Former Fellow Searches For Lost Colony of Roanoke

By Lori Wysong

News Editor

Litrenta Lecture Hall was full to capacity on Thursday, Oct. 4 as students and community members gathered to hear what was possibly the answer to the age-old mystery: What happened to the Lost Colony?

Andrew Lawler, the 2016-2017 Hodson Trust Fellow, returned to Washington College to speak on the contents of his new book, “The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke.”

Lawler’s talk outlined the many theories surrounding what happened to the Roanoke Settlers, including attacks by Native Americans, plague, and even aliens. 

Lawler said, “Because it’s popular in pop culture, it’s been ignored by the academic world.”

The Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Library Fellowship is sponsored by the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. 

According to the Starr Center website, it supports scholars from “a wide range of disciplines who are pursuing projects on the literature, history, culture, or art of the Americas before 1830.”   

It also includes housing in Chestertown for the selected fellow.  Adam Goodheart, director of the Starr Center, said he had “rarely if ever seen anyone make as good use” of the fellowship as Lawler, and described him as an “accomplished and prolific journalist.” 

Goodheart mentioned one particular visit to the house, in which the dining room table was absolutely covered with books for Lawler’s research.

Senior Juliet Kaczmarczyk was part of this extensive research, having previously interned with Lawler. 

“I did footnotes and bibliography for him and a little bit of research,” she said.

Kaczmarczyk’s name is even featured in the acknowledgements of the book. “For me, it was really cool to see this come to life,” she said.

As a journalist, Lawler was fascinated when he learned about two competing archaeological digs in North Carolina that seemed to be edging nearer to solving the mystery, and he “fell into the pit of utter obsession.”

The archaeological evidence included the hilt of a rapier, Tudor glass shards, lead shot in the soil, and other artifacts found at the sites of Native American villages, suggesting one possible solution to the mystery.

Lawler used a modern metaphor, saying, “If the fridge is empty — go to the neighbors.”  Lawler believes that the colonists probably fell on hard times, joined nearby Native American tribes, and assimilated fully into those cultures over time.

This answer would also explain the mysterious message “Croatoan,” which was left behind by the settlers.  Lawler said it probably referred to a nearby area where one of the Native American settlements was.   

This idea was never a popular theory, especially once the first white baby born in the Roanoke settlement, Virginia Dare, became a beautiful, virginal symbol of the “purity” of the “white race” in the Jim Crow era. 

“The likeliest descendants of that symbol of white supremacy, Virginia Dare, aren’t white,” Lawler said. 

While it seems that something as simple as a DNA test could prove the truth of Lawler’s theory, it is never quite that easy.  According to Lawler, many of the triracial isolates in North Carolina — groups with white, African and Native American lineages — are unwilling to do DNA tests because it is a sensitive issue for them. 

Even if some of these possible descendants were willing to do a test, finding the remains of a Lost Colonist to compare the samples against might prove even more difficult. 

The solution to the mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke may never be definitively proven, but, Lawler believes his research at least demonstrates that, “the melting pot didn’t begin when Ellis Island was created.”

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