The last time Scott Wolter dropped in to visit this blog was right after the airing of the episode S01E09 “Motive for Murder,” in which Wolter asserted that Thomas Jefferson had given Meriwether Lewis “secret instructions” to go in search of Welsh Indians, whose presence might pose a threat to the sovereignty of the United States. I asked Wolter to please provide copies of those presidential instructions as I was unable to find them in any Jefferson archives. Wolter never responded.
At the time, I had searched the Jefferson papers at the Library of Congress and turned up nothing. Since then, I’ve also reviewed the archives of the Monticello Museum and the New York Historical Society, and I have read all of the existing correspondence to and from Meriwether Lewis about his expedition. After reviewing this material, I have a tentative reconstruction of what actually happened.
The story starts with the Tudors who first made use of the legend of the Welsh Prince Madoc and his alleged voyage to America to help undermine Spain’s claims to North America. By the mid-1600s, Spain was no longer a direct threat to Britain’s North American territories, and the claim fell into abeyance. It was revived in the late 1700s by Welsh nationalists, including Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), whose fake Welsh runic alphabet ended up on the Brandenburg Stone seen in the episode. One of these, Morgan John Rhys, came to America to found a Welsh-language colony. He wanted to search for the descendants of Madoc in hopes of recovering evidence about the “pure” medieval Welsh.
Rhys (who also spelled his name Rhees or Rees), in turn was very interested in the work of John Evans, a Welshman who got a commission from the Spanish government to search the Louisiana territory for, among other things, Welsh Indians. Yes, this is how much of a threat to sovereignty this story really was: the enemy government was happy to find out about them, too. Rhys wrote about this in 1795 (in excerpt):
You have heard I expect before this time that John Evans is at length gone up the Missouri. I was the beginning of last May within about 300 miles of him … He has obtained from the Commandant passports in Spanish french & English to go on his journey… and whether he meets with the Welsh Madogians or not - he will receive on his return 2 or 3000 dollars from the Spanish government - I have heard many additional tales concerning what they call the Welsh Indians but as yet I have my doubts about them. I have conversed with the acting partner in the Missouri Co. He has been among more Indians than any other white man on this continent. He knows nothing of the Welsh language but by my conversing in Welsh - he could not recognize the words nor the idiom altogether among the Indians North of the Missouri - he thinks the Padoucas are out of the question. however I deliver'd him a Welsh Vocabulary & begg'd of him to give all the assistance he could to John Evans should he meet him. This man is to remain on the Missouri for 3 or 4 years to trade with the Indians. He has promised to write to me from time to time, and I do assure you it afforded me much pleasure to meet with a man of his disposition & information engaged in the Indian trade.
(Note: In all excerpts in this post, the original spelling is preserved.)
Now, as Jefferson and Lewis planned the expedition to explore Louisiana, neither made any mention of Welsh Indians. In fact, it is not until 1804, when the expedition was underway, that any mention of Welsh Indians occurs. And it does so because of Rhys.
Jefferson wrote to Lewis on January 22, 1804 his only mention of Welsh Indians:
In that of the 13th inst. I inclosed you the map of a Mr. Evans, a Welshman, employed by the Spanish government for that purpose, but whose original object I believe had been to go in search of the Welsh Indians, said to be up the Missouri. On this subject a Mr. Rees of the same nation, established in the Western parts of Pennsylvania, will write to you.
Note that Jefferson is either uncertain or unconcerned whether Evans had been in search of Welsh Indians. Instead, his concern is to get Lewis a useful map that will help the expedition. It is reasonable to conclude from this letter that in order to obtain the map, Jefferson agreed to let Rhys write to Lewis about his pet subject, the Welsh Indians. However, Jefferson doesn’t seem at all interested in the subject, and is content to let Rhys write under his own name (i.e. unofficially) about any such inquiry.
Sadly, Rhys’s letter does not exist, or else was never sent. He died suddenly in December of 1804. The subject, though, appears to have captured the fancy of Lewis and Clark. Here’s exactly how much of a state secret they considered it. The expedition wrote about finding Welsh Indians in their journals, in the entries below, but these were not written by Lewis. Both entries are by Joseph Whitehouse, who intended to publish the journal for a profit upon his return from the expedition (some secret!), but gave up on the idea after putting together a final draft and preface in 1806. These journals were not published until 1904.
Thursday 5th Sept. 1805.
That’s exactly how interesting anyone involved found Welsh Indians. Neither Lewis nor Clark felt the need to mention Welsh Indians, and Whitehouse appears to have mistaken Lewis taking a vocabulary list (as he did for all Native tribes encountered, as per Jefferson's orders) for a special effort to prove these were Welsh Indians. If there really were a secret conspiracy to find Welsh Indians, would they have spent less than a day with them?
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