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Rethinking Roanoke

Seeking to solve the mystery of the "Lost Colony" at Roanoke, anthropologist Lee Miller, MA '87 (pictured at left) looks beyond the conventional culprits to spin a tale of sabotage and intrigue.

By Dale Keiger

In 1937, Paul Green put nib to paper and wrote a play titled The Lost Colony. He needed no subtitle, for in American popular history there is only one story by that name: In July 1587, settlers under the governorship of John White and the sponsorship of dashing Sir Walter Raleigh strode ashore on Roanoke Island to establish the first permanent English settlement in North America. A month later, White's daughter gave birth to little Virginia Dare, the first English child born on the continent. White sailed back to England to procure additional supplies. He meant to return within months but was beset by delays. Nearly three years elapsed. When he finally landed on Roanoke's fair shore, the colonists had mysteriously vanished. The only clues to their whereabouts were the word "Croatoan" carved in a palisade, and the letters "CRO" carved into a tree. They were never found--the fabled Lost Colonists of Roanoke.

Green's play has run at the Waterside Theater on Roanoke for 64 straight summers. (In the 1940s, Walter Raleigh was portrayed by Andy Griffith.) On its Web site, the theater touts a "symphonic drama" with a "smart, young cast ... a must-see event for vacationers, theater-goers, history buffs, and those who enjoy a good romantic mystery." Lee Miller (MA '87) would agree with the mystery part, but she sees the story as more sinister than romantic: "This is the quintessential American story. This is where American history began. It didn't begin at Jamestown or at Plymouth, it began here. It's also America's oldest murder mystery."

Murder mystery? She must mean the murder of the colonists by the Powhatan Indians. This has been the explanation of their fate for 392 years. But that's not what Miller means. An anthropologist by training and a consultant, television writer, and author by trade, Miller became curious about Roanoke four years ago and started reading. The more she read, the more convinced she became that professional historians and the public have been mistaken for nearly four centuries. Roanoke wasn't "lost," Miller says--it was sabotaged. Furthermore, she believes that while some of the colonists did die at the hands of Indians (though not the Powhatan), many survived, never to be rescued. Colonial officials knew there were survivors but found the lie of their murder more expedient.

Miller, 39, has published her theory and evidence in Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony (Arcade, 2001). She vigorously challenges the official 17th-century explanations, the work of eminent 20th-century historian David Beers Quinn and more recent writers like Giles Milton, and hundreds of years of American mythmaking. She doesn't lack confidence. "I know that my book is a benchmark," she says. "I wanted to take all the data and just lay it out on the table without assumptions. An amazing pattern emerges."

She mines this pattern to build a case that is meticulously sourced and, if not proven, at least provocative: A cabal masterminded by Sir Francis Walsingham, secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth I, stranded the colonists on Roanoke in the hope they would either starve, die at the hands of the Indians, or be raided by the Spanish, who had been tipped off about the new colony. The conspirators wanted to bring down Raleigh, the Queen's golden boy who had received a royal patent to all land he could settle in the New World. Desperate but resourceful, the colonists left the island and moved not up the Chesapeake Bay, as originally intended, but west into the interior of what is now North Carolina to await White's return. As if cursed, they had the misfortune to wander straight into a conflict between Indian nations. Some were probably killed, Miller believes, and some indeed may have gone to the nearby friendly Indian settlement of Croatoan, as their cryptic messages suggested. But many, perhaps most, were taken as slaves and dispersed throughout Carolina by way of an Indian trading network. This would account for why no evidence of a Chesapeake settlement has ever been found, Miller says, and for the many reports of sightings throughout the interior, reports that historians such as Quinn have long dismissed as rumor.

Says Miller, "It's inconceivable to me that all the data we have, stating that not only were there Lost Colonists in the interior but that search parties have actually met them at close range, has just been thrown out." Quinn began publishing his influential work in the 1940s. "For upwards of 60 years we've had theories that just don't fit the data, and all the data that we've had has just been tossed out. That's not how you treat primary data."

I've always been fascinated by historical mysteries," Miller says, "especially when people say you can't solve them. I'm always convinced that the data has got to be out there someplace."

As a Hopkins anthropology graduate student, she focused on the Indian nations of the American Southeast. (She is of Kaw Indian descent herself, though she dislikes mention of it on her book's jacket.) After completing her master's in 1987, she secured a grant that paid for a year on Roanoke Island to study what happened to the Secotan, an Indian tribe that by 1718 had disappeared from the historical record. "I used to joke that everything connected with Roanoke Island eventually disappears," she says. "It's a black hole."

Twelve miles long and three miles wide, Roanoke Island (not to be confused with the city of Roanoke, Virginia) is wedged between the Outer Banks and the mainland of North Carolina. It is low, sandy, very pretty, and now home to about 2,500 people. While she was on the island, Miller lived across from the site of the first colonial fort and couldn't stop thinking about the English settlers. "That island is just magical, just stunningly beautiful," she says. "I'd wander around where I knew the colonists had been and think, This is frustrating. There's got to be a way to find out what happened to these people. I knew that most of the work done had been undertaken by historians of British colonial history, not by anyone with an expertise in the Indian Southeast."

Professional opportunities occupied her for many years. First the BBC hired her as a consultant for a documentary. Then she became head of research for "500 Nations," an eight-hour documentary on American Indians produced by Kevin Costner. She established a career as a consultant on matters related to American Indians, working for, among others, the Library of Congress. Not until 1997 could she resume serious study of Roanoke.

She read the earliest documents. "The thing that the Hopkins anthropology department drills into you again and again is primary accounts," says Miller. "Don't ever read a secondary account." For her, the initial primary account was a long letter by John White, the island's governor, published in 1600 by Richard Hakluyt in his collection Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Historians have been hard on White. Quinn called him paranoid, weak, and ineffective, and this has been the portrait of White ever since. But as Miller read his account, penned in 1593 as his explanation for what had happened on Roanoke, she was made suspicious by a series of mishaps that befell the three shiploads of colonists.

Within days of the expedition's departure from Plymouth, England, for example, White's pilot, Simon Fernandez, inexplicably ordered two of the ships to abandon the third off the coast of Portugal. (Remarkably, the third ship, a flyboat carrying colonists and essential supplies, did make it to Roanoke days after the first two landed.) Once across the Atlantic and in the Caribbean, the colonists needed to take on fresh provisions and water, as well as salt for use as a preservative; they failed on all three counts because-- according to White--Fernandez obstructed their efforts. The colonists had to establish their settlement early enough in the season to plant crops. Yet Fernandez wasted weeks getting them to the Carolina coast. He spent days off Cape Fear ostensibly trying to get his bearings, once nearly grounding them, even though his skill as a pilot in these waters was of such renown there was a section of the coast named after him. The colonists didn't make it to Roanoke until mid-July, too late to plant fields.

The settlers were to check on a garrison of 15 troops left in 1585 to hold Roanoke after a previous expedition. They were then to sail 100 miles up the Chesapeake Bay to establish their colony on the mainland. Instead, after some colonists were put ashore, Fernandez announced that everyone would have to disembark and stay on Roanoke. Wrote White, with bitter sarcasm, "a Gentleman by the means of Fernando ... called to the sailors in the pinnesse, charging them not to bring any of the planters back againe, but leave them in the island ... saying that the summer was far spent, where he would land all the planters in no other place." The colonists were being dumped where White knew they would have difficulty sustaining a community of 117, where resupply ships from England would not look for them, and where, to their dismay, they found the garrison abandoned and partly razed, the bones of one soldier, and no trace of the other 14.

None of this was accidental, in White's opinion. His letter expressed his conviction that the colonists had been sabotaged by Fernandez. Subsequent historians and writers have noted Fernandez's actions but blamed White for not standing up to the recalcitrant pilot. Giles Milton, in the recently published pop history Big Chief Elizabeth, states that White should have hanged Fernandez, noting pointedly that a better man like Sir Francis Drake would have done so. Quinn, critical of White, let Fernandez off as "inscrutable."

Like Miller, Quinn read White's account. His response, in Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584- 1606, was to chide White for spending "so much time complaining about Fernandes [sic] ... that he did not give us a more detailed portrait of the colonists." White's claim of sabotage, Quinn wrote, "is somewhat hard to accept."

Miller, however, read White's claims and took them at face value. This is the fundamental difference between her line of inquiry and the work of preceding historians. Instead of dismissing White's complaints as paranoia, she treated them as primary data. "I didn't begin with the assumption that he was right," she says. "I began with the primary data and assumed any theory would have to be based on it. It's not good science to throw out the primary documents and substitute your own theory." This led her to some crucial questions. Quinn et al. have attributed Fernandez's order to strand the colonists on Roanoke to his desire to pursue piracy before the Atlantic storm season set in. Were this true, Miller asks, why would Fernandez have spent 36 days anchored offshore, recaulking his ships and showing none of the urgency that supposedly prevented him from taking the colonists to their planned destination? And why, once he did depart, did he not hunt for prizes but instead make a beeline for England?

There was more that aroused her suspicion. Darby Glande, an Irishman, deserted when the ships were docked in Puerto Rico on the voyage to Roanoke. Glande, who in a later sworn deposition claimed not to have deserted but to have been told to leave, alerted the Spanish in Puerto Rico that English colonists were on their way to "Jacan." He identified the latitude of "Jacan" as 36 degrees--wrong for Chesapeake Bay, but almost dead on for Roanoke (35 degrees, 54 minutes, 29 seconds). Why did Glande think Roanoke was the destination, instead of farther north? "I thought, My God ... somebody was doing this to them," Miller says. "The minute I realized that White was telling us that there had been sabotage, I remember thinking, Now if he's right--if I'm going to take the primary data at face value and there really was sabotage--then was there actually something wrong with Roanoke Island?" Had the colonists been stranded on Roanoke because someone knew it would be especially dangerous?

The Lost Colony was actually the third English expedition to Roanoke. Explorers, including John White (with Simon Fernandez as pilot), had scouted the area three years earlier in 1584. A 1585 expedition (also piloted by Fernandez) had placed colonists on Roanoke Island, but after 10 months the settlers concluded that they had little chance of success and voted to go back to England. To learn about these previous ventures, Miller returned to Hakluyt's Principall Navigations and to accounts and correspondence by Ralph Lane of the 1585 venture. Lane was a battle-hardened army officer who went to Roanoke to command the 1585 colony. As Miller read his reports, she realized that during his stint on the island, relations with the local Secotan Indians had deteriorated from friendly mutual curiosity to bloodshed.

First, disease introduced by the English ravaged the Secotan; the English regarded this as retribution by God against the heathen Indians. English troops torched an Indian village after discovering that a silver cup was missing from their camp. Lane seized food and hostages, including a chief's young son. Finally, Lane led a full-scale assault on the Secotan, who were quickly overwhelmed. Two of Lane's men pursued and beheaded the Secotan chief, Wingina.

Miller read these accounts as an ethnohistorian, and what she found intrigued her. The 1585 expedition's scientist, Thomas Hariot, had noted the Secotan referring to the English in terms that to Miller sounded like a windigo, a man-eating enemy who appears in northern Algonquian cultures but previously had not been noted so far south by anthropologists (the Secotan were Algonquian). Miller's interpretation: The Secotan were calling Ralph Lane a monster. So here were the poor Lost Colonists of 1587, compatriots of people whom the Secotan had likened to man-eating beasts, dumped in the midst of a nation that had endured slaughter and disease at the hands of the previous expedition.

But who could have harbored such animosity toward 117 people as to maroon them on an island that couldn't sustain them, in the midst of terrified, hostile Indians? Miller decided that she needed to know much more about 16th-century London to understand the context of what she had begun to regard as a conspiracy. "I read a lot of biographies that were written in the day," she says. "I decided for primary material I would restrict myself to anything from the 1500s and anything from the first quarter of the 1600s. I read Robert Naunton and John Aubrey, who were writing about the people in the royal court. Also, I read everything I could about Simon Fernandez."

Fernandez is a puzzling figure. He was not only the 1587 expedition's pilot, but one of 13 investors in the venture, called "assistants." Why would he have sabotaged his own investment? Was he secretly in league with the Spanish, who were eager to thwart any English incursion into what they had claimed as their territory? Perhaps, but Fernandez was Portuguese, and the Spanish had seized his native Azores Islands. Furthermore, Spain had issued statements identifying him as an enemy. Did he have a grudge against Raleigh? None that Miller could find. She says, "The crux of my whole theory comes down to explain Fernandez. According to state papers, he was once almost hanged for being a pirate, and Walsingham had saved him. And I thought, Walsingham?"

Sir Francis Walsingham was the queen's secretary of state, a powerful member of the English royal court. Walsingham, Miller deduced, had ample reason for wanting Raleigh to fall. Walsingham had put in place a subtle, covert strategy for undermining Spain. Raleigh, a mere courtier who nevertheless had the Queen's ear, advocated more brash, direct action against the Spaniards, and Elizabeth was listening. Furthermore, Raleigh held the lucrative patent to settle North America, something Walsingham, who was facing bankruptcy, coveted. Roanoke would be an excellent base for English raiders to use in the harassment of Spanish shipping, and Walsingham wanted control of it for his strategy against Spain. So to Miller's mind Walsingham had motive to ruin Raleigh. But did he arrange the sabotage of Roanoke? Miller kept digging.

Among the documents she read were the court proceedings of an ill-fated expedition to what is now Canada, mounted by John Rastell in 1517. Rastell had proposed colonizing Newfoundland. Henry VIII endorsed the idea, and the Lord Admiral, the Earl of Surrey, helped underwrite it. But Rastell's expedition never got past Ireland. The purser, John Ravyn, who had been provided by Surrey, found one excuse after another, many involving the provisioning of the ship, for delaying progress. Miller read this and was reminded of Fernandez. In Plymouth, England, Ravyn actually drove the ship aground, which paralleled Fernandez's near beaching of the Roanoke ships off Cape Fear. Finally, before the expedition could proceed into the Atlantic, Ravyn claimed that the season was now too far gone to continue on to Newfoundland, and had the sailors turn out Rastell and his company, stranding them on the Irish coast. During the court proceedings, Surrey, the Lord Admiral, admitted employing Ravyn to sabotage the expedition, even though he was an underwriter.

Says Miller, "When I read the original [Rastell] court documents, I was stunned to realize that some of the terminology used by the saboteurs was exactly the terminology Fernandez was using [later in Roanoke]. Like 'the summer was too far spent.' It seemed uncanny to me that that would be the exact phrase used by Rastell." The parallels to what happened 70 years later on Roanoke were too close to be coincidence. "I thought, My God, it's a copycat crime!"

Miller argues that one man, Walsingham, made it his business to know how previous expeditions, expeditions meant to counter Spain, had fared. That same man had access to the court records that documented the Rastell sabotage. She goes further in her book, building a case that it was Walsingham who orchestrated the delays that prevented John White from mounting a rescue mission until three years had elapsed. (The standard explanation for the delay has been intervening war with Spain, including the attack by the Spanish Armada.) By the time the governor returned to Carolina, it was too late. The colony had vanished.

Miller's case against Walsingham is detailed, elaborate, and circumstantial. There exist no letters or journal entries in his hand which say, "I did it. I sabotaged Roanoke to discredit Raleigh." And the pieces of the alleged sabotage fit together with an improbable shrewdness and precision. History is full of conspiracy theories, but in practice most conspiracies, even far simpler ones, rarely succeed, and if they do, their secrecy almost always unravels and the conspirators become known. Says Miller, "Here's my answer: That's exactly why I think it's Walsingham. If you look at other Walsingham operations over the years, which are documented, it's like clever fiction. He took 18 years to bring down Mary Queen of Scots. He is the only one who regularly pulled off these vast, meticulous, painstakingly thought-out schemes--it's documented that he did this."

Now convinced that White was justified in claiming sabotage, and that she'd found the culprit in Walsingham, Miller set out to resolve one last mystery: What became of the Lost Colonists? By 1602 there had been five rescue missions; all failed to find anyone. In 1602 and 1603, Raleigh outfitted two more unsuccessful attempts. Then, in 1607, 105 settlers sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and founded Jamestown. While the fort there was under construction, an exploratory mission ventured farther inland, where a man named George Percy recorded something that astonished him: "We saw a savage boy, about the age of ten yeeres, which had a head of haire of a perfect yellow and a reasonable white skinne, which is a miracle amongst savages." No one managed to question the boy before he slipped away. A year later, 1608, Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame, a story Miller considers apocryphal) walked into Jamestown after a month in the interior with news that Indians of the Powhatan confederation had described to him settlements "of certain men ... clothed like me." Explorers walking through the country found trees with Roman letters and crosses carved in the bark: Before White had left the colony to seek help in England, everyone had agreed that crosses would be the signal for distress. Smith later sent to England a map showing not one but three white settlements--Jamestown, and two unexplained (and to this day unlocated) settlements to the south.

But in 1609, Jamestown informed the Crown that in December 1608 the chief of the Powhatan had confessed to the massacre of the Lost Colonists. As Miller sifted through documents, she concluded that this report of a massacre was not true, and that principals in the Virginia colony knew it was not true, or at least were suspicious enough to continue looking for colonists. There are documents that testify to repeated searches for survivors in the interior, searches made in 1609, months after the Powhatan's alleged "confession," and searches still being made as late as 1650. If Jamestown was so certain at the end of 1608 that the colonists were dead, why were they still hunting for them months, if not years, later? They kept hunting, Miller argues, because of persistent reports of white people in the interior: people who built two-story houses and kept domesticated fowl.

John White had written that the colonists "intended to remove fifty miles further up into the maine." And once again, much hinges on Miller's reading vs. that of the historians. In Set Fair for Roanoke, Quinn made a case for the colonists leaving Roanoke and venturing 50 miles north toward the bay to settle with the Chesapeake Indians, where, he said, the Powhatan massacred them 20 years later. He imagined "the main body which we can assume with some confidence to have settled in what is now Norfolk County, Virginia" as eventually intermarrying with the Indians and gradually adopting Indian dress and custom as years went by with no mission from England.

Miller, on the other hand, again takes White as meaning what he said: "Fifty miles into the maine" meant 50 miles into the mainland, she says, not 50 miles north toward the bay. This gives credence to reports of whites in the interior. Why, she asks, have successors to Quinn clung to his theory when no evidence has ever surfaced of any white settlers near the Chesapeake? Meanwhile, there were reports of whites scattered through the interior. "Such evidence can't be dismissed," she says. "Imagine being a detective with a colossal missing persons case, and throwing out all evidence of sightings because those sightings do not happen to be in the area where you think the missing people should be! I respect Quinn a lot. It was Quinn who revived interest in Roanoke. The only thing is, his is like any pioneering effort. It's a great beginning, but not so great when you look at it 60 years later."

What could account for the colonists' dispersal through the interior? Miller recalled the evidence of the Secotan's decimation by the first English expeditions. "I started to look at the anthropological literature about what had happened in other regions of the U.S. when a coastal Indian nation came into contact with Europeans and other, more interior nations, did not." In every case, the coastal nations weakened, and stronger interior nations moved in on them. In North Carolina, this meant that a fragile peace between the Secotan (and their allies) and a menacing tribe to the west, the Mandoag, likely would have broken down as the balance of power shifted.

If Miller is correct, straight into this volatile situation walked the poor, cursed Lost Colonists. Miller surmises that it was only a matter of time before they were either caught in a battle between tribes, or simply attacked. According to reports from John Smith and others about how tribes in the area fought wars, a significant portion of the colonists, especially women and children, could have survived, only to be taken captive as slaves. And these slaves would have been traded along a great interior trading path that ran from present-day Richmond, Virginia, to Augusta, Georgia. Hence the absence of any evidence that they'd lived along the Chesapeake coast.

But why, as Jamestown continued to search for them, had its leaders publicly insisted that the colonists were dead at the hands of the Powhatan? Expedience, says Miller. Searching for survivors was arduous and dangerous, and had not resulted in a single rescue. Jamestown was barely surviving its own problems with disease, starvation, and mounting hostilities with the Powhatan. An end to pressure from London to mount more search parties would have been welcomed. What's more, the English declared war on the Powhatan in 1610, a war that became increasingly unpopular in England. What better way to counter opposition than to maintain the fiction of the poor Lost Colonists slaughtered by the savage enemy?

Miller notes that Jamestown's report was based on a single account of what the Powhatan had told John Smith. But report of this confession doesn't appear in any of Smith's writings. The sole record of it is a single official account prepared by Jamestown's secretary, William Strachey. In his own published works, Smith never said that the Powhatan murdered the colonists and never alluded to any such confession.

Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony has the endnotes and bibliography of a scholarly tome--59 pages of the former, 20 of the latter. But it's written for a wide audience, structured as a mystery with Miller leading the reader along a labyrinthine narrative trail of suspicion, speculation, sleuthing, and detection. It is not always easy to follow her through the maze of clues, connections, and Indian names with their multiple spellings. She seems hooked on sentence fragments; some sections read more like her notes than finished prose. She makes her own surmises--the Indian attack on the Lost Colonists in the interior, the dispersed slaves--and strains in places to make so much fit her theory. Walsingham studied at Padua University in Venice. Aha! More proof of his scheming nature, complete with exclamation points. She writes: "Padua! We may have something here. Red flag! Venice was a hotbed for the new Machiavellian statecraft, and the university its training ground." But each time the story's credibility stretches, Miller comes through with a new detail that bolsters her theory. John Smith reported survivors at some place called Panawioc. "Panawioc," Miller found, is an Algonquian word that means "place of foreigners."

She considers what she's done as science and is impatient with any counterargument that doesn't explain all of the original documents, which she regards as scientific data. And she's correct that her critics thus far have not so much countered her evidence as expressed unease at the confident manner in which she enlists seemingly everything in support of her theory. Thomas Shields, director of the Roanoke Colonies Research Office at East Carolina University, describes this as, "You get some really good leads and good ideas, and then you just can't help yourself. You keep on pushing them and pushing them, and taking them maybe a little too far. It's not that she's wrong, it's just that where she assumes that she's got to be right, it's not certain." But he adds, "Her theory takes into account a number of things that people have always wondered about. The conspiracy thing is sexy. Hers is one good story that we have to think about and say is a possibility, along with other very good stories."

"People think this all sounds far-fetched," Miller concedes. "But all of my conclusions and hypotheses are based 100 percent on primary data. You can't argue with primary data. You can argue with my interpretation, but then you've got to come up with a different solution that fits the data."

In Set Fair for Roanoke, David Beers Quinn wrote: "But when all is done, a considerable exercise of the historical imagination is necessary to bring any coherence to the story, and, as with many historical sequences for which only limited data survive, hypotheses only remain good until they are superseded by better ones." Ask her to name the weakest parts of her theory, and Miller responds, "I think I have Walsingham. I really, really think I got the right guy. But 400 years later, with such little data, I'll never be 100 percent sure. I am 99 percent sure that these people got disseminated through the Great Trading Path. But data is so sketchy. If new journals surface and we find something that conflicts with what I have to say, fine, we'll throw out my theory and get a new one."

But until then, says Miller, "I think I've got it."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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