Unfolding the Map
Today we confront the mystery of the Roanoke Colony. Just what does that word Croatoan mean? Where did the colonists go? It is a great early America story with multiple possible endings. Click on the map to see the site of this mysterious lost colony, and feel free to leave a comment if you have an idea what happened to them.
"Because of its setting in deep woods, its age, its Croatoan mystery, and because it is the lone remnant of the first English attempt at settlement in America, Fort Raleigh is fascinating. But it is also a monument to the disease of an old world, gone tired and corrupt, trying to exploit a newer land. The whole ugly European process is here in capsule history: England, wanting to emulate Spain's financial success in pillaging the New World (but learning nothing from Spanish mistakes in dealing with Indians) and at the same time trying to circumscribe the expansion of colonial Spain out of Florida, sent a group of men, most nothing more than gentlemen pirates called 'privateers,' to establish a colonly and enrich England with marketable commodities."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 12
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, North Carolina
Imagine an alien ship arrives in an new land. The ship disgorges its inhabitants, whose appearance, language and demeanor are completely strange and unintelligible to the land's, but the visitors look unwell, and the inhabitants greet them and attempt to make them feel welcome. The visitors set up a living area, and the inhabitants, who know everything about their land, are compelled to help them over and over again as these visitors are ill equipped to deal with their environment. But over time, the visitors begin to reveal themselves as more interested in colonizing and taking resources than living as friendly neighbors. Hostilities break out between the original inhabitants and the visitors. The alien ship leaves in order to resupply the visitors, but does not return for a long period of time. When a new alien ship finally arrives, it finds no trace of the visitors except for a single word left behind.
Sounds like a science fiction story set on another world, doesn't it? This is actually the story of the first permanent English colony in America, Roanoke Colony, established at the site of Fort Raleigh in 1585. A first wave of settlers came to Roanoke Island and established a settlement, but deserted the colony and went back to England with Sir Francis Drake after a relief expedition never arrived. A second colony was established at the same site in 1587, but a relief expedition took three years to arrive due to the English war with Spain. When the relief expedition finally got to the settlement site in 1590, it had been abandoned and a single word, "Croatoan," was found carved in post at the fort. The relief expedition assumed that the settlement went to live with the nearby Croatoan Indians, but no trace of the settlers was ever found.
This is a wonderful mystery that exists at the very beginning of our country. It contains its share of characters both good and not-so-good. Sir Richard Grenville, for instance, who punitively punished and regularly raided the very Native Americans that had offered their hands in friendship to the colony. Another was Virginia Dare, the first English person born on what would become U.S. soil, and who disappeared with the rest of the colony. Yet another was Sir Walter Raleigh, who never stepped foot there but who hoped that the colony would increase his wealth and the wealth of England as well as blunt the advances of Spain in the region. William Least Heat-Moon mentions Thomas Harriot, who was the scientist of the expedition and felt that there could be a cross-cultural exchange of ideas between the Natives and the English.
And that word. Croatoan. When I first heard this story, that word seemed to sum up the entire mystery. It was carved in a post at the fort. The instructions to the colonists were that if they were forced out of the settlement and captured, they should carve a Maltese cross, which looks like four arrowheads converging at right angles on a single point, in a conspicuous place and the name of the place they were being taken. But there was no cross, so the settlers were not forcibly taken. It was assumed they went to live with the Croatoan tribe. But no trace of them was found. Legends abound about what happened to the colonists. Some legends, spoken of by Native Americans themselves, say that the colony was attacked and the settlers put to death. Others say that the colonists joined a friendly Indian tribe, such as the Croatoans, and intermingled. The mystery yet deepens when later settlers reported an Indian tribe in North Carolina that spoke English and already knew about Christianity, even though they had never been in contact with English peoples before. Virginia Dare, the first English child born on North American soil, became the subject of legend herself, and in those legends grew up to be a beautiful blond maiden who was a wonder to the tribes of the area and was the object of many powerful suitors, including Wanchese, the Native American who once traveled to England with Manteo.
In the end, the Roanoke colony's failure did not stem the tide of English colonization. In a few years, the permanent settlement of Jamestown was established, and from then on the story becomes one of war and pain, with Native Americans fighting to save their lands from the new invaders. Would history have been different had proof been found that the Native Americans did save the Roanoke settlers, and, as Thomas Harriot wished, shared their knowledge with them? Would the U.S. look different today had Virginia Dare appeared to successive colonists, told her story, and served as an intermediary between two peoples? Or would the story have remained the same? Would one side have still conquered a continent, while the other side fought a losing battle against the forces of progress?
Sir Walter Raleigh, the Rennaissance man who financed the Roanoke expedition, once wrote:
What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division,
Our mother's wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves that hide us from the setting sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that's no jest.
We know how Raleigh's life played out in history, culminating in his execution in England. But we may never know the true story of the Roanoke colony he founded, which has become one of our earliest passion plays, even though the colonists' graves hide them "from the setting sun," and "are like drawn curtains when the play is done." It is a gift in a way, because our imaginations can run free with possible narratives that can include life, death, passion, romance, treachery...in short, whatever we want...and all wrapped up in one word, Croatoan. To me, that's the hallmark of a great mystery.
If you want to know more about Fort Raleigh
The Colony at Roanoke (Ralph Lane's firsthand account to Sir Walter Raleigh, 1586)
Croatoan and Roanoke: A General History
Fort Raleigh and the Lost Colony
Fort Raleigh NHS (official website)
A Legend of Virginia Dare
The Lost Colony: Roanoke Island
National Parks Conservation Association: Fort Raleigh
The Shadowlands.net: The Lost Colony of Roanoke
Wikipedia: Fort Raleigh NHS
Wikipedia: Roanoke Colony
Next up: Engelhard, North Carolina