In 1587, 115 men, women, and children arrived at Roanoke Island on the coast of North Carolina. Chartered by Queen Elizabeth I, their colony was to establish England’s first foothold in the New World. But when the colony’s leader, John White, returned to Roanoke from a resupply mission, his settlers were nowhere to be found. They left behind only a single clue—a “secret token” carved into a tree. Neither White nor any other European laid eyes on the colonists again.
What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke? For four hundred years, that question has consumed historians and amateur sleuths, leading only to dead ends and hoaxes. But after a chance encounter with a British archaeologist, journalist Andrew Lawler discovered that solid answers to the mystery were within reach. He set out to unravel the enigma of the lost settlers, accompanying competing researchers, each hoping to be the first to solve its riddle. In the course of his journey, Lawler encounters a host of characters obsessed with the colonists and their fate, and he determines why the Lost Colony continues to haunt our national consciousness.
A true tale of encounter between native peoples and civilization, racism and compassion, Christianity and indigenous spirituality, empire-building and going off-the-grid, this page-turner from a veteran journalist uncovers surprising truths—not only about America’s history, but ourselves. What follows is an excerpt from The Secret Token, to whet your appetite for this book in its entirety – also available on Audible.
If the best hypothesis is the one with the least number of assumptions, then which applies to the vanished Roanoke settlers?
After returning from Windsor, I walked through the possibilities. First, there is no evidence in Spanish archives that England’s European enemy destroyed the colony. Second, the settlers might have used a pinnace left behind or built a boat to sail to Newfoundland or England, or moved to Chesapeake Bay. Either option required complex logistics, and in any case some might have stayed behind.
Third, massacre, starvation, and illness resulting in death were all possible outcomes. But if they occurred while the English were still on Roanoke, at least, John White reported no evidence such as graves or skeletons on his brief return to the settlement in 1590. Fourth, Wingina’s people or another tribe might have enslaved them; the strong palisade the governor found suggests the settlers felt endangered. But he found no Greek cross, the secret token to be carved into a tree if the settlers left in distress. Of course, White might have made this all up, to hide his failings or protect Raleigh, but this meant accepting a successful cover-up.
At Jamestown, the stories that emerged about Powhatan’s culpability in killing the colonists, and of English slaves made to work copper, seemed tied up with the London Company’s public relations problems. They were in any event based heavily on the testimony of Machumps, who might have had his own agenda. Later, the colonists’ needed to justify Indian extermination in the wake of the 1622 rebellion, so painting their enemies as murderers made Powhatan’s perfidy politically valuable. That didn’t make these claims true.
Even John Smith’s intelligence about a few scattered people in European clothes and stone houses seemed at best ambiguous. It could just as well point to distant Spanish towns or shipwreck victims. Besides, would an English woolen coat or dress even survive intact if worn for more than two decades? And was a stone house necessary or even desirable in a land where wood was so readily available?
That left the fifth possibility: the settlers joined nearby Indians, either “fifty miles into the main” or on Croatoan—or both. The fort symbol White hid on his map pointed to the head of the Albemarle Sound. This was a strategic spot for trading and exploring the Carolina hinterland while keeping an eye out for arriving ships. Such a move also might have reflected an annual Native American migration from the coast to the interior during the winter. In the wake of Wingina’s murder, however, moving in that direction would have posed dangers, because it is not clear the English or Croatoan had any remaining allies in that direction.
Scott Dawson’s analogy was hard to dispute. “Imagine a time before texting,” the Hatteras native said. “You ask your wife in the morning to leave a note at home naming the restaurant where you will meet for dinner. You come home from work to change clothes and find a note that says, ‘We’re going to the Shipwreck Grill.’ What do you do? Will you head on over to the Shipwreck Grill, or Café 12?” To him, it was self-evident that at least some of the colonists did what their message for the governor said (if White reported his find accurately). They went to Croatoan. As Horton suggested, this might have been the best place for many of the women and children, far from Wanchese and his people and where they could keep an eye out for the governor’s return.
Yet even if White made up the “secret token” or misread it for some reason, the Croatoan were without a doubt the single most important allies for the English, and quite probably the only ones. This alliance was crucial for the settlers’ survival. The colonists were primarily middle-class city people, like the ones criticized by Harriot on the Lane expedition for their lack of survival skills. As John Smith wryly noted at Jamestown, “Although there be deer in the woods, fish in the rivers, and fowls in abundance in their seasons,” yet “we [be] so unskillful to catch them, we little troubled them nor they us.”
For the Croatoan, an alliance with the unpredictable foreigners made eminent sense. With a small population likely not much larger than the English on Roanoke, they faced a daunting confederation of enemies on the mainland. Backing the English could offer a constant flow of weapons, tools, and commercial goods that would provide a critical advantage over their more numerous rivals. After all, they expected the governor to return with more settlers and supplies.
White even leaves us with a moving image of the Indians and Europeans working together in the aftermath of the botched mainland raid that killed or injured some Croatoan busy looting Wingina’s abandoned town of Dasemunkepeuc. As the sun rose, they joined awkwardly together to gather “all the corn, peas, pumpkins, and tobacco that we found ripe, leaving the rest unspoiled.” The fact that they didn’t destroy the unripe crops is a sign that both groups felt confident they could hold on to this territory. English guns and Croatoan local knowledge made the two small and vulnerable bands a formidable local power.
Manteo was the critical link between the two cultures. At Raleigh’s orders—and, almost certainly, with the blessing of the queen—he was made lord of both Roanoke and Dasemunkepeuc, “in reward of his faithful services.” Most historians mention the honorific in passing, as if it were a gold star given to a good student. In Tudor England, however, titles were serious business, translating into power and wealth. As a member of the peerage, Lord Manteo was technically even higher in rank than Raleigh, a mere knight. No other Native American has since been granted the title. He was, in fact, the obvious choice to lead the colony after White’s 1587 departure; as far as we know, none of the assistants had been to Virginia before or spoke Carolina Algonquian. He also knew, better than anyone, the principal foe of the English: Wanchese.
Yet Manteo is traditionally seen as merely a dutiful and loyal adviser, while some indigenous people label him a traitor or lackey. As with Fernandes, the complex and interesting non-Anglo character has been reduced to a one-dimensional portrait. Though he dressed as an Englishman and spent a total of fifteen months in London, his people greeted him with joy on his 1587 return. He might have calculated that throwing in his lot with the English would give both himself and his tribe a far more powerful position than under Wingina’s reign.
By 1588, if they were still alive and living with the Croatoan, the colonists would have learned the rhythm of the seasons, breaking into smaller groups in the winter and spring to hunt and forage. They may well have moved back and forth across Pamlico Sound. “The Indians from the back country came regularly in the early springtime to the coast of the Cape Fear for the seawater fish and oysters which were abundant,” early-twentieth-century author James Sprunt wrote of a tribe that lived on the southern end of the Outer Banks. First they would imbibe yaupon tea and purge. Then they would “gorge themselves to repletion with the fish and oysters.” Turkeys and squirrels supplemented the spring diet. By May and June, there were acorns and walnuts, as well as blue crab and land tortoise, easy to catch and highly nutritious. After planting corn, beans, and squash, the settlers would have learned to find berries and dig up tuckahoe roots. Sunflowers provided oil as well as bread. The harvest began in late summer, and fall was devoted to gathering fruits and nuts and drying and smoking deer and other game for the coming winter. Throughout the year, there were always more fish and oysters.
As time passed and White failed to return, the Europeans would have changed more than their diet. They would have traded out their culture. Without resupply from England, woolen dresses and leather shoes would have rapidly worn out, to be replaced by soft deerskin. Corn bread quickly substituted for biscuits, and Indian coil-made ceramics replaced broken English pots made on a wheel. Once gunpowder stores were used up or a gun jammed, bows and arrows and nets would have been the only way to hunt game. A reed-poled hut covered with adjustable grass mats might have felt better suited to the climate than a stuffy thatched cottage. Local herbs flavored their stews and healed their illnesses. With a working knowledge of Carolina Algonquian so necessary for survival, spoken English would have fallen away.
As David Phelps noted, the class structure of royal family and commoners, though practiced on a smaller scale, would have felt familiar to Elizabethans. They would have found some common religious ground; both groups, after all, believed in a version of heaven and hell and an overarching deity. Eventually, rather than lay the heads of their dead facing east, toward Christian resurrection, they would have adopted the Algonquian practice of folding their deceased loved ones’ arms and legs to mimic the body’s position before birth. Some English songs and dances as well as technological know-how might have entered the Croatoan repertoire, but the Lost Colonists would have found not just a New World home but a new way to live.
It was not an easy life, even before the advent of European diseases; arthritis often set in while Carolina Algonquians were barely out of their twenties, and life expectancy hovered around age thirty-five. Women could expect to lose every fourth child before it reached the age of five. But these grim statistics were not so different from those in Elizabethan England.
Archaeological finds in the past few decades demonstrate the Native Americans and early European settlers already lived virtually cheek by jowl. A 1560s Spanish fort in western North Carolina was built adjacent to a Native American town—the locals even helped the soldiers build their encampment—and Jamestown’s streets were often filled with Virginia Algonquians trading deerskins for tools and Venetian beads. Indians routinely visited settlements like Plymouth and New Amsterdam to trade and share a meal and even spend the night. The Roanoke settlement, wherever it was located, was almost certainly close to Granganimeo’s village.
Most historians now accept that the Lost Colonists, if they survived, merged with indigenous society. “It is probable that some of the Roanoke colonists did live on and melt into the native population,” writes NYU’s Kupperman. “This could have been true of the several hundred enslaved Africans and Indians from the Caribbean left by Drake, the three men abandoned by Lane’s colony in their haste to leave, or the fifteen men left by Grenville.” The colonists might even have encountered the Africans and South Americans left behind by Drake who would have blended in as well with the locals.
Michael Oberg, a historian at the State University of New York at Geneseo, adds, “Raleigh’s colonists were lost only to those Europeans who searched and failed to find them. Indian people knew what happened to them.” He concludes that “they became Algonquians and were no longer English men and women.”