THE SECRET TOKEN:
MYTH, OBSESSION, AND THE SEARCH FOR THE LOST COLONY OF ROANOKE
Andrew Lawler | June 2018 | Doubleday | 448 pages | ISBN 9780385542012 | $29.95 USD, $39.95 CA
A recurring theme in fringe history is anger at the scholarly establishment, which tends to manifest as the conviction that academics have something to hide about history. But the roots of that rage are more frequently found in the difference between what the public wants to know about history—stories of triumph and tragedy, grand historical narratives, and the actions of sainted heroes and ancestors—and what academics want to study about history—the holy trinity of race, class, and gender; the minutiae of daily life; and anything that calls grand narratives into question. Neither approach is prima facie wrong, but the difference produces an uncomfortable tension between what popularizers want to write about and what scholars think they should be writing about.
When science writer Andrew Lawler began researching The Secret Token, due out in June and utilizing research supported by the National Geographic Society, he ran into the wall of contempt and dismissal that has led so many fringe writers down the garden path of conspiracy. (The confusing title refers to a line in Gov. John White’s account of the Roanoke colony about how colonists were to communicate their whereabouts.) Lawler is no fringe historian. As the award-winning author of previous nonfiction histories and a correspondent writing for publications that include The New York Times and Smithsonian, and as a contributing editor to Archaeology, he has the credentials to write first-class popular history. But look at what appears right at the beginning of his book on the well-worn, and still quite popular, “mystery” of the lost colony of Roanoke:
When I told historians what I was pursuing, several rolled their eyes as if to say, not that again. But the public understands intuitively what most scholars do not—that the story of Roanoke is about much more than a dead end or a false start. […] The vanished colonists remain lost because, more than four centuries later, they still have wisdom to impart.
(All quotations are from uncorrected galley proofs and may undergo editing before publication.)
This is exquisitely depressing to read in the opening pages of a major new history from a distinguished science writer and a major New York publishing house. It is depressing to see the tension between popular and academic history laid bare, and more so to hear someone who should be a defender of scholarship against the myth-mongers and fantasists reduced to an argumentum ad populum, even while basing his volume on the work of the historians he chides for their lack of interest.
Lawler came to his interest in Roanoke the same way so many in the outer reaches of historiography come to their obsessive interests: childhood. Lawler grew up in the area and attended the annual performance of the play The Lost Colony and visited historic sites associated with Roanoke. He says that the story had become the greatest mystery of his childhood and one that has haunted him ever since. I understand this to an extent; I read Erich von Däniken and H. P. Lovecraft as a young teen and here I am today, but I must say that Lawler seems to overstate what he calls the “tenacious and unsettling grip” of the Lost Colony on the American imagination. From my corner of America, the story was little more than a trivia question and a paragraph in school textbooks. Even the History channel’s many efforts to turn the story into the next Curse of Oak Island never quite took off. I imagine that it’s more important in coastal Virginia and North Carolina, much the way I spent more time learning about the Erie Canal than any non-New Yorker would probably ever care to know.
The first few chapters of The Secret Token provide a straightforward account of the Roanoke settlement, in most respects little different from any other volume on the subject, save the author’s talent for casting events in a dramatic yet factual light. But I am not as comfortable with his effort to diversify Roanoke and absolve himself of criticism that he is interested only in “white” history by accepting (with only minimal qualifications) the allegation popular on the internet and in lost colony mystery literature that Sir Francis Drake left hundreds of Black and Turkish slaves near Roanoke to form a second, larger, and stronger colony. As best my reading of historical records can support, Drake arrived in 1586 with a boatload of slaves freed from Spanish rule, but since the colony was unable to take the slaves in toto, colonial leaders agreed to accept only a few skilled slaves. However, after the disappearance of the colony, Native informants knew of no arrivals from Drake’s ship. Some historians believe there was a second colony of hundreds of slaves, but so far as I can tell the majority side with David B. Quinn that no evidence exists to support the claim, even though documents suggest it was Drake’s plan. Quinn suggested that a few might have added to the colony’s numbers that way, but the majority likely drowned in a hurricane that hit Drake’s ship. Or rather, they agree with Quinn’s later opinion. Lawler quotes from Quinn to the opposite effect, that the colony was real and massive and a rival to Roanoke, but he cites Quinn from 1952, and the bibliography lists books from Quinn from the 1950s through the early 1980s, while I cite his 1985 book Set Fair for Roanoke, which he considered his seminal work on the subject and which presumably contains his revised and reconsidered views. I do not claim to be able to explain the discrepancy, but to place Quinn’s writings from the 1950s to the 1980s in order, we see a diminishment of his enthusiasm for Drake’s slave colony. I admit to being baffled as to why Lawler cites Set Fair elsewhere in the same chapter but seems to have purposely ignored its section on the slave colony.
After giving an account of the fall of the Roanoke colony. Lawler begins describing centuries of efforts to find it, beginning with the first forays in the 1500s. He admirably chooses to take a fairly skeptical approach to the many claims made for the attempted rediscovery of the lost colony, beginning with his conclusion that a supposedly blond-haired boy seen in 1607 was actually an albino Native American and not the genetic legacy of the colony, a conclusion he deems probable based on Native American albinism rates, which are roughly a hundred times higher than for Europeans. He also correctly notes that underneath centuries of searching for a lost white colony, Native Americans of the region told a consistent truth: that the colonists who survived joined their ranks, lived out their lives, and died among them.
According to Lawler, it was ultimately the work of George Bancroft, author of a popular history of the United States in 1834, who created the myth of Roanoke through his decision to turn the lost colony into a cautionary tale tinged with Gothic elements. This doesn’t quite line up with what Bancroft actually wrote, which is neither as romantic nor as Gothic as Lawler depicts. Here is Bancroft, referring to Gov. John White’s efforts to find what happened to the colonists when he returned from England:
More than another year elapsed, before White could return to search for his colony and his daughter; and then the Island of Roanoke was a desert. An inscription on the bark of a tree pointed to Croatan; but the season of the year and the dangers from storms were pleaded as an excuse for an immediate return. Had the emigrants already perished? or had they escaped with their lives to Croatan, and, through the friendship of Manteo, become familiar with the Indians? The conjecture has been hazarded, that the deserted colony, neglected by their own countrymen, were hospitably adopted into the tribe of Hatteras Indians, and became amalgamated with the sons of the forest. This was the tradition of the natives at a later day, and was thought to be confirmed by the physical character of the tribe, in which the English and the Indian race seemed to have been blended. Raleigh long cherished the hope of discovering some vestiges of their existence and though he had abandoned the design of colonizing Virginia, he yet sent at his own charge, and, it is said, at five several times, to search for his liege-men. But it was all in vain; imagination received no help in its attempts to trace the fate of the colony of Roanoke.
This is not quite the “compelling Gothic drama” Lawler describes it as, nor a morality-laced fairy tale. At best it is suggestive; the greatest legacy of the account is that it framed the alternatives used to investigate the vanished colony down to the present. I think the reason Lawler saw this paragraph as phantasmagoric and “lurid” in “a style worthy of Edgar Allan Poe”—and even claims to trace the influence of the Brothers Grimm on Bancroft (!)—is that he is unfamiliar with nineteenth century literary conventions, and thus he read the empurpled prose as something more than Bancroft intended. It is not especially Gothic; indeed, the writing is no different than any other history book of its era. He fails to note, too, that Bancroft was actually citing earlier writers who had already laid out these options in much the same words. He invented no fairy tale, let alone a “radical new assessment.” He was literally summarizing earlier books, specifically John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina of 1709, his direct source. Here is exactly how closely Bancroft paraphrased. These are Lawson’s archaic but almost identical words: “It is probable, that this Settlement miscarry’d for want of timely Supplies from England; or thro’ the Treachery of the Natives, for we may reasonably suppose that the English were forced to cohabit with them, for Relief and Conversation; and that in process of Time, they conform’d themselves to the Manners of their Indian Relations.” Yes, that wild “new” analysis—put forward in 1709. This is all the stranger since Lawson’s book appears in Lawler’s bibliography, and he later quotes (in modernized English) from the same page on which the text quoted above appears.
I’ll be dead honest. It angers me a little to find a major new release from an award-winning author and one of the largest publishers in the world so riddled with obvious errors and evidence that the writer skimmed over the surface of the literature without tracing ideas back to their sources. It’s not like Bancroft hid his sources. I found them the old-fashioned way, by reading Bancroft’s footnotes. This, in turn, leads me to be a bit skeptical about Lawler’s claim to challenge the views of various historians of Roanoke based on what he says is his own evaluation of the accuracy of the underlying records, records which are barely cited in the end notes in favor of overreliance on secondary sources.
Where the book comes alive however is in the author’s return to his strength, which is reporting. A long middle section explores the history of archaeological research in and around the Roanoke colony site, primarily from the 1980s onward. Here Lawler is working with material he is more comfortable with, including interviews, field trips to sites, and research in modern reports. In his element, he crafts a vivid and interesting account of the exploration and excavation of various features and elements in the Roanoke area. He also rehearses familiar new(ish) discoveries, such as the patch placed on an old map of Virginia that covered up a plan of a failed fort. Regular readers of this blog will remember such events from their repetition on America Unearthed and gigantologist Jim Vieira and his brother’s Roanoke mystery specials. Eagle-eyed readers will also spot cameos from talking heads and experts who appeared on those shows, including Scott Dawson. You will not be surprised that the Dare Stones, rocks allegedly chronicling the colonists’ trek to Georgia and the subject of those History channel shows, take up a hefty part of the book. While readers new to the story will find much that is interesting in Lawler’s account of the lion-crested ring found 1998 on Hatteras Island that was at first taken as evidence of the Lost Colony’s fate before research suggested otherwise, I confess that having spent years immersed in the literature due to History’s various bad programs on the subject, I found little I did not already know.
Of the greatest interest for me is Lawler’s efforts to explain how the History channel came to have two gigantologists investigate the Dare Stones. The blame fell on Brandon McCormick, a producer who decided he wanted to do a cable show about the Lost Colony but couldn’t get a financial commitment until he had a “fresh angle,” which was to waste two hours on a story that McCormick admitted to knowing was a hoax before asking Vieira and his brother to reconfirm what was already known. The only question was whether the original Dare Stone was real or fake, something never proved one way or the other. That said, McCormick told Lawler that he went on to become “obsessed” with the story, an obsession that continues today. Lawler also got the show’s “expert” in Elizabethan writing, Kevin Quarmby, to admit that he is not in fact an expert in the subject, something I concluded when I objected to obvious errors in his analysis.
Lawler attempted to get to the bottom of the Dare Stone mystery, but his efforts to prove the first of the Dare Stones—and the only one suspected of potentially being genuine—real amounted to a stalemate with facts. The most depressing thing of all is that his entire investigation got bogged down in cable television, where every lead turned into another branch feeding into the torrent of fake history shows on cable, where every expert sells customized facts for each new show, and real research takes a back seat to the needs of televised drama. Hardly anyone in the story has not been touched by television.
The final section of the book was both the most interesting and the worthiest of being read. Indeed, it probably should have been its own book. In it, Lawler explores the intersection of racism and the Lost Colony story, particularly how elements of the story have been used to craft a narrative of whiteness and white Americans’ right to control former Native American lands. Lawler finds fascinating evidence of how Virginia Dare, the first European born in Virginia, became a symbol of the whitening of America and of European-American hegemony—basically a more genteel form of “white power.” He points to some rather wildly racist uses of the Dare story, including a white wine bearing Virginia’s image and the name White Doe and a red one with the name of Native chief Manteo. He links the complex of racism surrounding Roanoke, strangely but not illogically, to Donald Trump, through white supremacist website VDARE.com, named for Dare and an advocate of restrictive immigration policies. VDARE’s founder was a supporter of Steve Bannon, Trump’s now-former advisor who is believed to be sympathetic to white nationalist causes.
The book concludes, as all twenty-first century historical investigations must, with DNA and the attempt to find the Lost Colony living on in the genomes of Native Americans and Englishmen. His ultimate conclusions about where the Lost Colony ended up I will leave for you to discover for yourselves, but do not expect either great revelations or shocking surprises. More important Is Lawler’s description of what he calls “Lost Colony syndrome,” the particular madness that infects people in the region around Roanoke and those who spend decades of their lives obsessing over events that played out over a period of mere months four centuries ago. Lawler offers his thoughts about why so many become obsessed, and many reasons are possible, though Lawler never quite has the courage of his convictions to connect the “syndrome” back to the racism that he earlier claimed animated the Roanoke industry. To do so, of course, would call into question the purpose of this book, though it does explain why the author protested so much about diversity early on. But it is impossible not to notice that the people who obsess over Roanoke in his book tend to speak of “heritage” and “ancestry”—and not just white ancestry. There are also white people profiled who claim Native heritage. In every case, though, the white folk seem to be trying to tie themselves more permanently to the land in which they live, and to create a mythology that serves as a creation myth for a particular area of the South.
Overall, The Secret Token is an engaging, readable survey of the Roanoke mythology and its modern use. If you can forgive the occasional error and the author’s lack of familiarity with some of the history he purports to elucidate (for which I docked the book half a star), it is as good an introduction to and explanation of why cable TV networks (not to mention supernatural and sci-fi dramas) keep trotting out the Roanoke story as you are likely to find. Just do not expect Lawler to serve as Lassie and rescue us from Lost Colony Syndrome. The irony, of course, is that our Lassie has made a foray into that well of mystery to explain why so many Timmies have already fallen down to the bottom of that same well.
Update: Andrew Lawler responded to my review. Read his comments 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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