The Romance of Roanoke: Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony in American Literature *

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Here ... you shall finde foure of the englishe alive, left by Sr Walter Rawely which escaped from the slaughter of Powhaton of Roanoke uppon the first arrival of our Colonie, and live under the protection of a wiroane called Gepanacon enemy to Powhaton, by whose consent you shall never recover them, one of these were worth much labour, and if you finde them not, yet search into this Country it is more probable then towards the north.

--Instructions of the Virginia Company to Governor Sir Thomas Gates, May 1609

First reported missing nearly four full centuries ago, the Lost Colony of Roanoke is today as lost as ever. To be sure, almost no one since the days of Governor Sir Thomas Gates has seriously been charged with finding out what became of it, and yet to be lost, as opposed, say, to simply obliterated or destroyed, implies at least a faint hope that the colonists are still out there somewhere, only temporarily missing and somehow ultimately recoverable if we but knew the proper place to look, and so we have not entirely given over the search. If there seems no longer any point to conducting the investigation according to the customary methods of exploration, especially since the expeditions sent out from Jamestown have long ago returned empty-handed and the ruins of the original "citie of Ralegh" have been minutely sifted for clues, still the quest continues in a variety of other ways. In every American century, historians and then increasingly poets, playwrights, and novelists, most but not all of them Southerners, have had something to say about the fate of Raleigh's missing settlers, some conjecture, plausible or (mostly) otherwise with which to make the silent American wilderness give up its secret. What happened to the Lost Colony, how and why did it happen, and what, if anything, might Americans learn from pondering the implications of the Colony's disappearance? In the attempt to answer these and other pressing questions about our national past, American authors have presented us with one of our most attractive and enduring mythic mothers, the saintly, dispossessed, and mysterious Virginia Dare, and have elevated a footnote in colonial history to the status of a major romance, worthy of taking its place next only to the story of John Smith and Pocahontas as one of the most important literary myths of American origin. As part of the "matter of early America," the romance of Roanoke is one of those tales by means of which an infant culture, passing through various stages on its progress toward maturity, attempts to affirm its own identity and to explain to itself the remotest sources of its ideals, its aspirations, and, perhaps, its secret fears of failure.


Up to a point, the details of the story are as clear as convoluted Elizabethan syntax can make them. Early colonies on Roanoke Island, it seems, had a habit of disappearing, in one sense or another, with a frequency that would have alarmed a less dedicated man than Sir Walter Raleigh. The one which vanished so utterly, in fact, was actually the second--or second and a half, depending upon how you want to count--of Sir Waiter's colonial enterprises to come to nothing. The first, established April 9, 1585, after an expedition led by captains Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas had brought back two Indian chiefs, Manteo and Wanchese, and a report that declared the region to be another Paradise, lasted a little more than a year. Then homesickness, a shortage of supplies, and the growing restiveness of the Indians--despite the return of their two chieftains--persuaded Governor Ralph Lane to abandon the settlement and go back to England with Sir Francis Drake, whose fleet had unexpectedly looked in at Roanoke to see how the little colony was making out. Two weeks later, an astonished Sir Richard Grenville, who of course knew nothing of Drake's visit, arrived with reinforcements for the deserted village. Guessing that the settlers were away on some hunting or fishing expedition, Grenville left a small garrison of some fifteen men to hold the fort, and their bleaching bones were about all that remained on Roanoke on July 22, 1587, when Governor John White came ashore with a contingent of eighty-nine men, seventeen women, and one small child to try Sir Waiter's dream once more. …


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