Before we start discussing America Unearthed S01E07 “Mystery of Roanoke,” I want to direct your attention to my blog post from the other day revealing the finances and more than $600,000 initial budget for America Unearthed. The next time an alternative theorist complains that “scientists” are “suppressing” the truth in order to preserve their government funding and tenure-track jobs, remind them that almost no scientist makes nearly as much cash as “alternative” TV presenters (who are also taking government cash). Dozens of people owe their jobs to each alternative show, and with the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested into the series, telling untruths about American history is a hugely profitable business.
Let me begin by stating upfront that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the lost colony of Roanoke, the group of 118 colonists who disappeared from the first English settlement in Virginia sometime between 1587 and 1590, leaving behind only the carved word “Croatoan” on a tree. This occurred in the Early Modern period, well after the European discovery of America, so it’s not anything that has any impact on the “hidden” history of America, unless aliens abducted them or something. So it was an uphill battle for me to pay attention to this fairly padded hour of television, at least until Wolter started getting pissed off. Then, for a few minutes, it got good.
We open with Scott Wolter entering pushpins into a map of America, connected by red thread, like the sort of charts obsessed police detectives (or serial killers) use on forensic crime shows, or the crazy CIA woman on Homeland. We focus in on a Polaroid (who has those?) with the word “murder” written in black permanent marker and then cut to the opening credits. (No murder will be discussed in the hour, so this is all just for show.)
The opening graphics tell us that the lost colony of Roanoke is “America’s oldest cold case,” further drawing parallels to crime scene procedurals.
Wolter shows us the “Dare Stones,” some rocks allegedly carved by a colonist named Eleanor Dare with messages about the lost colony’s fate. Found between 1937 and 1940 in three locations along a single route between Roanoke and Atlanta, scholars quickly determined they were hoaxes, which America Unearthed actually mentions since this cannot be denied. Wolter, of course, wants the stones to be authentic. I’ll be honest: I couldn’t possibly care less about this. Even if the stones are authentic, it changes nothing about the history of America and would provide at most a tiny footnote to the story of European colonization.
However, in the interest of completion, here’s what America Unearthed purposely left out:
The first stone, well-weathered, was apparently the gravestone of Ananias and Virginia Dare. If there is any truth to the stones, this one, found near the lost colony, is possibly the only authentic stone. Geologists of the time determined it was 400 years old, and some scholars continue to believe it is an authentic sixteenth century artifact. In 1937, historian Dr. Haywood Pearce deciphered its inscription and declared it genuine. He offered a reward for more stones, paying out up to $1,200 (almost $20,000 in today’s dollars) per stone. Suddenly, stones flooded in from South Carolina and Georgia, all found by just four people. I wonder why.
According to a 1941 Saturday Evening Post analysis of the stones, which Wolter fails to discuss, a single person found two of the stones in two separate states! One was even buried near the man’s own house! The Post discovered that all four individuals who “independently” found the Dare Stones were known criminals who all knew one another, and at least one had approached Cecil B. DeMille about turning the stones’ story into a movie. Experts discovered that some of the carvings appeared quite recent, and some of the words used on the stones did not match forms known from the 1590s. (Elizabethan English could easily be faked since the works of Shakespeare were available in any public library.)
Pearce, for his part, lashed out like modern alternative theorists, threatening to sue the Post for revealing the hoax. After the Post story, one of the original “discoverers” of the stones, William Eberhart, called the professor he had fooled into accepting the Dare Stones, the same Haywood Pearce, in 1937 to report a new find, a large carved stone head. Even the credulous professor recognized the stone as a fake, made with hammers and colored with purple vegetable die. Eberhart later confessed to participating in a hoax and for accepting payment for the hoaxing, as well as admitting to blackmailing Pearce by threatening to reveal the Dare Stone hoax if he wasn’t paid off. He later denied making these sworn and witnessed statements.
The whole story is laid out here (part 1, part 2), with a quote from Jim Southerland, who appears in this episode of America Unearthed. He believes the first stone is possibly genuine, which is a reasonable if not entirely proven possibility.
None of this made the show, of course, because it undermines Wolter’s thesis.
Wolter examines this first of the Dare Stones and says that the geological evidence suggests their authenticity. Sadly, his evidence is once again the same microscopic analysis that has led him astray on other artifacts. I’m not sure Wolter is truly able to distinguish between 300 years’ weathering and 100 or 30. He does not, for example, compare the weathering to that observed on rocks in the locales where the stones were found, and he is well aware that the amount of weathering is highly dependent on local conditions. He does not examine the later Dare Stones with the same care, nor does he report whether there are differences, as the clear evidence of hoaxing indicates that there would be.
He makes a dumb conclusion that the differences in rock type between the various groups of Dare Stones suggest authenticity because it would mean they were carved in situ rather than all at once. One might equally well suggest that the hoaxer(s) simply carved them as he or they traveled from Roanoke to Georgia, or at locations of convenience where they lived and worked.
What follows is a truly extraordinary scene.
Wolter goes to meet author Scott Dawson, a local innkeeper with a bachelor's in psychology who runs a museum on Hatteras (formerly Croatoan) island. Dawson tries to patiently explain to him all of the archaeological evidence for English occupation at Croatoan Island and what happened to the colony after they abandoned Roanoke for Croatoan Island and vanished. (A 1998 archaeological investigation found a signet ring apparently belonging to one of the colonists on the island, among other evidence.) Dawson waves his hand over the evidence and explained that all the evidence supports the Croatoan Island theory except for the Dare Stones, so either the Dare Stones are real and every piece of evidence ever collected is wrong, or the evidence is right and the Dare Stones are a hoax. Wolter, visibly agitated, insists on another explanation. The colony simply split up into competing tribes, like on Survivor!
“All of that is just speculation,” Dawson reminds Wolter.
“The only thing I can do is testify as to factual evidence,” Wolter says, again quite agitated, stating that the standard of proof should be what’s allowable in “a court of law.” “When the facts stand in the way of speculation, then the facts win,” he says. Claims of a hoax are just that, claims, supported by appeals to “romanticism.” Wolter may want to dismiss the “romanticism” of the 1930s as irrelevant, but his show has purposely left out the “factual” evidence collected in 1941 that the stones were a recent hoax, including the linguistic problems, the evidence of exactly who hoaxed the stones and how, the continued hoaxing after exposure, and Eberhart’s confession.
This confrontation was so upsetting that Wolter calls his wife (!) on camera (!!) to complain about the close-minded attitude of Scott Dawson for refusing to agree with Wolter’s speculations. Wolter insists that Dawson was blind to the “geological” evidence, but as we saw earlier, Wolter never conclusively dated the stones, merely suggesting that they “looked” weathered and old. (Nor does he consider that the first stone may be genuine while the others could be fake; he considers them all of a piece.) To date them, as he well knows, they’d need to be compared to stones in the locations where they were found to evaluate the weathering involved.
So, to recap: Wolter, on sketchy evidence, closed himself off to all possibly explanations except legitimacy for all the stones and is upset that someone else evaluated the evidence and has a conclusion that differs from his own.
Dr. Stephanie Pratt, art historian, shows us an old map of Virginia drawn by its colonial governor, John White, c. 1585-1590. (It’s on Wikipedia, so it’s not exactly hidden history.) Recently, it was discovered that the map features a hidden four-pointed splotch that is similar to the outline of the fortification used at Fort Raleigh beneath a patch placed on the map at the time of its creation. I’m not really sure what this is meant to prove, other than the possibility that there was once an English fort farther inland than originally suggested. Wolter believes this means that the colonists moved inland rather than south to Croatoan, and he suggests this was part of a conspiracy by Sir Walter Raleigh. I suppose this is possible, but it’s really irrelevant to the Dare Stones question since the colonist could not have built a large defensive earthwork given the terrible conditions described by the Dare Stones.
The map has been repaired, and the fort symbol was covered up, either because the fort ceased to exist, was never built, or because it was drawn on the map in the wrong place.
Next, Wolter goes to England to learn that early colonists came to America to find sassafras, believed to be a cure for syphilis. Wolter suggests that finding a place that matches evidence from the map of the inland fort, conforms to the narrative of the Dare Stones, and features sassafras, will give us the lost colony of Roanoke. This place is Scotch Hall Preserve golf course.
If I understand correctly, the golf course is built atop the place the map indicated a fort once stood. A golf course spokesman tells Wolter that no evidence of a fort was found during construction of the course. Wolter concludes that the fort was planned but never existed. Despite this, he’s thrilled to find out that the first Dare Stone was found near the golf course, suggesting to Wolter that “my theory is right.” I fail to see how the fact that the fort did not exist somehow confirms that the colonists escaped to its location. The logic seems to be that Eleanor Dare hoped that her father, John White, would come to the planned fort site in search of her when he returned to build the fort. This is possible, I suppose, and if the first Dare Stone is authentic, perhaps more than possible. But the lack of any evidence of English occupation other than the Dare Stone is troubling.
Wolter seems to think he found the lost colony, though he has no bodies. He also finally recognizes that finding rocks in situ is important for evaluating whether the Dare Stones are legitimate; however, he stops after finding the same type of quartzite in Virginia. (Do the other states not count?) He does not check to see how and whether such stones were weathered to learn about the weathering in the area in order to evaluate how long the Dare inscriptions had been exposed, or whether their weathering was consistent with these rocks. Wolter may claim the stones’ inscriptions look old to him, but in 1941, the experts consulted by the Post thought they seemed fairly recent (except, perhaps, for the first). Surely, Wolter ought to have evaluated the un-carved stones before declaring the Dare Stones real since geology, like any “hard” science, requires controls.
So, overall, there is perhaps a kernel of truth buried in this episode, if the first Dare Stone really is what it claims to be (which is, of course, not certain), but this episdoe's lack of critical thinking and incomplete (to the point of being deceptive) presentation of the facts surrounding the stones' discovery makes this a case far from proved.
By the way, if you want to see this kind of investigation done right, in 2009 the PBS version of Time Team went to Fort Raleigh and searched for evidence of the Roanoke colony. You can watch their much more informative and serious investigation here.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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