[Reprinted by arrangement with Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, from American Interior by Gruff Rhys. Copyright © Gruff Rhys.]
In 1792 John Evans, a 22-year-old farmhand and weaver from the village of Waunfawr in the mountains of Snowdonia, Wales, responded to a plea from the great Welsh cultural mischief-maker Iolo Morganwg to settle, for once and for all time, the quandary of whether there was indeed a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans still walking the Great Plains, descendants of Prince Madog, who was widely believed (especially by Welsh historical revisionists) to have discovered America in 1170. With the aid of a loan from a gullible friend, Evans set sail to Baltimore to begin the greatest of adventures, whereupon he set off on foot and disappeared into the Allegheny Mountains with one dollar and seventy-five cents to his name, in search of the lost tribe. Wales, a rocky peninsular outcrop sticking out of the west of England into the Irish Sea, was the last refuge of the Brythonic ‘Welsh’ people, who had once roamed throughout the British Isle – but by the sixteenth century had been pummelled remorselessly by the emerging English crown, ever since the Romans had left.
It was out of this depressing vacuum that the legend of Madog emerged. From a cynical perspective, Prince Madog was a most useful invention, based on a thirteenth-century romantic saga, ‘Madoc’, concerning a Welsh seafarer of Viking blood, from the pen of the Flemish bard ‘Willem’, best known for ‘Reynard the Fox’. It was Dr John Dee, a mystic of Welsh descent (and from a republican stand-point, the Goebbels to Queen Elizabeth I’s Hitler), who presented Madog as a historical figure – taking liberties with a post-Columbus Welsh take on the Madog story by his contemporary Humphrey Llwyd. As the great colonial powers of Europe began to cast their greedy nets towards the Americas, Dee realized that if he could prove that the medieval Welsh had already settled there it would give a Brythonic monarch a moral claim to those lands, which were already being snapped up rapidly by the Spanish.