The exact origins of American Indians have always been somewhat controversial. Most of us grew up with the theory that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago. Recent archeological evidence, however, indicates that people may have lived in the Americas much longer. Most Native American tribes have origin myths that defy conventional science; as a Nez Perce park ranger told me once, “Those other tribes may have come across the Bering Strait, but we were always here.”
At the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went west, the great minds of the day had already begun to ponder the origins of the Native Americans and grapple with the idea that they had originated elsewhere in the distant past. Some even believed the Indians to be the so-called “Lost Tribe of Israel.” When Lewis & Clark were assigned to collect Indian vocabularies, the intention, as Jefferson later wrote, was “to publish the whole, and leave the world to search for affinities between these and the languages of Europe and Asia.” In April 1805, Captain Lewis sent back a total of 14 Indian vocabularies he had taken in the Great Plains, and over the course of the journey through the Rockies and to the Pacific Ocean, he recorded nine more.
It’s important to remember that before Lewis & Clark headed into the west, no one knew quite what they would encounter. That was the whole point of the exercise after all. So to modern eyes, some of the speculation that preceded their journey seems ludicrous today. Live mammoths wandering around the Great Plains? Not exactly. A giant mountain made of pure salt? (No, but Utah’s got a lake that fills the bill). Blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indians? You don’t say, Mr. Jefferson.
Since the 1500s, shortly after the discovery of the New World, Welsh patriots had promoted the story that a Welsh prince named Madoc had discovered America in 1170, some three centuries before Christopher Columbus shouted Land ho. Supposedly, Madoc landed somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Mobile, Alabama. Eventually, he and his men made their way up the Missouri River where their fair-skinned descendants lived on. Even today, there are still adherents running around claiming to have proof that this or that tribe–usually the Mandans of North Dakota–are descended from the Welsh.
After all, the Mandans were light-skinned and sometimes fair-haired, and they lived in large walled towns. Obviously Welsh, right? But proof via a linguistic connection proved disappointing. In 1796, the Spanish sponsored an expedition up the Missouri in order to bolster their claims to Louisiana (an incident that we enjoyed dramatizing in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe). One of the leaders of the expedition, John Evans, was Welsh and spoke the language; he discovered no link between Mandan and Welsh.
Lewis and Clark wintered among the Mandans a decade later and documented their customs thoroughly. Like Evans, they did not believe their friends to be of Welsh descent, though Clark did later tell artist George Catlin that he would find the Mandans to be “a strange people and half white.” Though Clark probably meant that the Mandans lived a settled and highly sophisticated existence, Catlin seems to have taken him seriously. In the 1830s, when Catlin visited the Mandans and created his famous portraits and landscapes, he became convinced of their Welsh heritage, probably the last observer of any repute to promote the theory.
It’s unknown whether Jefferson, Lewis, or Clark took the Welsh Indian speculation seriously, but what is certain is that some of their men did. Consider these journal entries from September 1805, when the Corps of Discovery encountered the Salish (Flathead) Indians near modern-day Missoula, Montana:
These natives are well dressed, decent looking Indians, light complexioned. They are dressed in mountain sheep leather, deer & buffalo robes &c. They have the most curious language of any we have seen before. They talk as though they lisped or have a burr on their tongue. We suppose that they are the Welch Indians if there is any such from the language. – Sergeant John Ordway, September 4, 1805
Our officers took down some of their language, found it very troublesome speaking to them as all they say to them has to go through six languages, and hard to make them understand. These natives have the strangest language of any we have ever yet seen. They appear to us as though they had an impediment in their speech or brogue on their tongue. We think perhaps that they are the Welch Indians, &c. They are the likeliest and most honest we have seen and are very friendly to us. – Sergeant John Ordway, September 5, 1805
We take these savages to be the Welch Indians if there be any such from the language. So Capt. Lewis took down the names of everything in their language in order that it may be found out whether they are or whether they sprung or originated first from the Welch or not. – Private Joseph Whitehouse, September 6, 1805
With all due respect to any die-hard fans out there, the Welsh Indian theory eventually died out due to being utter nonsense. No historical basis for Madoc or his journey has ever been found, and no linguistic or cultural similiarities bear up to scrutiny. As for the light-complexion of the Mandans, even Catlin admitted that no more than 20% of villagers were fair — no more than the variation in complexion to be found in any ethnic group, from Viennese to Vietnamese.
More reading: Mandan is not Welsh (from Language Geek)