I’m So Bored with the Lost Colonists

Do we have to do this?

Sigh. Yes, we have to do this.

The New York Times the day before yesterday published an article on Scott Dawson’s recent book, The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island. The book has generated a lot of attention because it purports to prove the location of the so-called “Lost Colonists” who attempted to settle Roanoke Island in 1587.

For those of you unfamiliar with the basic contours of the story, in 1584 Sir Walter Ralegh sent a reconnaissance voyage to scout the location for a new colony that he hoped would serve well the three principal ends of Elizabethan empire: profit, through discovery of valuable items or trade with indigenous peoples; religion, in the form of the expansion of Elizabethan Protestantism abroad; and security in the form of providing a base for privateering raids against the Catholic Spanish, the wicked tools, in English eyes, of the scarlet whore of Babylon. English colonists planted an outpost on Roanoke Island with the permission of the weroance Wingina in 1585, but it lasted only a year. English demands for food, outbreaks of disease, and violence made them unwelcome visitors. With a hurricane bearing down upon them, and after having murdered Wingina, the colonists returned home aboard the massive fleet Sir Francis Drake had used to terrorize Spanish holdings in the Caribbean. The English tried again in 1587, placing the colony under the charge of the artist John White. Hostilities with the Indians remaining from the previous year’s colony led to the immediate killing of one of White’s advisers. White led a retaliatory raid that struck the Croatoans rather than the Indians they intended to hit. This debacle was followed by the coward White’s return home to fetch more provisions. When he finally returned three years later, in 1590, the colony had disappeared. The only clue, we are so often told, was the word “Croatoan” carved into a post near the settlement on Roanoke. Croatoan was an Algonquian village that stood on today’s Hatteras Island.

Dawson, working with the archaeologist Mark Horton, has argued that the Lost Colonists did not disappear (an argument that almost nobody actually makes–all agree they went somewhere). Just as that carved post might lead one to believe, they left Roanoke and settled under the protection of the Croatoan Indians. Manteo, a Croatoan who had worked with the English since 1584 and been baptized into Christianity in 1587, would have eased in the resettlement. A large quantity of archaeological evidence has been found at the sight, Dawson says, and some of it is quite promising. There are also bits and pieces of historical evidence–a traveler’s account, for instance, from the early eighteenth century indicating that he saw blue-eyed Indians living in coastal Carolina.

Dawson told the Times that he was “trying to get the Croatoans’ history back from the depths of mystery.” The Croatoan Indians, he continued, “played a huge role in American history.” The Croatoans took the colonists in and sheltered them, while “in school you’re taught that no one knows what Croatoan means.”

I have yet to read Dawson’s book. I have seen enough to be deeply disappointed by all the attention it has received. There are, from what I have observed, a number of significant problems with the argument Dawson presents.

First, there is absolutely nothing new about the argument that the colonists relocated to Croatoan Island. Every book written on the subject, including mine, considers the possibility. Most of us approach the Croatoan prospect with interest, but leave unpersuaded. It is a small island. The first things Croatoans did when they encountered the English in 1587 was ask them not to take any of their food, as they had little to spare. Perhaps a small party went there to look for White’s return, a possibility suggested by numerous historians because of the route English ships likely would have taken on their return to Roanoke. But the reasons not to go there were powerful (you can read about those reasons in my book The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand). Indeed, recent archaeological work by Nick Lucketti and his associates from the First Colony Foundation offers suggestive evidence that the colonists headed inland toward the head of Albemarle Sound. There is documentary evidence supporting this hypothesis as well. The only reason to think that Dawson’s interpretation about Hatteras might be innovative and interesting is because of the archaeological evidence upon which it seems to rest.

And this brings us to the second problem. Horton’s discoveries are exciting and they are worth looking at more closely. Horton has been talking about his discoveries for several years, however, and students of the Roanoke ventures remain skeptical. That is because he has not published any of his findings and subjected his research to scholarly peer review. There is a history of grandiose claims made on the basis of archaeological discoveries on Hatteras. You might remember the gold signet ring uncovered by archaeologist David Sutton Phelps some years ago. Something interesting is found, and it leads to large leaps of faith to establish a connection to the Lost Colony.

Dawson certainly seems guilty of this. For instance, in a story written about Dawson’s book by James Hampton of The Virginian Pilot, “a lead tablet and pencil found at the dig could have belonged to White himself, Dawson said.” Hampton continues

White also was part of the 1585 group, working as an artist who drew natives and wildlife . . . He likely used the newly discovered tablet or a similar one.

That seems like quite a stretch. But here’s the kicker.

“The uncovered tablet has an impression of an Englishman shooting a native in the back . . . Wingina, chief of the Secotans, was shot twice in the back by an Englishman in 1586 at a village near what is now Mann’s Harbor, Dawson said. The Croatoans assisted the English in the ambush, Dawson said.”

There are problems with this claim. A huge leap is made from an artifact to the colonists. John White did indeed accompany the 1585 expedition and his famous paintings are justly revered by scholars for their depiction of Algonquian cultures and the flora and fauna of the Outer Banks. But White did not remain with the 1585 colonists. He returned home on August 25th, 1585, so he certainly never witnessed the 1586 attack (in which one Croatoan assisted). The English did visit Croatoan for a short period on July 30-31, 1587, to look for food and friends for colonists who had neither, but it is not precisely clear that White was with them. “The Governour,” as he referred to himself, is not mentioned. After leading an attack on the 22nd of August to avenge the killing of a colonist that fell by mistake upon the friendly but frightened Croatoans, White at the colonists’ command returned to England. Dawson would thus have us believe that a tablet used by White to draw an event he did not see ended up at the Algonquian village we have no evidence he ever visited.

Furthermore, the 1586 English attack on the village of Dasemunkepeuc was a traumatic and dramatic event. The English killed and then beheaded the weroance Wingina (who by that time had taken the name “Pemisapan”). There were some Croatoans in the village when the English fell upon it. They witnessed the treacherous attack. Is it unreasonable to think that a Croatoan may have etched a picture of the attack on a tablet acquired through trade? Native peoples in the coastal Carolina region wanted to obtain English goods. Indigenous peoples could draw. They could make use of European goods. They could raise English livestock. Dawson looks for ways to connect the English goods he and Horton found on Hatteras to the Lost Colonists so badly that they seem to overlook that native peoples themselves could make use of English manufactured goods. There is almost no likelihood that the lead tablet found at Hatteras and linked by Dawson to the Lost Colony was used by John White or the Lost Colonists.

That Horton has not shared his archaeological evidence nor subjected any of his research to peer review is another problem. Horton can not expect historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists to find his old and familiar arguments persuasive if he does not publish his findings.

In my own book on Roanoke, which Dawson does not include in his sparse bibliography, I argued as he did that the Lost Colonists’ did not disappear. Indeed, I made the point that the colonists were lost only to those English explorers who tried and failed to find them. Algonquian peoples knew what happened to them and most likely determined their fate. There has been a long national obsession over the Lost Colonist. Yet the shores of the Atlantic World were littered with the remains of castaways, castoffs, and casualties. Getting lost and left behind was part of the business. Roanoke is much more interesting as an Algonquian story, of native peoples adjusting to the arrival of newcomers, making use of them in their own political, economic, and diplomatic maneuvers, before ultimately deciding that the colonist caused more harm than good. As the great historian Malinda Maynor Lowery said in the New York Times piece, the Lost Colony legend is “like a monument that has to come down,” but that “it’s harder to dismantle an origin story than a statue.” Dawson and Horton, however much they claim to look at the Croatoan Indians, focus all their efforts on that tired and failed monument to English empire on the Outer Banks.

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