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No. 1008:
Discovering America

Today we discover America. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"What're you reading?" my friend from India asks me. "It's about a Welshman named Madoc who discovered Alabama in 1170 AD," I reply. "Discover?" says he. "I guess you have to've been European to've 'discovered' America." "Not really," I answer. "The Chinese reached Mexico by sea in 499 AD."

Columbus's arrival was merely the first well-documented one. Scholars debate when Asians passed over from Siberia on dry land. No one doubts the Norse were in Greenland a thousand years ago, but details are thin. And we're not sure how far into the mainland they got. Claims made before the invention of printing are fuzzy. We hadn't yet agreed on rules of documentation.

Take St. Brendan, the fifth-century, seafaring, Irish Christian scholar. His missionary travels are told in exaggerated legends with all the usual mermaids, dragons, and cities under the sea. The Brendan legends seem to flow from older tales of a pagan Ireland. At the same time, they include details unlike any in Irish folklore. They include details outside Irish experience. For example, they describe what sounds like West Indian coral.

The ancient Celts were fine sailors. Their flat-bottomed boats, called curraghs, had wooden frames covered with ox hides. They sound skimpy, but they criss-crossed the oceanlike Irish sea. And we know for a fact they reached Iceland before Vikings did.

So we're back to that book I was reading about the wildest of the Celtic claims. It's the story of Madoc, and you can read about it on a DAR plaque at Fort Morgan, Alabama:

In memory of Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer, who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170 and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language, says the plaque.

Madoc's story is an old Welsh legend that got a huge boost when Queen Elizabeth blessed it in 1580. Of course a pre-Columbus claim to America made a fine political weapon. In 1792, the Welsh sent a young man out to look for the children of Madoc's people among Mandan Indians along the Missouri River. He could find nothing. He despaired, tangled in Spanish/English politics, took to drink, and finally died, still young, in New Orleans.

Still, Madoc's story didn't run into serious debunking until 1858, when a Welsh scholar systematically demolished it. Yet that demolition was as inconclusive as the Madoc claims were in the first place. Everything is patched with "ifs." People keep claiming to find traces of Welsh in the Mandan language, and similarities to Welsh hide boats in Mandan canoes.

It's a story that should've been true even if it wasn't. And if it wasn't, then some other claim was. Too many of those stories! I doubt each one, but I cannot doubt them all. Columbus had to be just one of the many who dared -- and the few who succeeded.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Williams, G.A., Madoc: The Legend of the Welsh Discovery of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Deacon, R., Madoc and the Discovery of America. New York: George Braziller, 1966.

Ashe, G., Land to the West: St.Brendan's Voyage to America. New York: The Viking Press, 1962.

The person in Elizabeth I's court who drove the story of Madoc was her Welsh science advisor -- the brilliant alchemist, scholar, and sometimes magician, John Dee.