Early settlers vanish, spawning centuries of speculation.
In 1587, more than 100 men, women, and children landed on Roanoke Island to become the first English settlers in the New World. In 1590, when the group’s leader returned from England with supplies, the settlement had disappeared, never to be found again. Lawler (Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, 2014, etc.), a contributing writer for Science and contributing editor for Archaeology, clearly has been infected with the “Lost Colony syndrome…an urgent and overwhelming need to resolve the question of what happened to the colonists.” He creates a vivid picture of the roiling, politically contentious, economically stressed Elizabethan world from which they sailed and a thorough—sometimes needlessly so—recounting of historical, archaeological, and weird theories to explain the disappearance. Besides visiting numerous archaeological digs, historical archives, and libraries in America, Portugal, and Britain and interviewing scores of experts, the author doggedly traces down frauds and hoaxes, no matter how improbable. The Zombie Research Society, he reports, warns of “something sinister still in the ground on Roanoke Island, waiting to be released into a modern population that is more advanced, more connected, but just as unprepared as ever.” Something sinister certainly emerged in the settlers’ relationship with Native Americans. At first, they “traded peacefully,” learned each other’s languages, and “formed mutually advantageous alliances.” But the English spread deadly disease among tribes with no immunities to Old-World pathogens, decimating communities, and although some leaders tried to treat Native Americans with gentleness, others lashed out against those they considered depraved savages. Native Americans responded with ruthless violence. Massacre is one theory of the settlers’ fate; another, equally possible, is assimilation. Most historians believe that the colonists, “if they survived, merged with indigenous society,” miscegenation that some found unpalatable. An 18th-century traveler, for example, “recoiled” from the idea that “white women found Indian husbands.”
In this enjoyable historical adventure, an unsolved mystery reveals violent political and economic rivalries and dire personal struggles.