Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Colony That Kept Disappearing

The disappearance of Roanoke colony was long one of the great mysteries of early American history, one which challenged the ancient narratives of Anglo-American Manifest Destiny (since it suggested English colonization was reversible) and white supremacy. In the 1970s historian David Quinn offered a credible hypothesis to explain the event: he suggested that the colonists had probably moved to Chesapeake Bay, as they had been planning to do before England lost contact with them, and simply failed to leave a forwarding address. Later, they were probably wiped out by the Powhatan Indians, whose paramount chief told John Smith of how his warriors destroyed a white settlement. (See Quinn, North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlements [New York, 1977], 438.)  Researchers at the British Museum, however, have just turned up another intriguing bit of evidence that may provide a different explanation. Earlier this year they discovered, on a sixteenth-century watercolor map by colonist John White, the traces of a star symbol (possibly written in invisible ink) marking the site of a fort on Albemarle Sound, some miles away from Roanoke Island. The settlers may have relocated to this new site sometime before 1590, when an English relief expedition arrived to find the main settlement deserted. A future archaeological investigation will have to determine the validity of this new hypothesis; until then, historians will either content themselves with Quinn's idea, or with the possibility that the Roanoke colonists were devoured by Nordic wraiths.

P.S.: The title to this post refers to one of the more amusing student answers I received to an exam ID question ("Q: What was Roanoke?") back when I was a teaching assistant.

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