RIO GRANDE — A Welshman in search of the history of his distant ancestor recently made a stop in the Village of Rio Grande, a small town known for his Welsh heritage. It just so happens, however, that this Welshman is a legendary pop icon in his home country — a musician who has brought along a film crew as he retraces the route of his ancestor who had a small, but significant role in the history of America.
Gruff Rhys, frontman of the Welsh rock band Super Furry Animals — a multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter who is revered for his work in Wales — stopped in Rio Grande on Wednesday to take a tour of the small Ohio university town with Welsh roots.
Rhys is currently on an “investigative concert tour” that follows the route of John Evans, a young Welshman who traveled throughout North America between 1792 and 1799.
“I’m a distance relative of John Evans, so my father is obsessed with the story. I grew up with the stories since I was a kid — this larger-than-life character that came to America and had the ‘wild west experience,’” Rhys commented.
Evans came to America in search of a mythical Welsh-speaking tribe of Native Americans. These Native Americans, whose existence Evans later proved to be untrue, are the mythical descendants of Prince Madog, who, according to Welsh folklore, sailed to America in 1170, over 300 years before the voyage of Christoper Columbus in 1492.
According to Rhys, John Evans landed in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1792 at the age of 22 and made is way through Pennsylvania, into Pittsburgh, down the Ohio River to Cincinnati then to St. Louis. While there, he joined an expedition up the Missouri River where the Welsh-speaking Native Americans were rumored to roam.
While on his journey, Evans navigated the passage through the native tribes and eventually entrenched himself with the possibly Welsh-descended Mandan tribe, who Evans found were not the mythical descendants of Prince Madog.
Evans true impact on history came not from his search of the descendants of Madog, but from his extensive mapping of the Missouri basin — maps later utilized by Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean.
“When Spanish-Louisiana became part of the U.S.A., his maps were passed on to President Jefferson who passed them on to Lewis and Clark and they used Evans’ maps to negotiate their way through the Missouri basin,” Rhys said. “So, he is kind of a footnote in American history.”
Evans died in the year 1799, at the age of 29 in New Orleans, presumably of the Cholera outbreak that year or possibly due a recurrence of Malaria which he contracted while traveling along the Mississippi River.
While the Evans’ legend permeated his youth, Rhys reported that the spark that ignited his interest in his distant relative did not occur until years later when he was asked to write music for a theatre group performing a play about Evans’ life.
The music Rhys composed some 12 years ago was never used in the play, but he stated that his interest in Evans never died and, nearly a year ago, he contacted his booking agent in New York to set up a concert tour along the route that Evans took during his time in America.
The 10-concert “American Interior” tour began on August 2 at the Yale University Beinecke Library — where Evans’ original maps are kept — and will continue through August 22, where the last concert will be played in New Orleans, Louisiana — Evans’ resting place.
Along the way, a film crew is following Rhys who is documenting his discoveries about the true John Evans, his role in American history and the continued existence of the Welsh culture in the United States.
“In small cultures have to romanticize their stories and existence, so, this tour is trying to verify what is real history and what is myth,” Rhys said.
Rhys and the documentary film crew came to Rio Grande while en route to Cincinnati for a concert on Thursday night.
This visit was not coincidental as Rhys has a direct connection to the village where his friend and fellow Welshman Haydn Jones, who also has a passion for the history of Evans, attend college.
According to Rhys, he has heard about the small village in Ohio for many years, but was not prepared for what he found in the Village of Rio Grande.
“It’s incredible. I’ve heard of Rio Grande through Haydn over the years, but I didn’t have really a concept of it. I didn’t expect to see a town in Ohio with red dragons draped everywhere. It’s completely incredible and unbelievable and more people should know about it,” he said.
Taking the rock star on a tour of the village was Rio Grande Village Mayor Matt Easter.
Easter, a music fan himself and lover of Welsh history, was thrilled by the interest Rhys and the film crew took of his small town.
“This is going to do nothing but promote the Welsh culture that existed and still exists,” Easter said.”It’s an honor to be a part of it. It’s honor to have my town be a part of it and just a fantastic thing for not only Rio Grande, but for Gallia County.”
Easter further encouraged individuals interested in Wales and the impact it had on the United States to follow Rhys’ progress on the documentary.
The film, which is not Rhys first documentary about his search for his family’s roots (his first film, “Separado!” premiered in 2010), may not be released for some time, but is expected to be shown at the South by Southwest film and music festivals and conferences that are held every spring in Austin, Texas.
For more information about the work of Gruff Rhys or his upcoming documentary, visit www.gruffrhys.com.