Tag Archives: John White

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.

The Coward John White

The failed governor of a failed colonial enterprise, sent packing from what would soon become the fabled “Lost Colony” of Roanoke, and a pretend aristocrat whose patron procured for him a bargain-basement coat-of-arms, John White was also an “important” and “renowned” artist whose “vivid” and “lifelike” images included an Algonquian woman he depicted with two right feet.  Nearly everything John White touched turned to shit.

White did not lack for experience, we are told. He likely sailed aboard one of Martin Frobisher’s voyages in search of mineral wealth and a northwest passage in the 1570s.  He accompanied the reconnaissance voyage Sir Walter Ralegh sent to “Virginia” in 1584 and, the next year, returned aboard the much larger expedition sent to establish a base along the coast of today’s North Carolina.  He was among those men who, that summer, explored the coast to the south of Roanoke Island where he completed several paintings of the Algonquian peoples of the region and towns in which they lived, before he returned home with Sir Richard Grenville in the fall of 1585. He may have traveled more widely in the summer of 1585 to gather the information necessary to make his large map of the Outer Banks and Eastern North America. In 1587 Ralegh decided to try again, and for reasons that remain inexplicable still, he appointed White governor of what he hoped would become the “Cittie of Ralegh.”  White returned home from the colony a few weeks after arriving, and would not make back until 1590.  It was then that he discovered that the colony he claimed to have governed had disappeared.  Five voyages to America, but he spent more time aboard ships coming and going than he actually did on American shores.

It is easy, I suppose, to view White as a pathetic figure.  He brought his family to England’s paltry new world outpost. Circumstances forced him to return to England, and to struggle for several years to return to America.  He never succeeded in reuniting with his daughter, her husband, and their daughter Virginia, the first English child born in America.  How painful this must have been for him, to not know what had happened to his child and grandchild.

It is understandable.  It must have been agonizing for White. I can imagine his pain easily. But I keep tripping over my belief, based upon reading and re-reading the surviving records, that every time John White was faced with an important choice, he made the wrong one.

Every document that sheds light on the planning for the 1587 colony, for instance, shows that Ralegh charged White with establishing his “Cittie” on the Chesapeake Bay.  Relations with the Indians there the previous year offered promise.  An English party spent some time there in 1585 and 1586.  They found the deep water anchorage, abundant food, and peaceful Indians far more welcoming than the Algonquians in the vicinity of Roanoke, who would soon chase the colonists out of America.

Before heading to the Chesapeake, White wanted to check in on the men Richard Grenville had left at Roanoke the year before, shortly after the harried colonists evacuated.  He may as well have intended to install Manteo, the Indian from Croatoan who had stuck with the colonists since 1585, as a sort of feudal “Lorde of Roanoac” to govern the region in Ralegh’s name. So they were going to check in on Grenville’s colonists, install Manteo in his new post, and then carry on northward towards the Chesapeake.  Simple enough.  But that did not happen, and White’s explanation why makes little sense.

White and his men clambered aboard the pinnace, a smaller ship capable of safely crossing the Outer Banks.  “Simon Ferdinando,” the expedition’s pilot, told the sailors aboard to drop White’s party at Roanoke, “saying that the Summer was farre spent.”  It was the 22nd of July and, White suggested, Ferdinando wanted to get on with the more lucrative business of chasing Spanish prizes.

Which makes no sense at all, for Ferdinando did not leave until the last week of August, more than a month later. White spent much of his account whining about Ferdinando, blaming him for everything and for nothing, and the charges simply do not add up.  One of the ships that made up the 1587 voyage separated from the other two in some rough weather: White blamed Ferdinando for this, accusing him of trying to abandon one of the ships. At another point, Ferdinando was not certain of his latitude, and at another he thought he could find food in the Caribbean but his supplier could not be found.  Understandable, perhaps, but White blamed Ferdinando for these events, too.  The colonists ate poisonous fruit, manchineel apples, and to wash that down drank nasty, stagnant water, and fell ill.  Ferdinado remained aboard the flagship. Still, White blamed Ferdinando, even though it was he who allowed the colonists to drink “stinking water of the pond,” and who failed to keep the colonists safe while on land.  Later, the flagship nearly ran aground near Cape Fear, and again White blamed Ferdinando. And the decision to settle on Roanoke, despite instructions to go elsewhere? White blamed that on Ferdinando, too, but the only logical explanation for White and his colonists ending up on Roanoke was that he decided to settle in this somewhat familiar setting, rather than move to the Chesapeake where he had no first hand experience.

It was a bad choice.  Grenville’s  men were very clearly dead: White reported that his men found the skeleton of one of them. Very clearly they had been killed by Indians. Within a couple of days, those same Indians killed George Howe, one of White’s closest advisers.  White attempted to carry on some diplomacy and figure out how the Indians felt about his colonists, which somehow still seemed a mystery to him.  The Croatoans, always friendly, at first feared the English and lined up for battle before Manteo assuaged their fears.  They lectured the English about indiscriminate attacks the year before. They begged the English not to steal their food.  White decided that this was a good time to ask them for favors, and told them to carry messages to the neighboring Indian villages, indicating that the English “would willingly receive them againe, and that all unfriendly dealings past on both parts, should be utterly forgiven and forgotten.”  This reflected nothing more than White’s utterly clueless understanding of the situation in which he had placed the colonists–in the midst of large numbers of Algonquians who had no interest in accepting English friendship. He was in no position to “receive” anyone.

Could White make it worse?  Yes.  After waiting a week, and receiving no response from the Indians, White decided to attack “the remnant of Wingina his men, which were left alive, who dwelt at Dasamonquepeuk,” across the sound from Roanoke.  It was they, he believed, who had killed George Howe and wiped out Grenville’s party.  White led a party across the sound, surrounded some Indians in the dark at Dasemonquepeuk, and launched his assault. As White put it himself, “we hoped to acquite their evill doing towards us, but,” he said,  “we were deceived, for those Savages were our friends, and were come from Croatoan to gather the corne & fruit of that place, because they understood our enemies were fled immediatly after they had slaine George Howe.”  They killed the wrong Indians.  They killed friendly Indians, or at least he least hostile of the Algonquians in the region.  The colony was now in dire straits, with no friends, and little provision.

Over the next several days, the English baptized Manteo, and White’s daughter gave birth to Virginia Dare.  The colonists needed provisions, and White could not find any volunteers to go home to lobby for more. The colonists told White to go himself.  He whined. He feared that during his absence, “his stuffe and goods might be both spoiled, & most of them pilfered away.”  White refused to go. He feared that the people he led would rifle through his stuff.   The next day, the 23rd of August, more of the colonists, “as well women and men,” once again told White to leave.  Please. Really, just go. Don’t worry. We will be fine.  We will be better off without you.  They wanted him to leave.  They knew who they were dealing with.  They promised to sign a bond not to steal White’s crap, as if they really wanted his books and his armor.  He must have found it difficult o leave his daughter and granddaughter behind, but that is not the argument he made.  With a promise not to steal any of his stuff in hand, White departed for England on the 27th.

It was a hellish journey home. White survived, but many of the sailors did not.  He tried again to sail for America the next year, that of the Armada, but the ship he was aboard was mauled by a French corsair. In the battle for control of the ship, White was shot in the ass, an injury that does not seem to have embarrassed him at all.  By the time he finally made it back to Roanoke in 1590, he could determine only that the colonists were no longer on the island, and that the trunks containing his stuff had been dug up by Indians, broken open, and their contents ruined.  So much for that bond.  White seemed to know where the colonists were, though the location is not clear from his account.  In any case, White was a man who nobody listened to.  He could not persuade the mariners  to devote the time to seek out the colonists, and White returned, once again, to England, his voyage entirely without effect.