As a historian, I have an insatiable curiosity about the past. And I know a lot about it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m very happy living in the twenty-first century with things like the internet, cars, and medicine. And, being female, I would not enjoy experiencing the diminished status and rights of women practiced by most societies until relatively recently. Studying the documents and objects of the past is good enough for me, and as close as I want to get. I love nothing more than doing research in an archive or library, with my laptop beside me for notes and the air conditioning blasting for temperature control. All in all, much more comfortable and healthier than actually walking the streets of Philadelphia in the 1760s or dancing in clubs in the 1920s.

“The carte of all the coast of Virginia,” by Theodor de Bry, 1590. The map is a depiction of the North Carolina coast, then known as “Virginia”, in 1585. Call no. FVCC970.1 H28w, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

There is one time period and event that remains a mystery to me (and the rest of the history world) that I would like to witness first hand: the Roanoke colonies in the 1580s.* The first band of English colonizers arrived in 1585, but didn’t last long and that group returned to England. Most famously, ships arrived in 1587 with 150 Englishmen and women led by John White. The leader, John White, left the colony behind within a year in order to return to England for more provisions and support for the colonists. He returned to Roanoke three years later to find all the English colonists gone and their structures destroyed.

I want to know what actually happened. Part of what endlessly fascinates me about the lost colony of Roanoke—more than other historical mysteries like the disappearance of Amelia Earhart—is that new information seems to be discovered and disproved continuously, even in recent years. For centuries, people have tried to solve the mystery, including the first English colonists at Jamestown in 1607.

The theories include a violent conflict with local Indians, leaving the area to live with local Indians, or being destroyed by the Spanish. Beyond theories passed down by oral tradition, researchers and archaeologists uncover clues in the area but they seem to be rather quickly disproved upon deep examination. Over the past decades and centuries, the Dare Stones, an early modern brass ring, the Virginia Pars map—to name a few—have seemed to offer answers only to be refuted or complicated by further research.

The evolving evidence is what keeps me interested. The evidence is so unclear and nebulous. And every few years, there’s another new and major discovery that people think provides the answer, only to be complicated by more testing and yet another discovery. But maybe that’s what keeps me fascinated with this particular early American mystery: I love that, even though the Lost Colony vanished 431 years ago, people are still making new discoveries, uncovering new sources, and shedding light on the past.

*I’d like to stipulate a few conditions of my time travel. First, I want to be solely an observer and not a participant. In fact, it would be great if I remain invisible to everyone while time traveling. Second, I want assurances that I will remain healthy and unharmed during my travels. I don’t have the immunity or fighting skills to survive otherwise. Finally, I do not want the ability to alter events in any way whatsoever.

 

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