“Ah, the Curraghs . . .”

By Richard Salzberg © 2013 

In another of his extraordinary books, “The Faded Map: Lost Kingdoms of Scotland” (2010), Alistair Moffat [www.alistairmoffat.co.uk/] describes the historic visit by the Greek explorer and scientist Pytheus to “the land that would become Scotland” in about 320 BC:

Pytheus had travelled an immense distance, beginning his remarkable and little-known journey at the prosperous trading colony of Massilia, modern Marseilles. He came north in search of knowledge, business opportunities and excitement. All three were recorded in “On the Ocean,” written on the traveler’s safe return to the warmth of the Mediterranean . . . Pytheus almost certainly found himself traveling in a very different sort of craft from what he had been used to . . . seagoing curraghs, not unlike those still being built in the south-west of Ireland . . . Curraghs were quick, easy and cheap to construct.

Moffat goes on to describe the remarkable boats:

First a frame of greenwood rods (hazel was much favored, and willow) was driven either into the ground or into holes made in a gunwale formed into an oval. Then the rods were lashed together with cord or pine roots into the shape of a hull, upside down. Once all was tight and secure – the natural whip and tension of greenwood helped this part of the process very much – the framework was then made rigid by the fitting of benches which acted as thwarts. Over the hull hides were stretched and sewn together (or “united”) before being lashed to the gunwales. When the hides shrank naturally, they tightened over the greenwood rods and the seams were then caulked with wool grease or resin. Large curraghs could take twenty men or carry two tons of cargo and, since they were so straightforward to make from materials widely available, they and their small, round cousins, the coracles, would have sailed the coasts of Scotland and Ireland in their many thousands.

Inasmuch as these vessels were already ancient when encountered by Pytheus, and unique to the earliest Celts of Britain, we can know they have been used for millennia in Wales by that country’s ages-old, water-faring people.

¶      ¶      ¶      ¶

Fast-forwarding several thousand years and traveling to the New World of North America, we encounter the mysterious people known as the Mandans. Their territory along the Upper Missouri River in what is now central North Dakota, they received well-deserved attention during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial (2003–2006), primarily in the context of Fort Mandan [http://fortmandan.com/], where the expedition was allowed to overwinter peacefully during 1804–1805; and where it is believed Lewis and Clark first met Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. Then, some 30 years later, the tribe is encountered by George Catlin, the remarkable artist and journalist, and, in fact, anthropologist [www.georgecatlin.org]. It is unlikely that anyone could describe George Catlin in a single paragraph better than another visionary, Peter Matthiessen [http://ow.ly/lzEv7]:

If Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first white Americans to explore the west half of the continent, from the Mississippi at St. Louis to the northwest Pacific coast, George Catlin traveled at least as many miles on his journeys by canoe and horse from Minnesota and the Montana border south to eastern Texas, as well as forays to the Gulf states and South Carolina, seeking to record the Indians in paintings and journals. Taken together, Catlin’s works constitute the first, last, and only “complete” record of the Plains Indians ever made at the height of their splendid culture, so soon destroyed . . .

George Catlin ~6-09-13In his fascinating journals and letters, marvelously complemented by his incredible oil paintings and drawings, Catlin provides a great deal of information and detail about the tribe – impressions astonishing both in his day and our own. Among his observations:

“The Mandans are perhaps one of the most ancient tribes of Indians in our country. Their origin, like that of all the other tribes is from necessity, involved in mystery and obscurity.”

“The ground on which the Mandan village is at present built, was admirably selected for defence; being on a bank forty or fifty feet above the bed of the river.”

“The Mandans are undoubtedly secure in their villages, from the attacks of any Indian nation, and have nothing to fear, except when they meet their enemy on the prairie.”

“The Mandans are certainly a very interesting and pleasing people in their personal appearance and manners; differing in many respects, both in looks and customs, from all other tribes which I have seen.”

“A stranger in the Mandan village is first struck with the different shades of complexion, and various colours of hair which he sees in a crowd about him; and is at once almost disposed to exclaim that ‘these are not Indians’ . . . and amongst the women particularly, there are many whose skins are almost white, with the most pleasing symmetry and proportion of features; with hazel, with grey, and with blue eyes . . .”

And he also writes about their peculiar boats . . .  

“The skin canoes of the Mandans . . . are made almost round like a tub, by straining a buffalo’s skin over a frame of wicker work, made of willow or other boughs . . . These very curious and rudely constructed canoes, are made in the form of the Welsh coracle (Mr. Catlin’s italics); and, if I mistake not, propelled in the same manner, which is a very curious circumstance; inasmuch as they are found in the heart of the great wilderness of America, when all the other surrounding tribes construct their canoes in decidedly different forms, and of different materials.”

Mandan Bullboats by G. Catlin 6-09-13As well as their distinctive appearance, when Mr. Catlin discusses the unique character and customs of the Mandans, he refers to the belief “in my mind that they have had a different origin, or are of a different compound of character from any other tribe that I have yet seen, or that can be probably seen in North America.”

Going further, Catlin sparks the light fantastic by citing a meld of truth and legend, with the amount of his research and commentary unexpected and impressive:

(The Welsh Colony) . . . which sailed under the direction of Prince Madoc, or Madawc, from North Wales, in the early part of the fourteenth century in ten ships, according to numerous and accredited authors, and never returned to their own country, have been supposed to have landed somewhere on the coast of North or South America; and from the best authorities, I believe it has been pretty clearly proved that they landed either on the coast of Florida, or about the mouth of the Mississippi, and according to the history and poetry of their country, settled somewhere in the interior of North America, where they are yet remaining, intermixed with some of the savage tribes . . . the Mandans, whom I found with so many peculiarities in looks and customs . . . might possibly be the remains of this lost colony, amalgamated with a tribe, or part of a tribe, of the natives, which would account for the unusual appearances of this tribe of Indians . . .  

¶      ¶      ¶      ¶

Despite all of its valuable scientific successes, it should not be overlooked that the Lewis and Clark Expedition was first and foremost the most ambitious sort of military expedition. The specially selected members of the fabled “Corps of Discovery” were U.S. Army personnel, albeit volunteers, under the command of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lt. William Clark. As conceived by President Thomas Jefferson just after the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, the expedition’s official objective was “to explore and map the newly acquired territory, find a practical route across the Western half of the continent, and establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.”

And this they did, from May of 1804 until September, 1806. Thomas Jefferson was knowledgeable and brilliant, and an expert at foreign affairs; and, complemented by his instincts and his time at the court in France as an American diplomat, he was adept at “palace intrigue.” Certainly aware of the legend and lore of Prince Madoc, Jefferson would know that any claim to lands within the territory of the Louisiana Purchase could result in a dangerous legal and political morass – particularly during the delicate period foreshadowing the War of 1812, another armed conflict with England for the young American nation. It is interesting to note that Prince Madoc and his expedition were Welsh, and since his time, Wales had become a part of Great Britain – so any sort of tangible evidence could conceivably justify a claim to the newly acquired lands.

In a letter to Capt. Meriwether Lewis dated January 22, 1804, Jefferson writes: “. . . I sent you some extracts made by myself from the journal of an agent of the trading company of St. Louis up the Missouri. I now enclose a translation of that journal in full for your information. In that of the 13th instant I enclosed you a 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. On this subject a Mr. Rees, of the same nation, established in the western part of Pennsylvania, will write to you.”

Lewis and Clark spent a relatively long period with the Mandans, with the tribe generously providing hospitality and winter shelter. There is no doubt that from the substantial security of Fort Mandan much investigation and research was pursued; and there is no doubt that the Expedition’s private reports to Jefferson were far more intriguing and thorough than anything shared with the public – at that  time and in our own. What those reports contained is likely never to be revealed.

But we do know that the Expedition was organized quickly, prepared with extensive intelligence, greatly relieved at the lack of any military confrontation – and that its “perilous ambition” was blessed with an extraordinary degree of success of inestimable value.

We also know that on October 11, 1809, while on his way to Washington, Meriwether Lewis died under mysterious and bizarre circumstances at a tavern along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, “the rough and often dangerous wilderness trail that was the main overland route of the day.” Thomas Jefferson was among those to quickly declare Lewis’ death a suicide, despite his being nowhere near the site of the tragedy, and a great deal of contradictory evidence. [See http://ow.ly/lQSNT.]

PS: The Mandans are now part of what is known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, a Native American group which consists of a union of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara peoples, located in an area of the Missouri River basin in the Dakotas.

PPS: They are still making curraghs and coracles in Wales and the other lands of the Celts.  

–  Finis  –


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