Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Roanoke Colony- New Clues

Governor White's map of the Roanoke Colony
Although definitely not part of New England, I could not help jumping at the opportunity to write about a potential new clue discovered about the mysterious Roanoke Colony. Though the new information does not yet conclusively explain what happened to the missing colonists who once settled in modern day North Carolina, it suggests some new possibilities aside from the pop culture theories of alien abduction, wayward demons, or vampire epidemics.

The creation and disappearance of the Roanoke Colony is a very interesting story, it was always one of my favorites to teach in American History. Roanoke is considered England’s first attempt at establishing a permanent colony in the New World. In 1587, many years before Jamestown or Plymouth, an Englishman named John White set out for what was then called Virginia and is now North Carolina. He had with him over a hundred potential colonists, including his pregnant daughter.

The colony at which the settlers hoped to live had been previously established by the English and had been left with only a skeleton crew of soldiers to maintain it in anticipation of new arrivals and new supplies. However, when White and his group arrived there was no one left in the colony. Although odd, the previous occupants of the fort had run afoul with local native groups. The fort had been attacked by natives before and had also been completely abandoned at one time.

Although White and his colonists were depending on the men that remained, they stayed in an attempt to re-establish the fort and colony. John White became the Governor of Roanoke. He tried his best to create peaceful relationships with the tribes surrounding the colony, including the Croatans. During this time his daughter gave birth to the first English child thought to have been born in the New World, the nearly legendary Virginia Dare.

Despite Governor White’s efforts with the local tribes, one of the Roanoke colonists was killed while shell fishing. Now fearing for their survival, the other colonists convinced White to return to England for help. Reluctantly, White agreed. He left behind a colony of 115 people, including his daughter and granddaughter.

Because of England’s war with Spain, Governor White was unable to return to the New World for three years. When he finally did return to the Colony in 1590, he found it empty and abandoned. Though there were no signs that a struggle had taken place, the word “CROATOAN” had been carved into one of the fort’s posts. In addition, the letters “CRO” were carved into a nearby tree.

White believed that the colonists had traveled to Croatoan Island. He attempted to mount a search in the area, but he was interrupted by the sudden arrival of a serious storm. He was forced to leave the Virginia Territory the next day without ever having discovered the fate of his family or that of the missing colonists.

There have obviously been several hundred theories presented since 1590, which attempt to explain the disappearance of the Roanoke men and women. Some believed that they had simply been killed or carried off by local hostile tribes. Others have theorized that nearby Spanish colonists might have attacked and killed them as well. One of the most widely believed theories states that the colonists were absorbed into one or several different native groups. In 1998, archeologists discovered an English signet ring in the Croatoan tribal capital, supporting the hypothesis that the colonists might have fled there and joined with the tribe.

Even the Jamestown Colonists, including the famous John Smith, was interested in finding the lost colonists. Although not necessarily a reliable source, he was told by Powhatan (the father of Pocahontas), that the colonists who had once been at Roanoke had joined with an enemy tribe. Powhatan assured Smith that he had killed them all.

However, the evidence discovered recently does not seem to support any of the established theories. According to ABC news, a map created by Governor John White in 1585 indicates that the colonists might have moved west up the Albemarle Sound to the area where the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers join.

This new evidence was discovered by examining two patches attached to Governor White’s map, which had apparently never been looked at before. One patch appeared to be a simple correction to the original, but the other hid a small symbol representing the existence of a second English fort. Scholars believe the symbol of the fort could indicate where White believed the colonists could have gone. The article reports that this discovery would not have been made had one of the researchers not recently pondered what might be hidden under the two patches.

Although the discovery on White’s map is fascinating, the area it indicates is now privately owned. Some of it even appears to be covered by a golf course, so archeological digs will have to wait several years, if they happen at all.

This type of discovery is interesting. The fate of the Roanoke colonists has been one of the greatest mysteries of colonial America for over 400 years. It has been written about and re-written about across the genres, from history to science fiction, and remains in pop culture today.

This is certainly also an interesting lesson in historical research for everyone. No matter how many times one has examined a single source, looking at it carefully and objectively one more time might reveal a hidden clue previously missed by hundreds of researchers who believed they knew everything about the source in front of them. There are literally thousands of unsolved historical mysteries; some are probably in walking distance from your own home. In addition, in our digital age, one no longer necessarily has to sift through dusty old pages in dank dark archives (though that can be fun too). So start digging people. You never know if you will be the researcher that asks that one simple question that cracks a case hundreds of years old or as new as yesterday.

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