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Paradise Lost

What happened to the first English settlers in America.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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Readers who hope this account might unveil conclusive, newly discovered documents that outline precisely what happened to the Lost Colony will be disappointed, but that is the fault of neither author nor publisher. The press release for A Kingdom Strange describes it as “a compelling examination”—not a definitive resolution—“of one of the great unresolved mysteries of American history.” What Horn does show is dramatic enough. When the English founded another colony in 1607 at Jamestown, upriver from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Captain John Smith heard Indian stories about where the Roanoke colonists went after abandoning their settlement. Smith’s 1608 map even shows the locations where the Indians said different parties of settlers had moved. Nothing is known, however, of the results of Smith’s efforts to contact them. A Virginia Indian taken to London in 1609 gave similar details, including an account of the attack that killed most of White’s survivors.

Horn believes that, though no direct evidence had come to light in the two decades since White left Roanoke, these fragments demonstrate that survivors did still live “in the interior of North Carolina.” The author theorizes that the colonists split up into four groups and lived with friendly Indians until being massacred in 1607 by Wahunsonacock. This was the Indian paramount chief, sometimes called Powhatan, who feared that the survivors would encourage the Indians with whom they lived in North Carolina to ally with the newly arrived English at Jamestown. 

This is fascinating speculation presented persuasively by a leading scholar of early America. Horn’s contribution is twofold. First, he places the small Roanoke colony in the bigger picture of England’s geopolitical struggle against Spain. Second, he shows how this insignificant, failed effort influenced the focus of later, bigger efforts that did bear fruit and resonate down to the present. It was the Chesapeake, as the English belatedly discovered, that would give their American enterprise a firm foundation, not the Outer Banks of North Carolina—which remained a remote, sandy backwater into the 20th century, to the delight of vacationers.

Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.

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