Sunday, November 11, 2018
John White Searching for Roanoke Colony
I recently visited North Carolina, the site of the first English settlement in North America, the so called “Lost” Colony of Roanoke. While I was there, I picked up a book about the Roanoke Colony, “The Secret Token,” by Andrew Lawler, and learned some things I didn’t know about American history, about humans’ will to survive, and about their ability to bend history to serve their interests and imagination.
The Roanoke Colony was a project of Sir Walter Raleigh, who was seeking gold, a shortcut to India, or some other way to make himself richer, and in 1585 he was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a colony in North America. After an initial party explored the area, three shiploads of colonists were sent in 1587. They settled on the island of Roanoke, just inside the barrier islands known as the outer banks, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. The colony’s governor, John White, returned to England for supplies later that year, leaving behind his daughter Eleanor, his son in law Ananias Dare, and their new born baby, Virginia. Soon after he returned to London, the Spanish Armada attacked the English coast, and every available ship was used for defense, preventing him from returning until three years later, in 1590. When he finally made it back to the site, all he found was the word, “Croatoan,” carved on a tree.
Ever since then, the fate of the 115 Roanoke colonists has remained a mystery. The carving suggests that they moved near the Croatoan Indian tribe, which was located on what is now Hatteras Island, but no archaeological evidence has been found to substantiate that theory. Over the last 400 years, archaeological digs have been done in other locations where the colonists might have gone. Genetic studies have even been done on descendants of the local Indian tribes looking for DNA from the colonists without conclusive results. The fate of the Roanoke colony does have some historic importance since it was the first English settlement in the new world, predating the Jamestown colony by 20 years, and John White’s granddaughter, Virginia Dare, was the first English child born here.
Through the years there have been many theories about what happened to the Roanoke colonists. They most likely were either taken in or killed by the local Indian tribes or starved to death like the Jamestown settlers almost did twenty years later. After some initial misunderstandings, the Indians had been helpful to the colonists, thinking that an alliance with them might give them an advantage over the neighboring tribes. Spanish colonists and African slaves had been adopted by tribes further south in similar situations. There was a drought about that time, so no one, not even the Indians, were getting enough to eat, so the starvation theory also makes sense. Actually, when the Jamestown settlers arrived, Chief Powhatan told them that his warriors had killed the Roanoke settlers, although historians think that he was referring to a group from the earlier exploring party stranded on the outer banks in 1585.
Since there’s no good evidence to support any of the more realistic possibilities, many legends and other supernatural explanations have been invented over the years to fill the void.
The word Croatoan has been found in the journals of Amelia Ehrhart and Black Bart the pirate after their mysterious disappearances. Edgar Allen Poe, famous for writing spooky stories, is said to have whispered the word “Croatoan” on his death bed. One legend tells of the colonists being stricken by a terrible disease that drove them to cannibalism. In a variation of the story, the colonists were possessed by evil spirits which the Indians banished by carving the word Croatoan on the tree. In the movie, The Lost Colony, The Legend of Roanoke, released in 2007, the island is haunted by the souls of Viking explorers, who take revenge on the helpless settlers. The current season of the TV series American Horror Story has been devoted to the spirits of the Roanoke colonists. Some have even claimed that the colonists were carried away by aliens.
While some of the speculation over the disappearance of the Lost Colonists of Roanoke has been entertaining, some of it has been taken seriously, and may have even had an effect on the course of history.More about that in my next post………