The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke by Andrew Lawler
History | American History | Nonfiction
Goodreads | Amazon
Published by Doubleday
Released June 5, 2018
My father has always read non-fiction history books and has a vast collection on a wide variety of topics. While I was at his house on Christmas, I asked to borrow a book he’d just finished reading, Andrew Lawler’s The Secret Token. I’d been wanting to read more non-fiction, and local history seemed like a great place to start.
I grew up in North Carolina, just below the Virginia state line, and close to the Albermarle Sound and the Outer Banks. As a result, we learned about the lost colony of Roanoke in school, the legend of Virginia Dare, and tales of the Native Americans that originally occupied our strip of land. It wasn’t unheard of to find Native American pottery or arrowheads.
The Secret Token is a great overview of the colony of Roanoke and all the mystery surrounding it. More than that, however, it is a history of the first settlers to come to the North Carolina coast. Contained within the pages are plenty of centuries-old maps, paintings, and illustrations, including some of John White’s fascinating illustrations.
This book, more than anything else, reminded me how boring the legend of the Lost Colonists of Roanoke is, for lack of a better term. There are so many more interesting mysteries throughout history. With the evidence presented in this book, along with the evidence you can find everywhere else concerning these settlers, I feel as though it’s fairly obvious that if any of the settlers survived, they more than likely settled in with the local Native American populations.
That said, I very much enjoyed learning more details about North Carolina history and about the 1500s in general. When we learn about American history, it typically starts with the 1600s, after Jamestown was founded in 1607. It’s rare to get this glimpse into the failed colonies and settlements that came before, and of the earlier interactions between Europeans and Native Americans.
Andrew Lawler delves into many expected topics, such as the legend of Virginia Dare, the first European born in the Americas, and I appreciated how he discussed what Virginia Dare came to mean to white Americans, which wasn’t always a good thing (for example, white supremacists have evoked her image as pure whiteness destroyed by nefarious savages). That’s not a topic you’re going to learn about in an American classroom.
It was also interesting to learn about the people still searching for the truth of the lost colonists, and how they have to navigate through multiple scams and tricks throughout the past, such as forged stones. Lawler also discusses the difficulties of determining if a found artifact is indeed from the Elizabethan settlers of the late 1500s, or if it’s actually something that was left behind from the second wave of European settlers and traders in the 1600s.
This book is not only about what little we know about the Lost Colony, but also about why Americans have been obsessed with it throughout our history:
“The country was hungry for an origin story more enchanting than the spoiled fops of Jamestown or the straitlaced Puritans of Plymouth, neither of which measured up to a romantic legend like England’s King Arthur and France’s military hero Roland, leaders felled by overwhelming odds but whose sacrifice helped forge a common identity. Roanoke, with its knights and villains and its brace but outnumbered few facing an alien culture, provided all the elements for a national myth.”