Portrait of Sha-kó-ka, a Mandan girl,
by George Catlin, 1832
The Madoc/Mandan story was of great interest to Thomas Jefferson when he sent Lewis and Clark to explore the West. A thorough, but lengthy, summary of this investigation was recounted by George Washington Kingsbury in his 1915 History of Dakota Territory, Volume 1.
Did Madoc's Welshmen construct fortifications on an island in the Missouri River? This is jut one of the issues that Kingsbury examines.
The traditional Story of the Mandan people forces itself upon the mind in contemplating the description of these works [go to the end of this post for the Lewis and Clark journal entry from September 1804 where they describe the fortifications on Bon Homme Island of the Missouri River] and those at Fort Thompson, constructed apparently for the protection and defense of a partially civilized people against an enemy that was at any time liable to assail them.
These Mandans had passed up the Missouri Valley long before, how long is left to conjecture, but they had Constructed and occupied a fortification above Fort Pierre, and had abandoned that, and Lewis found them hundreds of miles farther north. There is a mystery connected with them, which the present generation of Mandans nor that which existed when Captain Lewis met them, were able or willing to unravel. Many of them did not resemble other Indians except partially, while in many striking physical characteristics they are essentially non-Indian. Some had blue eyes, various shades of hair; the absence of high cheek bones, the almost fair complexion of many of them, the knowledge they still possessed of some of the primitive arts, including agriculture, all go to prove that they are a race of people developing into a higher civilization, or in the process of retroceding from a civilized and enlightened race to the barbaric state.
It would seem that the latter theory would conform best with the little that is known of this remarkable people. They are the special aversion of the Dahkotah Indians who have never omitted an opportunity to wreak their enmity upon them, and in explanation of the fortifications at Bonhomme it would appear to have been built for the purpose of protecting and defending a numerous body of civilized or Semi-civilized people against a relentless and powerful enemy. The site had been selected intelligently for the purpose of a permanent abode, and no doubt was occupied and used as the home of a people who practiced agriculture, trapped, hunted, fished, always wary of their red skinned enemy who Sometimes may have come in force to assail them, when lodged behind the battlements of their fort they could as successfully resist as the other could assault, and if the dire emergency ever arose when their fortifications were taken, their citadel across the narrow channel afforded a secure place of retreat and an almost absolute defensive structure against any arms their enemy was conversant with.
The Mandans courted peace by isolating themselves from all other human beings. They were unlike any other Indian tribe and avoided any fellowship with their race. They had no desire to affiliate with other Indian tribes or other whites. They desired to be let alone, and pass unobserved except as their necessities required them to barter with the traders.
Now that we have indulged in some speculation concerning this strange band of nomadic people we ask the reader’s attention to a brief review of the career of this remarkable tribe, and would direct attention to the result, after many centuries of trial, of the intermarriage of whites and Indians. The Mandans would seem to furnish a living illustration of the benefits accruing to the Indian nature by this intermarriage or miscegenation, with the better class of white people, and if the narrative is a true one it furnishes the most interesting evidences that truth is stranger than fiction. The Mandan Indians have been recognized as one of the oldest tribes in North America and their existence and career have been traced back for Several centuries, when even before the Columbian era, they were a numerous and peaceful tribe inhabiting a portion of the South Atlantic coast.
It is known that connected with them were a number of white men of superior intelligence and of strong religious inclinations. These were supposed to be Welshmen, who, under a leader known as Prince Madoc, visited this continent from Wales in the twelfth century. This party made one successful voyage and a second was undertaken, but no authentic information of the fate of the party was ever obtained, unless this tradition, which has the Support of one, or perhaps two, early missionaries, should prove to be well founded.
The tradition informs us that these white voyagers and explorers were shipwrecked near the coast peopled by the Mandans, probably Georgia as now known, and the survivors found shelter and subsistence from the Indians, with whom they continued to dwell, and realizing the hopelessness of rescue, finally, and with devout sincerity, concluded to unite their destinies with these strange barbarous people. and with them spend the remainder of their days, taking Indian wives, and adopting Indian customs so far as necessary, and teaching the better customs, methods and religion of the whites to the Indians.
This may have been 700 years ago, and somewhat in confirmation of this is the story that a Welsh ship, on a voyage of discovery was lost on the southern Atlantic coast near the close of the twelfth century. In any event these whites or their descendants were seen and conversed with later by missionaries and explorers, and through the medium of their language it was ascertained that these whites were of Welsh extraction. As time passed the Mandans, with all other aboriginal peoples, were crowded back from the coast by the aggressive and increasing forces of civilization, and as the Mandans would abandon a country where one or two generations had been born and lived and died, it would be discovered that they were not like the other Indian nations; that they possessed a knowledge of many arts not common to the children of the forest; that they had erected substantial log buildings for residences, and their cultivated fields were far in advance of any agricultural knowledge possessed and practiced by Indians generally, and occasional instances of the construction of substantial fortifications were encountered.
The story goes that there was always a sort of reticence or backwardness on the part of the members of this tribe, when asked a question that concerned their history, as though they knew a tradition of a singular character concerning themselves, but which they did not fully believe and felt that those who pressed them to relate it would brand it as an invention pure and simple.
It is conjectured by some of the missionary writers that they fully realized a radical difference between their nation and other Indian nations, and even after the lapse of centuries their speech disclosed a foreign ingredient that they explained had been imparted by intercourse with a strange people in the remote past. The physiological characteristics of many of them denoted a blended organism. In its migrations west the tribe finally reached the Valley of the Missouri. They seem to have made a settlement at certain points where they have remained a half or a full century, perhaps longer, then would follow a removal and the founding of a new village or fort hundreds of miles away.
We believe it was the Mandans who built and occupied the Bon Homme fortifications which excited so much interest in the mind of Captain Lewis, and that he would have found the colony there had his exploration occurred a century or two earlier. They had passed on long anterior to his time, had built and abandoned another century old home, near Fort Thompson, and were beyond the reach of civilization by a half century at least when he formed their acquaintance.
In numbers they had become reduced to a fragment of a tribe, still possessing, however, traits of character, customs and an un-Indian appearance that placed them in a class by themselves. They are a survival of the fittest, perhaps, of what can be produced by the union of the Anglo Saxon and native American under fairly favorable circumstances, and seem to demonstrate that no advantage has come to either race as a result of their long centuries of experiment.
Map of Bon Homme Island
George Catlin, a famous painter and authority on Indian traditions gathered by himself during years of patient labor among them. from 1850 up, while visiting with the Mandans, came to believe that they had descended from a company of Welsh explorers who landed on the shores of North America about two hundred years before the arrival of Columbus.
Of the ten ships which left Northern Wales some time about 1290, in charge of Prince Modoc. no tidings were ever heard, but Catlin was of opinion that they planted a colony in the region of Ohio, coming inland from the southern shore or coast; and after his sojourn with them in their fortified village on the Upper Missouri he had no difficulty in tracing them back, and down the river, and up the Ohio to the immense fortifications of that country.
Thus finding constant tracks of those ruins, he became convinced that the Indians, with whom he had passed so much time, were descended from those ancient builders. In some instances those forts had walls twenty and thirty feet high, with carefully covered passages leading to the water. Again the similarity can be traced in the Mandan canoe, which was an exact counterpart of the “coracle of the Welsh,” made of buffalo hides stretched over a frame of willows, and fashioned as round as a tub. Catlin found the Mandans living in a massive Stockade, with convenient portholes, on two sides of which their city was fortified by standing back upon the edge of precipices that struck down a rock ledge to the river's brink.
Their lodges were circular in form, and from forty to sixty feet in diameter. The Mandans were good farmers and believed in diversity of crops; raising corn, squashes and pumpkins. Their cellars for storing their dried vegetables and corn in winter were dug six or seven feet deep, smaller at the top in a sort of jug like shape, and no matter how severe the winter nothing ever froze. Their homes were clean, comfortable and commodious. (Here is where the Welsh intermixture is revealed.)
Many of the women were almost white, with gray, hazel or blue eyes; hair of every shade but auburn, which they delighted to spread out, its long folds reaching to their knees. Many of the Ohio specimens of pottery dug from those archaic fortifications were like the utensils used by the Mandans, who spent much time in moulding pitchers, vases, pots and cups; baking the clay in kilns built in the hill sides; and from those ingenious artisans the fur hunters used to get a beautiful and durable blue glass bead, of their own manufacture, but the process was never revealed by them to the whites.
There is a legend among them that their ancestors once lived under a great body of water that is far to the northeast; but that some of the people came out from their homes beneath the seas, and their glowing accounts led others to leave, also, for the outside country, although some were unable to climb out. From the time of leaving their homes under the deep waters, they wandered over the prairies, suffering much, but always delivered by their Good Angel, through some miraculous interposition, and in time they were led by messengers who went south, “to the fertile land of the buffalo and elk, and people who lived in houses and tilled the ground.” But still they journeyed, and at length found themselves in the great valleys along the Missouri River; and there they dwelt and learned many arts. This legend certainly bears indications that give plausibility to the Welsh Colony theory.
Bryant, who was not friendly to the claim that a Welsh Colony had discovered America prior to Columbus, and had become miscegenated with the Mandans, makes mention of the tradition in his “Popular History of the United States," discussing the subject substantially as follows:
The tradition that America was discovered about the year 1170 by a Welsh prince named Madog or Madoc, is still more circumstantial (referring to a prior claim of the Arabs), and attempts to support it have been made from time to time for the last 200 years. Humboldt, in alluding to it, says:
I do not share the scorn with which national traditions are too often treated, and am of the opinion that with more research, the discovery of facts entirely unknown would throw much light on. many historical problems.
This tradition relating to Madoc and his voyage had no doubt some actual basis of truth. The evidence adduced from time to time in support of it has been believed by many, and is curious and entertaining; the tradition itself has found a place in historical narrative for 300 years; for each and all these reasons, it demands brief consideration. It is evident that much of the narrative following was inspired by a desire to prove that the Welsh were entitled to great credit as the pioneers in the discovery of the American continent—their achievements antedating those of Columbus by two and possibly three centuries. These early writers do not concern themselves with the Mandan story, although confirming it in important particulars.
The story was first related in Caradoc's “History of Wales," published by Dr. David Powell. in 1854. Caradoc’s history, however, came down only to 1157, and Humphrey Llwyd (Lloyd). who translated it, added the later story of Madoc. The story is briefly this: “When Owen Gwynedd, Prince of North Wales, was gathered to his fathers, a strife arose among his sons as to who should reign in his stead. Madoc, one of the sons, took no part in this struggle, but got together a fleet and went to sea in search of adventure. He sailed westward and at length came to an unknown country where the natives differed from any people he had ever seen before, and all things were strange and new.
Seeing that the land was pleasant and fertile, he put on shore and left behind most of those in his ships, and returned to Wales. On his return he set forth the attractive qualities of the new land he had discovered with such good effect that enough of his countrymen to fill ten ships determined to go with him.”
The number of these emigrants is not given, and it should be remembered that ships in that day were small affairs compared with modern vessels. Columbus 300 years later, in his first voyage, had three ships and but 120 men. Madoc probably took with him a number of families, intending to found a colony. There is no account of their ever returning to Wales, but it is said “they followed the manners of the land they came to, and used the language they found there.”
Passing to the evidence since gathered, that a tribe of Indians, some of whom were of light complexion, and spoke a language differing from the Indian language in part, and resembling the Welsh tongue, who were found within the limits of the American‘ Colonies in the seventeenth century, it is found that among the earliest testimony is a letter to Dr. Thomas Lloyd, of Pennsylvania, and by him transmitted to his brother, Mr. C. H. S. Lloyd, in Wales. The letter was written by Rev. Morgan Jones, a Welsh missionary, and was dated at New York, March 10th, 1685. The letter states that Mr. Jones was sent as chaplain of an expedition from Virginia to Port Royal, S. C., in 1660, where he remained some months; but suffering greatly for food, he and five others started to return to Virginia. On the way they were taken prisoners by a band of Indians and condemned to die. On hearing the sentence, Mr. Jones exclaimed, in the Welsh tongue: “Have I escaped so many dangers, and must I now be knocked on the head like a hog.’ I Immediately he was seized around the waist by a war captain of the Doegs, and assured in the same language that he should not die. He was taken before the Tuscaroras chief with his companions and ransomed. Their deliverers took them to their own village where they were hospitably entertained.
For four months Mr. Jones remained among them, conversing with and preaching to them in the Welsh language. The conclusion is that these Indians were descendants of the Welsh colonists under Madoc. Rev. Charles Beatty, a missionary traveling in the Southwest in 1776, met with people who had seen and conversed with these Welsh Indians. A Mr. Benjamin Slutton informed him that he had visited an Indian town west of the Mississippi, where people were not so tawny as other natives and whose language was the Welsh; these people also had a book which they cherished with great care, which Mr. Slutton stated was a Welsh Bible, probably in manuscript. A Mr. Levi Hicks, who had been among the Indians from a youth, told Mr. Beatty that he had visited such a town west of the Great River, where the language spoken was Welsh, and Mr. Beatty’s interpreter, Joseph, had been with the natives of the same tribe, whom he was sure spoke the Welsh language, as he understood it partially himself.
In 1785 appeared a narrative that Capt. Isaac Stewart had been taken prisoner by the Indians with a Welshman named David, and they were carried several hundred miles up the Red River where they came to “a nation of Indians remarkably white, and whose hair was mostly of a reddish color." The Welshman found that these people could converse in Welsh. Their story or tradition was that their forefathers came from across the seas and landed on a coast east of the Mississippi, supposed to be Florida. These Indians possessed some rolls of parchment covered with writing in blue ink, which they kept wrapped up in skins with great care.
In a book entitled “An Inquiry Concerning the First Discovery of America by the Europeans,” by Williams, it is stated that a Welshman, living on the banks of the Ohio River, in a letter dated October 1, 1778, declared that he had been several times among Indians who spoke the old British (Welsh) language, and that a Virginia gentleman with whom he was acquainted, had visited a tribe of Welsh Indians living on the Missouri River, 400 miles above its junction with the Mississippi.
(The attention of the reader is called to the fact that the Mandan Indians were in the Missouri Valley at the time mentioned; and further, it should be borne in mind that these Welsh writers make no mention of this name as the tribe which spoke their language; the purpose of the Welsh historians being not to prove what nation these Indians belonged to, but to Show that a colony of Welshmen had preceded Columbus to America, and were first discoverers of the new land.)
Further evidence, and the most modern, comes from the famous painter of Indians and Indian scenes, George Catlin, who in the first half of the last century, spent years visiting various tribes. He Studied the Mandans particularly and believed them to be a cross between the Indians and the Welsh, and is inclined to accept the theory that the Mandans are descendants of the Mound Builders, and that the builders of those works were people originating in Madoc’s Colony. Catlin Speaks of the boat used by the Mandans in being like the coracle of the Welsh, and in complexion, in the color of their hair and eyes, they Seem to be allied with the whites. Albert Gallatin, secretary of war under Jefferson, states that a chief of the Mandan tribe whom he met at Washington, was of a lighter shade of complexion than other red men, and that he was the only fullblooded Indian he had ever met with blue eyes.
Among the Zuni of New Mexico there are Indians of fair complexion, blue eyes and light hair. Among the New Mexicans is a tradition that long ago some Welsh miners wandered into that country with their wives and children, and that the Zuni killed the men and married the women.
Historians properly make a broad distinction between a tradition and an invention. The latter has no basis of truth whatever, while traditions as a rule have a substantial basis of truth, though often embellished by fancy or distorted and amplified in their repetition from generation to generation.
The theory that has gained some credence in more modern times, that this was not the decaying ruins of an old fort, but due to the natural causes produced by the river in periods of high water, is much more difficult to explain and believe, than the testimony of Captains Lewis and Clark, who were qualified by education and experience to form a sound judgment in a matter of this character. The natural action of the river would not build stone walls six feet high, with stone transported overland for some distance; nor does it lay the foundations for large fortifications with the skill and precision that was required in laying out this abandoned fortress.
It is much more irrational, and difficult, to believe that this ruined fort was the result of natural causes, and so skillfully built as to deceive not only Lewis and Clark, experienced and educated military men, but the crew composed of men of ripe experience in the army, who accompanied them, than it is to accept the well—grounded opinion of the explorers who came upon the ruins before they had been disturbed by the white pioneers of a half century later, whose opinion, formed after painstaking examination and measurements, pronounced them the ruins of an abandoned extensive fortress that had been constructed by a people who possessed considerable knowledge of the architecture of defensive works and who had built the fortress with the view of protection against powerful foes.
The testimony of the earliest settlers of Bon Homme, while lacking any evidence that they had made a careful examination of the ruins, but had frequently visited and inspected them, was in a general way corroborative of the theory or conclusions of Lewis and Clark.
[From the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition:]
Saturday, September 1, 1804.—We proceeded this morning and passed the Calumet Bluffs; these are composed of a yellowish-red and brownish clay as hard as chalk, which it much resembles, and are 170 or 180 feet high. At this place the hills on each side come to the verge of the river, those on the south being higher than those on the north. Opposite the bluffs is a large island (Ambrose Island) covered with timber, above which the highlands form a cliff over the river on the north side called White Bear Cliff, an animal of that kind being killed in one of the holes in it, which are numerous and apparently deep. At six miles we came to a large sand island covered with cottonwood. We made fifteen miles to a place on the north side at the lower point of a large island called Bon Homme or Goodman's Island.
The country on both sides has the same character of prairies, with no timber, with occasional lowlands covered with cottonwood, elm and oak. Our hunters had killed an elk and a beaver; the catfish, too, are in great abundance. The following day we went three miles to the lower part of an ancient fortification on the south side. and passed the head of Bon Homme Island, which is large and well timbered. After this the wind became so violent that we were compelled to land at four miles on the northern side, under a high bluff of yellow clay about one hundred and ten feet in height.
Our hunters supplied us with four elks, and we had grapes and plums on the banks; we also saw the beargrass and rue on the sides of the bluffs. ' At this place there are highlands on both sides of the river, which become more level at some distance back, and contain but few streams of water. On the southern bank, during this day, the grounds have not been so elevated. Captain Clark crossed the river to examine the remains of the fortification we had first passed. This interesting object is on the south side of the Missouri opposite the upper extremity of Bon Homme Island, and in a low, level plain, the hills being three miles From the river.
It begins by a wall composed of earth, rising immediately from the bank of the river, and running in a direct course S. 76: W. ninety-six yards; the base of this wall or mound is seventy-five feet and its height about eight. It then diverges in a course S. 84: W. and continues at the same height and depth to the distance of fifty-three yards, the angle being formed by a sloping descent; at the junction of these two is the appearance of a hornwork of the same height with the first angle; the same wall then pursues a course at 69: W. for 300 yards; near its western extremity is an opening or gateway at right angles to the wall and projecting inwards; this gateway is defended by two nearly semi-circular walls placed before it, lower than the large walls, and from the gateway there seems to have been a covered way communicating with the interval between these two walls; westward of the gate the wall becomes much larger, being about one hundred and five feet at its base and twelve feet high; at the end of this high ground the wall extends for fifty-six yards on a course at 32: W.; it then turns to N. 32: W. for seventy-three yards; these two walls seem to have had a double or covered way; they are from 10 to 15 feet 8 inches in height, and from 75 to 150 feet in width at the base. the descent inwards being step, while outwards it forms a sort of glacis. At the distance of seventy-three yards the wall ends abruptly at a large hollow place much lower than the general level of the plain, and from which is some indication of a covered way to the water.
The space between them is occupied by several mounds scattered promiscuously through the gorge, in the center of which is a deep, round hole. From the extremity of the last. wall, in a course N. 32: W. is a distance of ninety-six yards over the low ground, where the wall recommences and crosses the plain over in a course N. 81: W. for 1,830 yards to the bank of the Missouri. In this course its height is about eight feet, till it enters, at the distance of 533 yards, a deep circular pond of seventy-three yards diameter; after which it gradually lowers towards the river; it touches the river at a muddy bar, that bears every mark of being an encroachment of the water, for a considerable distance, and a little above the junction is a small circular redoubt. '
Along the bank of the river and at 1,100 yards distance, in a straight line from this wall, is a second, about six feet high and of considerable width; it rises abruptly from the banks of the Missouri. at a point where the river bends, and goes straight forward, forming an acute angle with the last wall until, it enters the river not far from the mounds just described. towards which it is obviously tending. At the bend the Missouri is 500 yards wide; the ground at the opposite side highlands. or low hills on the bank; and where the river passes between this front and Bon Homme Island, all the distance from the bend, it is constantly washing the banks into the streams, a large sand bank being already taken from the shore near the wall. During the whole course of this wall or glacis. it is covered with trees, among which are many large cotton trees that are two to three feet in diameter. Immediately opposite the citadel, or the part most strongly fortified on Ron Homme Island, is a small work in a circular form, with a wall surrounding it about six feet in height. The young willows along the water joined to the general appearance of the two shores induce a belief that the bank of the island is encroaching, and the Missouri indemnifies itself by washing away the base of the fortification.
The citadel contains about twenty acres, but the parts between the long walls must embrace nearly five hundred acres. These are the first remains of the kind which we have had an opportunity of examining; but our French interpreter assures us that there are great numbers of them on the Platte, the Kansas, the Jacques, etc.. and some of our party say that they observed two of these fortresses on the Petite Are (Little Bow) Creek not far from its mouth; that the wall was about six feet high and the sides of the angles 100 yards in length.
This fortification, Lewis concluded, was the ruins of an ancient fort that had been constructed by a fairly intelligent people, who possessed considerable knowledge of the science of military architecture. Durion, the interpreter, who had spent his life with the Indians, was unable to enlighten the captain, but told him that a similar work would be found on the James River; but even the Sioux Indian tribe had no tradition that threw any light upon the matter. Directly across the channel on the island shore was found the disintegrating remains of what appeared to have been a citadel as ancient and probably a contemporary with the fort when constructed and undoubtedly designed for use in connection with the fortification in case of necessity. The citadel was or had been a circular structure, and outside and enclosing it was a stone wall six feet high in places