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high Ohio River, 8/09

As a child, I can remember the moment when it occurred to me that recorded history doesn’t always measure up to the truth.  It happened in the third grade when we were reading about the discovery of North America by Christopher Columbus.  The teacher brought up the subject of Leif Ericson and his documented voyage to Vineland.  I remember thinking that if the Vikings were first…why were we making such a big deal out of Columbus?  Unfortunately at the time, the proprietary rights of the indigenous Americans didn’t figure into the discussion.  Later I learned that history is indeed fickle and subjective and usually supports the point of view of the victor or whomever was doing the recording.  That turned out to be a valuable lesson in life, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Prince Madoc, detail, 8/09

Among the many things I love about the Falls of the Ohio is the story of Prince Madoc and the Blond-haired, Blue-eyed Indians.  When Lewis and Clark began their exploration of the continent, President Jefferson asked Lewis to confirm their existence.  These people would be the descendants of a colony of Welsh travelers  that accompanied a Prince Madoc back around the year 1170 A.D.!  An even earlier date, five hundred years earlier, has been suggested as the time of the actual voyage and is connected with the descendants of King Arthur!  The most persistent stories, however, go back to the 12th century.

Prince Madoc, 8/09

After arriving in what is believed to be Alabama’s Gulf Coast…Madoc and his people eventually filtered into the heartland by traveling along the rivers.  In their wake, they left little evidence, however, a series of stone fortifications built by unknown hands is attributed to them.  According to a native American oral tradition, these blond-haired, fair-skinned people existed and were routed in battle near the Falls of the Ohio.  The survivors kept moving where they may have merged with the Mandans in the Dakotas.  Lewis and Clark did encounter the Mandans and found them different from the other Indians.  The artist George Catlin did the most extensive study of this tribe before they were all but destroyed by smallpox.  Those survivors later integrated with other native American groups. 

Prince Madoc at the Falls, 8/09

The physical evidence isn’t great.  There are the stone works… walls, fortifications, altered caves, a limestone slab from Kentucky with what appears to be runic writing in ancient Welsh on it.  A few unusual burials have been documented in our area, but nothing definitive has made the case.  Strangely though, there have been documented discoveries of Roman coins. One cache was turned up in the 1960’s during the construction of a bridge crossing the Ohio River at Louisville.  The coins’ discoverer gave two of them to a friend and kept the rest for himself and these were lost again?  The two surviving coins were eventually given to the Interpretive Center at the Falls where they were put on display with facsimiles to simulate the discovered horde.  Other coins have been found in other locations.  Usually, these finds are poo-pooed away as outright forgeries or instances where modern people just happened to lose Roman era coins!

Prince Madoc, in progress, 8/09

I’m sure that history must be full of forgotten stories and the discovery of this continent is among them.  This place has probably been “discovered” and “lost”  on a number of occasions.  With Madoc, whether his story proves to be fact is not as important as the tale itself.  What we remember frequently trumps the truth anyway and seems all the more compelling because there is a persistent mystery surrounding it.  In my own way, I enjoy working in this gray area between fact and fiction as I interpret life at the Falls of the Ohio.  If anyone is interested in the Prince Madoc legend…the links provided for the Falls of the Ohio State Park and the Falls archaeological society can be found in my web log to the right.

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