Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Whither Roanoke Colony?

The discovery of CROTOAN code
In perhaps one of the most fascinating historical publications we have read in a long time, we discover the solution to the lost colony of Roanoke – England’s first attempt to establish permanent residents in the New World in 1587. Rather than disappear, they assimilated into the new country out of necessity for survival as well as to fulfill the commercial wishes of their sponsor, Walter Ralegh.

Philip S McMullan wrote his thesis, Beechland and the Lost Colony, as a master’s requirement at North Carolina State University in 2010. We believe that its exhaustive treatment of the subject warrants a doctorate rather than a mere masters, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that he completed this work after retiring from a full career as a scientist and engineer.

Before proceeding, we should note that we have followed McMullan’s lead in spelling Sir Walter’s name as Ralegh since the benighted and beheaded man never spelled his name with an “I.”
Queen Elizabeth of England granted Ralegh a patent to land in the new colony of Virginia provided that he settled it within 6 years. He sent an exploration crew to survey the land on two occasions, leaving behind a small contingent of men to secure the English claim until a larger party could be assembled for the real work of harvesting.

The exploration team discovered many natural bounties in the new world, but one which McMullan singles out for special attention is sassafras whose many beneficial properties included the healing of syphilis – or so the 16th century belief held.
But these were heady times for England – times which would thrust her on to the center of the world stage for the next 4 centuries after defeating the invincible Spanish armada in 1588. Ralegh was compelled to circumnavigate these treacherous political and physical obstacles in securing his fortune in the new world.
He managed to bring a contingent of 117 men, women, and children to Roanoke Island where they established semi-permanent dwellings and a make-shift fort. Ralegh took considerable pains to hide the location of his colony since he knew that Spanish privateers would raid the settlement, and he was trying to maintain secret the location of his sassafras trees which McMullan posits were 50 miles inland in consonance with the many references to the landing party’s ultimate destination.
The English managed to secure friendly relations with one tribe, the Croatan, who occupied various stretches of land along and near the coast, including Roanoke and Croatoan Island. With other tribes, such as the Secotan, they were much less successful.
After recognizing the paucity of their remaining supplies, following a rather circuitous route to their landing point, both for consumption and trade, the colonists sent their governor, John White back to England to secure more provisions and more colonists.
The English settlers arrived at the most inauspicious time because both stormy and political weather impeded White’s efficient return to the colony after he left it in 1588. When he finally arrived in 1590 – after delays imposed by the exigencies of the English – Spanish War – he found a deserted settlement with the cryptic signal he had arranged with colonists before departing some 3 years earlier.
Should they encounter lethal threats, they would leave a visible cross in a conspicuous location so that the returning White would know not to spend time looking for them and to give a definitive signal to their doom. He found a tree inscribed with CRO and a palisade plank marked CROATAN. The symbol of death – the cross – was absent indicating that the colonists were alive and well.
Unfortunately, White was short on time and could not locate the colonists – or so the story went. In fact McMullan believes that many public pronouncements were made to deceive the Spanish and to hide his cash crop. Thus arose many stories about the colonist’s demise. These myths were reinforced by stories from John Smith, governor of Jamestown, a few years later who was told by a Powhatan Indian chief that he witnessed the slaughter of the colonists.
The theories which emerged over the centuries built upon these stories or upon other plausible ideas, most of which McMullan disassembles, always allowing for the fact this his own interpretation lacks conclusive documentary evidence to be definitive.
On the other hand, he stitches together enough fragments to justify his thesis about a colony which was hidden rather than lost, and which melted into Croatan life to become an obscure but thriving mixed community for centuries after their initial landings on Roanoke.
One of the evidences the author produces is the continued voyages Ralegh commissioned over the years from 1588 to at least 1602, after which time sassafras was discovered in areas outside his patent, and thus punctured the price of this once valuable crop. McMullan believes that the trips were for the express purpose of picking up sassafras and depositing additional colonists from time to time.
Through the guidance of the Croatan, the English colony survived and then thrived after enduring a brutal drought in the first couple of years after their arrival. But the colonists did not all stay together, with perhaps as many as three main contingents going somewhat different directions but within the general location of the Albemarle Sound.
One such location of particular interest was a place called Beechland which was the source of sassafras trees and hence the ultimate destination of the colonists – not Chesapeake or any number of other places posited by various historians. This place was also very isolated, providing deep protection from the Spanish to say nothing from successive English and American governments which hardly knew of its existence.
McMullan then follows various documentary and physical evidences showing continuity in the occupancy of this location over a period of 250 years, all by people who were descendants of the colonists and their intermarriages with the Croatan.
McMullan also rebuts the massacre theory repeated by John Smith and others by suggesting that it was unlikely due to lack of supporting physical evidence, and by suggesting that it most likely referred to a skirmish between Indians and the small contingent under Ralph Lane’s leadership who lost at least 2 men prior to the arrival of the main party in 1587.
We think that McMullan’s explanation, although a bit complex, is a far more satisfying explanation of the facts involving Ralegh, published reports, and physical evidence than others preceding it. Research continues, especially DNA analysis, to tie the residents of the area to English descendants in England of the first colonists.
The true story was hidden in plain sight while the colonist hid out of sight - one worth worth watching and reading for further developments.

Beechland and the Lost Colony, Philip S. McMullan, 2010
Copyright 2013 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Philip McMullan said...

Thank your for your excellent review. The Beechland and the Lost Colony thesis is now in print and can be obtained on line at Pamlico and Albemarle Publishing Co.

Phil McMullan