Well, that was interesting. This was a wonderful hour of television, if only because the show itself was forced to concede that forensic geologist and show host Scott Wolter’s vaunted geological re-dating of stone artifacts produces false results and can’t be trusted. We now have no reason to believe any of his dating of other stones now or in the future.
America Unearthed S01E09 “Motive for Murder” begins with a disclaimer that on this “special episode” the murder investigation forensic geologist Scott Wolter is about to undertake contains images that “may be disturbing.” Insert your own joke here. We proceed to a reenactment of Meriwether Lewis sitting at his desk recording his famous expedition across America, which the on-screen graphics state include “secret” information that had been suppressed. We then see Lewis commit suicide with a pistol. The “disturbing” image is the blood splattering on a map hung upon the wall. The on-screen text tells us that Lewis died of multiple gunshot wounds, calling into question the suicide theory.
Then we see the opening credits.
If you’re a fan of the History Channel, you already know where this is going because you’ve seen this story before, in 2010, when it was called “Secret Presidential Codes” and was the second episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. In that episode, we also went through the claims that Lewis had been murdered rather than committed suicide. Meltzer’s show suggested Lewis had been assassinated because he possessed President Thomas Jefferson’s secret codes. Scott Wolter is going to go in a different direction, however.
Lewis’s suicide is widely accepted by historians, but questions about whether he was murdered have been discussed since the 1800s. There is nothing exciting here, to be honest with you. I’ve said before that this period of history isn’t really that interesting to me, and the exact nature of Lewis’s death doesn’t really change anything about American history.
Scott Wolter arrives at journalist Don Shelby’s home in Minnesota to discuss the “missing” pages of Lewis’s journal. Shelby, a retired local TV news anchor, believes (without evidence) that Lewis was murdered and the pages stolen to suppress facts that were “frightening” to “that day and age.” What are these facts? Shelby is very interested in why Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis to look for evidence of Welsh colonization of the Louisiana Territory. He believes Lewis found this and that the government suppressed the fact because it would take “the whole idea of American colonial history, our very foundation, and toss it out the window.”
He knows nothing of history. No mention of Welsh Indians occurs in Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis, dated June 20, 1803. Instead, on January 22, 1804, Jefferson wrote to Lewis that a Welshman named Mr. (John) Evans had explored the St. Louis region in search of Welsh Indians and that his map would be helpful. Jefferson expressed no belief in Welsh Indians in these letters (though like his contemporaries he wondered if it could be true), and he makes no explicit instruction that Lewis should look for Welsh Indians. All of the books I consulted about Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis make no mention of a directive to find Welsh Indians, except for Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, which provides no source. Ambrose mentions that Jefferson supposedly told Lewis in 1802 (before the Louisiana Purchase) that an expedition might find the fabled Welsh Indians, though this was not an explicit objective, more of a statement of curiosity. (If someone knows where this presidential mandate is written, I'd like very much to see it.) America Unearthed is therefore wrong in claiming an 1803 “presidential mandate” to find Welsh Indians.
What Jefferson did ask for was a list of vocabularies of the various Native tribes west of the Mississippi, which he hoped would help him prove that the Native Americans descended from Asiatic peoples of Russia, a subject he had discussed years before in his Notes on the State of Virginia. His preliminary finding was the many Native American words were similar to Russian languages (implying a Bering Sea entry point from Asia), and he hoped to find more. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to do this because the trunk with vocabulary lists was stolen from him in 1809 en route from Washington to Monticello, and the thief, unable to read the Native words, thought it worthless and simply threw it all in the James River! (Or was it part of the conspiracy? Dun-dun-dun!)
According to the History of the Expedition of the Command of Lewis and Clark, in 1764 (nearly three centuries after European contact) a French trader discovered “white” Indians with beards on the Missouri (it was actually 1737, according to modern accounts), referencing apparently some Native group that had intermarried with the Spanish or French explorers of the region. In 1805, William Clarke’s servant York (an African-American) apparently went around telling people that he and the expedition had found a tribe of white Indians, but York was famous for his wild tall tales, and he was apparently exaggerating from the somewhat fairer complexion of the Mandan Indians, whom Lewis and Clarke had met in 1805, and who were quite taken by York’s dark skin. York’s stories ended up quoted as fact in the New York Medical Repository in 1806 and from there entered the realm of alternative history. Native peoples, of course, are not uniformly of one color, and they vary greatly in the shades of their skins depending on genetic and environmental factors.
In the America of 1809, theories about white colonists of the pre-Columbian age were all the rage, and as I recently discussed, the myth that white colonists predated the Native Americans became the official policy of the United States government, in large measure as a way of justifying the seizure of Native American land. Not only would the U.S. government of the age have welcomed evidence that white people predated Native Americans, they would have trumpeted it from Georgia to Maine as proof that land seizures were justified, since in those days it was often assumed that Native peoples had been on the land only a few centuries. When the United States gained independence from Britain, all prior British claims—including those of the Welsh—transferred to America’s sovereignty. Therefore, the discovery of Welsh interlopers in pre-Columbian America would have had no effect whatsoever on America’s sovereignty. Even the discovery of Welsh land claims in Louisiana would be rather useless since there was no Welsh occupation between 600 CE and 1800, meaning that the land had long been considered “abandoned” under international law.
Wolter seems to think that Welsh Indians would have given the Welsh the right to the American land, which is ridiculous since the title to Louisiana had passed through Spanish and French hands before becoming American, and the British made no move to contest the transfer on the grounds that they owned Wales. (The British were well aware of claims of Welsh colonization, which the original British colonists had been making for a hundred years; they surely would have asserted such claims against Spain or France had they thought anything of them, on even the flimsiest grounds.)
Of course no one cared about the Native Americans. They are only there as decoration, or as the unfortunately degenerate descendants of superior white invaders.
In support of this, we look at the Brandenburg Stone, found in Kentucky, for a long time housed in Indiana, and now again in Kentucky, another disputed artifact covered in badly-written scratch marks that are supposedly Welsh. Wolter examines the stone using his best geological analysis and concludes it can be no more recent than 1492. According to a translation made by the Arthurian Society of Wales, it reads "Toward strength (to promote unity), divide the land we are spread over, purely (or justly) between offspring in wisdom." It was found in 1912, during a widespread outbreak of fake artifacts, and nothing on the stone would have been impossible to fake in 1912. The show is honest enough to let Shelby explain that the stone’s writing can date no earlier than the eighteenth century (because it’s fake pseudo-Welsh writing invented by a known hoaxer in the 1700s!), calling into question Wolter’s geological credibility since he just finished asserting that the stone is unlikely to be newer than 1492 based on his extensive geological training. Wolter also talked about the provenance of the stone and how that was needed to really date it, which is a laugh since he didn’t care about that at all when it came to the Dare Stones. [Update: see follow-up here.]
Note carefully: Scott Wolter’s own show conclusively demonstrated that his microscopic technique for dating rocks—his so called “new” science of archaeopetrography—produces false results that are off by centuries. We can safely ignore his dating claims now that a real-life test of his technique has proved him wrong.
More than fifty similar stones have been found, and none has passed archaeological muster.
We also hear that the Mandan tribe of Native Americans was Welsh, a sad restatement of old Victorian racist discussions that were well-debunked many decades ago. (The claim was spurred by Welsh nationalism, something Britain wanted to suppress.) A thorough review of the linguistics of the Mandan tribe finds no connection to Welsh but rather to other Native languages. No DNA studies have ever found a European connection. Instead, the story is a fanciful one, traceable back to early Welsh colonists who tried to connect the Mandan to the folklore of Prince Madoc, who supposedly traveled across the ocean in the Middle Ages. As mentioned, many Native tribes vary in skin tone, and at any rate the “white” Mandan weren’t seen until several centuries after Europeans had been in America, plenty of time for genetic transfer from Spanish or French explorers, should Europeans have been the cause of their particular skin tone.
Wolter engages in some conspiracy-mongering, eventually tying Lewis’s supposed murder to his status as a Freemason, and he raises no objection when the Masons he interviews explain to him that the Masons only originated in their modern form in the 1700s—a direct contradiction of Wolter’s assertion in the past that Masons descend directly from the Knights Templar.
Wolter wants to test Lewis’s Masonic apron’s blood stains, but I don’t see how the blood could possibly explain whether Meriwether Lewis was murdered. If the blood is his, it could be due to either suicide or murder, and if it is not his, it implies nothing since there is (a) no claim that the shooter was injured and (b) there is no way to know when the blood was deposited on the apron. I also don’t want to be indelicate here, but the “family member” used for comparison after two centuries might not actually be a direct descendant of Meriwether Lewis. For example, infidelity, adoption, etc. can contaminate the bloodlines. A positive match can prove a connection, but no match is not negative evidence due to the aforementioned complications of human relationships.
An interesting vignette occurs at the end of the episode when Shelby explains to Wolter how his geology has failed in the face of the fact that the Brandenburg Stone is an obvious hoax, and that the claim of medieval Welsh Indians was in all likelihood invented to help Britain establish a prior claim to America to supersede Spain’s fifteenth-century claims. Wolter, instead of defending his science, instead turns toward the Masonic apron and the murder-mystery, all but abandoning his entire thesis about Welsh colonization in the hope of distracting viewers from his complete and total failure as an “archaeopetrographer,” on which he stakes his reputation and makes his living. What a crock.
Wolter is very excited that DNA testing reveals that Lewis’s Masonic apron has two sources of blood, and Wolter believes that the blood was that of one or more murderers because Masons keep their aprons clean and therefore the blood must have been deposited on the night of his death. Of course, it’s been two hundred years; it could have found its way there at any time, including during the handling of his body and effects after his death.
Wolter suggests that Lewis was killed to cover up a Welsh land claim from the Middle Ages. His evidence for the cover up? A “presidential mandate” to find Welsh Indians that doesn’t exist and a “Welsh” land claim stone that is a hoax.
The truth? Lewis’s own expedition talked regularly about the Welsh Indians, and they made no secret about their speculation that the Flatheads, Mandans, or others might be they. The story of Welsh Indians was printed far and wide in newspapers and newsletters, and it was widely repeated for decades afterward. Any conspiracy that sought to assassinate Lewis to “cover up” the fact did a terrible job, and by 1830, Andrew Jackson was using the possibility of pre-Columbian white colonization as part of the U.S. government’s official policy of removing Native Americans from the eastern United States, the same U.S. government Wolter thinks was engaged in assassination to cover up the "true" history of prehistoric White America. Seriously, has he spent even a moment reading about the actual ideas and opinions of the dead people for whom he claims to speak?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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