A 12th Century American City and A Novel’s Inspiration

After a lengthy absence from the Internet, I am delighted to break the ice on my blog today, and welcome back a treasured friend, Kristin Gleeson, who introduces her latest novel, Along the Far Shores.

Along the Far Shores Cover MEDIUM WEB

Inspiration for novels can come from almost anywhere, and for Along the Far Shores the inspiration came from an unexpected place. When I was a children’s librarian outside of Philadelphia, years ago, I was doing some much needed weeding and I came across a book that told about the legend of Prince Madog of Wales’ voyage to America in 1170. It wasn’t a picture book, laid out in a beautifully illustrated manner; it was a nonfiction text that investigated the legend in order to substantiate its truth.

I was so intrigued I took it home and read it in a night.  I have to confess I’d never heard of the legend before this.  I’d read about Leif Ericson’s 11th century voyage along Labrador and that area, and of course I’d heard of the 6th century voyage of St. Brendan in the same general region. Madog’s voyage apparently ended up in Mobile Bay, in present day Alabama and he sailed up what is now called the Mad Dog River.  All very intriguing.

According to the legend, Prince Madog’s father, Owain ap Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, died leaving ten sons from several different marriages.  In Welsh tradition the eldest wasn’t automatically the heir, so the throne was up for grabs.  Against this backdrop Prince Madog, a much younger son, decided to take to the seas.  Previously, he’d spent years sailing around France, Spain and into the Mediterranean, trading in various ports.  Navigation was still primitive in the 12th century, but his voyage west most likely began in Wales and across to France, down along the French coast and then westwards.  Eventually the strong ocean currents caught him up and it is speculated that they took him into the Canaries and then to what is now the Alabama and Florida coast. There he sailed along the coast and ended up in what we now call Mobile Bay, Alabama.  He landed, left a few men there, and returned to Wales to bring more colonists. Those left behind travelled upriver encountered friendly and unfriendly natives and built stone structures along the way, until they eventually settled in the Great Plains of the Midwest.

Few people, however, would know about the Mississippian culture that flourished there at this time and lasted for almost 900 years, c. 600-1500 A.D., and, like the more well-known Central and South American counterparts had great urban centres, some of them more populous than any city of Europe at the time.

It was along the fertile valleys of the Mississippi and its tributaries that these cities arose. Ocmulgee, Etowah, Cahokia, Moundville and Spiro were some of the biggest cities. Etowah and other cities traded many items and raw commodities like obsidian, gold, silver and conch shells.  Trade grew into important networks that linked much of the Midwest and East.  Such links offered many chances for sharing and improving skills, acquiring or modifying languages, religious and cultural practices.


Etowah, which features in the novel, was located in north central Georgia, and was one of the largest cities of the Mississippian culture. Its remains are still evident, today. Surrounded by a moat and a bastioned wooden palisade it had six earthen mounds that loomed over the city. The three largest mounds were grouped around a large plaza, the most central one rising 61 feet with a base that covered about 3 acres.  Its flattened top extended to about ¾ size of a football field and commanded an impressive view of the surrounding plain.   A second plaza, paved with clay was to the east and had a ramp that extended from the plaza to the summit of the first mound.

In later centuries a small elite, The Nobles/Honoured Men, lived on top of the mounds near to the all-important temple.  Their houses were colourfully painted and decorated with elaborate designs and housed richly carved items.  The commoners living in the plains below the nobles dubbed “the Stinkards.”  The Great Sun was the leader and his relatives, known as Suns, held the city’s administrative positions.  The political dominance of this elite group usually extended beyond the city to the surrounding areas, where lesser chiefs ruled small towns.  All members of the region and the city were obligated to send tribute to the Great Sun periodically.  Once the Great Sun died, this strong regional network often fragmented if there wasn’t a strong person to replace him.

The novel seemed a wonderful opportunity to bring out this relatively unknown period and culture and one of Madog’s passengers, an Irish woman and a Native American man as perfect vehicles to explore the interaction of two widely differing cultures.

Links: www.kristingleeson.com



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