‘Secret Token’ examines white America’s fascination with the Lost Colony
I’m old enough to recall an elementary school reader that referred to Virginia Dare as “the first white child born in the New World” rather than the first English one. The Virginia-born but University of North Carolina-educated writer Andrew Lawler, whose “The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke” was just published by Doubleday, wasn’t surprised when I told him about that racist phrasing.
“That seems odd since the Spanish and Portuguese had been procreating in the New World long before Roanoke,” wrote Lawler in a recent email, “but in the 1800s, non-English typically were not thought of as white.” And in certain communities proud of their colonial heritage, including the Norfolk of his youth and the Fayetteville of mine, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant prejudices persisted well into the 20th century.
One of the things I found fascinating (if disturbing) about his book is his account of how that girl born in 1587 became a symbol of white nationalism. Lawler wrote that this was one of the biggest surprises in his search for the cultural meaning of the Lost Colony. “Virginia Dare became a symbol of the triumph of Anglo-Americans in conquering the continent—and of anxiety about the flood of Irish, German, and, later Jewish and Italian immigrants.”
By the Jim Crow era, he wrote, Dare had transformed into “a romantic figure and a warning—if whites were not careful, then they would be overwhelmed by all those dark peoples. Implicit in the story is a disgust with racial mixing, which was, after all, illegal in Virginia until 1967.” Which was 15 years after Andy Griffith played Sir Walter Raleigh at the outdoor drama in Manteo, and about the time I first heard her name.
Lawler also observed that, although the first English colony in North America was established in 1585 and deserted by 1590, it was not considered “lost” until almost 250 years later.
“Before then,” Lawler wrote me, “it was an obscure and largely forgotten event.” He described how that changed when an 1837 article in The Ladies’ Companion coined the phrase “the Lost Colony.” The article’s author, Eliza Lanesford Cushing, made Dare a popular sensation. “This was a moment when women’s magazines first appeared, and women writers like Cushing finally had outlets for their work.” Whereas men had previously gotten the credit for “taming the wilderness,” Lawler explained that the very ambiguity of Roanoke lent itself to literary re-interpretation. “It was these tales, not the dry history, which captured the public’s imagination.”
Nobody in the Elizabethan era would have considered the fate of the colony’s settlers particularly mysterious, and would have drawn conclusions similar to the consensus one of contemporary historians, Lawler said. To a 16th century colonist, apparently abandoned by his or her native country, joining a local tribe, adopting their ways, and intermarrying with them would have seemed the obvious way to survive.
“If I were hungry, and knew [the colony’s founder and Dare’s grandfather] John White might never return with supplies, I would start practicing my Algonquian and learning Indian methods for hunting, fishing and farming.” Doing that meant abandoning English ways, and intermarrying with the indigenous population. This, Lawler wrote, was exactly what Elizabethan writers assumed had happened.
Despite seeming obvious to both the 16th-century English and 21st-century historians, this idea was “so repellant to white Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, that they made the colonists’ disappearance a mystery, rather than as a first step toward the multicultural nation that we increasingly are becoming.”
That antiquated worldview, along with the perennial human tendency to imaginative speculation, is why the colonists’ fate has inspired so many bizarre theories over the centuries. I asked Lawler if he had a favorite one.
“It’s a tie between aliens and zombies,” he replied. “Deep down, I think we don’t want the mystery solved. After all, you don’t solve a myth; you simply retell it in a new way. That’s the beauty of the Lost Colony; it is always morphing into something new. And that is the beauty of America as well, isn’t it?”
“The Secret Token,” the title of which refers to the word “Croatoan” found carved into a tree on the abandoned Roanoke settlement, is Andrew Lawler’s second book after his acclaimed 2016 debut “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” He will be at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, and at Bookmarks in Winston-Salem at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 9.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.