Hello, readers. I know that I have already posted today, but I probably won’t have time to write you tomorrow. Heaven forbid you should miss a day of my vacation! You wonder in exasperation, “Isn’t she home, yet?!” By this time tomorrow, I will be close to home. Needless to say, we will miss the ocean. Needless to say, I have taken enough pictures to last us for the rest of the year. Believe me, you have only seen the tip of the iceberg, my friends. And we’ll keep it that way, since I would like for you to stay my friends.
Today, we returned to Manteo, which we simply love. Here is one reason why:
How is that for a prospect? And, of course, there is a lighthouse.
That is the Roanoke Marshes lighthouse, small and lovely.
We also made sure to go back to Fort Raleigh National Park. It’s not a large place, but it is historically significant because it marks the site of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, those mysterious first English settlers in the New World whose colony disappeared leaving only the word Croatoan carved into a tree. It’s next to the Elizabethan Gardens, but we didn’t go earlier this week because it appeared to be closed. In fact, they are renovating the place, so there is only the gift shop in a trailer near the visitor center. The trails are still accessible, though, and I love to walk the trails.
The woods are appropriately silent given the significance of this place. It is a memorial for a group of unknown people who walked quietly into the pages of history, and then disappeared from those pages just as quietly into a destination just as unknown as their origins. We know little enough about those settlers, and we have nothing but theories about how their story ended. In Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, Lee Miller, an anthropologist, argues that the Lost Colonists were absorbed by one group of Native Americans, which was later conquered and enslaved by another. Miller’s argument is compelling (though not entirely convincing), but she offers one suggestion which I find intriguing. Based entirely on circumstantial evidence, Miller suggests that the Lost Colonists may have been Separatists seeking to escape religious persecution 30 years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth.
This suggestion is based on two historical facts. The first is that this was a dangerous and hare-brained enterprise even at the time. Financial backing was precarious, and England was too absorbed with the impending threat of a Spanish invasion to spare resources for an American expansion. Based on this, Miller believes that anyone who immigrated to America must have been motivated by desperation. Further, this was a period of intensified persecution for Separatists, who are distinct from Puritans in that they wanted to leave the Church of England rather than reform it. This called into question their patriotism and loyalty to the crown at a time when Protestant England was in dire peril from threats abroad. Miller figures that religious persecution may well have driven the Lost Colonists to the desperate act of resettling in the New World.
This is a tenuous line of reasoning because Walter Ralegh impresses me as the kind of man who could convince ordinary people to take on this kind of adventure whether they were desperate or not. Further, the fact that it was a bad time to be an English Separatist doesn’t mean that these people were Separatists, or that they were on the run. Finally, Miller makes Sir Francis Walsingham the villain of the story, as a deliberate saboteur who wanted the colony to fail. Unfortunately for Miller, her characterization of Walsingham doesn’t match the historical record; she leaves out several pertinent facts about his character and ignores that, as Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, he had his hands full with the Spanish threat and would have had little attention to spare to a small group of colonists who were exiling themselves to the ends of the earth.
For all this, I find Miller’s suggestion intriguing because there is always the chance that she might be right about the colonists’ religious affiliation. The New World offered economic opportunity to Englishmen who came from a country where there was little land available, and where most of the land and political power was in the hands of the aristocracy, which took for granted that God assigned our stations in life and that the working class should know its place and stay in it. This included accepting religious practices proscribed by the monarch and enforced by priests and magistrates. Elizabeth was enlightened for her time, but even she took for granted her right to be obeyed in matters doctrinal as well as political. The New World was both the opportunity to improve one’s economic condition and a chance to breathe free air. We simply don’t know fully what motivated the Roanoke settlers, but surely the opportunity for a new kind of community had not escaped them.
Someday, of course, there will be no more unsolved mysteries. The great books will be opened at the Last Judgment, and every deed will be brought to light. In the meantime, the stillness of the woods is an opportunity to reflect on the astonishing courage of a few people willing to face the unknown with fortitude.