FORT MOUNTAIN STATE PARK, Ga. --The remains of the 855-foot stone wall that gives Fort Mountain its name wind like a snake around the northeast Georgia park, and its very presence begs a question: Who put them there?
A Cherokee legend attributes the wall to a mysterious band of "moon-eyed people" led by a Welsh prince named Madoc who appeared in the area more than 300 years before Columbus sailed to America.
A plaque at the wall says matter-of-factly it was built by Madoc and his Welsh followers, but most professional archeologists give no credence to the legend.
"There has been no archaeological evidence to back up stories that either this Welsh prince or any others came to explore the New World," said Jared Wood, the manager of the archaeology lab at the University of Georgia.
As the legend goes, the group arrived at Mobile Bay around 1170, made their way up the Alabama and Coosa rivers and built stone fortifications at several spots near present-day Chattanooga, Tenn.
Dana Olson, an author who has spent decades trying to prove the legend, said circumstantial evidence on both sides of the Atlantic is too compelling to ignore.
"I've traveled all over the country finding these forts. Some of them are pretty well known, but I'm still uncovering some of them," said Olson, the author of "The Legend of Prince Madoc and the White Indians."
The stone structures have long been a topic of debate. Many scientists have come to believe that the walls at Fort Mountain and other Southeast sites were built by native Americans between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600.
"We're not exactly sure what purposes these enclosures served," said Wood, the UGA archaeologist. "But they were likely well-known gathering places for social events. Seasonal meetings of friends and kin, trading of goods, astronomical observance, and religious or ceremonial activities may have occurred there."
Yet supporters of the Madoc legend say the wall's tear-shaped designs are similar to ruins found in Wales or elsewhere in Great Britain.
And they point to an 1810 letter from John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, who said that in 1782 he was told by an Indian chief that the walls were built by white people called the Welsh who lived in the region before the Cherokee.
They were driven out with the promise that they would never return to Cherokee lands, Sevier said in the letter, and they supposedly traveled to the Ohio valley or downstream to the Mississippi.
There is also evidence of a major battle between 1450 and 1660 at the Falls of the Ohio, which Olson said was the scene of the "big battle began between the red Indians and the white Indians" - the Welsh.
Supporters of the legend say Madoc made two trips to North America, with the first visit coming in 1169. While scientists say the story was widely accepted in the 17th and 18th century, it has fallen out of favor over time.
"For one thing, there is not a historian that goes along with the theory of pre-Columbian contacts in the United States," said Sundea Murphy, who works with Corn Island Archaeology in Louisville, Ky.
"A scientist needs proof. A historian needs proof," she said.
Yet she sees no reason to discount the story of Madoc or any other pre-Columbian culture - from the Vikings to the Polynesians - exploring the continent.
"There were too many other civilizations that had the capability to make cross-ocean voyages," Murphy said.