Did a Welshman discover America?

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1. Discovering America

Many people think the first European to discover America was the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who set sail from Spain in 1492. However, Columbus landed just east of the mainland and disembarked on the islands of the Caribbean.

It is now known that a Viking, Leif Erikson, was the first European to set foot in the New World after landing on the eastern shores of Canada in the 11th century.

But is it possible that in 1170 a Welsh prince, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, sailed from Wales and landed on the US mainland over 300 years before Columbus set out from Spain?

2. Madog's tale

Rhys Meirion visits Llandrillo-yn-Rhos (Rhos-on-Sea) to find out more about the intrepid Welsh prince, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd.

3. The 'Welsh Indians'

Early European and American explorers told stories of encountering a pale-skinned, Welsh-speaking Native American tribe, called the Mandans.

Although the linguistic connection between the Welsh and the Mandans has subsequently been discounted, the similarities with the Welsh language are quite remarkable.

In the 18th century a man called James Girty drew up a list of comparisons between Mandan and Welsh, which amounted to approximately 350 words and phrases. He noted that the word for an estuary was 'aber' in both Mandan and Welsh. Likewise, 'bara' in both languages meant bread, 'hen' meant old and 'nant' meant stream.

The Welsh explorer, John Evans (1770– 1799), was inspired by tales of Girty’s so-called ‘Welsh Indians’, but found no evidence of Welsh speakers amongst the Mandans.

Evans played his own part in American history by mapping the course of the Missouri river, which served the Lewis and Clarke Expedition. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson - allegedly of Welsh descent himself - it was the first American venture to traverse and chart the western half of the country and enabled America to lay claim to the area.

Some years later, an American painter, George Catlin (1796-1872), also lived among Native American tribes observing their customs.

Unlike Evans, he noted similar findings to Girty. He concluded that the Mandan tribe were descendants of Madog’s pioneering expedition who had intermarried with the Mandan people, passing on their language and culture in doing so.

The Mandans themselves readily claimed Welsh ancestry, alleging they hailed from a distant land across great waters.

They looked for spiritual guidance from the Great Spirit of the Race - ‘Madoc Maha Paneta am byd’. The similarity to the Welsh ‘Madog Mawr Penarthur am byth’ - Madog the Great Spirit forever - convinced Catlin and other supporters that his theory was correct.

Catlin noted that different words were used for different situations and wrote, “Quite often I found that where there were two or more words with one meaning, one of those words would be the equivalent of Welsh.”

4. Naming America

Rhys Meirion investigates the claim that America may have been named after a man of Welsh descent.

The tale of Richard Amerike, who supposedly lent his name to America.

5. Pennsylvania and the Welsh Tract

In 1681, King Charles II handed over 45,000 square miles of his American land holdings to a wealthy Quaker called William Penn.

The land was originally called New Wales, but later renamed Pennsylvania by the king. Many maintain that the name means Penn’s Woods, but Penn himself modestly explained that ‘pen’ means ‘head’ in Welsh, and suggested a more accurate meaning of the name would be ‘head of the woods’.

Vast numbers of Quakers began to emigrate to Pennsylvania, many of whom were Welsh speakers seeking a home in the New World. They settled just west of Philadelphia, and the area became known as the Welsh Tract.

Many of the original Welsh settlers spoke no English, and a failed attempt was made to establish an independent state whose language of governance would be Welsh.

In 1701, William Penn granted the Welsh a second Welsh Tract of 30,000 acres, which included what is now Pencader Hundred, Delaware and a part of Maryland. By this time, approximately one third of Pennsylvania’s population was Welsh.

Welsh-speaking farmers constituted the majority of early settlers, with a later influx of Welsh miners who were attracted by the coalfields of Pennsylvania.

A strong Welsh presence exists in America to this day – the numerous Welsh place names in Pennsylvania and other regions reveal the formidable influence of the Welsh pioneers, e.g. Bryn Mawr (large hill), Uwchlan (upper bank) and Gwynedd, a county in Wales.

Many streets in Pennsylvania also bear Welsh names – Llandrillo Road, Clwyd Road, Penarth Road and Derwen Road can all be found in the Bala Cynwyd district of the city. Bala and Cynwyd are two separate towns in north Wales.

Today, approximately 200,000 Welsh Americans live in Pennsylvania – more than in any other part of the United States.

6. Welsh legacy in America

Click or tap on the place names below to learn more about Welsh place names in the US and hear the American and Welsh pronunciations.

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Anglicised Welsh names like Cardiff or Pembroke exist across the US, but some names have retained their original Welsh spelling.

7. Shaping America

Which Welshman do you think has had the most influence on shaping modern-day America?

Madog ab Owain Gwynedd

Son of the Welsh king, Owain Gwynedd.

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Madog ab Owain Gwynedd

Prince Madog purportedly set out from Rhos-on-Sea in 1170 and discovered America some 300 years before Columbus.

Richard Amerike

Wealthy merchant descended from the Earls of Gwent.

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Richard Amerike

Amerike sponsored John Cabot’s expedition, and may have given his name to the newly discovered territory. His coat of arms is similar to the American flag.

John Evans

Welsh explorer and cartographer who mapped the Missouri River.

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John Evans

Evans’ map of the Missouri river helped the Lewis and Clarke Expedition cross and chart undiscovered lands in the west, to which America was able to lay claim.

Thomas Jefferson

President and Founding Father of the USA, with family links to Llanberis.

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Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, successfully laying claim to western America. He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence