Rebels In The Closet

In the late 1980s, I began the work on a genealogy of my father’s family. At that time, all I had to guide me was curiosity, a few newspaper clippings in a family scrapbook, and my father’s dim recollections of his family tree.

This was long before the advent of the internet, and most of the work involved diving deep into musty old papers, wills, land deeds and marriage records in the libraries and county offices of North Carolina.

Fine with me. I love research and discovery. I was living in Greensboro, halfway between my father’s ancestral home in the Appalachian foothills and the state archives in Raleigh, so all was in easy reach.

I did not know then that I was about to embark on what would ultimately become a 20-year search (that continues today) for the Hause family. What I found was a tale that is as American as America itself.

I found immigrants who had fled the religious conflicts in Germany in 1763 and braved the North Atlantic Ocean for the promise of a better life.

I uncovered the forgotten challenges faced by pioneers who carved their lives out of the North Carolina wilderness.

I met patriots who rose up against the oppression of King George III.

I met every day laborers and farmers trying eke a living out of an uncivilized land.

And I found my connection to the Civil War.

Like most Southerners, I’ve always held a fascination with the subject. Part of that stems from my childhood in eastern North Carolina where I was surrounded by friends descended from the Confederacy. As young child who didn’t know any better, and I tended to mimic some of the racist behavior I saw and heard on the playgrounds.

My I rode the school bus one year, and there was a black kid on the route who mercilessly bullied me. One afternoon, after I arrived home, my brother and I were sitting at the kitchen table having a snack. My mother was across the room working on dinner.  I was telling him about that day’s encounter with this bully, and I used that word.

Nigger.

Out of the blue, my mother’s arm grew 20 feet, came at me from across the room, and connected with the side of my head in a full-fisted right hook that knocked me out of my chair.

When the stars cleared, she was hovering over me.

“The next time I hear you say that word,” she said, “I’ll kill you.”

I learned a valuable lesson that day. First, she wasn’t having that bullshit in her house. Second, I had no doubt she would keep her promise of murder.

Fast-forward 15 years to the day I met my Civil War ancestor, Andrew J. Hause, in the North Carolina State Archives. His colorful life was well documented, and he became the focal point of my research.

He was a bricklayer born only a mile from where his great-grandfather had settled after emigrating from Germany. Two days after Fort Sumter fell, he and 12 of his brothers and cousins enlisted in the Confederate Army. He served under Robert E. Lee’s command in the Virginia Theater. In 1862, 80 miles up the road from where I live today in a battle outside Richmond, he was shot in his left eye.

He survived that egregious wound, spent nine months in a Confederate hospital in Richmond, and was released. He returned to his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, blinded in one eye, the bullet still in his head. He died in 1906 at 83 years old, the last Confederate veteran in his county.

His tombstone is inscribed with this:

“No monument of fame rear o’er the lonely bed
But carve beneath his name on a stone above his head
A man who wore the gray here slumbers with the dead.”

As I dug deeper into the records, I realized that he and his people were not landed gentry. They were millers and small farmers and house painters. Andrew  was a bricklayer by trade and didn’t own slaves.

I thought they couldn’t have possibly fought against the Union because they supported the “peculiar institution.” I assumed that like their grandparents who had rebelled against an unjust King, their motivation was rooted in protection of their homeland against foreign invaders.

What a story. I had found my Civil War hero, and he was evidence that not all Southerners who fought in that war were racist.

In the following years, as I strode deeper into the wider world, I began to more fully comprehend the terrible impact of slavery on our collective psyche. I began to cultivate friends who were working to heal the racial divide, and I engaged in conversations with African American scholars and friends who explained that deep injuries remained which had their roots in slavery.

It was our original sin as one author labeled it–a moniker that resonates with me today. Slowly, I began to question the pride I felt in my Confederate people.

And then came the Internet.

One evening about 20 years ago, I sat down at my computer and Googled  “Andrew J. Hause.” Several results returned, and one caught my eye: “AJ Hause, LD Wright, and WD Hardy to Abraham Lincoln: South Carolinians Offer to buy Hamlin.”

It was a letter archived in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Papers in the Library of Congress. I pulled up the letter’s image, and in a handwritten scrawl that may have been my ancestor’s, I read the words.

At first, they made no sense:

“Spartanburg, S. C.
Nov 27 1860

Dear Sir

We understand you have a very likely & intelligent mulatto boy you would dispose of on reasonable terms being engaged in negro trading if you will let us know what you will take for the boy Hannibal known as Hannibal Hamlin and your price is reasonable we will purchase him and are prepared to meet you with the cash at Richmond Va on the 18 Decr inst. Your early attention to the above will oblige

Yours Respectfully
J D Wright
W D Hardy
A.J. Hause”

I had so many questions. Who was Hannibal Hamlin? Why were Andrew and his friends offering to buy him?

After further Googling, I discovered that Hannibal Hamlin was a Senator from Maine and Lincoln’s running mate in the 1860 election. Southerners were terrified that Lincoln and Hamlin would win the White House and abolish slavery.

To exacerbate that fear, Southern newspapers perpetuated a rumor that Hamlin, who had dark hair, a wide nose, and vaguely dark features was of mixed race and thus an agent in Lincoln’s abolition agenda. Most Southerners took it as gospel, and apparently my ancestor did as well.

Along with that discovery came some disturbing, long-forgotten memories of my father’s family. They floated up from my childhood like lava from a long slumbering crater.

I remembered my grandmother’s housekeeper Rosa. She was 300 pounds of pure African love, had a huge grin and raucous laugh that I loved, and spoiled me rotten on my summer visits to my Mema’s house.

I loved her to death.

We sat in her tiny back room, watched soap operas, and poured peanuts into our Coca Colas while she ironed every napkin, every sheet, and every stich of cloth in that huge house.

My grandmother, while never overtly ugly towards her, was stern and treated her with only minimal respect. Rosa was not welcomed in the main house unless she had been tasked with flipping mattresses or invited to fix a plate to take back to her room.

I remembered our next-door neighbors, the Norcotts, a black family with a son about my age, Joe. We were carefree kids, and my brothers and I played together with him every day after school.

Joe was frequent visitor in our house. My Mema was visiting when he came over one afternoon to watch TV. After he left, my grandmother sat me and my bothers down and admonished us. “Boys, it’s fine to play with them,” she said, “but it’s not right to invite then into your house.”

I remembered William, my best friend in junior high school. He lived across the river with his adoptive aunt. He would often come home with me after school, and we’d hang out, listen to records, and gossip about the day’s events.

He and I talked on the phone every night after dinner, and we’d turn each other on to the music of the mid-70s by playing each other the latest 45s we had bought. We walked the halls of the school dishing on everyone and laughing our asses off at those who didn’t get it. We were writers and to each other’s delight, swapped putrid little stories we had banged out on our manual typewriters.

Twenty years later, I caught up with him briefly, and we told each other what we already knew: that we were both gay. Then we drifted apart again.

I miss him now because I realize now that he was my first real “sister.” I love him, and I hope he’s reading this because he was at the center of a shift in my understanding of my family and their history.

The pivot point was one stellar Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1976. William and I hadn’t seen each other since school recessed, so at my invitation, he rode the City bus to my house.

We went up to Pitt Plaza where we bought a hot dog and fries at Eckerd’s diner, then went next door to the Record Bar where the clerk put on some of the latest albums we wanted to hear.

When we got back to my house, we were hot and sweaty.

He asked, “Can I take a shower before I go home?”

I directed him to my dad’s bathroom so he could have some privacy. Afterwards, my mother drove him home. While she was gone, my father came home.

“Did you take a shower in my bathroom?” he asked. He was very proprietary about his space.

“No,” I answered, “My friend William was over here, and he did.”

“William?” he asked. “That black kid?”

I nodded yes.

He was very quiet for a minute. Then, without another word, he went into his bathroom and scrubbed the shower from top to bottom.

As I sat in from of my computer 20 years ago with Andrew’s letter in front of me, these memories jostling for space, the epiphany that racism had woven its insidious tendrils through the succeeding generations of my family, right up to my father, cast a cold shadow of bloody original sin right at my feet.

My ancestor’s role in history was clear to me. He was a racist, pure and simple.

There was no way around that now, and all the hero worship in the world could not excuse it.

The Day He Jumped Off The Tar River Bridge

My high school friend, Henry Wooten, has been on my mind today.

Our parents were friends–everyone knows everyone in our small eastern NC town–but we didn’t actually meet until 10th grade when we both came to the same high school and joined the stage band.

I was the second piano player, and he was the first. He was much better than I was, and at first I felt a little intimidated by him.

Then one October day, after I had a poem published in the school’s literary magazine, he approached me. I didn’t think the poem was anything earth shattering.

It was an analogy between money and consumerism and an evil bird made of gold that swooped down to consume the people who were blinded by their greed. In other words, an adolescent attempt at a well-worn literary device.

But Henry complimented me. He said it struck him deeply, and from that moment on, we were equals.

As we began spending more time together, we bonded through our commonalities: love of music, poetry, spirituality, and pot. Combine all of those things, and you get some meaningful conversations.

Of course, it was the 70s, so I don’t remember all of them, but the connection was still there.

Two summers later, we worked as co-counselors at a summer camp, which was where we really bonded. It all came together one of the last nights of that summer. The entire camp had gathered in the lodge for movie night, but the projector wasn’t having it.

To kill time, Henry picked up his guitar and began strumming “Stairway To Heaven.” Without a word or invitation, I sat down at the rickety old upright piano began playing along.

And it was effortless.

We knew each other’s timing and temperament so well that by the end we were singing in perfect harmony. And when we both hit the Robert Plant wailing high notes at the rousing end, everyone jumped to their feet. We were a hit. We were Unplugged years before MTV came along.

And as tight as we became that summer, I always felt some distance between us. He was secretive, and he didn’t let too anyone get too close. That was OK, because, guess what: I was the same.

In retrospect, I intuitively knew he was gay. But we never dared talked about it. Hell, I couldn’t even admit it to myself back then. Those were scary times in the last 70s in red Baptist eastern North Carolina. They still are.

A couple years after that summer, I went off to college, and Henry and I fell out of touch. I’d see him at parties when I came home. We’d chat, and something was different. He was burdened and melancholy, and I guess I knew what was bothering him.

I never delved any deeper, and I’d go back to school, throw myself into my studies and the girlfriend I had at the time, all the time skating the thin ice of denial.

The ice in Henry’s case wasn’t able to withstand the burden. I heard that Henry began to fall apart. He dropped out of college, played keys in a local band at night, and spent most of his day in a drug-induced haze.

In February, 1985, my mother called me to tell me that Henry had committed suicide.

He tied a cinder block to his ankle and jumped off a bridge into the Tar River not too far from where we used to hang out at the end of a dirt road, get high, and crank Zeppelin on the 8 track. He had been arrested for taking indecent liberties with a minor just the week prior.

His death threw me under a bus that had been careening in my direction for a long time. I knew why he did it. His arrest was only the denouement.

Of course, all the what-ifs plagued me for months. I felt guilty as replayed our friendship and ran it through all the alternative, happier endings.

But I in the end, I knew I couldn’t have saved him. The only person I could save was myself.

From that moment on, the crack in my closet door began to widen ever more furiously.

Now, 30 years later, that damn door is history. Still, some days, like today, I think about Henry and silently thank him for his gentle unconditional friendship. He was the first real gay friend I ever had.

I wish he were here so I could tell him that. I wish we had been able to tell each other our secrets. I wish he had held on long enough to see what a progressive world this has become. With all its hatred and bigotry, we’re still light years ahead of the darkness of high school in Greenville in the 70s.

But I understand why he had to go. Because for a short while there, it was me who was standing on the edge of that same bridge on a late Winter night, looking down at the black water, wanting so badly to be loved.

The difference is that, ultimately, I never lost hope that I would.

An Early Attempt at Escape

The tanned woman was looking down at me, her feathered hair cascading around
a perfectly formed face punctuated by two beautiful blue eyes.

“Are you lost?” she asked.

I remember wondering why she would ask such a question. I didn’t think I was.
The Florida morning was warm but not steamy. Puffy cumulus clouds rode on a
fresh breeze that rattled the palms. It was a gorgeous day, and I had decided to go
for ride.

“No,” I replied, “I live right around the corner.”

“OK,” she shrugged, rolled up the car widow, and drove away.

I grabbed the handlebars, hit the pedals, and took off in the other direction.
I didn’t know that back on Minnesota Drive, my mother was freaking out. See, it
was 1966, I was four years old, and I had disappeared from our house about an
hour before. On my tricycle.

I also didn’t know that she had called the police, and at that very moment she was in
the back of a black and white, riding the streets of our neighborhood in search of
her missing son.

I didn’t care about any of those things. All I knew was that I was having a ball,
riding around in circles in the middle of the Volusia County Hospital emergency
entrance three miles from my parent’s house.

I had somewhat mastered the art of two-wheel tricycle doughnuts, which
involved accelerating to a breathtaking speed, pulling a hard left, then laughing
delightedly as I rose up on two wheels and careened in a circle.

The emergency room entrance seemed in many ways the perfect spot to practice
my stunt.

I don’t know how much time passed before I saw the police car approaching me.
My mother was hanging out the back window, screaming my name. She jumped
out before the car had barely stopped and ran to me.

“Eric, Jesus, you scared me to death Are you OK? Stand up and let me look at
you.”

As she examined me from head to toe looking for wounds and some sign of
regret, I looked up into the eyes of a tall dark man in a blue uniform. He had a
black bushy moustache. On his muscular left arm, he had a tattoo of an anchor.
He squatted down next to me. “Son are you ok,” he asked in a deep calm voice.

“I’m OK!” I said. My mother was almost whimpering with relief.

“Well, then, let’s get you home,” he said. I watched with awe as he stood and
picked up my tricycle with one hand.

My mother gripped my arm tightly, and we followed him to the cruiser. He
opened the back door with his free hand, and I scooted in next to my mother.

“Eric, I thought you kidnapped or worse. Don’t you EVER run off like that again.”

I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was peering over the seat at our officer who was
lifting my tricycle into the trunk. I couldn’t take my eyes of him as he slid into the
front seat.

He turned around, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You scared your
mother buddy. Next time, be sure to check with her before you take off, ok?”

I nodded sheepishly. He tousled my hair, then started the car.

As he drove us home, I drilled holes in the back of his head with my eyes. Now I
knew. He had saved me from certain death.

He was my hero, and I wanted him to be my daddy.

ACT UP Set The Stage For All Lives Matter

In 1987, the American AIDS epidemic had ravaged the gay community for six years. Beginning with a smattering of mystifying cases in 1981, the number of reported deaths from the disease doubled every year afterwards. By the end of 1987, the deaths of 41,000 primarily gay men brought the toll nationwide to over 86,000.

Already stigmatized and mostly closeted, the LGBT community was horrified not only by the scope of death, but by the lack of action on the part of President Regan’s administration.

Regan’s policymakers routinely joked publicly about “queers deserving to die.”

Misinformation regarding spread of the disease ran rampant without any attempt by the CDC or the administration to research or rectify it. And our president refused to acknowledge the crisis. Indeed, it was five years after the first deaths before he even mentioned the word “AIDS” in a policy speech.

By 1987, the gay community’s frustration had grown into outright anger, and legendary gay activist Larry Kramer had had enough. In March of that year, he stood in front of an agitated gay audience and asked, “Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Two days later, he founded ACT UP.

For those of us old enough to remember, ACT UP gave us the first glimmer of hope that maybe our voices would be heard. On my 25th birthday that year, I lived in Greensboro, NC, the heart of the conservative South. I was one of those disenfranchised gay men, angry, scared and sad. I had already lost one friend. I would lose four more before all was said and done. I had little hope for my future, and remained mostly closeted to all but my closest friends and family.

That evening, I watched a segment on the national news about 250 members of ACT UP who shut down Wall Street in protest. Waving signs with the historic slogan “SILENCE = DEATH,” and chanting “Act Up, Fight AIDS!”, they called attention to the inequitable alliance between the FDA and Burroughs-Wellcome that prevented drug research from moving forward–even though the drugs were somewhat effective in treating HIV.

An effigy of the FDA commissioner, Frank Young, was hung. As the day progressed, the protestors sat in the street, stopping traffic and leading to 17 arrests.

Several weeks later, the FDA announced the acceleration  of approval for other AIDS-fighting drugs. Many groups credited ACT-UP.

I became an ardent fan of this revolutionary group, devouring everything I could find about them in the media. Chapters were confined to larger metropolitan areas, but amongst my inner circle of gay friends, talk began to turn towards ways we could join the fight.

We took some small actions towards AIDS awareness in our red community, many of my friends came barreling out of the closet, and we began to feel hopeful.

In the years that followed, ACT UP’s membership increased in size and volume. Their urgent and disobedient protests became regular stories in the national media. In 1988, one such protest successfully shut down the Food & Drug Administration for a day. Media reported that it was the largest such demonstration since those against the Vietnam War.

They also took on the Catholic Church, the National Institute of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and the public school system. In 1991, they even disrupted a live broadcast of the CBS Evening News.

By the mid 1990s, their demand for a national dialogue about the AIDS epidemic was beginning to show results. Public opinion shifted in favor of the gay community and AIDS research. Government funding became available, first in trickle, then in a flood.

ACT UP’s mission began to change. Today, they are still an active, albeit a much quieter, gentler organization.

Founder Larry Kramer is still alive and kicking in New York, still leading and challenging the LGBT community at every turn.

He believes (as do I) that the federal government basically murdered over 500,000 men due to their indifference towards the gay community. But he also believes that the community itself is partially responsible for those deaths because we took so long to speak up.

In 2007, Kramer wrote, “Our own country’s democratic process declares us to be unequal, which means, in a democracy, that our enemy is you. You treat us like crumbs. You hate us. And sadly, we let you.”

It took years, but ACT UP’s policy of civil disobedience did effect a fundamental change. In fact, their success proves that if any disenfranchised community is subject to the blatant and unfettered murder of its people with no adequate response from our lawmakers, dissent becomes a requirement.

If you have never felt the utter despair and anger, helplessness and hopelessness that comes from the avoidable death of someone you love simply because your leaders didn’t care, then you probably won’t agree with this statement: Black Lives do Matter.

Because the alternative is silence. And silence equals death.

My Mother Saved My Life

My mother saved my life. And she had to almost die herself before she was able to save mine.

In 1987, she finally stopped drinking after nearly succumbing to 35 years of alcoholism. And it was shortly afterwards that she asked me during a quick weekend visit home if I was gay.

I was in the closet up to that point. I moved away from my small eastern NC hometown three years before and was in the middle of my first real love affair in the big city of Greensboro.

When I arrived at my parent’s home that Friday afternoon, I called my boyfriend to let him know I had made it. My mother was in the adjacent bathroom, putting on makeup before going to her evening Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and listening in on our conversation.

When I hung up and walked past the bathroom, she stopped me.

“I want to ask you a question,” she said, not looking away from the mirror as she continued her makeup application (she was quite the drama queen). “And if you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to.”

“OK,” I responded.

“Exactly what is the nature of your relationship with Danny?” she asked.

In that moment, my thoughts went down three drastically different paths:

  1. I can continue my miserable existence as a liar.
  2. I can say “None of your business” and walk away.
  3. I can tell the truth because if she’s asking, she already knows.

I picked door #3.

“I see,” she said, still not looking away from the mirror. “Well, let me finish putting on my makeup, and we’ll talk before I go to my meeting.”

By the time she finally blew into the living room where I had been sitting for 15 minutes chewing off my fingernails, I was a wreck.

She sat down with a big sigh and said, “First of all, I’ve known you are gay for sometime. Don’t ask me how because I don’t want to embarrass you.”

Of course I silently went though all the Sears catalog male underwear pictures I had stashed under my bed and my unhealthy obsession with all things Stevie Nicks, but I gave away nothing. It didn’t matter. Mothers always just know.

“More importantly, I’m glad this is out because I know what it means to keep a horrible secret and how it can kill you, and I don’t want that for you.”

Immediately the gigantic oppressive steel block that had been resident on my heart for years was lifted. I knew she knew, and she was cool with it.

For the next 20 minutes, she talked to me about being in college at the University of Michigan and hanging out with the gay guys: playing piano at their parties, having them serve her drinks and light her cigarettes. “ I was, as you might say, a fag hag.”

I loved her so much in that moment.

She then went on to tell me that my future father, a Southern Baptist from the mountains of North Carolina whom she was dating at the time, tried to forbid her to hang out with the queens.

“And I put a stop to that right there,” she said. “If he couldn’t accept my friends, I couldn’t accept him.”

(Aside: how in the world those two diametric opposites ever made it work is beyond me, but they were in love for 50 years. More on that later.)

“Speaking of you father, are you going to tell him?, she asked”

I was still flabbergasted by this little ambush, and I had not movd that far ahead in my thinking. “Um, probably not this trip,” I said. “But I will.”

I quickly added, “And don’t you tell him, either.” My mother was huge drama queen, and she excelled in the role of gossip bearer.

She nodded in silent agreement. But it wasn’t an enthusiastic nod, and I already knew she wouldn’t be able to stand it for very long.

She wrapped up our little chat by saying, “My only hope is that you’re careful with your health.”

I smiled. “I’m aware, mom, and I’m ok.”

With that, she gave me a kiss and a hug then walked out the door to go save some more lives at her AA meeting. She went to those meetings religiously three times a day for the next 35 years until she physically couldn’t any longer.

Two nights later, I had just arrived back in Greensboro, and she called.

“Well, I had to tell your father,” she bleakly intoned as if she’d been tortured. I wasn’t buying it.

“Really? You HAD to tell him.”

She went on to explain how, at the dinner table earlier that evening, my father inquired if I had made it home safely. According to her, one thing led to another, and, well, it just came out.

After a quick flash of anger (BECAUSE she was always doing this shit), I felt a second huge stone lift, and it was OK. I knew she planned it that way all along. Truth was, it wasn’t fair to ask her to keep that secret.

“What was his reaction?” I asked.

“Well, the first thing he said was, ‘He doesn’t have to be that way’,” she replied. “And I said, Robert, you just don’t get it, do you?”

I got it: he was a product of the stereotypical rural Southern Baptist upbringing, complete with Jesus and Confederate flags and suffering. But I knew that he was doing his best to be a different progressive person, and my insane liberal mother was his guide on that journey.

My father and I never overtly talked about my homosexuality. But from that moment on, our relationship changed for the better. He began hugging me when I arrived home and when I left. That was a first.

Over the subsequent years, he met many of my gay friends, accepted us all in his house and invited us to sail on his boat. He met most of my love interests, too, and treated them all with gentility and respect.

And, thank God, just as he was beginning to slide downhill into the abyss of Parkinson’s, he met Andrew, my future husband, and embraced him completely.

Don’t get me wrong. It was never easy with my mother or my father or my brothers—we are all passionate, volatile artists prone to drug and alcohol abuse, violent outbursts, and loud, outrageous behavior. In fact, we’re ALL drama queens.

But in the end, when both of my parents were ill and in dire need of rescue, I took care of them.

Shortly after my father died, my mother was next. When she succumbed to dementia, I brought her to Norfolk and placed her in a nursing home not far from my home. At that point, she was incoherent, and there wasn’t much left.

Two weeks before she died, I rode with her in an ambulance to the doctor’s office. We were in the waiting room. She was strapped into a stretcher, agitated and out of her mind. I pulled up some old family photos on my phone, hoping it would calm her down.

I scrolled through them with one hand while holding hers with my other and talking to her quietly.

“Here’s dad, remember this picture? And there’s Jon and Evan, and our grand daughters…”

She began to relax until finally we were laughing. In that moment, she looked me in the eye and clearly said, “ I don’t know what I would do without you.”

I couldn’t respond because the tears were so close. But I wanted to say the same thing to her. I probably would be dead if not for her unconditional love on that summer day in 1987.

Those were the last coherent words she said to me, and shortly afterwards, I held her hand again as she slipped away.

 

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

IMG_3985

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.’‘