Part detective novel, part historical reckoning, Lawler’s engrossing book traces the story of—and the obsessive search for—the lost colony of Roanoke, the first English settlement in the New World, which disappeared without a trace in 1590, save for a “secret token” carved into a tree: “Croatoan.” Lawler (Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?), a contributing editor for Archaeology magazine, provides detailed historical context about early North American colonization and brings to life the personalities behind the colony, including Walter Raleigh, its powerful backer, and Simão Fernandes, a Portuguese-born pilot often painted as the villain of the expedition. Digging in archives, visiting archeological excavations, and consulting previous leads, Lawler tries to wring a conclusion from the extant evidence: did the settlers die; did they merge with local Native American villages; did they leave the area? In the end, he decides it is more important to ponder why the story of Roanoke still resonates today, leading to a thoughtful and timely discourse about race and identity centered on Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas, and since appropriated by both pro- and anti-immigrant voices. Without solving a long-standing (and likely unsolvable) historical mystery, Lawler makes a strong case for why historical myths matter. (June)
*A Top-Five ‘Southern Indie Booksellers’ Bestseller*
“Andrew Lawler warns...that Lost Colony fever is a kind of madness. Happily, that doesn’t stop him from plunging into the wild terrain of theories and conflicting evidence where so many others have disappeared. Lawler manages to do this in a clear-eyed way, conscious of whether he, too, is getting lost. He makes a good case that the search itself goes to the heart of what it means to be American. Plus, it’s just plain fascinating.... The themes of mingled races, of cultures clashing to create something new, are surprisingly fresh and powerful.”
—The Washington Post
“The Secret Token, spanning more than 400 years, offers the most authoritative account of the Lost Colony to date…[Lawler] recounts his arduous travels with clarity and insight.”
—Wall Street Journal
“[Lawler’s] willingness to chase down every lead, no matter how outlandish, and his enthusiasm for the journey as much as the destination, make The Secret Token a lively and engaging read.”
“The Secret Token is a very special kind of popular history…diving headfirst into the latest developments regarding the fate of the colonists and providing colorful, affectionate portraits…Lawler sheds light on why the story of the Roanoke Colony remains so important today.”
“It’s not a spoiler to say that Lawler never solves the ultimate mystery, but by the book’s end, the enduring legacy of this early colony, from mapmaking to even the far right, is more than enough.”
"Part detective novel, part historical reckoning, Lawler’s engrossing book traces the story of—and the obsessive search for—the lost colony of Roanoke… [l]eading to a thoughtful and timely discourse about race and identity.... Lawler makes a strong case for why historical myths matter.”
“[Lawler] creates a vivid picture of the roiling, politically contentious, economically stressed Elizabethan world. . . . [T]he author doggedly traces down frauds and hoaxes, no matter how improbable. . . . In this enjoyable historical adventure, an unsolved mystery reveals violent political and economic rivalries and dire personal struggles.”
“This detailed historical inquiry will powerfully intrigue early American history buffs.”
“Lawler compels readers to examine the past in a different light. Accessible and inquisitive.”
“Andrew Lawler, an award-winning journalist and author, sheds new light on the colony and—equally fascinating—on the myths that have grown up around the mystery and their importance in the national story that Americans tell ourselves.”
—Greensboro News and Record
“After you finish Lawler’s book, you’ll have some notion that you are now prepared to solve the single greatest mystery in American history.”
—The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg)
"The 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke is one of this country's most enduring mysteries. Andrew Lawler turns Roanoke into one of our history's best stories, recounting not only the fascinating, little-known history of the colony itself but that of the incredible swirl of historians, archaeologists, hoaxers, actors, priests, Native Americans, and experts on arcane subjects who have been caught up in the quest to find it. A tale of cock-eyed historical obsession, The Secret Token is also a serious look at America's confused ideas about itself."
—Charles Mann, New York Times bestselling author of The Wizard and the Prophet and 1491
"Riveting and carefully researched…. Lawler takes us inside one of the oldest and most intoxicating mysteries in American history."
—Candice Millard, New York Times bestselling author of Hero of the Empire
“Plumbing the depths of the lost colony at Roanoke, the most enduring riddle of American history, reveals more about who we are today than the actual fate of the doomed expedition of 1587. Andrew Lawler's exhaustively researched and amusing narrative asks the question, ‘What is history?’ He deftly shows that the drama of burrowing down rabbit holes and chasing false leads is not simply entertaining, but deeply informative about our past."
—Rinker Buck, New York Times bestselling author of The Oregon Trail and Flight of Passage
“The Secret Token dives deep into the mysteries of the Lost Colony, chasing clues across ages, isles, oceans and archives and yielding a beguiling narrative of America’s first English colony. This seminal tale of loss and longing helps explain who we are today.”
—Dean King, New York Times bestselling author of Skeletons on the Zahara and The Feud
“A fascinating account of one of our country's great historical mysteries. Fast-paced and wonderfully written, with plenty of surprising turns along the way, The Secret Token is a delight.”
—Nathaniel Philbrick, New York Times bestselling author of Valiant Ambition
Early settlers vanish, spawning centuries of speculation.In 1587, more than 100 men, women, and children landed on Roanoke Island to become the first English settlers in the New World. In 1590, when the group's leader returned from England with supplies, the settlement had disappeared, never to be found again. Lawler (Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, 2014, etc.), a contributing writer for Science and contributing editor for Archaeology, clearly has been infected with the "Lost Colony syndrome…an urgent and overwhelming need to resolve the question of what happened to the colonists." He creates a vivid picture of the roiling, politically contentious, economically stressed Elizabethan world from which they sailed and a thorough—sometimes needlessly so—recounting of historical, archaeological, and weird theories to explain the disappearance. Besides visiting numerous archaeological digs, historical archives, and libraries in America, Portugal, and Britain and interviewing scores of experts, the author doggedly traces down frauds and hoaxes, no matter how improbable. The Zombie Research Society, he reports, warns of "something sinister still in the ground on Roanoke Island, waiting to be released into a modern population that is more advanced, more connected, but just as unprepared as ever." Something sinister certainly emerged in the settlers' relationship with Native Americans. At first, they "traded peacefully," learned each other's languages, and "formed mutually advantageous alliances." But the English spread deadly disease among tribes with no immunities to Old-World pathogens, decimating communities, and although some leaders tried to treat Native Americans with gentleness, others lashed out against those they considered depraved savages. Native Americans responded with ruthless violence. Massacre is one theory of the settlers' fate; another, equally possible, is assimilation. Most historians believe that the colonists, "if they survived, merged with indigenous society," miscegenation that some found unpalatable. An 18th-century traveler, for example, "recoiled" from the idea that "white women found Indian husbands."In this enjoyable historical adventure, an unsolved mystery reveals violent political and economic rivalries and dire personal struggles.
The colony of Roanoke, on the banks of modern-day North Carolina, was formed under Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587. Three years later, a rescue mission discovered that the settlement had vanished. Since the disappearance of these 115 English colonists, Roanoke has befuddled archaeologists, induced folklore, and galvanized conspiracy theories. Lawler (Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?) presents an armchair travelog, historiographical review, and cultural assessment that begins with descriptions of the colony's settlement, archaeological fights for survival, and interactions with the Native Americans. From there, Lawler uses both British and American archives to decode maps and learn as much as possible from scant archaeological evidence of the colony's existence. The final parts of the book analyze the cultural significance of the lost community within a broader historical context, focusing on immigration and the dangers of nativism. VERDICT Lawler compels readers to examine the past in a different light. Accessible and inquisitive, this book is not just for archaeology enthusiasts but for any public or academic library where American history is appreciated.—Keith Klang, Port Washington P.L., NY