Reading Response To The Secret Token By Andrew Lawler

The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke is a part detective novel, part historical downfall. Lawler’s book traces the story of — and the literal obsessive search for — the lost colony of Roanoke, the first English settlement in the New World. The lost colony of Roanoke disappeared without a trace in 1587, save for a “secret token” carved into a tree, “Croatoan” being the secret token. Lawler, an award-winning author of previous nonfiction stories and a correspondent writing for publications that include The New York Times and Smithsonian, as well as a contributing editor for Archaeology magazine, draws from sources such as autograph books, archeological findings, and historical myths to attempt at uncovering the theoretical mystery.

In the three-part novel the first few chapters of The Secret Token provides a straightforward account of the Roanoke settlement, in most respects little different from any other volume on the subject, save for Lawler’s unique talent for spinning information in a dramatic yet factual light.

According to Lawler, it was ultimately the work of George Bancroft, author of multiple history nonfiction writings of the United States in 1834, who created the myth of Roanoke. Lawler depicts Bancroft’s writing as if they were tales tinged with “Gothic” elements. This doesn’t actually quite line up with what Bancroft actually wrote, which is neither as romantic nor as Gothic as Lawler depicts. Here is Bancroft, referring to Governor John White’s efforts to find what happened to the colonists from his return from England:

“More than another year elapsed, before White could return to search for his colony and his daughter; and then the Island of Roanoke was a desert… Raleigh long cherished the hope of discovering some vestiges of their existence and though he had abandoned the design of colonizing Virginia, he yet sent at his own charge, and, it is said, at five several times, to search for his liege-men. But it was all in vain; imagination received no help in its attempts to trace the fate of the colony of Roanoke.” Obviously Bancroft’s account on the tale is the not the “compelling Gothic drama” Lawler describes it is, at best, suggestive of the alternatives used to investigate the vanished colony down to present time and the writing is no more different than any other history book of its era. Lawler also fails to note that Bancroft was actually citing earlier writers who had already expressed such similar options.

Part two of The Secret Token explores the history of archaeological research in and around the Roanoke colony site, primarily from the 1980s onward. Here Lawler works with material such as including interviews, trips to sites where Roanoke history resides, and research in modern reports. Readers will spot cameos ranging from experts who have devoted and obsessed on uncovering the mysterious past of Roanoke to “famous” individuals, including Scott Dawson. Lawler crafts an interesting account of the exploration and excavation of various features and elements in the Roanoke area. He also investigates “new” findings, such as the patch placed on an old map of Virginia that covered up a plan of a failed fort: “Image processing enhanced the symbol. A dark feature, possibly the outlines of a square, sits in the center of the lozenge. There was no mistaking the form. White had drawn, and then hidden, a common representation of a Renaissance-era fort, located about fifty miles inland from Roanoke Island. 

The final section of the book to me was both the most interesting and the worthiest of being read. In it, Lawler explores the intersection of racism and the Lost Colony story, particularly how elements of the story have been used to craft a narrative of whiteness and white Americans’ right to control former Native American lands. Lawler then provides evidence on how Virginia Dare, the first European woman born in Virginia, became a symbol of “white power.” to white extremist groups and those who share racist ideologies. For example, he mentions some racist uses of the Dare story: “The original scuppernong has a white skin and makes a white wine.” The company’s Pocahontas wine was naturally made with red grapes; there was no blending of reds and whites”. Lawler then goes on to describe what he calls “Lost Colony syndrome,” a particular “madness” that infects people around the Roanoke region. He expresses his thoughts on why so many become obsessed, while there are many possible reasons, Lawler never quite has the courage of his convictions to connect the “syndrome” back to the racism. To do so, of course, would call into question the purpose of this book. While it is impossible not to notice that the people who obsess over Roanoke in his book tend to speak of “heritage” and “ancestry” — and not just white ancestry. There are also white people profiled who claim Native heritage. In every case, though, the white folk seem to be trying to tie themselves more permanently to the land in which they live, and to create a mythology that serves as a creation myth for a particular area of the South.

Overall, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke is an engaging, readable exposition of the Roanoke mythology and its modern use. And if you can forgive the occasional error and the author’s lack of familiarity with some of the history, it is as good an introduction to any. And while readers new to the story will find much that is interesting in Lawler’s account, I confess I found the reading pleasureless knowing in the back of my mind that Every attempt at solving this purported mystery — and every possible solution — is/will be debunked, which makes me conclude that there is no real mystery at all, just a theoretical mystery that’s been kept alive through mythology, faked history, and fanatics.

09 March 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now