I'm So Bored with the Lost Colonists

tags: Native American history, colonial America, Roanoke Island

Michael Leroy Oberg, the author of Native America, is Distinguished Professor of History at SUNY-Geneseo and director of the Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History, founded in February of 2019.  

Do we have to do this?

Sigh. Yes, we have to do this.

The New York Times the day before yesterday published an article on Scott Dawson’s recent book, The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island. The book has generated a lot of attention because it purports to prove the location of the so-called “Lost Colonists” who attempted to settle Roanoke Island in 1587.

For those of you unfamiliar with the basic contours of the story, in 1584 Sir Walter Ralegh sent a reconnaissance voyage to scout the location for a new colony that he hoped would serve well the three principal ends of Elizabethan empire: profit, through discovery of valuable items or trade with indigenous peoples; religion, in the form of the expansion of Elizabethan Protestantism abroad; and security in the form of providing a base for privateering raids against the Catholic Spanish, the wicked tools, in English eyes, of the scarlet whore of Babylon. English colonists planted an outpost on Roanoke Island with the permission of the weroance Wingina in 1585, but it lasted only a year. English demands for food, outbreaks of disease, and violence made them unwelcome visitors. With a hurricane bearing down upon them, and after having murdered Wingina, the colonists returned home aboard the massive fleet Sir Francis Drake had used to terrorize Spanish holdings in the Caribbean. The English tried again in 1587, placing the colony under the charge of the artist John White. Hostilities with the Indians remaining from the previous year’s colony led to the immediate killing of one of White’s advisers. White led a retaliatory raid that struck the Croatoans rather than the Indians they intended to hit. This debacle was followed by the coward White’s return home to fetch more provisions. When he finally returned three years later, in 1590, the colony had disappeared. The only clue, we are so often told, was the word “Croatoan” carved into a post near the settlement on Roanoke. Croatoan was an Algonquian village that stood on today’s Hatteras Island.

Dawson, working with the archaeologist Mark Horton, has argued that the Lost Colonists did not disappear (an argument that almost nobody actually makes–all agree they went somewhere). Just as that carved post might lead one to believe, they left Roanoke and settled under the protection of the Croatoan Indians. Manteo, a Croatoan who had worked with the English since 1584 and been baptized into Christianity in 1587, would have eased in the resettlement. A large quantity of archaeological evidence has been found at the sight, Dawson says, and some of it is quite promising. There are also bits and pieces of historical evidence–a traveler’s account, for instance, from the early eighteenth century indicating that he saw blue-eyed Indians living in coastal Carolina.


In my own book on Roanoke, which Dawson does include in his sparse bibliography, I argued as he did that the Lost Colonists’ did not disappear. Indeed, I made the point that the colonists were lost only to those English explorers who tried and failed to find them. Algonquian peoples knew what happened to them and most likely determined their fate. There has been a long national obsession over the Lost Colonist. Yet the shores of the Atlantic World were littered with the remains of castaways, castoffs, and casualties. Getting lost and left behind was part of the business. Roanoke is much more interesting as an Algonquian story, of native peoples adjusting to the arrival of newcomers, making use of them in their own political, economic, and diplomatic maneuvers, before ultimately deciding that the colonist caused more harm than good. As the great historian Malinda Maynor Lowery said in the New York Times piece, the Lost Colony legend is “like a monument that has to come down,” but that “it’s harder to dismantle an origin story than a statue.” Dawson and Horton, however much they claim to look at the Croatoan Indians, focus all their efforts on that tired and failed monument to English empire on the Outer Banks.

Read entire article at Native America: A History

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