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What the Lost Colony of Roanoke Has to Do With 'The Martian'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | September 29, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | September 29, 2015 |

A couple of weeks ago, researchers announced that they had found evidence of the survivors of the lost colony of Roanoke. Just some bits and pieces, but bits and pieces in a place no one thought to look in for hundreds of years.

The short version, you’ve probably heard before. Roanoke was the first British colony in North America, the birth place of the first British person in the New World: Virginia Dare, who has lived on in all manner of legend and lore since then. Some fantastic, some racist, some just freaking bizarre.

The governor (and grandfather of the infant Ms. Dare) returned to England in order to return with more supplies. But time and priorities interfered as his return to England coincided with the launching of the Spanish Armada and an existential threat to the regime. Returning to Roanoke was out of the question: everything that could float, and some things that couldn’t, were commandeered for the war effort.

It was three years before he could get back to Roanoke, with a mercenary crew. He arrived there in Roanoke on his granddaughter’s third birthday, but his family was gone. His entire colony was gone. The houses either disassembled or destroyed, and only three clues as to what might have happened. The first evidence was of the negative variety. They had a prearranged symbol: mount a Maltese cross if there was trouble. He found no cross, and took a small joy in its absence.

He took greater joy in the other two pieces of evidence: an old carving of the word “Croatoan” and another separate carving of the letters “Cro”. Croatoan was the name of a nearby island and tribe, and one that had been on friendly terms with the settlers. They sailed around to that island but found it completely deserted and before they could mount any additional search, a growing storm drove the vessel back out to sea. The rickety ship and impatient crew ensured that they set sail for England instead of braving the Outer Banks in a sea at storm.

The governor never returned to the new world, and never received any closure. His diaries are still preserved and he wrote that he entrusted the fate of his family to God, since they were beyond his own hands to help any longer. And by the time Europeans got there again, another decade had passed and that island was deserted and the tribe was gone. Wisps of records and rumors suggest that small pox decimated the tribe and that it fled inland to vaguely suggested destinations.

It’s a fascinating story because the mystery has never really been solved, even while there is a colloquial assumption that it has. Everyone knows that the settlers went to the Croatoan, because obviously that’s why they wrote that word. And it’s possible that’s the case. The problem is that there is next to no tangible evidence that’s the case. The Croatoans themselves have never been conclusively found. Bodies of the settlers have never been recovered.

And those who scoff at the mystery like to point out that there was a tribe in central Virginia with blue eyes and blonde hair and so obviously that’s the case. Except that’s just cherry-picking which rumors to believe, because practically the entire Eastern seaboard had a legend during the 1700s at one point or another about blonde-haired blue-eyed natives in the next valley over. And those legends were never validated other than the occasional individual only a generation removed from a European settlement.

It’s a mystery that everyone thinks has an obvious answer but is actually still a mystery.

And sure, the settlers probably did end up with the Croatoans who without a written language simply disappeared from history entirely. I’m not going to claim that ancient aliens took them or whatever else Mulder could come up with. But just stop a moment to think about the way that the world has shifted in such a short few hundred years.

The first hundred or so British to come to this country disappeared and no trace of them was ever found. They set out to what was to them an entirely new world. They sailed for weeks. And the last person to see them alive took three years to get back. And another decade before anyone could check in again. It’s a cliche, but our world is smaller now. Distance is constant but time is in flux, and there is no place left to stand on this world that isn’t the jump of electrons away from another. We live in the eternal present.

It struck me that this finding of evidence, this revisiting of Roanoke was perfectly timed for the release of The Martian this week. Of another story of a person lost an untouchable infinity away from anyone else.

The settlers at Roanoke were lost, but I don’t think they died, and I don’t think the absence of evidence is evidence of their absence. I think that it’s easy to dismiss the lost as helpless victims that lost all agency once they disappeared from records. But that’s because in a world of infinite information, we fetishize memory, and the reality is that they may have lived out rich lives that were completely alien to their expectations and ours, in the shadow of forgotten times.

We can choose to believe they died, we can choose to believe they lived out a miserable existence in their vanishing. Or we can choose to believe that they scienced the shit out of what an unknown world threw at them.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.