“Either the Madogion or death”– John Evans
|Sorry, I don't speak Welsh|
Born in the village of Waunfawr near Caernarfon in 1770, the son of a Methodist preacher, Evans was a pious lad – pious and patriotic. At 21, he moved to London. And there he fell in with a group of radical Welshmen with some pretty odd ideas.
The Welsh crew were fascinated by the legend of Madoc, the prince who was said to have discovered America three hundred years before Columbus. The story goes that Madoc sailed west in 1170 after the death of his father, King Owain of Gwynedd. After finding new land, he returned to Wales and persuaded a boat-load of brave men and women to head back over the ocean with him to settle in the new world.
The intrepid pioneers were never heard of again. But their descendants still lived in the land that became known as America, and they still spoke Welsh. At least, according to the story they did.
As America opened up in the eighteenth century, the Prince Madoc legend gained fresh currency. Travellers and missionaries pushed into unmapped territories and returned with peculiar tales of Indians who spoke a language that sounded Welsh, or at least Welsh-ish. Some even carried back reports of a fair-skinned tribe – “white Indians” – who were believed to live out west.
Could there be something in the Madoc story after all? Did a Welshman really discover America? Patriotic young bucks like John Evans dearly wanted to believe it.
Things came to a climax in 1791 when an eccentric poet called Iolo Morganwg came down from one of his regular opium highs and announced he was off to America to settle the issue once and for all. The people of Madoc – the Madogions – were out there, he said. And he was the man to find them.
Impressed, Evans volunteered to go with him. Somewhat less impressively, the poet then changed his mind and backed out. But his young disciple was made of sterner stuff: he decided to go it alone.
Evans landed in Baltimore in October 1792 and was welcomed by the city’s Welsh community. He found work. He began planning his adventure. And he was offered the same words of advice by everyone who heard his mad plan: don’t go.
Even today you need to know what you’re doing if you head off into the American wilderness. Bears, snakes, savage weather - it’s not like going for a stroll on the South Downs. But back then Evans faced an additional, more frightening hazard: hostile Indians.
Native Americans and settlers had been at war over territory for decades. If you were white and valued your scalp, not to mention your life, it wasn’t a great idea to go wandering off into Indian lands that you knew nothing about.
But Evans wouldn’t listen. He was a man on a mission. “Either the Madogion or death,” he wrote to Morganwg back in London.
In the spring of 1793 – just after St David’s Day – friends in Baltimore shook their heads in disbelief as the boy from north Wales set out into the west alone. “God is my shield,” he told them. He had $1.75c in his pocket.
Evans crossed the Allegheny Mountains and arrived at a spot where Pittsburgh now stands. From there, he travelled 700 miles down the Ohio in a river boat – through Indian territory - till he reached the Mississippi. Then he followed that great waterway north to St Louis, where it meets the Missouri.
St Louis was a small frontier town at the time. Its people spoke French but it was controlled by the king of Spain who still had a large American empire and was hostile to Britain. When Evans bowled up, they thought he was an English spy and threw him in jail. Evans tried to explain that he was in fact on an innocent quest to find a lost tribe of Welsh Indians. For some reason, they didn’t buy it.
The Welshman was eventually released when it dawned on his captors he would be more useful to them as a free man. At the time, Spain was trying to push west from St Louis and find a route across the Rocky Mountains to its territories in California. If Evans was daft enough to want to go in that direction, why not let him, and maybe give him some backing?
Indians might kill him of course. But on the other hand, he might find that elusive passage through the Rockies and claim it for Spain.
So at a stroke, Evans went from being a prisoner of King Charles IV to an agent of the Spanish crown. An expedition up the Missouri was organised. Evans was made second in command under a Scot called James McKay. In the summer of 1795 the party set off – 30 well-armed men with four large boats loaded with goods for trading.
By November, they’d reached the Omaha Indians, whose chief Blackbird was one of the most powerful rulers in the region. You didn’t mess with Blackbird. He’d once murdered sixty of his own warriors by putting poison in their soup (dog soup as it happens, with the Omaha a dog wasn’t just for Christmas).
But the Europeans won him over with gifts of blankets, tobacco and muskets. And with winter starting to bite, they got permission to build a fort on the riverbank where they could hole up till spring.
John Evans wasn’t going to hang around though. First he spent almost a month out on the frozen plains with an Omaha hunting party, tracking buffalo and sleeping out in subzero temperatures. Then in the new year it was time to get back to the main business of searching for Welsh Indians. He said goodbye to McKay at the fort, took a handful of men with him and rode off on horseback into the unknown.
Before they left, McKay gave the small party strict instructions to claim all lands they passed for the king of Spain and to make detailed notes of every new tribe, plant and animal they saw (including keeping special watch for a weird one-eyed beast said to live in the Rockies).
“Appear always on guard and never be fearful or timid,” McKay warned, “for the savages are not generally bold, but will act in a manner to make you afraid of them.”
Evans and his companions were made afraid all right. After about three hundred miles, they ran into a party of Sioux on the warpath. The Sioux were a terrifying lot, a people constantly at war with other tribes as well as whites. They attacked the Europeans, pursuing them for dozens of miles. Evans and his companions escaped. But the incident put the wind up them big style. They decided to head back to McKay to have a little rethink.
When the weather improved, the indefatigable Evans was off again. This time he traveled right up the Missouri into the Badlands of South Dakota, a barren place where wind and water has eroded the landscape into fantastic shapes: gorges, gullies and tall, thin spires of rock known as hoodoos.
After nine weeks he reached the Arikara tribe, a surprisingly friendly bunch who nevertheless cheerfully relieved him of most of his trade goods. Then it was time to move on again - time to find the mysterious Mandan people.
Evans had high hopes of the Mandan. A French explorer had already made contact with the tribe and reported that their skin was whiter than other Indians. He’d found them living in fixed settlements, not roaming the plains like their nomadic neighbours. They had huts, not wigwams. They raised crops instead of tracking buffalo. If there were “white Indians” out there, they must surely be these people.
Reaching the Mandan was a moment of triumph for Evans. He’d travelled 8,000 miles from his home in north Wales for this. He’d sailed an ocean, trekked across a continent, crossed Sioux territory and survived. Legend was about to be proved fact. John Evans was on the brink of becoming a hero.
So were the Mandan really white? Did they look Welsh? Erm, not really, no. Some seemed quite fair-skinned, Evans thought. A few even had blue eyes. But Native Americans’ complexions vary as much as Europeans. Evans desperately wanted to see white people standing before him, but he couldn’t. There was no getting away from it - the Mandan were, well, Indians.
And what about the language? Did they speak Welsh? Anything even resembling Welsh? Na, as they say in the land of Evans’s fathers. No, they did not.
They were a jolly, hospitable crowd, mind. Evans met their chiefs, Big White Man and Black Cat. He handed over flags and medals as gifts. Then he basically made himself at home, spending winter with them, huddling round their fires in the little earth huts they shared with their horses.
He stayed six months, learning about their culture and their land, occasionally entertaining his hosts on his flute. It must have been quite an experience for the lad. But there was no escaping the bitter disappointment: these people were about as Welsh as a haggis.
To add to Evans’s worries, he was permanently hungry and the extreme cold was starting to get to him. That brutal winter with the Mandan broke his health. He never really recovered.
Evans wasn’t even the first European to reach the Mandan that year. Just before he showed up, a Canadian fur trader called Rene Jessaume had arrived via a different route. Jessaume had established a small trading post, raised the Union Jack and then left.
Evans lowered the British flag and replaced it with the standard of his own paymaster, Spain (which the Mandan found highly entertaining). And when a few other Canadians showed up some weeks later, he boldly sent them packing.
But in the spring Jessaume himself returned with a group of tough frontiersmen weighed down with gear to trade. Evans tried to stop them doing deals with the Indians. But by now he was a sick and isolated man and no match for Jessaume, a hard nut who had spent his whole life in the wilderness.
A furious row erupted. Evans said Jessaume tried to kill him; the Canadians said it was the Indians who turned on him. Either way, the Welshman was way out of his depth and he fled back down the Missouri, his dreams of finding the Madogion in shreds.
Back in St Louis, he wrote to friends with the bad news. “Thus having explored and charted the Missurie for 1,800 miles,” he told one compatriot, “and by my Communications with the Indians this side of the Pacific Ocean… I am able to inform you that there is no such People as the Welsh Indians.”
Evans’s life fizzled out after that. Perhaps he should have gone home to Wales. But he chose to stick it out in America, where the defeats and disappointments kept on coming. He was promised a stretch of land but it never materialized; his health deteriorated rapidly; he was robbed; he lost almost everything in a flood.
John Evans hit the bottle hard. A broken man, he wound up in New Orleans, alcoholic and unemployable. And there he drank himself to death before his thirtieth birthday.
The Mandan, incidentally, fared little better than Evans. Contact with Europeans brought smallpox and thousands perished. By 1837, fewer than 150 remained. The survivors merged with neighbouring tribes, including the Arikara. The last full-blooded Mandan was believed to have died in 1975. Her name was Mattie Grinnell.
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Williams, David, John Evans and the Legend of Madoc, 1770-1799 (Cardiff, 1963)
Williams, Gwyn A, Madoc: the Making of a Myth (London, 1979)