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Special Feature: The Lost Colony
Introduction by Sara Whitford, Article below by Scott Dawson
Since Paul Green's play first took the stage on Roanoke Island in the 1930s, countless masses have been enthralled with the mystery that is "The Lost Colony." Indeed, before that time, the circumstances surrounding those English colonists who allegedly disappeared into thin air from the face of history never created much cause for concern to England, the public or even the State of North Carolina.
A full 350 years later, however, something magical happened when one playwright's interpretation of the story first made its debut. It was a writer's dream-come-true. Green had formed an emotional bond between the audience and his characters, something every writer of fiction — even historical fiction — strives to do.
From that moment forward, things changed. The public imagination was stoked and a newfound interest in the fate of the colonists took root.
One may argue, "But these weren't mere 'characters,' as Green was writing about real people and real events."
Well... a little bit. After all, how could Green possibly know individuals who lived 350 years before him well enough to flesh out their characters in a script, much less on stage? He had to take creative liberties in order to have a story to tell. The facts were far too bland to stand on their own, so he did what any good writer would do... he dressed things up a bit.
This, in and of itself, is not problematic. The problem comes when the public cannot distinguish between the artistic license that Green took in creating his much-loved play, versus the historical facts available to us. The line between historical facts and artistic fantasy were blurred a long, long time ago.
What if there is no Lost Colony? What if they never were lost to begin with?
What if one day an archaeological excavation demonstrates what, perhaps, should have been common sense all along... that the colonists went exactly where they left their note, "Croatoan", saying they would go, and that they lived there as best as they could until they died out or assimilated into the Indians who had taken them in?
Coastal Carolina Indian Center invited Hatteras native and author, Scott Dawson, to offer his thoughts on the Lost Colony. He brings up some outstanding questions, and offers insight into facts that many may not be aware of as they wonder about what happened to the colonists.
The Lost Colony? Maybe not.
You may have heard the tale of the Lost Colony.
If so, you probably heard that 117
English colonists disappeared in 1587 and left no clues as to where they went
and that nothing has ever been found to shed some light on the mystery.
Recent archeological digs on Hatteras Island, together with genealogy, oral history, and the primary sources of the many voyages that took place from 1584 to 1590, give an abundance of clues as to the whereabouts of the missing colony.
Although this has been cited many times over the years as some sort of "mysterious clue," the reality is, it's perfectly logical that they left the note.
You see, before John White left the colony in 1587 to get supplies from England, he told the colonists to carve the name of the place they were going on a tree if they left Roanoke Island and to put a cross under it if they left for reasons of danger.
No cross was found, and
White, in his own records, stated
he was relieved to know that the colony was safe in Croatoan with Manteo. Manteo
was an Indian from Croatoan who had been to England twice, spoke English and had
been used as an interpreter. John White had a daughter and granddaughter among
the missing colonists and made an attempt to go to Croatoan to pick them up
during his 1590 voyage, but he was turned back by foul weather that drowned
seven of his company.
Croatoan is modern day Buxton on
Hatteras Island, an island the
English had visited on all of their voyages. It was where they had originally
landed in 1584 and even lived for a time in 1585. The
colonists went there again in
1587 and had a feast. It was the hometown of their ally and interpreter Manteo
and appears on all of John White’s maps. So yes, the English were familiar with
Croatoan and there has never been a mystery as to where that place was.
If anything, the fact that no one
went back to Croatoan is a greater mystery than where the colony went. The next
European to travel to Hatteras (on purpose and not by shipwreck) was John Lawson
in 1701. Lawson published a book called
Voyage To Carolina that is the definitive work on the North Carolina
Indians of the 1700’s. In this book, Lawson recorded that many of the Hatteras
Indians, or Croatoans, had grey eyes and said that their ancestors could speak
out of a book (read) and that they were, indeed, descendents of the 1587 colony.
These Indians even said that a ship, which they called Sir Walter Raleigh’s
ship, still appeared among them. Lawson goes on to say that this tribe was very
proud of their affinity to the English. (See entry at right to read excerpt
from Lawson's book.)
So we have the message on the palisade, Manteo’s home town, and the oral history of the Hatteras Indians all pointing to Croatoan.
All of this is old news though. What is really interesting is what happened in 1993.
The native families of Hatteras
Island can show you arrowheads, pottery and other artifacts that they have found
from what all who live there believe to be, the old Croatoan village site. In
the 1970’s, locals of the island used to sit by the road and sell arrowheads for
a nickel each to tourists. Buckets full of pottery and arrowheads could be found
all over the ridges where Croatoan Village once stood. In 1993, however,
Hurricane Emily surged 10 feet of sound tide over this village site and ripped
out many layers of sand in the process. As a result, an enormous amount of new
artifacts were uncovered and found by local residents, Zander Brody, Eddie Oaks
and Barbara Midgette.
This ring and gunlock found by
David Phelps now reside at East Carolina University. More and more artifacts
come out of the Croatoan site each time they dig. Even European skeletons have
been found, along with Native American bones.
The political situation in England also plays a major role in the fate of the colony. When King James took over he deliberately abandoned the colony for financial reasons.
Sir Walter Raleigh's rights to the profits of the New World could not be killed simply by killing Raleigh, which King James did by beheading. Raleigh's rights to the riches would pass to his heirs unless the colony was never contacted again. This is why the English never returned despite knowing the colony had moved to the Island of Croatoan.
Colony Life on Hatteras
The question now is not where did
the colony go, but what happened after they reached Hatteras Island?
It would take several essays to
cover all of those voyages in detail but it breaks down to this: The colony had
no option but to go to Croatoan and many good reasons for going there. Not only
was it the home town of Manteo and friendly natives that had fed and lived with
the English for almost a year prior to the "lost colonists" arrival but this
friendship is noted again in 1587. The Croatoan throw the English a feast and
the mainland Roanoke Indians murder George Howe, one of the colonists. The
Roanoke also killed two of the English left there in 1586 and chased the other
13 away. We learn this from the Croatoan who tell Edward Stafford in 1587 while
feeding him and his men.
Here is an island of people who love you and show great acts of kindness nestled in a world that hates you for vicious crimes carried out by your military the year before.
In a prearranged agreement to indicate where you move to it is agreed that you carve the name of the place on a tree and leave a cross under it if you left for reasons of danger.
You carve "Croatoan" on a palisade and "Cro" on a tree and leave no cross.
You carefully remove all the buildings and small boats.
No one ever goes to Croatoan searching for you.
In addition columns of smoke are spotted when John White passes Hatteras Island on his way to Roanoke to see the Croatoan message. White clearly state that he believes the colony went there in his letter. He attempts to go to Croatoan, but is driven away by a storm.
Doesn't anyone wonder why no one ever went to Croatoan again?
Some have created the ridiculous myth that Croatoan is a poor place to farm.
Quite the contrary, people have
lived off the land there for thousands of years. A bridge was not built to the
island until 1964 and no power, running water, doctor or police lived there
until the 1960's. Nevertheless, thousands of farmers and fishermen called the
place home throughout the 1700s, in fact well into the twentieth century.
Did they do well? Probably not.
The fact that John Lawson find
some blue eyed Indians that wear English clothes and tell him they had White
ancestors and mention Sir Walter Raleigh's ship by name is what I would expect
to find 100 years later. The 1587 colony only had 16 women, and most likely a
lot of them died in the first few years, despite the help of the Croatoans (See
Jamestown and Plymouth). To pass on a few seeds, clothes and iron tools is about
all one could hope to find — and is exactly what Lawson found.
Sadly, what is ignored are tens of thousands of native artifacts that no one seems to give a hoot about. Must there be something from the "lost colony" to warrant another dig? Why is no one focusing on the clear discovery of a major Croatoan village? I would like to learn all I can from what these artifacts can reveal.
You can order Scott Dawson's book Croatoan: Birthplace of America from Buxton Village Books. Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and in the body of the message, just request this book by title. Cost is $16.00 + shipping.
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