On a rugged bluff overlooking the Ohio River, known locally as “Devil’s Backbone,” centuries of overgrowth obscures a secret of history.
Legend has it that this was the site of a large stone fort and a settlement of Welshmen who sailed to America three centuries before the time of Christopher Columbus.
In 1799, early settlers found six skeletons clad in breastplates bearing a Welsh coat of arms. Indian legends told of “yellow-haired giants” who settled in Kentucky, southern Indiana, southern Ohio and Tennessee--a region they called “the Dark and Forbidden Land.”
Archeologists debunk the legend. They say that evidence indicates that the natives of the region once conducted a vigorous trading network nearby and buried their dead on the bluff.
The bluff and its shadowy history have been virtually undisturbed since 1940, when the U.S. Army purchased it as part of a 10,000-acre site for a munitions plant.
Now, the military is expected to sell off about 900 acres as part of a cost-cutting plan, and the state will have the first option to buy the land.
Both the Charlestown Chamber of Commerce and the state Department of Natural Resources have called for a state park on the land, which includes the peninsula three miles east of Charlestown.
“The older folks told children not to scale its walls, that the devil had put a curse on the place,” Margaret Sweeney wrote in her 1967 book, “Fact, Fiction and Folklore of Southern Indiana.”
“In spite of the warning, many youngsters invaded the stronghold and came away with broken bones, bruises, cuts or even completely bewitched for investigating ‘Old Scratch’s quarters.’ ”
Upstream about 14 miles from Louisville, Ky., the craggy hill rises abruptly from the Indiana bank. Fourteen Mile Creek runs behind the hill, carving out a narrow strip of land between the creek and the river.
The peninsula is less than 20 feet wide at the top and falls off abruptly on either side to the Ohio River and the creek. The resulting pear-shaped bluff has a flat top five to seven acres across and is almost inaccessible.
Cliffs Walled Off
The earliest survey of the area, done in 1873 by state geologist E. T. Cox and his assistant, William Borden, found a prehistoric fortification on the hilltop. A man-made limestone wall, 150 feet long and 75 feet high in some places, stood along the front and one side of the hill where the cliffs could be scaled, Cox said in his report.
The wall no longer exists, the area’s early settlers having taken the huge, unmortared stones to build foundations, bridges and fences that can still be seen throughout the rolling countryside.
Local legend says the walls were built by followers of Prince Madoc of Wales, who led an expedition in the late 12th Century and was never seen again. Tradition says they landed in America and settled briefly in Tennessee, then moved to Kentucky and southern Indiana.
“In my opinion, you couldn’t find a better legend than this,” said Dana Olson of Jeffersonville, an amateur historian and author of “Prince Madoc: Founder of Clark County, Indiana.”
“You’ve got princes and kings, and gold and silver, and wars. It would make a great movie.”
Olson’s book says that Madoc was a son of King Owain Gwynedd and was one of his best naval commanders. Madoc’s skills and curiosity took him to France and Spain and to Venice and other Mediterranean ports--and on at least two trips to the Americas between 1165 and 1169.
When Gwynedd died in 1169, his sons got into a feud over the throne. A disgusted Madoc, looking for more tranquil surroundings, sailed from Lundy Island south of Wales with three of his brothers and 10 ships.
They are named among the missing in Britain’s ancient maritime logs.
Legend says they landed in Mobile Bay in 1170 and traveled up the Alabama River to where it meets the Coosa River, near present-day Alabama’s borders with Georgia and Tennessee.
According to Cherokee tradition, they settled there and intermarried with the Indians, and built five stone forts near what is now Chattanooga. Treasure hunters have found Roman coins, European oil lamps and goblets among the ruins, Olson says.
Fort Laid to Indians
Excavations conducted by the anthropology department at the University of Tennessee concluded that one of the structures, known as Old Stone Fort, was built in the 3rd Century by an Indian culture that would have predated Madoc.
No Welsh artifacts were found to substantiate the persistent Madoc legend.
“In professional archeological circles, it’s kind of pooh-poohed,” Steve Cox, curator of the Tennessee State Museum, said. “There’s no archeological evidence. That’s really all that we have to go on in the prehistoric period.”
The legend says the Welsh-Indians were forced out of Tennessee by the Cherokee and migrated north into Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley by three separate routes.
American Indians apparently first spread the tale of a race of White Indians who lived in the falls area on the Ohio, where Madoc’s followers may have established their largest settlement.
George Rogers Clark, the founder of Clarksville, Ind., first heard the story from Tobacco, a chief of the Piankeshaw. The chief told of a great battle between the Red and White Indians on Sand Island in the Ohio River, in which all the White Indians were slain.
Signs of a Battle
Maj. John Harrison, among others, has told of an extensive graveyard in that area, where thousands dead were buried in such confusion as to suggest a battle. The graveyard, if it existed, has been washed away.
Some of Clark County’s earliest settlers reportedly found ancient coins and European armor, some bearing the Welsh coat of arms. All of that armor has disappeared.
Clark found some armor-clad skeletons that he thought were ancient Welshmen and jotted down his findings in his personal memoirs, Olson says. A copy of this book, in Clark’s own hand, was stolen years ago from the Jeffersonville public library.
According to “Baird’s History of Clark County,” a tombstone dated 1186 was found in Jeffersonville in the 1800s, and early pioneers reportedly found natives throughout the interior who could converse in the Welsh language.
A skull taken from Sand Island in the 1800s was identified by a Dr. Beckwith as “not that of an Indian.” Beckwith’s qualifications are not known.
None of the physical evidence has been scientifically examined or confirmed. In fact, virtually all of it has disappeared.
“I wish I could reproduce everything that’s been found or that it had been put in a museum,” Olson said. “There are no museums here.”
Without proof, archeologists and other experts have their doubts.
“Where you find prehistoric or human occupation you normally find a range of evidence, such as refuse, garbage, settlements, villages, sites, artifacts,” Gary Ellis, senior archeologist for the state of Indiana, said.
“There just isn’t any. Most of it is rumor.”
Students of the early tribal cultures say that the stone fort probably was built by American Indians.
“A lot of people don’t like to believe the Indians could have stacked rocks that size, but there’s evidence around the country they did things like that,” said Donna Calhoun of rural Scottsburg, who is writing a history of the Indians in southern Indiana.
Ray White, tribal chairman of the Miami nation, suggested that the coins, lamps, armor and other artifacts easily could have been brought inland via the Indian trading network. A diary Calhoun uncovered in her research mentions an Indian trading post 1 1/2 miles east of Charlestown.
But Olson contends that the evidence supporting the legend is overwhelming.
Upset for Historians
“What something like this does is alter the applecart of history,” she said. “Any time you get all this and put it before all these people who’ve got degrees in anthropology, it really turns the table. They don’t know how to combat it, so they say, ‘No, this is a myth.’ ”
An archeological overview in 1984 concluded that the research value of Devil’s Backbone could be quite high. Under federal law, Indian mounds and artifacts must be protected from development, and they could provide a unique look at southern Indiana’s early population.
Or, they could lend credence to a legend and shatter accepted theories on the discovery and exploration of the New World.
“We need somebody to go into Charlestown and just do a survey,” White said. “They really need to find out what’s there.