A review of a new history of the Lost Colony of Roanoke that offers new insights while taking a few speculative liberties.
“A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke”
by James Horn
Basic Books, 320 pp., $26
For a people who celebrate success as much as Americans do, we have something of a romantic affinity for failure. The Confederacy may have fallen, but as the Lost Cause it inspired, among other things, “Gone With the Wind.” The Chicago Cubs have legions of fans who’ve never set foot inside Wrigley Field; they love the team not despite its decades of futility but largely because of them.
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More than 400 years after it disappeared, the Lost Colony of Roanoke, in what is now North Carolina’s Outer Banks, continues to fascinate. Every summer tourists flock to the site of the ill-fated settlement to visit a reconstructed fort and watch an outdoor symphonic drama about the colony. Roanoke has inspired several books and at least one cheesy TV horror movie speculating about how and why nearly 120 men, women and children — the first English settlers in North America — vanished without a trace.
All the elements are there: plucky colonists who endured one bad break after another; neighboring Native Americans who were enmeshed in their own internecine power struggles; a backdrop that includes piracy and the Spanish Armada; governor John White’s increasingly frantic efforts to return to Roanoke from England; and finally the abandoned settlement itself, with little remaining except fortifications and two haunting clues: the letters “CRO” and “CROATOAN” carved on a tree and gatepost.
In fact, as James Horn writes in “A Kingdom Strange,” the truth is a bit more pedestrian, though still of great interest. The colonists’ fate has been known, or at least surmised, in general terms since Capt. John Smith of Jamestown (the first successful English colony) began looking for them in the early 1600s.
After a promised resupply mission failed to materialize, the Roanoke colonists almost certainly scattered, leaving the island to take shelter with friendly tribes. They lived alongside the natives for some 20 years, until most were killed in attacks by the imperialist Powhatans. A handful apparently survived and were taken deeper into the interior; others intermarried with natives and gradually faded from both view and memory.
Horn’s version of the Roanoke story draws heavily from previous historians. But he’s also done his own digging in English church records and other archival material, and some of his conclusions differ from the standard account. He suggests, for instance, that many of the colonists may have been Puritans, like those who would come to Plymouth three decades later, and that many probably were related or at least knew each other well. And while most historians assume that after abandoning Roanoke the colonists went to their intended landing site at Chesapeake Bay, Horn makes a plausible case that they went inland instead.
But to knit together a coherent narrative from the relatively few facts known about the Roanoke colony, Horn has had to rely on heavy doses of speculation and assumption, as well as some entirely imagined scenes. Walter Raleigh “may well have” met so-and-so; White “likely” told Raleigh such-and-such. While a certain amount of speculation is unavoidable, Horn indulges in it so much that at times his book reads more like historical fiction than history.
Which isn’t to say “A Kingdom Strange” isn’t worth reading. If you want a fast-paced tale of greed, adventure and tragedy that distills pretty much all that is known and most of what is surmised about the Lost Colony, this is a perfectly fine book. Just keep in mind that it’s a history of the Roanoke Colony, not the history.
Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.