In search of Wales' Native American roots; Did the Mandan Indians hail from Wales? With the support of the country's finest forensic brain the centuries-old riddle is near to being solved. But it involves digging up a prince,Ian Parri discovers.
FEW legends can have been as durable as that of Prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd and the Welsh Indians.
An inconspicuous stone plaque in a garden in Rhoson-Seaproclaims that ``Prince Madoc sailed from here Aber Kerrik Gwynan 1170AD'', while a reciprocal one at Mobile,Alabama claims that's where his epic journey ended.
It spawned rumours that have persisted down the centuries that Madog's doughty band of travellers interbred with the Native Americans and became the pale-skinned Mandan race.
Now the Maesteg-based Madoc International Research Association is intent on proving the Welsh-Mandan link by using the latest DNA profiling techniques.
It could involve exhuming the remains of Owain Gwynedd, purported to be Madog's father, from their resting place in Bangor Cathedral if permission were granted.
And Britain's most eminent forensic pathologist,Cardiff-born Professor Bernard Knight, has lent his weight to their research efforts by becoming the Association's president.
His fascination with the story of the first recorded Welsh emigration across the Atlantic led to him writing the novel Madoc,Prince of America.
``He is not just a figurehead,but a hands-on president who comes to about two out of every three meetings,'' says Howard Kimberley,a Llandrindod Wells-based business advisor, who doubles as the Association's research co-ordinator.
Kimberley has few doubts in his mind that Madog did make it across the Atlantic some 300 years before Columbus,but spurns the idea often perpetuated that the Mandan people spoke a version of Welsh.
According to one story,in 1666 the Welsh missionary Morgan Jones was captured by an Indian tribe with European features. As they prepared to kill him,Jones prayed in Welsh for deliverance and was spared as the tribesmen realised they shared the same tongue.
Then there was the tale of Morris Griffith, who was taken prisoner by a tribe of so-called white Indians in 1764. He was supposedly also saved from death after he addressed them in Welsh, to be greeted in the same tongue by the Chief.
Legend has it that the Welsh contingent sailed up the river systems from Alabama, settling initially where Kentucky stands today,before travelling on via the Ohio and the Mississippi into the Missouri, where they met the Mandans.
Difficult though these stories may be to believe today, they inspired the London-based Gwyneddigion society to sponsor adventurer John Evans, who hailed from Waunfawr near Caernarfon, to set out to seek the fabled Welsh Indians in 1791.
He used the time he was there to map the Missouri for the first time, enabling the newly independent United States to claim North Dakota as its territory before the then-British colony of Canada could.
``The Gwyneddigion's intention was to establish a Welsh settlement in North America,by uniting the two halves of the nation on either side of the Atlantic,'' says historian Dafydd Rhys, of Coleg Harlech-WEA, an expert on John Evans and his escapades.
``The situation was quite bad in Wales at the time and a detailed document drawn up by Iolo Morgannwg went as far as setting out guidelines as to how this settlement would be run.
``John Evans spent a winter with the Mandans in North Dakota,but reported back that there was no evidence linking them to Madog. He was denounced as a drunkard and as being a spy for Spain,but I'd argue that we was just being realistic about the geopolitics of the period.''
As a native of Evans' home village, Gwynn Davies has also long taken an interest in his search for the Madogwys, as Madog's supposed North American successors are referred to in Welsh.
He wrote a booklet about the great adventurer,actually the content of a lecture,and was among those instrumental in setting up a small museum dedicated to him in at the acclaimed Antur Waunfawr centre for adults with learning difficulties.
``There's no doubt that at one time there was a very strong belief in the existence of the Welsh Indians,''hesays. ``It certainly was odd that the Mandans lived in circular houses similar to ones found in Wales, rather than tepees; that they used a boat very similar to a Welsh coracle; that they tended the land rather than hunted; and that there are a lot of words in their language similar to Welsh.
``John Evans was a remarkable man. He went through hell in his attempt to find the Welsh Indians and he was just 29 when he died.
``It is part of the Mandan people's tradition that a white man,known as the Lone Man,came from the east into their midst. Keith Bear, who is a Mandan, was over in Waunfawr some four years ago,and he believes in the Welsh connection.
``I really don't know what to think of it.There's no doubt that the Welsh were crossing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic at the time, as the Vikings had before them. It's possible,I suppose.''
Antur Waunfawr's chief executive Menna Jones spent time with the Mandan people at their Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota in 1999. She found a remnant nation struggling to hold on to its traditions, the tribe having been decimated by the smallpox epidemics of 1781/2 and 1837/8.
``There are only a few descendants left these days and just 13 who could speak the Mandan language when I was there,'' she says.
``But they do get taught Mandan studies at school nowadays, where they study some traditions and learn some words of their language. It's very strange,in a way,in that they hate the white man for what he did to them yet see themselves very strongly as being Americans.
``As for the story of Madog, they've heard about the Welsh link,but they don't want to tie themselves to us.
``It's part of their tradition, but there is no conclusive evidence. There has been talk of doing DNA testing in order to try to settle the matter once and for all. But when I mentioned this to Keith Bear,he said that there was no way anybody was going to stick any needles in him.
``However, it's the legend that's important,not the reality. And you'd be surprised at how many American visitors turn up here at the museum because of it.''
Howard Kimberley, though, is undeterred by all the hurdles his Association needs to negotiate. And he insists that the probability is that Madog did reach America before Columbus.
``I'm not saying that he was the first European to get there. St Brendan is reputed to have made it in the 6th century, while the Vikings definitely went there before Madog.
``But Gutyn Owen mentions Madog going away in a poem that was written before Columbus' time.
``I'm no historian,but on the balance of the evidence available to us, I'd say that the link with the Mandans has an 80pc probability of being true.
``In addition, we're investigating the links with a people known as the White Madoc tribe in Pennsylvania and I've been in touch with one of them.
``I've also spoken with the professor from Oxford who managed to link the 9,000-year-old skeleton found at Cheddar to a man still living in the area through DNA testing.
``He said that the Welsh-Mandan link could be proven,if it exists,but that we would need to get preColumban DNA from both sides.
``I don't know if they'd let us dig up Owain Gwynedd's remains. And, while we stick our ancestors in glass cases, the Indians worship theirs as gods.
``Lonewolf, one of the Mandans, had a touch of the horrors when I suggested DNA-testing one of his ancestors.They're still a very reverent society.''
More than 800 years may have passed since the illegitimate son of Owain Gwynedd left these shores for the New World, but Madog's name still makes its impact all these centuries later.
Indeed,Dafydd Rhys believes that it could be argued that the recent conflict in Iraq might not have occurred had it not been for Madog.
``If it hadn't been for the tales about Madog, then the Gwyneddigion wouldn't have sent John Evans out to America. And it wasn't for his mapping of the Missouri, with the blessing of the American government, then Canada might have claimed North Dakota.
``That state gave its six electoral college votes to George Bush, who won by five votes. So you could argue that if it hadn't been for Madog,Bush wouldn't have won,and the conflict might have been avoided.''
Gwynn Davies (far right), who is investigating the legends that suggest Welsh blood courses through the veins of the Native American Mandan race (above).Mandan folklore tells of a white visitor, dubbed The Lone Man (near right), who may well have been explorer John Evans, who was commissioned to establish the link between Wales and the Mandans in 1971. While in America,Evans mapped the Missouri River (below), which helped secure the state of North Dakota for the USA. RADCLIFFE; OWAIN Gwynedd ruled much of North Wales in the 12th century. He fathered 19 children, only six of whom were legitimate. Madog ab Owain Gwynedd is believed to have been born illegitimately in Dolwyddelan,near Betws y Coed, though probably not in the castle that stands there today. On the death of Owain Gwynedd in December 1169, war broke out between the brothers. Madog and his half-brother Riryddecided to leave Wales and set sail westwards. In the first ever history of Wales in English, Cronica Walliae, published in 1527,author Humphrey Llwyd insists that ``this lande to which Madoc came to, most needs bee somme parte of Nova Hispania,or Florida''.