be excited about.

  2. Thanks for reading and for your lovely comments!

  3. I've read instances of Mandan's being able to speak with Welsh speaking people from Wales? I tend to think that this is true, then they mixed with the surrounding natives, changing language patterns etc.


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