A Celtic prince, refusing to fight his brothers for the throne after their father’s death, leaves 12th century Britain with 10 boats of Welsh men and women.

They sail across the Atlantic Ocean and come ashore on the coast of the New World at what is now Mobile, Ala., centuries before Christopher Columbus’ voyage.

The settlers followed the rivers north, founding settlements along the way, but repeatedly fleeing hostile locals. They eventually settled in Clark County, where a bloody, final battle virtually eliminated the race. Traces of their civilization and possibly some descendants survive today, but their connections to the past are lost.

This is a common variation of the legend of Prince Madoc, his fellow settlers and their descendants. The story has persisted for centuries, particularly in Britain and in areas such as Indiana where these pre-Columbian European settlers are said to have lived and built forts. New life is being breathed into the legend by filmmakers.



Legend saviors

On a morning last summer, documentary filmmakers Jon Haskell and Paul Barlow of Seanachie Interactive of Westfield braved nettles, ticks and drenching humidity to venture into Charlestown State Park with local author Dana Olson to film a site said to be a former Welsh, pre-Columbian era fort. This area unveils Devil’s Backbone, which sits on a high ridge on a peninsula formed by Fourteen Mile Creek and the Ohio River.

Rose Island Amusement Park and Resort once stood on the peninsula. The area now is inaccessible from the park except by boat, though future plans include a foot bridge across the creek.

Olson, of Jeffersonville, is the author of “The Legend of Prince Madoc and the White Indians,” originally published in 1987. Olson said he has sold approximately 10,000 copies of the book.

It was a trip several years ago to the Falls of the Ohio State Park and reading Olson’s book — found at the gift shop — which inspired Haskell to make the film. He has since traveled with Olson and archeologist Sundea Murphy to sites said to support the legend as fact.

Barlow is working on a three-dimensional digital reconstruction of the fort. Haskell said he is impressed with the amount of history in the falls area and believes the public knows too little about it, with Devil’s Backbone being a prime example.

“In my opinion, this structure was the largest and most impressive engineering project of prehistoric Indiana. Frankly, after walking around the site, we were so impressed, we are going to devote more time to this segment of the project,” Haskell said. “I had three projects going on, and I picked the most difficult.”



Skepticism plagues Olson, legend

The project is difficult for several reasons, with the primary setback being skepticism. Many historians, archeologists and scientists say the story is only a myth.

Even among believers, it is debated whether he was associated with a 12th century Welsh king or with King Arthur of the 6th century. Haskell said his intent is to have an accurate and objective discussion of facts and let the viewer decide.

It is often tough to determine what structures once stood on a landscape that has changed over the centuries. Identifying the builders and their activities is more challenging.

At Devil’s Backbone, construction companies blasted out much of the limestone decades ago, removing what once stood and leaving formations behind that can be confused with the original structure. Many of the large stones in the pillars of the Big Four Bridge were once part of the fort. Prior to its destruction by the 1937 flood, Rose Island drew thousands of visitors and erected structures, some of which remain today. This activity altered the landscape.

There is no doubt that stone walls were once on the site. Besides local oral tradition that attributes the structures to the Welsh, it is also noted in official records.

A geological survey completed in 1873 clearly describes walls 10 feet to 14 feet high, 5-feet wide with ditches and moats. The report’s authors provided a detailed diagram. There is also no dispute that a fierce battle was fought further down the Ohio River near present-day Clarksville. Thousands of bones, many with evidence of violence, such as arrows through the skull, have been found.



Views differ on work of researcher

Archeologist Sundea Murphy’s role is that of adviser and documenter to a film about a local legend based on a book by Dana Olson.

The book chronicles a Celtic prince who left 12th century Britain with 10 boats of Welsh men and women. They reportedly sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and came ashore on the coast of the New World at what is now Mobile, Ala., centuries before Christopher Columbus’ voyage.

The settlers followed the rivers north, founding settlements along the way, but repeatedly fleeing hostile locals. They eventually settled in Clark County, where a bloody, final battle virtually eliminated the race. Traces of their civilization and possibly some descendants survive today, but their connections to the past are lost.

Many artifacts found in the area and claimed to be parts of the legend of Prince Madoc puzzle were not handled properly, making them unreliable. Murphy doesn’t feel the physical evidence has been found to prove the legend documented by “The Legend of Prince Madoc and the White Indians” is fact, but she believes there was more traffic crossing the Atlantic than traditional American history depicts.

“You can’t find a more scientifically minded person than me, and I do believe that people have been crossing the Atlantic Ocean since there was an Atlantic Ocean. To me, it’s a given,” Murphy said.

She cites the massive size of ancient ships, the Gulf Stream and an ancient land bridge crossing the Atlantic, and believes pre-Columbian Welsh settlement requires no real stretch of the imagination. She notes Welsh settlement in Kentucky was long considered established historical fact.

“It is the physical evidence I’m trying to push for,” she said.

Murphy is assisting Olson in preparing the third edition of “The Legend of Prince Madoc and the White Indians,” which will include footnotes the previous two editions lacked. It is hoped this will calm some of the criticism directed at him.



Multiple opinions, one legend

Local historian and Indiana University Southeast history professor Carl Kramer has been among Olson’s critics. Kramer dismissed many of the claims of the legend on a point-by-point basis during a phone interview. For example, a key part of the story includes early accounts of Indians describing a tribe as yellow-haired and blue-eyed. Kramer points out these are recessive traits unlikely to be dominant among a group of people.

He is also concerned about a subtle racism to the claims. A 19th century description and assessment of a stone fort suggests the construction must be European as the “savages” couldn’t have done it. Historians now know there were many technologically sophisticated cultures among the nations of North America.

“My concern from a scholarly sense is, ‘What does the legend or folklore mean?’” Kramer said.

He does commend Olson’s thoroughness in producing once of the most complete books on the topic.

“Especially for an amateur researcher, it’s as good a job as anything else out there,” Kramer said.

Bob Gallman, president of Clark’s Grant Historical Society, is in the camp asserting the migration was centuries earlier than Olson’s account. He, too, has inspected the Devil’s Backbone site and believes he may have found an astronomical observation point that predicts a change in the seasons.

“I’m pretty well convinced that it’s historical fact,” Gallman said, but Clark County Historian Jeanne Burke said we just don’t know because there is not enough evidence.

The legend and its local teller have also caught the attention of independent movie producer, Tom Chaudoin, president of Axel Media Group of Asheville, N.C., Chaudoin believes the story would “make a great feature film with a large budget.”

He is interested in Olson serving as at least a consultant and possibly filming a cameo in the movie. Chaudoin said he already has a few scenes written and hopes to have a complete script within a month.

Jon Haskell and Paul Barlow’s were in Southern Indiana this year filming a documentary film based on Olson’s book. They said they expect to have completed next year, won’t be the first on the subject. Olson credits a visit made by a BBC crew in 1992 with helping attain acreage for Charlestown State Park.

Olson said another documentary maker, Paul Hartell, formerly of NBC and now working with a small, independent film company, also has expressed interest.

Though there is significant controversy and a lack of overwhelming scientific evidence surrounding a Welsh Prince’s place in America‘s history, Olson’s work and the work of those inspired and informed by it helps keep the legend alive.

— Kelley Curran is a freelance writer who lives in Southern Indiana.