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If you like unsolved mysteries, I have a doozy for you. You may have seen a recent article on NationalGeographic.com that describes a new discovery in the search for the lost colony of Roanoke.
If you’re a Supernatural fan, a word associated with the Lost Colony—Croatoa —probably means something to you. If you’re a student of history or Native American history in particular, this word probably also means something to you.
To me, it represents the most fascinating and irritating thing in the whole world: an unsolved mystery.
I hate unsolved mysteries. It goes against every fiber of my being to accept that some questions are unanswerable. Is this because they have no answer? Of course not. Of course they have answers…you just have to find them.
It goes against every fiber of my being to accept that some questions are unanswerable.
And sometimes finding the answer takes decades, like it did for figuring out what really happened to the Romanovs. Other times, it takes 300 damn years and no one still has a clue. Take a little trip with me as we look at what we know, what we don’t know, and how I used a tragic historic circumstance for my own benefit by writing a story about it.
The Real Story
In 1587, a group of men and women sailed from England and landed on Roanoke Island. Theirs was the third expedition to land in the area; the first expedition had already established a working relationship with the nearby tribes: Secotans and Croatoans. One of the Native Americans, Manteo, was taken to England with the expedition when it returned home.
A second expedition didn’t fare so well. Accusations and a missing silver cup ended with the colonists torching a Native American village. Whether they were right or wrong, it sure didn’t earn them any fans. When Sir Francis Drake stopped by to say hi, most of the expedition members hitched a ride back home. A small detachment of men stayed behind to preserve England’s claim to the area.
Enter the third expedition. Sir Walter Raleigh had told them to hook up with the detachment left behind by the previous expedition, but the only thing they found was a skeleton. No men, no helping hands, no nothing.
Sir Walter Raleigh had told them to hook up with the detachment left behind by the previous expedition, but the only thing they found was a skeleton.
Their leader, John White, tried to patch things up with the Native Americans, but he didn’t have much luck. Instead, the natives killed a settler named George while he was out crabbing, which really freaked the settlers out. But there was one tiny bright spot – and I mean tiny literally. The settlement’s claim to fame came when Virginia Dare was born – the first English baby born in the New World. Poor Virginia’s early life wasn’t easy – in fact it was so hard, the settlers soon faced facts: they were screwed unless they got some help, pronto.
They begged White to sail back to England and bring help. White obliged, leaving behind 115 people, including his daughter, Eleanor, and his baby granddaughter.
For the ones left behind, it was rough going: a cold winter plus hostile Native Americans did not a Merry Christmas make.
Between hunger and disease, the settlers’ numbers dwindled. Their only hope was that White would return with ships full of food, supplies, and more men.
It didn’t happen.
It took White until 1590 to get back, due to the stupid war with Spain, greedy-ass ship captains, and general bad planning. When he finally arrived, landing on his granddaughter’s third birthday, everyone was gone. 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children vanished without a trace.
It took White until 1590 to get back, due to the stupid war with Spain, greedy-ass ship captains, and general bad planning.
The only clues were two carvings. On a fence post, someone had carved “Croatoan” into the wood. On a tree, someone carved three letters: CRO. The people, the settlement, everything….it was gone. Everything else had been taken apart: dwellings, the palisade, everything. The settlers’ distress signal was a Maltese cross.
White didn’t find one.
He thought “Croatoan” meant Croatoan Island, now called Hatteras Island.
This is where it gets interesting. There are three main groups of theories about what happened:
- Native Americans murdered the settlers. True, there were some hostile neighbors who would probably have liked to see the English vanish for good. Does it mean they up and massacred everyone? No. There’s no proof. This is the urban legend version of the story.
- Native Americans took in the settlers. Despite the hard time the second expedition seems to have had, the nearby tribes were largely friendly with the English. The settlers might have stayed, intermarried, and had kids. Some accounts from Jamestown settlers and Huguenot settlers mention grey-eyed and blue-eyed Native Americans in the area, and that\’s what gave rise to this particular theory.
- The settlers split up into groups and generally vanished. According to the new National Geographic article, the settlers had a plan in place to split up if worst came to worst. It’s feasible they moved from the island to the mainland and dispersed into small groups, seeking shelter with Native Americans. This theory dovetails nicely with theory 2 above. It’s way more likely a tribe would take in a small group of cold and hungry settlers than it is that they would absorb the settlers at large, overwhelming their own resources in doing so.
I decided to write about Roanoke when all I’d done was read the Wikipedia page. But I wanted to give it a more supernatural, almost mystical, bent. Most of the articles on Roanoke do one of two things: devolve into descriptions of how imprecise metal detectors are for finding things like post holes dug by Elizabethan settlers, or make wild speculations about massacres, intermarriage, blue-eyed Indians, and the like.
The answer, when we find it, if we find it, is going to be messy.
So I decided on a cleaner solution.
A scarier solution: a demon who had systematically wiped the colony out.
I named him Croatoa.
I had him come out of the water and talk to Virginia Dare’s mother, Eleanor. He told her how he was picking the settlers off, one by one, and would continue to do so until the last one was gone. To save herself and her child, the demon asks her to deliver others to him. I can’t tell you much more, because I want you to read the story.
I also picked up Manteo as a character (the Native American taken to England when the first expedition returned). He spoke English, much to the relief of the third expedition. This made him an amazing figure to use as a “voice of reason” character, who warns of the evil that will come but is powerless stop it. Like the soothsayer in Julius Caesar, he is pretty much ignored.
I tried to make the language in this story evocative of wilderness that’s dark and scary. I imagine the New World was horrifically scary to a new young mother. I mean, come on…Indian attacks, starvation, men too sick or weak to build shelters or gather firewood…What would it have been like to watch hope disintegrate before your eyes? Would that make you more determined to hold out, or would it make you want it all to end?
What would it have been like to watch hope disintegrate before your eyes? Would that make you more determined to hold out, or would it make you want it all to end?
I know what my fictional Eleanor Dare chose.
I’m not sure if that’s what I’d choose or not. I thank my lucky stars I’ve never been in such a position. I think that’s a big part of choosing what I write. I use writing to explore situations I can’t imagine facing myself, to test myself and put myself in the shoes of someone forced into heroism.
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