Reinvestigating Roanoke

Book review: The Secret Token, by Andrew Lawler (Amazon / Book Depository)

Roanoke has long been a setting for our national nightmares.

A recurring topic of Andrew Lawler’s new exploration into the lost colony of settlers at Roanoke in the 1580s is just how much this story, from the early beginnings of European history in North America, fascinates us. And why, when there have been so many other strange occurrences or unsolved historical mysteries, has this one continuously held so much imaginative pull?

To die is tragic, but to go missing is to become a legend, a mystery. “Wander off the stage of history and leave only a moving target,” writes novelist Charles Frazier. That is why Roanoke exerts such a powerful attraction and why it draws those of us harboring – and who doesn’t? – that quiet fear of getting lost themselves.

Or, as Lawler puts it more succinctly, “Myths cast spells that cannot be broken by facts.”

He examines this question throughout, of why we can’t let go of this mystery, alongside colonial history for context, historical evidence and thorough tracing of the variety of theories about what fate met the colonists. This includes the modern-day groups still investigating and researching the colony’s history, and their frequent clashes.

I liked that Lawler, despite admitting his own obsession was building regarding the lost colony and its many offshoots into myth, imagination, fantasy, and the aforementioned researcher squabbles, mostly keeps himself out of the story. His presence was well done when it was necessary to include.

I had to admit then that this went beyond professional diligence and into the very obsession that I had observed in so many others. Maybe, I thought, I was asking the wrong questions. What made the Roanoke story so interesting, as my historian friend had said, was not necessarily what happened to the colonists but why we care so much and so deeply. The horror attached to Roanoke in pop culture seemed reflected in the ugly skirmishes among the factions searching for the Lost Colony. I began to wonder if Lane was wrong when he insisted the real story of Roanoke had “nothing to do with Virginia Dare and the poor lost white people – the lost cause of the sixteenth century and all that southern gothic shit.”

Something that completely fascinated me, perhaps because it never occurred to me, was learning that being interested in Roanoke is, amongst historically-inclined types, not a respected interest. Perhaps because of the role it’s taken in popular culture: Roanoke has become a buzzword for horror, its story filtered in one way or another through various mediums – recently a season of American Horror Story, for example. It’s hard to take it seriously when Lady Gaga is involved.

Then there are the perennial pop culture suggestions that typically involve blood and gore and a heady dose of the supernatural, including, of course, vampires. With no accepted academic wisdom, any theory seems as credible as another. This is one of those chapters in American history that invites democratic speculation. “It’s the Area 51 of colonial history,” said Adrian Masters, the University of Texas historian.

Like so many things in American history, the Roanoke legend is inextricably linked to race. That’s the biggest story told here – who’s the “American” and who is the “other” and how do the two regard each other? What’s the inherent threat between them?

One completely fascinating element of Lawler’s examination of race in Roanoke’s legend was the near-mythical historical role that Virginia Dare has taken on. The first child of European origin born in North America, celebrating her birth is a big racist slap in the face to the Native American and Spanish children already born on the continent. She’s since become an exalted emblem of whiteness, being a white supremacy site named in her honor as an extreme example of her symbolic role.

With six other women, Cotten chartered the Virginia Dare Columbian Memorial Association on August 18, 1892, Dare’s birthday, with the goal of publicizing “the first white child born on American soil.” Though it seems strange today, the numerous earlier births and baptisms of Spanish children in what became Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina did not count, because they and their southern European mothers were not considered white.

The titular “secret token” was a message organized between Governor John White and the Roanoke colonists. It was arranged that if they left the settlement before White’s return from England, they should carve the name of where they went into a tree. If they left under emergency conditions, the name carving would appear under the symbol of a cross. Hence, that mysterious, repeated detail of the word “Croatoan” but of course, no cross. Croatoan was the name then for what’s now Hatteras Island in North Carolina. It was also the name of a nearby Native American tribe.

Colonial history is not, I have to admit, my biggest area of interest. I think I got it all out of my system visiting Williamsburg often as a kid. At times, I found some of the history, necessary though it was to establish context for the “New World” expansion, the colonial relationship to England, the reasons why the Roanoke settlement was left to fare on its own for so long, a little dry and laborious to get through. I have no doubt it won’t feel that way to someone who already has an interest in this area beyond the fascination of Roanoke like me. Maybe even not to others who don’t generally avoid it, like I do.

Sometimes Lawler does write this history quite compellingly, and he relates some delightful anecdotes. Like this, about the famous Captain John Smith:

The stocky redhead with a full red beard was a hardy mercenary who’d left his family’s small farm in eastern England to battle Ottomans in central Europe. He served as a cavalry captain and won a knighthood from the grateful Christian king of Transylvania. Later captured by Turkish soldiers and enslaved, he escaped and walked to Russia before returning to England. Bored with life in London, he joined the Jamestown expedition and became the practical and experienced leader the colony needed.

John Smith walked from Turkey to Russia? That’s one of the most brag-worthy accomplishments I’ve ever heard, let alone about him. It’s an excellent example of truth being far more interesting than myth – like the myth most often associated with Smith, that of his relationship to Pocahontas. Lawler swiftly debunks what he can about that one, sifting through what’s fact and what seems to be Smith’s braggadocio. One wonders why didn’t he play up the incredible things he actually did instead of making up stories about her? History is a weird thing.

This old unease, running so quiet and deep through our history, is reason enough to fill Roanoke Island with scary supernatural beings and turn Croatoan into a blood-borne virus, “a demon of plague and pestilence” that incites a murderous rage. The fascination that the Lost Colony inspires is, in the end, not about settlers getting lost in the woods; it is about our primal fear of losing our identity in a land constantly reshaped by new arrivals.

Lawler quite fairly presents multiple arguments here about what may have transpired in this little corner of history that has managed to loom so large in our imaginations for centuries. He carefully debunks the theories that no longer hold water, and there does seem to be one logical explanation for what became of the colonists. He provides a thorough look at what and why that is, and the long, winding, controversial and myth-filled route history and popular thought have taken to get there. Verdict: almost 4/5

The Secret Token:
Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke

by Andrew Lawler
published June 5, 2018 by Knopf

Amazon / Book Depository


10 thoughts on “Reinvestigating Roanoke

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  1. Oh interesting! This sounds a little more meta than I realized- not just a book about Roanoke, but a book about why we care about Roanoke and what everyone else has said about it. I have to admit, that interests me more than just speculation about what happened 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s very meta, I loved that about it 🙂 I didn’t know anything about all the issues surrounding the event itself throughout history as opposed to just the speculation, like you say, and it was so interesting to learn about!

      Liked by 1 person

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