The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke
A Book Review
There is, perhaps, no mystery as enduring as the fate of The Lost Colony. Abandoned in an unfamiliar land, lacking many of the skills needed to survive, the riddle of what happened to the 115 colonists has gripped the imagination of an international host of characters since John White found the word Croatoan carved into a tree in 1590.
In The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Andrew Lawler invites readers into a labyrinth of fact and theory that spans the centuries.
Lawler, who is a journalist and science writer, writes with a style that reflects his journalism background. There is little opinion from the author — instead, he allows facts to weave the story.
And the facts that he has uncovered in The Secret Token make for a compelling book that is a must-read for anyone interested in learning what happened to the Lost Colony.
The book, however, is more than a remarkable gathering of facts; it reads at times, like a mystery novel, each new bit of information leading to the next, creating eventually a foundation for exploring the truth, and for rejecting theories that simply do not match the facts.
We learn that John White and Thomas Harriot, part of the first English expedition to make contact with the New World Indians, were adamant that good relations with them were a must for success.
That directive was almost certainly doomed by placing Ralph Lane in charge of the return to the Outer Banks. Lane, as Lawler points out, was a military man with a penchant for beheading his foes in the Irish wars—a habit he carried over to the new world. Nor was it helped by the high-handed manner in which Sir Richard Greenville, the naval commander of the first expedition, treated the Native Americans.
What makes this book so remarkable, though, is how Lawler interweaves an astonishing cache of fact into a tale that parallels the story of America.
He notes early in the book that the colonists who signed up for the venture were middle-class families of no particular skills. Unlike future English ventures to colonize America who were seeking refuge from religious persecution, the colonists saw the planned “Citie of Ralegh” as an opportunity—a chance to better themselves economically and socially.
As interesting as it is learning in such extraordinary detail the history and circumstances behind the first attempt by the English to colonize the New World, the cast of characters Lawler introduces who have tried to answer the question of what happened to the Lost Colony is wonderful.
The modern telling of the tale, according to Lawler, began with George Bancroft, a Harvard trained historian who wrote A History of the United States in 1834. Seeped in the romantic writings that were the emerging trend in European writing of the time, he wove a tale that fit the narrative.
For Bancroft, the struggles of the colonists become almost secondary, according to Lawler, to the story of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World…born in the midst of savages.
That romanticized version of events dominated the thinking for more than 100 years. It is at the heart of Paul Green’s The Lost Colony—the Outdoor Drama that continues nightly during the summer on Roanoke Island after 81 years.
Green, though, was a bit of a radical, and interwoven into the story is the marriage of Old Tom to Agona—an interracial marriage at a time when miscegenation in almost every southern state was illegal.
The science of the search is a fascinating read in its own right. What Lawler does that makes the recounting so fascinating is that he allows the personalities of the researchers to shine through.
British archeologist Mark Horton may be a brilliant mind, but Lawler’s description of a slovenly dressed man who bathes infrequently makes the archeologist more human and the story more interesting.
Lawler tells the tale of the Virginia Pars Map—the map that was recently shown to include a previously hidden fort—in exquisite detail, moving the story along like a well-paced mystery novel.
It is typical of his writing, and it is that blending of style and content that makes The Secret Token a great read and a book that should appeal to a great many readers.