The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke
America’s oldest mystery might not be as old as you think, said Matthew Rozsa in Salon.com. Andrew Lawler’s book about the famous “lost colony” of Roanoke is “a very special kind of popular history” because it asks more than simply what might have happened to the 118 or so settlers whose disappearance ended England’s first bid to colonize the New World. What we’ve known for four centuries is that in 1590, when the governor of the colony, artist John White, finally returned to today’s North Carolina coast with supplies he’d sailed for three years earlier, almost all trace of the island settlement he’d established had vanished. But White did find clues, and as Lawler has discovered, the mystery didn’t really haunt America until centuries later, when it blossomed into an obsession.
“Fortunately for readers,” Lawler’s own obsession “led him into extensive research on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Linda Brinson in the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record. His Sir Walter Raleigh, who organized the Roanoke expeditions, is no hero, yet we learn how he and his set came to believe they could locate a new passage to the Pacific. Two Native American leaders also figure prominently, and the story gets even livelier once Lawler leaps ahead to the 19th century, when wild theories about the colony’s fate began to proliferate.
“In truth, there is nothing very mysterious about the failure of the Roanoke settlement,” said The Economist. Raleigh and company were ignorant mirage chasers, and the legend that’s sprouted about the colonists’ disappearance “fulfilled the need for an origin story,” providing “a distinctly Waspy pedigree for a nation with a far more complicated heritage.” As Lawler points out, the colonists’ likely fate wasn’t even tragic, said A. Roger Ekirch in The Wall Street Journal. Facing extinction, they probably left the island and assimilated with one or more indigenous tribes. Lawler can’t prove that theory either, but his attempts to untangle the facts from the mythmaking have resulted in “the most authoritative account of the Lost Colony to date.” ■