Tomorrow I hope to present a completely different topic in fake history, but for today I have one more thing to say about America Unearthed S01E09 “Motive for Murder.”
I’ll be honest with you: I’ve never been terribly interested in the idea of Welsh visitors to North America, but last Friday I heard for the first time on America Unearthed the apparently not uncommon claim that Welsh incursions into pre-Columbian America “threaten the legitimacy of the United States.” Since that is a very serious claim, it deserves a more sustained response than I had time to provide in my review of that episode.
Let’s begin with the most interesting aspect, at least for me, of the recent claims for Welsh exploration of the American interior. On America Unearthed we heard that the Welsh supposedly arrived in America in the sixth century CE. This is astonishing because the traditional claims for Welsh exploration are dated to 1170 CE (some sources say 1160), when Welsh nationalists claim that Prince Madoc sailed westward from Wales and discovered America. The earliest reference to the story was told by Maredudd ap Rhys in the fifteenth century (before the discovery of America, and including no details recognizable as America). In Maredudd's poem, Madoc is referenced in a single line as traveling "to the sea." Scholars conjecture that an oral version, perhaps based on the Voyage of St. Brendan, once existed. Only after English colonization began did the Elizabethans begin expanding on the Madoc story, giving rise to the legend of Welsh colonization.
So why has this moved to the sixth century, when there is no literary warrant? One reason is that this is the alleged time of King Arthur, who is often claimed to be Welsh and who is recorded as having sailed to the west (to Iceland) in Geoffrey of Monmouth and therefore is a much more famous sponsor of the Welsh than Madoc. The second reason is that the Vikings have been confirmed to have been in America, at L’anse-aux-Meadows around 1000, predating Madoc’s alleged voyage by nearly two centuries. Welsh partisans have to move them back in time to maintain their primacy, despite the lack of any sixth-century evidence.
In 1568, a Scotsman named David Ingram made the first claim of meeting Welsh-speaking Natives, in the Caribbean, though his claim was not published until 1582. The first Welsh-speaking person to make such a claim was One Stedman who met supposedly Welsh-speaking Natives somewhere on the eastern seaboard in 1670. These Welsh, however, were apparently not related to the Madoc expedition or anything earlier, since they allegedly told Stedman about their ancestry in what they called by the Welsh name for Great Britain, a term not used until after 1603. Subsequent encounters with “Welsh” Indians occurred in South Carolina in the mid-1600s.
Now here is the important part: These reports were published by the Royal Society in London and were widely accepted throughout England and Wales as true prior to the American Revolution. And England raised no objection based on “Welsh” land claims. Further:
You might also be interested to know that many British authors of the era asserted that the Welsh actually founded the Aztec Empire and were themselves the Aztec. Again, Britain did not dispute Spain’s control of Mexico on this basis, nor did they claim that the Spanish conquest of the Aztec was illegitimate as a result of the racial makeup of the Aztec.
Now why is that? Well, I can’t speak to the Mexican claims, but in the case of the United States, it’s because Britain wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on. The governing law in this case is the Treaty of Paris (1783) signed between the United States and Britain to end the Revolutionary War. In that treaty, America and Britain agreed upon terms demarcating the dividing line between the United States and British North America. As you can see, the treaty was quite explicit that Britain surrendered all claims formerly held by the Crown to the new country within its territorial boundaries:
His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and Independent States; that he treats with them as such, and for himself his Heirs & Successors, relinquishes all claims to the Government, Propriety, and Territorial Rights of the same and every Part thereof.
The treaty then spells out the boundaries of the new country, which included all the territory south of Canada, north of the Spanish dominions, and east of the Mississippi. This includes all the land that the Welsh were believed in those days to have explored, including South Carolina, Virginia, and—if you were to believe the Brandenburg Stone—the land now called Kentucky. Because everyone alive in those days believed that any Welsh exploration began in the eastern United States and expanded westward (as it must have done since one must travel through the east to get west of the Mississippi if one first travels from Wales across the Atlantic). Consequently, with the passage of all “territorial rights” of “every part” of the former colonies to the American government, any Welsh claims to territory west of the Mississippi passed therefore to the United States since they would have been an extension of any original Welsh claim to territory stretching from South Carolina westward.
Further, this is entirely contingent upon the recognition of any Welsh Indians as legitimate heirs and descendants of the Welsh. Now, I’m not an expert in medieval law, so what follows is somewhat conjectural, and I’m sure there is a medievalist or two among my readers who will help out if I’ve gotten something seriously wrong.
To start, let’s get a few basic facts: Wales was an independent principality until 1228, when England conquered it and made it part of the Kingdom of England. At that point, all Welsh territory and claims passed to England. In 1535-1542, England integrated Wales into the English legal system, and all Welsh laws thereafter conformed to English law. There is no record of Wales granting a charter to any American colony, let alone one that permitted them to legislate for themselves, so the “Welsh” settlement in America would presumably have been either (a) governed by Welsh and then English law, or (b) independent of Wales and therefore subject to the right of conquest. Let’s start with the first option.
By 1809, it is highly doubtful that any court would have ruled that the alleged Welsh Indians were legitimate heirs since the first generation was not likely conceived in a legal, recognized marriage (and none after the death of last clergyman on the expedition) and therefore illegitimate and unable to inherit property under English law. This issue is complicated a bit due to common-law marriages and Welsh bastard laws. Common-law marriages were forbidden by the Catholic Church after 1215, reinstated by the Protestants, and abolished again in England in 1753 and Wales in 1800 but legal in the United States. Theoretically, common law marriages would have been valid in “Welsh” America before 1215, but not after, since the Welsh who arrived in 1170 would have been, by definition, Catholics and subject to the canon law. Thus, legally, there would have been a break in marriage continuity after 1215 (there being no legally appointed Catholic bishop to consecrate new priests to announce marriages), though I have no idea what allowances civil law would have made for their ignorance of the changes in canon law.
(The revised date of the sixth century for the Welsh in America complicates this slightly since there is an outside chance of pagan/Druid travelers, but Christianity was by and large the religion of Wales by 600.)
Further, Wales had a special illegitimacy law that allowed for Welsh fathers to pass property to any child, bastard or not, whom he formally acknowledged. This right was in effect in 1170, but it expired in 1535-1542, when England incorporated Wales into the English legal system, after conquering the principality in 1228. England would not have recognized Welsh bastards as legitimate heirs (except for first born bastard sons who could inherit if and only if a second son was born in wedlock) until 1926, when retroactive legitimization was enacted by Parliament. Again, I don’t know what allowances were made for the ignorance of the Welsh colonists, but upon the conquest of Wales, all Welsh dependencies passed to the English Crown.
That brings us to the second option: Perhaps the colony considered itself independent of Wales. In that case, its land claims would not have passed to England, but neither would the colony itself. As an independent state, it would have lost all claims to the land upon the failure of its government. Even if the Mandan were the legitimate successors of the independent Welsh-American state, they would have been subject to the same right of conquest as any other Native polity, just as actually happened. Their historical claims would have carried no more weight than those of the Cherokee, the Iroquois, or any other group. The defunct Welsh-American state would have had the same legal standing as the fallen city of Cahokia, the Anasazi ruins, or Poverty Point: none.
While we think of Europeans as simply conquering Native peoples without respect to their rights, the Europeans actually made a show of following a strict legalism involving reading out proclamations, signing treaties, etc. in order to legitimize their conquests, even if the Natives had no idea what they were hearing or signing. Consequently, from an 1809 legal point of view, if the Mandan (or any other tribe) were the legal successors of the Welsh-American state, they had no more right to a land claim than any other Native group and could be deprived of any and all lands by treaty, as eventually happened.
Isn’t real history fun?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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