The Welsh in Alabama

Calling All Welsh!

The Friends of Wales Society is devoted to the exploration and celebration of Welsh culture and history in Alabama. The membership includes Welsh descendants, Welsh natives and fans of the culture of Wales. The Friends of Wales Society currently meet at the Little Professor Book Center in Homewood the fourth Saturday of the month at 2:00 pm to share stories, news and programs relating to the heritage and lifestyle of Wales.

If you are a descendant of the Welsh, Welsh born or if you just have an interest in all things Welsh please contact the Friends of Wales Society at: FriendsofWales@hotmail.com or (205) 325-1458.

A Short List of Welsh Surnames:
Adams, Ashton, Aubrey, Carden, Cardiff, Daniel, David/Davies/Davis, Dodd, Edwards, Evans, Griffiths, Harries, Hopkins/Popkins, Howell/Powell, Hughes/Pugh , James, Jenkins, John/Jones, Lewis, Llewellyn, Maddocks, Meredith, Meyrick, Morris/Morgan, Owen, Bowen, Rees, Reece, Preece, Price, Richards, Pritchard, Roberts, Roderick/Broderick/Prothero, Thomas, Williams, Gwinnett, Gwyn, Gwynett, Gwynn, Gwynne, Gwyyns, Wyn, Wynn, Wynne, Lloyd, Parry, Reynold, Taylor.

The Welsh Discovery of America in 1170
Landfall – Mobile, Alabama
Fact or Legend?

It may seem like a wild assertion, but it’s possible that Alabama’s Welsh connections are more ancient and unique that many realize. One of the oldest debates on the European explorations of America center around Prince Madoc of Wales. Madoc, an illegitimate some of King Owain of Gwyneth, is recorded in Welsh histories as crossing the Atlantic before 1170 A.D. and returning with tales of sailing up the coast of an enormous land to the West. Madoc then gathered a large group of settlers and ships and with his brother, Riryd, set sail across the Atlantic to make a new home in the ‘land to the west’. He and his ten ships were never heard from again. But that doesn’t appear to be the end of Madoc.

It was many years later when the archeological discovery of European style structures in the Southeast, built centuries before Columbus’ journey, prompted a review of the Welsh histories of Madoc’s voyage. A series of pre-Columbian, dressed stone fortifications built up the Alabama River were discovered by later settlers. Three major forts, completely unlike any known Indian structure, were constructed along the route that settlers arriving in Mobile Bay would have taken up the Alabama and Coosa Rivers to the Chattanooga area. Archealogists have testified that the forts are of pre-Columbian origin, and most agree that they date several hundred years before 1492. All are believed to have been built by the same group of people within the period of a single generation, and all bear striking simlarities to the ancient fortifications of Wales. The first fort, erected on top of Lookout Mountain, near Desoto Falls, Alabama was found to be nearly identical in setting, layout and method of construction, to Dolwyddelan Caslte in Gwynedd, the presumed birthplace of Madoc of Wales.

Recorded interviews and visits with Native American tribes in the 18th and 19th centuries added more evidence that some white settlers came to the region in the late 12th century. A letter dated 1810 from Governor John Sevier of Tennessee refers to a time he spent with the Cherokee in 1782, and relates a conversation he had with Oconostota, who had been the ruling chief of the Cherokee nation for nearly sixty years. Sevier had asked the Chief about the people who had left the fortifications” in his country. Oconostota told Sevier that he …”had heard his grandfather and father say they were a people called Welsh, and that they had crossed the Great Water and landed first near the mouth of the Alabama River near Mobile”. Tradition handed down by the Cherokee Indians described the “white people” who built the forts.

Encounters with a Native American tribe called the Mandans, provide some of the most compelling evidence of Welsh association. Similarities between the Welsh and the Mandan tribe who once inhabited villages along the tributaries of the Missouri River were remarked by visitors from 1738 until 1837. A French explorer, La Verendreye, who visited the Mandan tribe in 1738 described the Mandan as “white men with forts, towns and permanent villages laid out in streets and squares.” He indicated that their customs and lifestyle were totally different from other tribes he had encountered. There was also reference made to the use of round skin boats which were uniquely like the coracle boats so distinctive in Wales. The Mandan had several visitors throughout the next century (including Lewis and Clark in 1804 and famous American artist, George Caitlin), each one remarking the striking differences between the Mandan culture and appearance and that of other tribes. Caitlin later wrote a book which devoted much copy to the Mandan tribe with particular note of their vocabulary which shared many common words with the Welsh language. Unfortunately, like so many othe Indian tribes, they did not survive the smallpox epidemic introduced to them by traders in 1837 and the entire tribe became extinct.

The subject of a “Welsh Discovery” of America is still a topic of much debate in academic circles. Did Madoc and his flotilla reach America’s shore in Mobile in 1170? Did they eventually merge with the Native Americam population of the following centuries, hanging on to small vestiges of their Welsh culture by the time Europeans re-explored the New World? Perhaps there will be future discoveries that will either confirm or dispell the “Legend of Madoc’s Voyage”. In the meantime, Mobile Alabama honors its distinction of being another “Plymouth Rock” with a memorial plaque in the city. There are many books and internet sources of information on Madoc’s possible legacy in the New World. It’s an exciting and compelling mystery with Celtic Alabama connections.

Do you have a Welsh Story with Alabama connections? Do you have a biography of a Welsh settler in Alabama? Do you have a Welsh ancestor who came to our state?

Share it with us for publication on this page – send to pgsmith@charter.net or mail to:Alabama Celtic Association, P.O. Box 724, Trussville AL 35173