The Roanoke Voyages in Literature

After a pleasant visit to the Outer Banks, Ralegh's reconnaissance party under Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe returned to England in September 1584. Almost immediately chroniclers, spies, gossips, and dilettantes seized on reports of the Edenic land of Wingandacon — which turned out to be not the name of the place, but a garbled Algonquian reference to trees or to English clothing. Ever since, writers of many interests and attainments have occasionally taken on the first English attempts to colonize what is now the United States; most have paid special attention to the 1587 lost colony.

The Roanoke colonies pose several challenging questions: Who were the colonists? Who were their backers? How did they get along with one another? Why did they let relations with the Indians descend into open warfare? Where was their settlement? Was there more than one settlement? Does the restored sconce at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site make up Lane's New Fort in Virginia in toto? Is it the only substantial fortification the colonists built? What happened to the 1587 Lost Colony? Were the colonists failures? What does the whole exercise mean? Writers dealing with the Roanoke colonies have necessarily grappled with most of these questions. Even the most amateurish and tendentious of the answers they have assayed have stimulated lively, sometimes productive public debate over the scanty physical and documentary evidence the colonists left behind and over the place in history that the Roanoke colonies warrant.

Most works about the Roanoke colonies fit, seldom neatly, into one of four categories. There is no compelling reason to segregate them further, according to whether they seem predominantly factual or imaginative. Most nonfiction writers are heavily influenced by their own or their sources' imaginations. The indispensable contemporary accounts of the Roanoke colonies are by turns discursive, fictional, poetic, and dramatic. Not even Thomas Harriot's Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), the first fundamentally scientific description of the peoples and resources of North America, is untainted by the author's imagination. The best fiction, poetry, and drama is solidly founded in historical research, if not in historical fact, and it engenders discussion and spreads information (correct or not) as few scholarly works could do. The reader should measure the ratio of fact to imagination in each work for himself.

Tellings, Retellings, and Commemorations

The narratives of Arthur Barlowe (1584), Ralph Lane (1585-86), and John White (1587, 1588, and 1590) are the most useful and widely read contemporary reports of the explorers' and colonists' deeds. Thomas Harriot's Briefe and True Report supplements Lane's incomplete narrative, as do John White's watercolors of the New World and Theodor De Bry's liberal engraved interpretations of White's paintings. All these sources were influential for nearly 200 years, and they remain uniquely helpful to the student of the Roanoke colonies and the growing body of Roanoke literature. The other works below, listed in roughly chronological order, range from grave to diverting to trivial, but all involve some reference to the events and personalities of the Roanoke colonies or some testimonial to their lasting importance.
Hakluyt, Richard. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. 3 vols. in 2. London, 1599-1600. (Contains most of the important contemporary accounts.)

Harriot, Thomas. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. London, 1588. (The 1972 Dover facsimile edition of this work, taken from Part I of De Bry's America, includes De Bry's engravings of John White's paintings.)

Hulton, Paul and David B. Quinn. The American Drawings of John White, 1577-1590. 2 vols. London and Chapel Hill, 1964.

Hulton, Paul. America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White. Chapel Hill, 1984. . (A one-volume compilation.)

Quinn, David B. The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590. 2 vols. London, 1955. (Contains most of the known contemporary accounts, English and Spanish — including some not in Hakluyt.)

Quinn, David B., and Alison M. Quinn. Virginia Voyages from Hakluyt. London, 1983. (Reprinted in the United States, with a new introduction, as The First Colonies: Documents on the Planting of the First English Settlements in North America. In essence a one-volume abridgement of Roanoke Voyages.)

Green, Paul. The Lost Colony: An Outdoor Play in Two Acts.... Chapel Hill, 1937. (This is the oldest example of symphonic drama — an unmistakably American fusion of drama, music, song, dance, pantomime, spectacle, local boosterism, and historic setting. It is also the fountainhead of much modern popular interest in the Roanoke colonies. One important, but overlooked sources: the historical pageants staged on Roanoke Island by Mabel Evans Jones, who transformed Eleanor Dare, probably a minor figure in the colonists' chapter of accidents, into an early suffragette.)

Bell, Albert Q. Actors in the Colony, 16th Century. 1946. (A book of prose and verse by the architect of Waterside Theater, where The Lost Colony is staged.)

Fletcher, Inglis. Roanoke Hundred. Indianapolis, 1948. (Deals not with the 1587 lost colony,but with the Lane colony of 1585-1586.)

Kimball, Owen. The Puzzle of Roanoke: The Lost Colony. New York, 1964. (A novel based on the Lumbee hypothesis; for younger readers.)

Campbell, Elizabeth A. The Carving on the Tree. Boston, 1968. (A summary for younger readers.)

Lacy, Dan M. The Lost Colony. New York, 1972. (For younger readers.)

Longmeyer, Carole Marsh. 400! A Musical in Honor of America's 400th Anniversary... Tryon, NC, 1984. (Includes an interview between Shakespeare and Blackbeard.)

Bayes, Ronald H. North Carolina's 400 Years: Signs Along the Way. Durham, NC, 1986. (A collection of poems written for the 400th anniversary, not all of which deal with the events commemorated.)

Powell, William S. and Virginia W. Powell, eds. England and Roanoke: A Collection of Poems, 1584-1987. Raleigh, 1988. (Includes poems written for the 400th anniversary.)

Continuations and Conclusions

The fate of the lost colony is not the only mystery of the Roanoke episode. It may not even be the most important. But it is by far the most popular and one of the great loose ends of all time. Writers have thus spent a great deal of time and effort on reasoning it out, finding out its relevance, or using it as an excuse to hold forth on race, religion, nationalism, imperialism, fate, the hand of God in human events , and other topics important to them. In the early days of the Jamestown colony, John Smith and others heard rumors concerning Europeans — whom they took to be survivors of the 1587 lost colony — living among Indians at various locations always just over the horizon. Although the rumors may well have been false, these later colonists passed them along in good faith, opening a vein of speculation still not exhausted. Noting the unusual folklore and physiognomy of the Indians of Hatteras Island, John Lawson suggested in the early eighteenth century that the colonists had mixed with natives and allowed their bloodlines to "degenerate." Throughout the seventeenth century and on into the eighteenth, reports of bearded Indians, Welsh-speaking Indians, and such continued to surface. Over time the public mind associated them with the 1587 lost colony.

A rapidly expanding young republic had little fascination with real or perceived failures in the distant past; consequently, not many Americans wrote about the Roanoke colonies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Historian George Bancroft and a few other notable exceptions, however, saw the Roanoke colonists as the first wave of the discontented seeking freedom in the New World from a corrupt and confining Europe — the spiritual founders of American democracy.

By the Civil War some of the more literal-minded, unable to accept the defeat of white Christian proto-Americans by red heathens or by mere hardship, could settle for nothing less than the colonists' survival and procreation. In the late 19th century Hamilton Macmillan and others applied some of Lawson's observations to the Lumbee, a triracial group of Robeson county, North Carolina, and adjacent parts of North and South Carolina. But they inverted Lawson's conclusion, saying that the colonists had not degenerated, but had instead raised the red man in this one area well above his accustomed station. Stripped of most of its racist trappings, the idea that the Lumbee are descended from the 1587 lost colonists has many subscribers even today.

In order to find or create a satisfactory ending to the story of the 1587 lost colony, some writers have given the colonists an heroic death — victory in defeat — on Roanoke Island, Croatoan, or Chesapeake Bay, the colonists' original destination. In this century, David Quinn has revived a story as old as Jamestown: that the colonists lived peaceably among the Indians of the lower Chesapeake until Powhatan wiped them out in the early 1600s. This story has a tidy and attractive finality, but little evidence supports it. In one form or another, the theme of lost colonists living among the Indians as gods, heroes, conquerors, civilizers, equals, dim and helpless pupils, or eventual victims has dominated most kinds of writing about the Roanoke colonies, especially the more imaginative kinds, to the present day.

Like the myth of Aeneas (the Trojan founder of Rome) or of Brutus (the Trojan founder of Britain) or of the Indians as the Lost Tribes of Israel, the myth of the 1587 lost colony proposes a link between a decadent present and a glorious past. American writers have a special affinity for this myth, for despite its kinship with the myths of other cultures, it is quintessentially American. Like myths of Jamestown and Plymouth, it huddles a courageous few against the awful vastness of the New World. It combines the irresistible attraction of a mystery with naive hope that all was well with the colonists in the end. In some tellings, the myth of the 1587 lost colony expresses a peculiarly American ideal of equality and anti-intellectualism. The myths of Abraham Lincoln's ascent from poverty and obscurity merely reminds us of a truism, that even a backwoodsman can become president if he happens to be a rare genius and a natural leader. The 1587 lost colony, however, confirms our envious suspicion that the Founders were nobody special. If the inept Roanoke colonists played a useful part in building the country, if their survivors still walk among us, any of us could have done about as well as Miles Standish or Thomas Jefferson. Further, anyone who fidgets through four or five books about the 1587 lost colony is an expert entitled to dispute with the learned doctors-who, after all, have not yet solved the mystery. Because the layman's guesses are as good as anyone else's, he may detach the 1587 lost colony from fact and probability to take it on any fanciful excursion he pleases. Whatever effect such license has on the literary merit of a published work, it is usually harmful to readers' understanding of history.

In other tellings — reliant on kings, princesses, the occult, and other frowsy baggage of fantasy and historical fiction — the myth is decidedly non-populist and anti-democratic.

Barbour, Philip L. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1631). 3 vols. Chapel Hill and London, 1986. (Contains unverified reports of Europeans living among Indians.)

Purchas, Samuel. Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes. 20 vols. Glasgow, 1905-1907.

Strachey, William. The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania, ed. Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund. London, 1953. (Has survivors capturing apes in the mountains.)

Bancroft, George. History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent. Boston, 1834.

Tuthill, Cornelia. "Virginia Dare; or, the Colony of Roanoke." Southern Literary Messenger, September, 1840. (The first in a long list of published treatments of the Virginia Dare myth. Here Virginia marries a wandering Jamestown settler.)

Shackleford, E.A.B. Virginia Dare: A Romance of the Sixteenth Century. 1892. (A novel in which Virginia Dare meets Pocahontas; noticeably and notably anti-democratic in tone.)

Cotton, Sallie Southall. The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare, An Indian Legend. Philadelphia, 1901. (A long poem written in imitation of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha.)

Payson, William Farquhar. John Vytal: A Tale of the Lost Colony. New York, 1901. (A novel in which the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe visits the New World. His death leads to the colonists' near-obliteration by the Spanish.)

Wall, Mary Virginia. The Daughter of Virginia Dare. 1908. (A novel that makes Virginia the mother of Pocahontas.)

McPherson, O.M. Indians of North Carolina. Senate Document 677, 63rd Congress, 3rd Session. Washington, 1915. (An early major-length published presentation of the case for the Lumbee.)

Hawes, Herbert Bouldin. The Daughter of the Blood. 1930. (A novel including Virginia, Pocahontas-no relation here-and John Smith in a romantic triangle.)

Bothwell, Jean. Lost Colony: The Mystery of Roanoke Island. Philadelphia, 1953. (A novel for younger readers, in which Manteo and the colonists team up against the Spanish.)

Tracy, Don. Roanoke Renegade. New York, 1954. (A novel in which one small group of survivors, before going off to live free among the Indians of the mainland, uses the "Croatoan" message to point to another small group living in slavery on the coast; considered racy in its time.)

Stevenson, Augusta. Virginia Dare, Mystery Girl. New York and Indianapolis, 1958. (A short novel of a sort; for younger readers.)

Marshall, Edison. The Lost Colony. New York, 1964. (A novel in which colonists leave the famous "Croatoan" message to throw prospective rescuers off their trail, which leads to Florida.)

Stuart, Jesse. Daughter of the Legend. 1965. (A novel linking the 1587 lost colonists with the Cherokee and, ultimately, the triracial Malungeons of northeastern Tennessee.)

Levitin, Sonia. Roanoke: A Novel of the Lost Colony. New York, 1975. (A novel for younger readers.)

Durant, David N. Raleigh's Lost Colony. New York, 1981. (A brief for the Chesapeake hypothesis.)

Kupperman, Karen O. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony. Totowa, NJ, 1984. (One professor of history has called this, in print, "the best book on the subject.")

Quinn, David Beers. The Lost Colonists: Their Fortune and Probable Fate. Raleigh, 1984. (A presentation of the Chesapeake hypothesis by its most distinguished proponent.)

Stick, David. Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America. Chapel Hill, 1983. (A summary of the events and the more plausible continuations; for the general reader.)

Revisions, Hoaxes, and Delusions

In a niche all their own lie a few strange works, discursive in appearance, fictional in content and effect, and influential out of all proportion to their worth. Some try to elevate the present-day inhabitants of the Outer Banks and other parts of eastern North Carolina to the dubious status of the Lumbee. Most are based on dyslexia, wishful thinking, bowdlerization of the historical record, or plain attempts to fabricate a new, more tractable record.

Cobb, Collier. "Early English Survivals on Hatteras Island." The University of North Carolina Magazine, February, 1910. (Links the present population of Hatteras Island to eleven-actually seven-sailors who drowned during the 1590 relief mission.)

Sparkes, Boyden. "Writ on Rocke." Saturday Evening Post, 26 April 1941. (Exposes the Dare Stones-"found" in the Carolinas and Georgia and bearing implausible messages from Eleanor Dare-as a hoax.)

Robinson, Melvin. Riddle of the Lost Colony. 1946. (The seminal work for a school that identifies the Roanoke Island of sixteenth-century documents with Cedar Island, some 75 miles southwest.)

Howe, C.K. Solving the Riddle of the Lost Colony. Beaufort, NC, 1947. (A response to Robinson, immediately above. The author presents excerpt of Eleanor Dare's diary, perhaps the least convincing hoax of the century.)

White, Robert. A Witness for Eleanor Dare: The Final Chapter in a 400 Year Old Mystery. San Francisco, 1991. (Exhumes the Dare Stones.)


The preceding works have little or no connection to historical fact, but still occupy a place in the evolving lore of the Roanoke colonies. Works like those listed below lack even this tenuous connection to the colonies, but as curiosities they may deserve a quick glance by the thorough student.

Hartridge, Clifford W. Manteo. New York, 1935. (A novel in which Manteo, an English descendant of Ralph Lane, immigrates to Georgia in the eighteenth century and finds Chief Manteo's great-granddaughter.)

Farmer, Philip Jose. Dare. 1965. (A novel that puts the brutish descendants of the 1587 lost colonists on the planet Dare in order to have them repeat their ancestors' errors; a contrived ending saves the humanoid natives from genocide.)

Ellison, Harlan. "Croatoan." Gallery, June 1975. (A bizarre short story not suitable for young readers.)

Text based loosely on The Lost Colony in Literature, by Robert D. Amer (Raleigh, NC, 1985);
written and edited by lebame houston and Wynne Dough.
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