B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S04E06 The Lost Colony of Roanoke

We open on a reenactmentpolooza as a bunch of people dressed Elizabethan-era English colonists do old timey chores. It’s the Lost Colony of Roanoke, a genuine historical mystery! Just how did a settlement of woefully under-prepared people, with little support from their government, fail to thrive on an unfamiliar shore?

The Lost Colony of Roanoke In Search Of s04e06
The Colony Gets Lost

No seriously, it is a mystery. There were so many ways things could have gone wrong, so which one was it?

There’s some filler/tone setting, as we look at the ruins of ancient civilizations whilst mournful music plays, and Nimoy eulogises these cultures. And then we go into the Roanoke story. So many reenactments! The poor actors in full Elizabethan garb pointing at maps are great.

Anyway, the story goes that Queen Elizabeth helped found an English colony on a small island off North America. The Spanish ha claimed the continent, but the mainland was still controlled by the Native Americans, when the Roanokeans arrived. The colony failed to thrive and their leader, Sir Walter Raleigh, return to England to ask for help. An impressive number of reenactors wave him away as he rows off. There’s also some surprisingly good footage of people building wooden houses in full Elizabethan rig. I’m guessing at least some of these guys are probably pro-reenactors from some living history exhibition?

Nimoy gives a speech from a beach. Is he actually where it’s implied he is for once? Like, actually in South Carolina? Who knows. Anyway, the speech is mostly pretty good except that it switches between past and present tense, which is very mildly irritating, even though I did it myself in that last paragraph.

Anyway, guy dressed as Sir Walter Raleigh fails to convinced woman dressed as Queen Liz to offer help to the colonists, because the Spanish Armada is Armadaing away at the time.

Some reenactors return to Roanoke… but the main body of reenactors is gone. A bearded guy in pantaloons plays Greensleeves on a recorder to enhance the general Tudorishness of things, but nothing happens. There’s a lot of people walking through the forest. They find a stockade  where the village was, but…

Look, this episode is quite pretty and the pacing is nice but basically the settlers have gone and there’s nothing there but the word ‘Croatoan’ carved into some wood. It’s all good and spooky, but it could all have been told in half the time. But the payoff is wonderful – all of the villagers/reenactors wave at the camera — and then just fade away out of sight. I remember watching this episode as a kid, and that image must have had a big impact on me because it was the only part of this episode that I remembered.

Next up, looking for answers. Did the settlers go to nearby Croatoan Island? If they did, they left no trace, other than explicitly saying that was where they planned to go.

A pipe smoking guy in a blue jacket (who turns out to be an author named David Stich) wonders what happened to the Roanoke Settlers. He suggests an attack by Spain, but notes that there’s nothing in Spanish archives to back this theory up. Another possibility is that they built a ship and tried to go back to England. He says that this is improbable because it would have been a stupid move for the settlers. Then again, desperate people do stupid things sometimes, so I don’t think that necessarily holds water.

Nimoy notes that about a thousand people lived on Roanoke in the late 1970s, and that locals tend to have theories about what happened. A ranger at the local historic site suggests that the settlers joined the Hatteras people, and died when that group was destroyed by smallpox. His other theory is that they joined the Chesapeake people, only to be massacred alongside the Chesapeake people. This kind of puts this mystery into perspective. A hundred white people going missing isn’t that big a deal compared with the veritable holocaust affecting the rest of the continent.

Moving on, a re-enactment of Captain Smith of the Jamestown colony, talking to some Native Americans including Powhattan and Pocahontas (colours of the wind not shown). Supposedly, Powhattan said that some white people were traveling with Natives, but got caught up in an inter-tribal war and mostly killed. The re-enactment of the battle is actually pretty well made and the music compliments it well, being both fast paced and also kind of sad.

Nimoy talks about the theory that the Roanoke colonists were assimilated into a Native tribe. Googling, I find this theory is fairly well supported by the physical evidence.

Yes, I’m surprised too. No alien conspiracies, no sea monsters, no sasquatch attack. Basically, the theory that the show is pushing may or may not be correct — but it is perfectly reasonable.

But the show returns to form with a weird detour through the basement of Brenau University in Georgia. An inscribed stone purporting to show the fate of Virginia Dare – child of Roanoke colonists and the first English person to be born in America – was handed into Brenau College history department. The college advertised a reward for any other stones, and a bunch of fakes were handed in. Embarrassed by this, the school put all the stones in the basement in an effort to forget the whole thing. The college’s history professor James Sutherland is interviewed and says that the first stone is probably genuine.

A little research suggests that the stones aren’t taken super seriously by historians, but are beloved by documentary makers. The tense, moving camera footage of Brenau’s basement is kind of cool. The historian does go on for a bit, though, and he’s not exactly interesting.

And then have some lovely footage of Carolina woodlands, while Nimoy tells the story of the ghost of Virginia Dare. One last re-enactment – this time a blonde woman in buckskins running through the forest. The story is a nice little gothic tale about her being engaged to a Native man but being betrayed by a jealous shaman who turns her into a deer. Later, her beloved shoots her, not realising that the deer he was hunting was actually his beloved. It’s an enjoyable story, well told and fairly well illustrated – more interesting that shots of dank basements, at least. Anyway, her ghost is still there, Nimoy claims she’s trying to tell the story of the colony.

Evidence that Virginia lived to adulthood is sparse. Child mortality at the time was tremendous, even without considering the specific dangers of the Roanoke colony. Googling Virginia, people seem very invested in her survival. I suppose that’s because she’s the first known Anglo person born in North America, and people really dislike the idea that the first of something might lack continuity with later iterations of a thing.

Now the summing up – Nimoy gives a wonderfully dramatic reading over footage of Carolinian wilderness and reenactors. I can’t really fault it. It’s a straight down the line summing up of the string of bad decisions and poor planning that made the colony vulnerable to whatever unknown trigger event caused the settlers to flee.

All in all, not a bad episode. The reenactments were actually pretty good and it outlines the mystery without getting too exotic with its solutions.

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B.G. Hilton - Author