The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke

The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke

by Andrew Lawler


$15.30 $17.00 Save 10% Current price is $15.3, Original price is $17. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, October 16


*National Bestseller*

A sweeping account of America's oldest unsolved mystery, the people racing to unearth its answer, and the sobering truths--about race, gender, and immigration--exposed by the Lost Colony of Roanoke

In 1587, 115 men, women, and children arrived at Roanoke Island on the coast of North Carolina. Chartered by Queen Elizabeth I, their colony was to establish England's first foothold in the New World. But when the colony's leader, John White, returned to Roanoke from a resupply mission, his settlers were nowhere to be found. They left behind only a single clue--a "secret token" carved into a tree. Neither White nor any other European laid eyes on the colonists again.

What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke? For four hundred years, that question has consumed historians and amateur sleuths, leading only to dead ends and hoaxes. But after a chance encounter with a British archaeologist, journalist Andrew Lawler discovered that solid answers to the mystery were within reach. He set out to unravel the enigma of the lost settlers, accompanying competing researchers, each hoping to be the first to solve its riddle. In the course of his journey, Lawler encounters a host of characters obsessed with the colonists and their fate, and he determines why the Lost Colony continues to haunt our national consciousness.

Thrilling and absorbing, The Secret Token offers a new understanding not just of the first English settlement in the New World but of how its disappearance continues to define--and divide--America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101974605
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 86,811
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrew Lawler is author of two books, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, a national bestseller, and the widely acclaimed Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. As a journalist, he has written more than a thousand newspaper and magazine articles, and his byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and many others. He is a contributing writer for Science and a contributing editor for Archaeology. Andrew’s work has appeared several times in The Best of Science and Nature Writing. For more, see

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Some Delicate Garden

First there was the smell, the fragrance of burning cedar on the west wind. Then there was the smoke rising from “great fires because of the numerous inhabitants.” As the Dauphine bobbed within sight of land on an April day in 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano saw “the sea along the coast was churned up by enormous waves because of the open beach.” In a letter to French king Francis I, he described a “seashore completely covered with fine sand fifteen feet deep, which arises in the forms of small hills about fifty paces high.” Then came a forest “clothed with palms, laurel, and cypress, and other varieties of tree unknown in our Europe.” They gave off a strong scent, he added, “not without some kind of narcotic or aromatic liquor.”

After sailing from the port of Dieppe on the English Channel, Verrazano had arrived off the Outer Banks to give us our first description of a gentle Carolina spring day. “The sky is clear and cloudless, with infrequent rain, and if the south winds bring in clouds and murkiness, they are dispelled in an instant, and the sky is once again clear and bright; the sea is calm and unruffled.”

Spotting people on the beach “making various friendly signs, and beckoning us ashore,” the Italian captain of the French ship sent a small boat, but the pounding breakers made it too dangerous to land. One of the sailors jumped into the water and bodysurfed to shore carrying “some trinkets, such as little bells, mirrors, and other trifles.” But when the locals tried to help him out of the water, he “was seized with terror.” They carried him to a sunny spot, took off his soaked clothes, and built a huge fire, “looking at the whiteness of his flesh and examining him head to foot.” The ship’s crew feared they would roast and eat him; instead, the group warmed him by the fire, hugged him, and retreated politely to the top of a sand dune until the sailor made it back to the boat.

Coasting north after this hopeful and auspicious encounter, the Europeans followed a narrow strip, “an isthmus one mile wide and about two hundred miles long, in which we could see the eastern sea from the ship.” Verrazano tried without success to find a safe passage through the isthmus so “we could reach those blessed shores of Cathay.” He looked west across the islands of the Outer Banks and saw not the Pamlico Sound, as we now know it, but a vast sea that he proclaimed to be the Pacific Ocean. It was, after all, what he was looking for. “My intention on this voyage was to reach Cathay and the extreme eastern coast of Asia, but I did not expect to find such an obstacle of new land as I have encountered,” he explained to the king who had helped fund the voyage, adding, “I estimated there would be some strait to get through.” He surely had in mind Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who, a decade earlier, had crossed Panama and found the waters that led to China.

A Florentine and contemporary of Machiavelli’s and Raphael’s, he named the isthmus Varazanio and sailed on toward the north, earning posthumous fame as the first European to record his entrance into New York Harbor. But his much larger contribution to world history was in making the geographic gaffe of the century. Belief in this Carolinian Panama played a central role in leading the English to the Outer Banks sixty years later. You could argue that the American colonies and the United States are based on a single cartographic blunder.

Verrazano’s patron proved too busy fighting a losing war with Spain to authorize a follow-­up voyage, so the Italian turned to King Henry VIII across the Channel. To entice the monarch, he either presented or sent a detailed map and globe showing his discoveries. Henry at the time was more interested in divorcing his first wife and marrying Anne Boleyn—­soon to be mother of Queen Elizabeth I—­than expending scarce crown funds chasing shortcuts to China. He did, however, give the Italian’s gifts places of honor in his royal palace on London’s western outskirts. Verrazano was killed and eaten by Caribs on the less blessed shores of Guadeloupe before he could correct his error, but his imagined isthmus lived on within Westminster’s walls.

As Henry plotted and Francis warred, a wealthy Spanish judge and landowner on the island of Hispaniola—­in today’s Dominican Republic—­quietly launched the first attempt to colonize the east coast of North America since the Vikings. In an eerie harbinger of the plantation culture to come, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón envisioned turning the Southeast into a feudal empire staffed by Native American workers and African slaves. The North American east coast in that day was seen much the same as the west coast of Africa, a ready source of slaves to work the proliferating sugar plantations of the Spanish Caribbean and Portuguese Brazil. Ayllón sponsored a reconnaissance mission along the Carolina coast that captured more than sixty Siouan-­speaking Indians from a land they called Chicora, which lay just south of the Outer Banks in what is now South Carolina. “As for the Indians, they turned out to be useless,” Ayllón noted with regret. “For almost all of them died of fretfulness and grief.”

One young survivor caught his eye. Dubbed Don Francisco Chicora—­we don’t know his Siouan name—­he was tall and strikingly handsome, and the Hispaniola judge took him to Spain, where he charmed the Castilian court with fantastic tales of the wealth and fertility of his native land. He told of giant kings, men with long tails, and fine cheese made from deer milk.

These compelling stories were enough to win Ayllón a royal grant from King Charles V to settle Chicora. The judge was named governor and given a monopoly on trade in the area for six years, but he had to shoulder the enormous costs of sending and maintaining a colony. He pledged not to enslave the Indians but to “attract them to our service that they will be protected and not molested.” Taking along African slaves was, however, permitted. The king also encouraged the new governor to explore the area for a passage through North America to the Pacific.

Two years after Verrazano’s voyage, in July 1526, a flotilla of six ships carrying six hundred people, including farmers, priests, women, Africans, two doctors, and a pharmacist, sailed from Hispaniola for Chicora. The exceptionally well-­organized expedition carried seven dozen horses, beef cattle, tons of corn, and three thousand loaves of cassava bread. (By contrast, the first Puritans who arrived nearly a century later on the Mayflower counted just over one hundred passengers, and no livestock, on their single small vessel.)

Enticing people to leave their familiar homes for an unknown land proved easy. “The entire Spanish nation is in fact so keen about novelties that people go eagerly anywhere they are called by a nod or a whistle,” wrote a court acquaintance of Ayllón’s, “in the hope of bettering their condition, and are ready to sacrifice what they have for what they hope.”

After they sailed twelve hundred miles north from the Caribbean without incident, mishaps plagued the settlers’ arrival. The flagship grounded in shoal waters, ruining the bulk of the supplies. The settlement site proved swampy. Upon their arrival in Chicora, Don Francisco promptly defected, his tall tales no doubt designed to ensure his kidnappers would deliver him safely home; he was never seen by Europeans again. The anxious colonists soon moved south to a healthier location near today’s Savannah, Georgia. The local Native Americans, initially happy to trade food for valuable European goods, grew tired of feeding the foreigners. Illness and starvation quickly took a terrible toll on the colonists.

“Many persons died of hunger for lack of bread and because in their infirmity they were unable to fish,” one account states. Protein from the plentiful seafood, however, was not enough. Without bread or corn, the settlers likely suffered from the lethargy and nausea that can come with eating insufficient carbohydrates. Indians used acorns and roots when maize supplies ran low, but the Spanish seem to have lacked this knowledge. As relations with the local tribe degenerated, the newcomers’ situation grew increasingly dire.

Ayllón died in October, and the desperate and leaderless Spanish split into competing factions. Indians infuriated by harsh treatment attacked, and the African slaves rebelled. An unknown number, African as well as European, deserted to the Native Americans. This was only the start of more than two centuries of settlers along eastern North America melting into the indigenous population. The remaining ragged band set sail back for home. Stormy seas forced the voyagers to dump Ayllón’s body, which they had hoped to bury in Hispaniola, over the side. Less than one-­third of the settlers made it home.

The debacle in Chicora presaged events at countless later European settlements along that coast, including Roanoke—­grounded ships, inadequate supplies, dependence on and desertion to the locals, and a desperate cycle of hunger and violence. But the legend of a fruitful land akin to Eden woven by Don Francisco spread across Europe faster than the true tale of woe. When French Protestants called Huguenots sought to escape the religious turmoil in France in the 1560s, they looked to Chicora as a welcoming and fertile refuge. A first expedition sent to a South Carolina island collapsed when the governor returned to Europe for supplies in 1562, only to be captured and jailed by the English. The abandoned men made a harrowing journey in an open boat back to France, resorting to cannibalism along the way.

Three years later, a second wave of French settlers led by Jean Ribault built a base a hundred miles or so to the south and fared even worse. Stalked by a Spanish convoy, they launched a preemptive attack, which failed. The Spanish subsequently attacked their fort, sparing only the women and children and a few who claimed to be Catholic. Pieces of the French leader’s beard and skin were sent to Spain’s new king, Philip II, as proof of the massacre, news of which stunned Europe, given that the two nations were not at war. The message was clear: trespassers on this North American territory, claimed by Spain, faced annihilation. To prevent further intrusions, the Spanish built St. Augustine on the Florida coast. Ribault’s head was split into quarters; one part was attached to each corner of the new settlement. On the ruins of the first French colony, they constructed a town called Santa Elena to mark the northern frontier of Spanish control.

There was actually little in eastern North America to interest the Spanish, who focused instead on controlling the wealthy urban civilizations that had already been established in the New World, such as the Aztec and Incan Empires, and expanding sugar plantations across the Caribbean. The region to the north, what was called La Florida, had the wrong climate for growing sugar and held little promise of gold. The indigenous people lacked cities and showed little enthusiasm for Christianity. They also were capable of waging unnervingly effective guerrilla warfare against the slow-­moving armored Iberians in the dense woods and swamps. The Spanish, recalling Ayllón’s failure, saw no profit in further colonization.

But by the mid-­sixteenth century, as a result of geography, the Spanish Empire’s jugular vein lay just offshore. In order to arrive in Europe, treasure ships carrying Chinese silks, Indonesian spices, and Bolivian silver first made port on the Pacific coast of Panama or Mexico. Their precious cargoes were then carried overland and stowed on vessels bound for Havana. There, along with ships carrying Mexican gold, South American hides, and the white gold of Caribbean sugar, armed galleons escorted convoys north through the narrow channel between Florida and the Bahamas on the powerful north-­moving current called the Gulf Stream. Like an arrow shot from a bow, the convoys surged north on the ever-­flowing river within a sea as far as the Outer Banks, where they could catch the prevailing westerly winds to carry them across the Atlantic to the Azores, where they could resupply, and from there to Spain.

The handy Gulf Stream came at a price. Untold numbers of Spanish sailors and passengers drowned in shipwrecks on the treacherous coast, and Native Americans captured hundreds of survivors; St. Augustine was as much a safe haven for castaways as a defense against European intruders. The remote waters were also ideal for pirates eager to seize Spanish treasure, because the course and schedule of the fleets were predictable. Both threats endangered the realm’s finances.

The man overseeing this fast-­expanding empire, Philip II, came to the Spanish throne shortly before the French made their ill-­fated attempts to gain a foothold in the New World. Philip ran not a country but a complicated union of Catholic kingdoms scattered on the Iberian and Italian peninsulas and in what is now the Netherlands, along with the vast colonial domain stretching from the Philippines to Florida. He married a series of queens and princesses—­Austrian, French, English, and Portuguese—­to help hold it all together. A formidable intelligence network and well-­organized bureaucracy kept this tall and brooding workaholic, who preferred to dress in simple black, apprised of the smallest disturbances in his far-­flung domain. His greatest threat lay neither in the New World nor among his European neighbors. Philip most feared the formidable sultan Murad III, who oversaw the sprawling Ottoman Empire from the splendid Topkapi Palace on the Golden Horn in Istanbul. The Ottomans dominated the lands and seas between the Adriatic and the Persian Gulf.

The two mammoth empires clashed in the Mediterranean. Murad used the growing religious rift among Europeans in an attempt to contain Philip’s growing power. He colluded with England’s Elizabeth, the unmarried apostate queen, adroitly suggesting that her nation’s new Protestant faith had more in common with Islam than Catholicism, because both rejected the worship of idols. The English gladly supplied ammunition, along with tin and lead, to the sultan as part of a 1579 commercial deal, scandalizing Catholic Europe. Little wonder that Spain’s pious leader saw himself as the only force preventing a Muslim empire from reaching the Continent’s Atlantic shores.

The Spanish monarch’s luck changed dramatically in 1580. The sultan, embroiled in an expensive war with Persia and facing galloping inflation at home, agreed on a truce that would hold for more than a century. This allowed Philip to turn his attention to rebellious Protestants in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the Portuguese ruler vanished in a disastrous campaign in Morocco; Philip seized the opportunity and claimed the throne of his smaller neighbor that had its own extensive territories from Brazil to India. With this merger, he found himself at the helm of the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of the world, claiming nearly half of western Europe and all of the Americas as well as ample African and Asian territories. This was the first empire, not that of the British, on which it was said the sun never set. In the New World alone, more than 150,000 Spanish lived in some two hundred bustling cities scattered across the Caribbean basin, Mexico, and Peru. Another 200,000 or so African slaves cultivated their cash crops and did their menial tasks. Millions of Native inhabitants surrounded these growing centers of Spanish power, paying taxes and rents benefiting the new European elite that replaced their indigenous rulers.


Excerpted from "The Secret Token"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Andrew Lawler.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Cast of Characters xi

Prelude xv

Introduction: The Terror Within 5

Part 1 The Planting

Chapter 1 Some Delicate Garden 17

Chapter 2 All Signs of Joy 35

Chapter 3 Firing Invisible Bullets 53

Chapter 4 Small Things Flourish by Concord 79

Part 2 The Search

Chapter 5 A Whole Country of English 107

Chapter 6 Child of Science and Slow Time 135

Chapter 7 A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Cover-Up 161

Chapter 8 Pot of Brass 185

Chapter 9 Rejoicing in Things Stark Naughty 207

Chapter 10 We Dare Anything 231

Chapter 11 Heap Plenty Wampum 251

Part 3 The Revelation

Chapter 12 Who's Afraid of Virginia Dare? 275

Chapter 13 Swamp Saints and Renegades 301

Chapter 14 Return to Roanoke 321

Chapter 15 An Old Buck Christmas 347

Coda: A Brave Kingdom 363

Acknowledgments 369

Notes 371

Bibliography 391

Index 411

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews