by James W Thomas
Of all the Welsh-American presidents, Thomas Jefferson is the most famous – if he is actually Welsh.
Traditionally, he is listed as such on his own recollection of family history, although he never followed through with proof. But he believed himself part Welsh and that did lead to one investigation, a minor charge to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, to find the Welsh-speaking Indians, the descendants of medieval sea-faring Prince Madog of Gwynedd, Wales.
Born 275 years ago on 13 April 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, Thomas was the son of Jane Randolph and Peter Jefferson. His Autobiography states, “The tradition in my father’s family was that their ancestor came to this country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowden, the highest in Gr. Br….I have found it in our early records.” Unfortunately, those records, whatever they were, do not survive. His grandfather did own an estate named “Snowden” on the James River but it was in Virginia, not Gwynedd.
Years later, Thomas Jefferson, as third president of the United States, wanted to buy New Orleans from Napoleon, but got a better offer from the French – the 1803 Louisiana Purchase – that doubled the size of the US. To establish it for westward expansion, he sent the [Meriwether] Lewis and [William] Clark Expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back. Among their geographic and scientific charges, a minor task was the search for the Welsh Indians.
In an 1804 letter to Freemason and Welsh-American Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson wrote, “I inclosed [sic] you the map of a Mr. Evans, a Welshman, employed by the Spanish government for that purpose, but whose original object I believe had been to go in search of the Welsh Indians, said to be up the Missouri.”
“Mr. Evans” was John Thomas Evans from Waunfawr – near Snowden. In 1792 he sailed to America, inspired by the medieval story of Madog’s Voyage. This prince, reputed son of the historical Owain Gwynedd, took ship in 1170 to flee the family wars at home, crossed the Atlantic, and, along the way, discovered America, landing at… well, Mobile, Alabama, is a popular choice. His descendants allegedly intermarried with the locals and passed on their native language – Welsh.
Mr. Evans headed off to discover Madog’s supposed successors, the Mandan, a Great Plains tribe living on the upper Missouri River. From St. Louis, Evans headed up the Missouri to what is now North Dakota where he found no Welsh-speaking Indians, but he did produce a good map of his travels upriver. In 1797 he wrote to a Dr. Samuel Jones, “Thus having explored and charted the Missurie [sic]… I am able to inform you that there is no such People as the Welsh Indians.” Lewis and Clark carried a copy of Evans’ map but they found no Welsh speakers in Dakota territory either. But there are descendants…of a sort.
Recently, a distant relative followed in the footsteps of John Evans in a 2012 concert tour across America, looking for the mythical Indians. He didn’t find them, either, but traveling the conceptual route led to the creation of a rock album, an app, a film, and a book, American Interior, in 2014. That relative, Gruffydd Maredudd Bowen Rhys from Bethesda, near Snowden, is better known as Gruff Rhys, lead singer and songwriter for the Welsh-singing band Super Furry Animals.
American Interior is “the quixotic journey of John Evans, his search for a lost tribe and how, fueled by fantasy and (possibly) booze, he accidentally annexed a third of North America.” These journeys explore “how wild fantasies interact with hard history and how myth-making can inspire humans to partake in crazy, vain pursuits of glory, including exploration, war and the creative arts.”
Thomas Jefferson, John Evans, and Gruff Rhys – all somehow from Snowden – looked for their Welsh ancestry, to find the facts behind the myth. They found their versions of America’s interior, with maps and myth, and, finally, music.