Tucked securely behind the Richards DAR House Museum in downtown Mobile is a most unusual artifact. If one politely asks the docent, she will graciously direct the way to the courtyard where it stands neatly sandwiched between a merrily plashing fountain and an ivied brick wall. The object in question is a large, bright green metal plaque that displays the Welsh flag and two short paragraphs of text. “In memory of Prince Madoc,” it states, “a Welsh explorer, who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170 and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language.” It goes on to cite several sources for this extraordinary pronouncement, including the 16th-century writer Richard Hakluyt, the 1918 edition of “Webster’s Encyclopedia,” “Ridpath’s History of the World” (1894) and the existence of strange mid-South stone fortifications that resemble medieval Welsh castles.
Alabama lays claim to many mysteries and riddles, but that of Madoc is surely the most intriguing. Who was this fantastical figure, did he exist and did he actually discover the New World more than three centuries before Columbus? Might a clinker-built oaken cog have worked her way up Mobile Bay nearly 700 years ago, her lone mast bearing a salt-stained sail emblazoned with a red dragon, while bearded white men grunted at her oars and dark Indian eyes pondered them from the cane? Unfortunately, nothing to do with the Madoc story is as straightforward as the plaque behind the DAR House would have its readers believe. In fact, the plaque itself is an inextricable element of the questionable saga. But, first, the man.
Alas, there isn’t much to tell if we cleave to known historical fact. Madoc was said to be an illegitimate son of King Owain Gwynedd, a violent ruler who “left behind him many children gotten upon divers women.” After Gwynedd’s death, the sons warred with one another over the succession. Revolted by the spectacle and fearful of assassination, Madoc and a small band of followers sailed away, chasing the sun west over the gray Atlantic. That’s pretty much it. But then the bards took hold of the story, telling and retelling it around crackling fires on cold winter nights. By the 16th century, poets and historians began writing the tale down, embellishing as they went. One such fellow, Meredith ap Rhys, offered what he said was an accurate translation. A particularly memorable quatrain reads, “Madoc I am the sonne of Owen Gwynedd/With stature large and comely grace adorned;/No lande at home nor store of wealth me please/My minde was whole to search the Ocean Seas.”
It didn’t take long before more practically oriented Englishmen discerned the legend’s utility. Not only did Madoc sail west, they proclaimed, but he discovered the Americas before Columbus. This handily trumped Spain’s claims to the New World. In 1578, one John Dee managed an audience with Queen Elizabeth. He shared his research and explained, “The Lord Madoc … led a Colonie and inhabited Terra Florida or thereabouts.” This news suited Elizabeth just fine, and she promptly issued a royal patent for colonization that eventually led to Sir Walter Raleigh’s doomed Roanoke expedition.
By the 18th century, the Madoc legend was well-established, widely believed among the gentry and loudly championed by Welsh scholars. Well-circulated stories of fair-skinned, blue-eyed Indians who knew the Welsh language were taken as proof that Madoc’s men had indeed settled in America and left descendants. In a letter, former Tennessee Governor John Sevier added heft to the claims with his description of a conversation he said he had with an elderly Cherokee chief. The chief said that the stone fortifications found in north Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee were built by “a people called Welsh, and they had crossed the Great Water and landed first near the mouth of the Alabama River near Mobile and had been driven up to the heads of the waters until they arrived at Highwassee River.” This fit neatly with Sevier’s view of Native Americans as savages, incapable of building stone forts. It is not unlikely that the Cherokee chief was telling him what he believed Sevier wanted to hear.
From the time of Sevier’s account, Madoc’s landfall has been consistently linked with Mobile Bay. By the early 1950s, Hatchett Chandler, the colorful attendant at Fort Morgan, latched onto the legend with an iron grip and convinced the Virginia Cavalier Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, to erect a marker on Mobile Point stating it as fact. Thousands of tourists read the marker over the decades, and the story even crept into Alabama schools’ history textbooks, where it stubbornly remained until the 1980s. Since Chandler’s death in 1967, historians and archaeologists have steadily dismantled the Madoc legend, including the Mobile Bay landfall. The commemorative marker remained in place until Hurricane Frederic blew it down in 1979. It was stored away and eventually returned to the DAR chapter that had originally commissioned it.
The DAR ladies were uncertain what to do with the marker, however. Placing it back on Mobile Point was out of the question given the legend’s doubtful veracity. But as they soon discovered, the legend still has passionate advocates. In 2008, the BBC reported that the Alabama Welsh Society wanted the marker re-erected. “Mobile could and should capitalize on this, not hide it in a storage shed,” the society’s vice president said. “Prince Madoc is too important to Alabama’s history to have the only plaque in our state commemorating him disappear.”
After careful consideration, the DAR eventually agreed, with a twist. To preserve and interpret the marker in a responsible manner, the ladies restored it and placed it behind their Joachim Street headquarters, with an explanatory brochure available inside. And there the Madoc marker stands today, its text the blended fruit of medieval bardic embellishment, Elizabethan realpolitik, 18th-century racism and good old American hucksterism served up as fact. Surely one of the most complicated backstories ever!
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”
The Richards DAR House at 256 N Joachim St. is open M, W – F 11 a.m. – 3:30 p.m., Sa 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and Su 1 – 4 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 5 – 12.