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Andrew Lawler; The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony

Andrew Lawler is a master storyteller. The author of The Secret Token-Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony visited the Outer Banks to talk about his book—just released last month—and what the search for the 115 colonists has meant to him.

The Bryan Cultural Series was host to two events this past weekend featuring Lawler. On Friday evening he was at All Saints Episcopal Church in Southern Shores and he appeared Sunday afternoon with ECU archaeologist Charles Ewen at the Dare County Arts Council Gallery in Manteo.

Lawler began his talk in Southern Shores by telling the audience that at one time he thought he knew the story of the Lost Colony.

“Growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, (visiting the Outer Banks) was the thing we would do every summer. There were two things to do. Bingo and cross the bridge to Roanoke Island and sit on the park benches for three and a half hours. I did that every year from when I was three until I was 18. So I thought I knew everything there was to know about it,” he said.

A science writer whose articles have appeared in the New York Times and National Geographic, Lawler was in England working on a story and a chance encounter began his obsession.

“One evening on a rainy night in Oxford or Cambridge I was seated by an English archaeologist and I asked him where he was digging,” Lawler said. “And he said, ‘Zanzibar.’”

Curious, Lawler asked if there were any digs in the Untied States.

“Oh there’s a place but you’ve never heard of it. It’s called Hatteras” his British archaeologist said.

“And I said 'Hatteras Island.’”

“Why yes.”

“And I asked, ‘Have you found the lost Colony?’ And he said, ‘As a matter of fact we did.’”

The archaeologist was Mark Horton who with Hatteras naive Scott Dawson has been digging at Buxton since 2009.

In The Secret Token, Horton portrays the artifacts that have been found at Buxton as conclusive.

Other archaeologists are not so sure.

When ECU Charles Ewen joined Lawler for a discussion of The Secret Token and what the various artifacts mean, he began by noting that our entire body of historic documentation for the Lost Colony consists of the writings of John White.

“Since there is so little factual evidence I always have to say, ‘How much of what John White actually wrote is all the truth?’” he asked. “There are two camps. One of them has a bumper sticker that says, ‘John White said it. I believe it. That settles it.’ And then there’s the more skeptical.”

Ewen is clearly in the skeptical camp.

He pointed out that although there is suggestive evidence at the Hatteras dig, none of it is conclusive and all of it can be explained in equally as convincing ways that would not include the Lost Colonists.

In his book, Lawler discusses at some length those very issues, and it is that full range of discussion that makes The Secret Token such a absorbing book.

The book is rich in detail, filled with facts that trace the historic and political forces at work that created the Lost Colony in the 1580s.

In the world Lawler uncovers, England is a backward nation lacking trained navigators, scientists and resources to colonize the New World. He explains how Sir Walther Raleigh, very much in Queen Elizabeth’s favor, was granted the right to license all liquor establishments in England and that revenue is how he financed a venture the government did not have the money to undertake.

The world the Colonists enter in 1587 is far more complex than they realize with Indian tribes and kingdoms forming alliances and seeking political advantage with a lust for power that was remarkably similar to Europe.

What Lawler has done—and it is what makes The Secret Token so compelling—is examine what the disappearance of the 115 colonist has come to mean.

It wasn’t until the 1830s that most people in America realized there was a Lost Colony—and that came about because of Harvard trained historian George Bancroft’s A History of the United States.

Heavily influenced by the romantic philosophies that were sweeping across Europe at the time, he cast the birth of Virginia Dare as an innocent child born in a world of savages.

Before that time, if it was contemplated at all, the Roanoke colony was thought of as a failed attempt. But when Bancroft recast it’s fate, Virginia Dare became an icon of the struggle to tame the United States and create a world in which an innocent white child would be safe.

“He made her into a national symbol,” Lawler said.

That symbolism continues until this day.

Paul Green was radical for his time. During a period when miscegenation was illegal—even a felony in some states—he has Old Tom, the comic relief, marrying the Native woman Agona. And it is Old Tom who, with Agona asleep at his feet as he stands guard, talks about personal redemption and his hope for the future.

But in the end, the weak but determined colonists, walk off into the wilderness, Virginia Dare in her mother’s arms and her father dead at the hands of Wanchese and his tribe of savages.

If that is the myth, the reality, however, is something we still don’t know, and Lawler explores in wonderful detail the archaeologists, historians and occasional crackpot that have spent their lives in search of the answer to the Lost Colony.

The book is a fantastic read, very well written with an amazing amount of research. It is detailed, with each fact carefully layered upon other facts so that the entire fantastic story of the 115 men, women and children who sailed from England hoping to discover a new life for themselves, becomes the story of who we are as a nation and a people.

“What I discovered, is this is really the American creation story. This is the story about how we became who we are. It’s where our national DNA formed,” Lawler said.