Our story begins in 1552, when the Spanish historian Francisco López de Gómara makes an audacious claim. Noting that the Aztecs frequently use the syllable atl in their words, he proposes that Mexico and the Caribbean are the lost continent of Atlantis.
But there is now no cause why we should any longer doubt or dispute of the Island Atlantide, forasmuch as the discovering and conquest of the west Indies do plainly declare what Plato hath written of the said lands. In Mexico also at this day they call that water Atl, by the half name of Atlantis, as by a word remaining of the name of the Island that is not. We may likewise say that the Indies are either the island and firm land of Plato or the remnant of the same: and not the Islands of Hesperides or Ophir, or Tarshish, as some have thought of late days.
But today I’m more interested in the idea that Gómara thought Atlantis was America. Gómara was writing in the Historia general de las Indias, a highly influential account of the Spanish conquest of the New World, and one that caught the attention of Richard Eden, an alchemist and translator sponsored by the Earl of Northumberland, a dedicated opponent of the Spanish empire. Eden included selections from Gómara on Atlantis as an appendix to his 1555 translation of Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s Decades (1530). His translation is the one I have adapted above.
Two decades later, John Dee was also in the business of promoting English empire-building at the expense of Spain, and he tried to directly rebut Gómara. In an unpublished 1576 manuscript (discussed by Robert Barone here), Dee relocated Atlantis from the Spanish-controlled Caribbean to the north, where British interests lay:
The Lord Madoc, sonne of Owen Gwyndd prince of North Wales, leaving his brothers in contention, and warre for their inheritance sought, by sea (westerlie from Irland), for some forein, and—Region to plant hymselfe in with soveranity: wth Region when he had found, he returned to Wales againe and hym selfe wth Shipps, vituals, and men and women sufficient for the coloniy, wth spedely he leed into the peninsula; then named Farquara; but of late Florida or into some of the Provinces, and territories neere ther abouts: and in Apalchen, Mocosa, or Norombera: then of these 4 beinge notable portions of the ancient Atlantis, no longer—nowe named America.
Dee, a Welshman, relates this new Atlantis to Madoc, the Welsh prince who sketchy legends vaguely told had sailed westward from Wales in the Middle Ages. By the 1570s, there seems to have been an oral tradition that Madoc’s westward land was America, backed up by traveler’s tales that the indecipherable languages of Native Americans were corrupt Welsh.
In Dee’s hands, Madoc became the centerpiece for Tudor claims to control all of America; for, if the Welsh had colonized North America around 1170, they had prior claim before that upstart and knave, Columbus, and his perfidious Spanish benefactors. The Tudors had finished the incorporation of Wales into England, and the Welsh thought of them as a “Welsh” dynasty. Dee passed the story on to George Peckham in 1582, and he published it in A True Reporte Of the late discoveries and possession taken in the right of the Crowne of Englande, of Newfound Landes (1583), the first printed claim that Madoc had reached America.
This, in turn, gave rise to the myth of the Welsh Indians, which Lewis and Clark’s men believed, and which some alternative historians still advocate down to the present day.
Peckham, in turn, was working with Sir Humphrey Gilbert to build an empire in America. Gilbert obtained a royal charter for vast tracts of North America and died trying to found a colony in Newfoundland. His claim passed to his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, who sponsored the ill-fated Roanoke Colony in an attempt to keep the royal charter from expiring. Dee, too, received a charter for vast territories, but no evidence exists that anything ever came of it—claims for the Newport Tower notwithstanding.
Thus ended the great Atlantis-Madoc empire-building mission.
The claim that Madoc reached America fell into abeyance under the Stuarts, who, hailing from Scotland, had no interest in promoting Welsh ideas. Not until the Welsh cultural revival of the 1780s and 1790s did the Madoc story reemerge, in time to influence Americans in their westward expansion—a useful propaganda tool for the Americans, as heirs to British claims south of the Canadian border as per the 1783 Treaty of Paris—to use to promote claims to the Louisiana Territory.
Interestingly, wherever the Welsh Indians were sought, they were always just beyond the horizon. The “Welsh” Indians first thought to live near the east coast disappeared when sought, and the claim shifted to the Appalachians. When not found there, they were then thought to be up the Missouri. After searching there, reports placed them somewhere in the Plains or the Rockies—anywhere just beyond reach, a phantasm of the imperial imagination.