Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Abandoned Colony of Roanoke

An empty stage.  Rows of vacant seats.  A sky turning gray and ominous.  I had an eerie feeling I was retracing the steps of Governor John White when he stepped ashore Roanoke Island in 1590, hoping to see the colonists he had left behind three years earlier--his wife, daughter and grandchild among them.  But there was no one here.  Only ruins of a fort now overgrown with vines.  Remnants of old chests tossed about and rusted beyond use.  Where had everyone gone?

We all know the story.  The "CRO" carved into a tree.  "Croatoan" carved on a post at the fort.  Clues to a mystery that has never been solved.
Playwright Paul Green
The theatrical production of The Lost Colony has been performed every summer for years at the Waterside Theatre, in Manteo, North Carolina.  It was written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Paul Green, in 1937.  Many famous actors have been a part of this production, including Andy Griffith and Terrence Mann. Of course, being here in January, my travel buddy and I were the only people around.  I was happy, but surprised, to be able to wander around the stage.  The mystery of the colonists' disappearance seemed more  real in the absolute silence.
We walked by the reconstructed earthern fort and then along a nature trail to the beach beyond the stage.  We did not see another soul.  As beautiful as it was, I admit to being a little spooked.

Historians are fairly certain the colonists left behind were not massacred or did not die because of drought or inclement weather.  There are no graves; no bones.  But where did they go?  This is the mystery.

White himself, however, seemed encouraged by the clues.  In his narrative he writes that he and his planters had agreed on a "secret token" between them when he departed for England for supplies.  If they had to move, carve their whereabouts on a tree.  Place a Maltese cross next to it, if under distress.  Because there was no cross, he assumed they had relocated "fifty miles into the mainland", as they had agreed upon.  Sadly, White could not go there.  They had already lost one boat, seven men and three out of four anchors.  The weather had turned fierce and supplies were low.  They were forced to return to England without locating the colony.  Were they truly only a few miles away?   It must have torn him apart to have to abandon them yet again.

"History is going to be rewritten shortly, mark my words," declared a docent at one of the nearby lighthouses we visited.  A 425-year old map of Roanoke Island, created by John White, had recently been discovered by the British Museum to mark the spot where the colonists relocated.  It is on the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers.  Active digging is now going on in the area, as well as DNA samples of the local population.  Stories abound of the colonists being assimilated into the Croatoan tribe.  These Native Americans had befriended them and helped them in finding and preparing food.  Even if the men had been killed, it is hopeful the women and children survived.

 . . . Thus committing the relief of my uncomfortable company, the planters in Virginia, to the merciful help of the Almighty--whom I most humbly beseech to help and comfort them according to His most holy will and their good desire--I take my leave.   
                                                  John White (in a letter written in 1593)

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