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The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Review

The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Science writer Andrew Lawler (WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE WORLD?) focuses on an obscure bit of American history in THE SECRET TOKEN. By examining it from every conceivable angle, he has made of it a mirror in which we can see ourselves with all our curious quirks.

The story of the Lost Colony is tied to the earliest settlement of our country in the 1500s. A band of rather average folks came from England under the aegis of Sir Walter Raleigh to colonize that piece of the North Carolina coast that sticks out rather dangerously into the Atlantic. Three years later, a supply ship came to check on the Roanoke Colony. The settlers had disappeared, their buildings dismantled, with only the mysterious word “Croatoan” --- the secret token --- carved into a tree as a possible clue to their whereabouts. The word referenced both a nearby island and a local tribe of Algonquian native peoples.

"Owing to the dearth of records from the time, much of what we think we know about the Lost Colony lies in the realm of legend and sensationalism. Lawler assiduously examines a handful of authentic documents in the case..."

Owing to the dearth of records from the time, much of what we think we know about the Lost Colony lies in the realm of legend and sensationalism. Lawler assiduously examines a handful of authentic documents in the case, along with later diversions of pseudo-history, such as the probable hoax of the Dare Stones. He brings that conglomeration up to the current day when some academics and a handful of exuberant puzzle solvers are still at work looking for the solution. He identifies the streak of racism than runs through the lore, including a cult fixated on little Virginia Dare, the first child born on American soil, held up as a shining example of pure white maidenhood.

Most reasonable colony sleuths (rightly or wrongly, since the truth may never be known) agree that the two most likely scenarios to explain the colonizers’ disappearance were attack by or assimilation into the native population. The latter would have had an easily understandable motive: the need to survive in an inhospitable climate already occupied by people who knew how to do so. Having mixed their blood and fortunes with the locals, the colonists then would have hidden from later search parties. Reports filtered in over time of tribesfolk who spoke words of English, traded for English-made goods and had gray eyes.

Lawler does not settle on any one conclusion, but states that in looking for the Lost Colony, he uncovered much about what it means “to be an American amid our national mashup of genes and traditions.” Still, he can’t resist throwing in a final hint of possible “Elizabethan” elements in the unique celebrations of the Roanoke region.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on June 8, 2018

The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke
by Andrew Lawler

  • Publication Date: June 5, 2018
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385542011
  • ISBN-13: 9780385542012