The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island

By Eric Hause

The Lost Colony

The image is one of the most haunting in American folklore: Eleanor Dare cradling her infant daughter as they struggle through a vast wilderness, seemingly forgotten by her father who brought them to an unfamiliar land, then left them to fend for themselves.

In the four centuries since their disappearance, Eleanor and Virginia Dare have become true American heroines, players in an epic unsolved mystery that still challenges historians and archaeologists as one of America’s oldest. In 1587, over 100 men, women and children journeyed from Britain to Roanoke Island on North Carolina’s coast and established the first English settlement in America. Within three years, they had vanished with scarcely a trace. England’s initial attempt at colonization of the New World was a disaster, and one of America’s most enduing legends was born.

The lay of the land of modern Roanoke Island appears much as it did at the time of the colonists’ arrival. The low, narrow island lies between the treacherous Outer Banks and the mainland. Although it is influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, it is a verdant oasis compared to the harsh winds and pounding surf of the barrier islands. Instead, Roanoke is characterized by thick marshlands and stands of live oaks teeming with wildlife–a much more hospitable site for settlement.

In 1584, explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe were the first to set eyes on the island. They had been sent to the area by Sir Walter Raleigh with the mission of scouting the broad sounds and estuaries in search of an ideal location for settlement. Amadas and Barlowe wrote glowing reports of Roanoke Island, and when they returned to England a year later with two Natives, Manteo and Wanchese, all of Britain was abuzz with talk of the New World’s wonders.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh

Queen Elizabeth herself was impressed, and she granted Raleigh a patent to all the lands he could occupy. He named the new land “Virginia”, in honor of the Virgin Queen, and the next year, Raleigh sent a party of 100 soldiers, craftsmen and scholars to Roanoke Island.

Under the direction of Ralph Lane, the garrison was doomed from the beginning. They arrived too late in the season for planting, and supplies were dwindling rapidly. To make matters worse, Lane, a military captain, alienated the neighboring Roanoke Indians, and ultimately sealed his own fate by murdering their chief, Wingina over a stolen cup.

By 1586, when Sir Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke after a plundering expedition, Lane and his men had had enough. They abandoned the settlement and left behind a fort, the remains of which can still be seen at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site today. Ironically, a supply ship from England arrived at Roanoke less than a week later. Finding the island deserted, the leader left behind 15 of his men to hold the fort and returned to England for reinforcements.

Raleigh was angry with Lane but not deterred from his mission. He recruited 117 men, women and children for a more permanent settlement, and appointed John White governor of the new “Cittie of Raleigh”. Among the colonists were White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare, his son-in-law Annanias Dare, and the Indian chief Manteo, who had become an ally during his stay in Britain.

Raleigh had since decided that the Chesapeake Bay area was a better site for settlement, and he hired Simon Fernandes, a Portuguese pilot familiar with the area, to transport the colonists there. Fernandes, however, was by trade a privateer in the escalating war between Spain and England. By the time the caravan arrived at Roanoke Island in July, 1587, to check on the 15 men left behind a year earlier, he had grown impatient with the White and anxious to resume the hunt for Spanish shipping. He ordered the colonists ashore on Roanoke Island.

The colonists soon learned that Indians had murdered the 15 men and were uneasy at the prospect of remaining on Roanoke Island. But Fernandes left them no choice. They unloaded their belonging and supplies and repaired Lane’s fort. On August 18, 1587, Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter she named Virginia, thus earning the distinction of being the first English child born on American soil. Ten days later, Ferndades departed for England, taking along an anxious John White, who hesitantly decided to return to England for supplies. It was the last time he would never see his family.

imageUpon his arrival in Britain, White found himself trapped by the impending invasion of the Spanish Armada. Finally, two years after the stunning defeat of the Armada, he again departed for Roanoke Island. He arrived on August 18, 1590–his grand daughter’s third birthday–and found the “Cittie of Raleigh” deserted, plundered, and surrounded “with a high pallisado of great trees, with cortynes and flankers, very fort-like”. On one of the palisades, he found the single word “CROATOAN” carved into the surface, and the letters “CRO” carved into a nearby tree.

White knew the carvings were “to signifie the place, where I should find the planters seated, according to a secret token agreed upon betweene them and me at my last departure from them…for at my coming away, they were prepared to remove 50 miles into the maine”. He had also instructed the colonists that, should they be forced to leave the island under duress, they should carve a Maltese cross above their destination. White found no such sign, and he had every hope that he would locate the colony and his family at Croatoan, the home of Chief Manteo’s people south of Roanoke on present-day Hatteras Island.

Before he could make further exploration, however, a great hurricane arose, damaging his ships and forcing him back to England. Despite repeated attempts, he was never again able to raise the funding and resources to make the trip to America again. Raleigh had given up hope of settlement, and White died many years later on one of Raleigh’s estates, ignorant to the fate of his family and the colony.

The 117 pioneers of Roanoke Island had vanished into the great wilderness.

imageIn the following years, evidence as to their fate was slow to emerge, but some intriguing accounts exist. In 1709, English explorer John Lawson visited Roanoke Island and spent some time among the Hatteras Indians, descendants of the Croatoan tribe. In A New Voyage to Carolina, he wrote “that several of their ancestors were white people and could talk in a book as we do, the truth of which is confirmed by gray eyes being found infrequently among these Indians and no others.”

In the 1880s, with the approach of the Roanoke Colony’s 300th anniversary, a North Carolina man named Hamilton MacMillan proposed a theory that holds some credence today. MacMillan lived in Robeson County in southeastern North Carolina near a settlement of Pembroke Indians, many of whom claimed that their ancestors came from “Roanoke in Virginia”.

According to MacMillan, the Pembrokes spoke pure Anglo-Saxon English and bore the last names of many of the lost colonists. Furthermore, “Roanoke in Virginia” was how Raleigh and his contemporaries referred to Roanoke Island. The Pembrokes also had European features: fair eyes, light hair, and an Anglo bone structure. MacMillan’s findings, published in 1888 pamphlet, gained a great deal of attention from the academic community and renewed interest in the lost colony.

imageOther less plausible theories and some outright trickery surfaced in the mid-1900s. A series of mysterious rocks first uncovered in 1937 in eastern North Carolina seemed to solve the mystery. The original stone, dubbed the Eleanor Dare Stone, was found in a swamp 60 miles west of Roanoke Island by a traveler. It was covered with strange carvings, which, when deciphered, appeared to be a message from Eleanor Dare to her father, indicating that the colony had fled Roanoke Island after Indian attack.

Over the next three years, nearly 40 similar stones were unearthed from North Carolina to Georgia, and when pieced together, related a fantastic tale of the colonists’ overland journey through the southeast, culminating in the death of Eleanor Dare in 1599. Although the academic world was skeptical, the media had a field day and were forced to eat their words in 1940 when an investigative reporter exposed the entire saga as an elaborate hoax.

In the past 40 years, scholars have discovered previously unknown records in the Spanish and British archives that may point the way toward a logical, if not provable, solution. Many historians now believe that after White’s departure from Roanoke in 1587, the colony split into two factions, and the largest segment of the colony departed for the Chesapeake Bay, their original destination. Lane had explored the Bay area in 1585, and the colonists probably had maps made by White himself.

When John Smith and the Jamestown colonists arrived in 1607, Smith took up the search for the colonists and discovered that they probably had been in the area. In his dealings with the hostile Indian chief Powhatan, he learned that the colonists had lived among the friendly Chesapeake Indians on the south side of the Bay. Threatened by the intrusion of white men into the region, Powhatan claimed to have attacked the colonists and murdered most of them. As proof of his claim, he showed Smith “a musket barrell and a brass mortar, and certain pieces of iron that had been theirs.”

By 1612, the Jamestown leaders had received numerous reports that at least some of the Roanoke colonists were living nearby. They sent out several search parties, but had no success, and soon gave up the search.

What became of the remainder of the colonists left on Roanoke Island? Scholars speculate that they were left behind to meet White upon his return from England, but soon fled to Croatoan, leaving the mysterious carvings behind as a signal to White. Spanish archives reveal that they were gone by June, 1588, when a raiding party put in at Roanoke Island only to find the settlement deserted. Scholars assume that they were then assimilated into the Croatoan tribe.

Today, the north end of Roanoke Island is regularly visited by historians and archaeologists hoping to uncover new evidence as to the fate of the colony. So far, none has been forthcoming. The post and the tree bearing the carvings have long since vanished, although many of the live oaks in the National Historic Site were seedlings during the colonists tenure. No archaeological clues as to the whereabouts of the Cittie of Raleigh have ever been uncovered, and the 500-acre park remains mostly an enigma, apropos to the events that unfolded here 400 years ago.

This article originally appeared in Reader’s Digest Books’ Explore America, Places of Folklore and Legend, 1997.

Photo of the Day

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The lunar eclipse as photographed from my mother-in-law’s front yard in Lincoln, Nebraska, September 27, 2015. There’s so much more I can say about this photograph. Like how my mother-in-law, Joan, died two days before I took this photo, and how her children and husband and nieces and nephews and grandchildren were all standing in the front yard of her house with me when I took this.

Or how my own mother had died back in Norfolk less than a month earlier in hospice under almost exactly the same circumstances as Joan, and how she had died on the night of the previous month’s full moon. And how the day after I took this photo was my mother’s birthday.

But for now, let’s just let this photo stand as evidence that the universe has a plan greater then we know, and it’s all going to be ok.

Because that’s the only thing that will get us through life on this horrible, wicked planet.

The Fate of Theodosia Burr

By Eric Hause | Copyright by the author

Legends and myths pervade the coast of North Carolina. From the disappearance of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony to the mystery of Blackbeard’s buried treasure, tales with a basis in historical fact abound. Perhaps one of the most fascinating and ironic tales involves the daughter of one of America’s founding fathers.

On a cold stormy night in 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston vanished along with the schooner Patriot somewhere off the Outer Banks. To this day, her fate remains shrouded in mystery, hidden beneath the shifting sands and shoals of the barrier islands.

TheodosiaburrTheodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr, former vice president to Thomas Jefferson, who claimed a notorious place in history as the man who killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in America’s most famous duel in 1804. And although this is a tale of the Burr family, it begins with Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was born by the sea in the West Indies and grew up with a healthy admiration for its power. When he was 15, he wrote such a vivid description of a hurricane that ravaged his St. Croix home that local merchants sponsored his schooling in New York.

In 1773, while on one of his frequent journeys between New York and the Virgin Islands, young Hamilton’s ship, the Thunderbolt, was caught in a terrific gale of Hatteras. As the captain hove to in an effort to ride out the storm off the Cape, the galley caught fire, and for 12 terrifying hours, the crew and Hamilton fought the blaze. Once under control, the heavily damaged ship limped northward to Boston.

Hamilton would never forget that night off Cape Hatteras. He swore an oath that should he ever be in a position to do so, he would erect a lighthouse on the treacherous cape as a warning to all other mariners.

Hamilton went on to become on the leaders of the Revolution and eventually a member of President George Washington’s cabinet. True to his word, in 1790, he passed a bill through Congress calling for the construction of the first lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. Nine years later, it was completed, and although it has long fallen into the sea, ‘‘Mr. Hamilton’s Light’‘ served its purpose well.

During his rise to political power, Hamilton befriended a young New York lawyer named Aaron Burr. They had initially met while serving under Washington during the Revolution. After the war, Hamilton found Burr’s political ambitions matched his own and together they worked to forge a new nation.

Burr married in 1781 and two years later his wife gave birth to their only child –a daughter they named Theodosia. From the start, father and daughter were connected in ways very few are. Theo’s love for and devotion to her father were rivaled only by Burr’s nearly obsessive parenting. Burr spent many of Theo’s formative years in Washington, and when she was 10, they began a 20-year legacy of correspondence that remains to this day as a record of their strong relationship.

When her mother died of cancer in 1794, Theo easily stepped into the role of mistress of Richmond Hill, the family home in Albany. She supported her father’s rising political career by hosting grand parties at the estate. Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton were all regular visitors, and Theo was charming and gracious to them all, all the while remaining close by her father’s side.

Theo had many suitors, but she did not meet her husband until a dashing young southern aristocrat by the name of Joseph Alston visited Albany in 1800. Theo soon after confided to her father that she was falling in love with Alston, and in February 1801 they were married.

Theo left Richmond Hill to make her new home in South Carolina, where she would spend her days supervising two plantations and the Alston family home. She loved her husband, but often missed her New York home –and especially her father. She wrote to him that the hot, humid climate and swampy Lowcountry was no match for the beauty of Hudson River Valley.

In May 1802, after a very difficult labor, Theo gave birth to a son, named Aaron Burr Alston. She never completely recovered from the birth. When her husband was elected Governor of South Carolina, her weakness coupled with her new demands as First Lady of South Carolina began to take their toll. She made several visits to health resorts with no lasting effect. But her dedication to her family never wavered.

In 1804, Aaron Burr’s political career disintegrated. The heated political climate of the day had found Burr and Hamilton on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their rivalry descended into a war of personal insults waged in the northern newspapers until Burr, outraged beyond apology, challenged Hamilton to the duel that would kill the former vice-president.

Burr was charged with murder. Throughout the ordeal, Theo stood by her father. She traveled to New York several times during the long trial and was elated when he was finally acquitted. But Burr became a bitter man. He longed for political power and allegedly planned his resurrection with a scheme to convince several western states to seceded and place him at the head of the new government.

In 1807, he was again arrested for conspiracy. And again, Theo decried his innocence. ‘‘The knowledge of my father’s innocence, my ineffable contempt for his enemies, and the elevation of his mind have kept me above any sensations bordering on depression,’‘ she wrote to her husband from New York.

After an arduous yearlong trial, Burr was once again acquitted, and he left the country, a once-powerful leader in voluntary exile. Theo returned to South Carolina, the ordeal adding to her increasingly frail health. The final blow came in June 1812, when her son died of tropical fever.

Theo, Burr, and Alston were all inconsolable over the loss. ‘‘You talk of consolation,’‘ she wrote to her father. ‘‘Ah! You know not what you have lost. I think omnipotence could give me no equivalent for my boy.’‘

Burr returned to New York, and in December, he convinced Theo to come home for the holidays. It would be their first visit in five years. Alston, however, was reluctant to allow Theo to make the ocean voyage north. The country was at war with Britain, Theo’s health was still fragile, and there were rumors of pirates along the Carolina Outer Banks.

Theo’s insistence won, and Alston wrote a letter to the British Navy, which was blockading the coast, requesting safe passage for his wife. Aaron sent a trusted physician and friend, Timothy Green south to accompany his daughter. On December 30, Theo, Dr. Green, and a maid boarded the schooner The Patriot in Charleston harbor.

The Patriot was in from several months of privateering in the West Indies. The American government had hired The Patriot to harass British shipping during the War of 1812, and her hold was filled with loot from these raids. In order to disguise the ship’s true identity, the captain stowed the guns below and painted over the ship’s name on the bow. They lifted anchor late in the afternoon and set sail for the open sea. It was the last time Alston would ever see his wife.

The journey to New York normally took five or six days. After two weeks had passed with no sign of the Patriot, Burr and Alston became frantic. Alston wrote, ‘‘Another mail and still no letter! I hear too rumors of a gale off Cape Hatteras at the beginning of the month. The state of my mind is dreadful!’‘

In New York, Burr had already reached the inevitable conclusion. When a friend offered hope that Theo was still alive, Burr replied, ‘‘No, no, she is indeed dead. Were she still alive, all the prisons in the world could not keep her from her father.’‘

The Patriot had disappeared without a trace. Later it was learned that the British fleet had stopped her off Hatteras on January 2. Governor Alston’s letter worked, and the schooner was allowed to pass. Later that night, a gale arose and scattered the British fleet.

Beyond that clue, no more was known. Burr sent searchers to Nassau and Bermuda with no success. Why he neglected to send them to the Outer Banks remains a mystery for it is there that Theo met her fate.

The evidence is compelling and first surfaced in 1833. That year, an Alabama newspaper reported that a local resident, a confessed pirate admitted to participating in the plunder of the Patriot at Nags Head and the murder of all on board.

Fifteen years later, another former pirate, ‘‘Old Frank’‘ Burdick, confessed a similar story on his deathbed. He told a horrifying story of holding the plank for Mrs. Alston, who walked calmly over the side, dressed completely in white. He said she begged for word of her fate to be sent to her father and husband. He went on to say that once the crew and passengers had been murdered, they plundered the ship and abandoned her under full sail. He also mentioned seeing a portrait of Theodosia in the main cabin.

Perhaps the most intriguing evidence to support this theory revolves around that painting. In 1869, a Dr. Poole from Elizabeth City was called to the bedside of an ailing old Banker woman in Nags Head. The woman was related by marriage to families who had once made their living by plundering vessels wrecked along the beaches.

The doctor noticed a stunning portrait of a young woman dressed in white hanging on the wall of the woman’s shack. When he commented on the beauty of the subject, the old woman offered an astonishing explanation.

She told Dr. Poole that one night ‘‘during the English war’‘ a pilot boat had drifted ashore at Nags Head at the height of a winter’s gale. The boat was abandoned with all sails set, and the name on the bow had been painted over. In the main cabin, the Bankers had found several trunks and women’s belonging’s scattered everywhere. They also found the portrait, which one of the looters took as a gift for the old woman.

The ailing woman had no money with which to pay Dr. Poole, so she offered him the 12-by-18 painting instead. The portrait generated much publicity when Dr. Poole returned to Elizabeth City, and several years later, a descendant of the Burrs came to see it. She immediately identified it as Theo because of the subject’s resemblance to other members of the Burr family.

There is no record today of what Theo carried aboard the Patriot that fateful day. It certainly would be in keeping with her devotion to her father to have such a fine portrait in her possession as a gift to him. Yet through such inconsequential details are myths made, and for now, the truth lies buried beneath the shifting sands of Nags Head.

The irony, however, is inescapable. Somewhere along this shore, where her father’s nemesis had erected a lighthouse to save her, Theodosia Burr Alston lost her life on a stormy January night. And although we may never know exactly how that happened, a suicidal poet may have touched on why.

In 1894, a very young Robert Frost came to Kitty Hawk. Suffering from acute depression, he felt the need to get away from the pressure of life, and as many similar people do, he came to the Outer Banks. One night, he crossed over the Kitty Hawk beach and walked with a member of the local lifesaving crew on patrol. The patrolman told him Theo’s story, and it moved him deeply. Years later, he would recount the experience and her tale in one of his lesser-known but moving poem, Kitty Hawk:

‘‘Did I recollect
how the wreckers wrecked
Theodosia Burr off this very shore?
‘‘’Twas to punish her
but her father more.’‘

 

 

Do We Still Need “Gay Weddings?”

Arguments at the United States Supreme Court for Same-Sex Marriage on April 28, 2015

Arguments at the United States Supreme Court for Same-Sex Marriage on April 28, 2015

The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage represents the LGBTQ rights movement’s biggest leap forward. At long last, the one fundamental right denied our community for so long is a reality. And now we celebrate.

But as America’s checkered past with equality illustrates, acceptance is slow to follow the letter of the law. If we look at the American experience of African-Americans, Latino, women’s, and other minority communities, there is no doubt that while legal protections are in place, forms of discrimination are still in practice.

Similarly, the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality is in some ways just beginning. Religious objection initiatives and lawsuits are popping up across the country as those who object to our rights make one last attempt to abridge them.

One example is the current lack of federal legislation defining sexual orientation as a protected class under Title IX. Technically, this means people can still be legally fired for their sexual orientation. While 22 states have passed legislation that prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, most states do not have such a provision. So while homosexual couples can now get married in all fifty states, they can also get fired for simply being gay

LGBTQ fair housing laws are another protection lacking from the law books. While 21 states and a patchwork of municipalities ban anti-LGBTQ housing discrimination, the Federal Fair Housing Act does not address the issue. The Supreme Court may very well find that there is a constitutional right to marry, but such a ruling would do nothing to prevent landlords from denying newlyweds housing in the 29 states where this type of discrimination remains entirely legal.

Last week, the Equality Act that addresses these issues was introduced in Congress. But even if the Equality Act passes, it will not do away with what former Attorney General Eric Holder referred to as subtle discrimination. “The greatest threats,” he said, “do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper.”

We in the LGBTQ community are all too familiar with subtle discrimination. It’s the rare but hurtful unspoken look of disapproval, the curious lack of service, or an unexplainable “no” from individuals, organizations, and businesses that quietly refuse to accommodate our community.

The good news is that in the wedding industry, the overwhelming majority of wedding vendors I work with fully embrace marriage equality. Still, we’ve all read the recent stories of those who aren’t so welcoming.

As LGBTQ couples navigate the already-stressful new frontier of wedding planning, the last thing they want is to encounter the quiet “no”. Fortunately, we’ve discovered that LGBTQ couples are aware of that possibility and approaching the task as savvy consumers.

At Weddings with Pride, we’re currently asking LGBTQ couples about their wedding planning needs. One of the most surprising findings is that a vast majority of them—84%—replied that when researching wedding professionals, they look for LGBTQ-positive language in the business’s marketing language, photos, and reviews. In addition, 72% indicate that their first preference when hiring a vendor is one that is gay-owned or operated, or one with same-sex wedding experience.

Until the new definition of marriage has time to permeate the American psyche—which may take years—LGBTQ couples will seek out equality-minded wedding professionals first. Providing them with the resources to do so is the next step in moving marriage equality forward to the point where the “gay” distinction is dropped, and our society simply celebrates weddings.

This op-ed appeared into AltDaily.com, Hampton Road’s alternative blog. I republish it here for your consideration.

Dinner is Served at the Oscars to Benefit Access AIDS Care

Andrew and I help with this party every year, primarily because it benefits Access AIDS Care, our local AIDS service organization. But it’s also great fun with our besties. This year, the theme centered around The Oscars, and I built a Step and Repeat so we could pretend we are famous movie stars. The participants became goofier as the night (and the drinks) wore on.

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