In 1587, 115 colonists established England’s first small colony of the Americas on Roanoke—a swampy, coastal island that would eventually be considered part of North Carolina. The governor of the colony, John White, returned to England shortly after. Three years later he returned to find the colony gone. There was nothing: no corpses, no burnt buildings, and no signs of struggle. The only thing left of the lost colony was a word scratched into a tree: CROATOAN.
Andrew Lawler outlines the history, disappearance, and the eventual mythologizing of the Roanoke colony in his new book The Secret Token. Lawler is a journalist who’s written for publications like Science and Smithsonian, and his level-headed approach works well for considering a mystery that’s been the subject of pseudo-science and pseudo-history.
The Roanoke colony is often associated with phenomena like ghosts, zombies, or alien abduction. Lawler, thankfully, doesn’t spend too much time debunking that kind of thing. Far more interesting is his exploration of Roanoke in regards to how America thinks about itself, its history, and race.
When John White, the governor of Roanoke, returned to the island in 1590, he didn’t think anything all that strange had happened. “Croatoan” was the name of an island 50 miles south of Roanoke, and the colonists had planned that, if they had to leave, they would write their intended destination on some trees. White saw the name of a nearby island and noted that everything seemed fine. Reasoning that the colony (which included his daughter and granddaughter) was on another island, probably with a group of local Native Americans, he left.
The “lost colony” mystery only became a major facet of American history some 200 years later when the US tried to create its national origin story. Roanoke saw the birth of Virginia Dare, the first-ever person of English ancestry born in North America. In later centuries, Dare would be upheld as a mythic figure, celebrated as the first American, and frequently considered the darling of white supremacists who pointed at her existence as proof of the whiteness of America. All that, despite the fact that we know next to nothing about Virginia Dare other than her name.
The Secret Token doesn’t dismiss the fate of the colony as White did. Lawler dives into what could have happened to it. He puts it into context. Roanoke existed at a time when England and Spain were actively trying to kill each other, Native Americans and Europeans were first encountering each other, and the beginnings of America’s genocide and displacement were already underway. That context is inescapable, but everyone loves a good mystery.