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Insights and Artifacts
Spring 2002 Courier

Becoming Reacquainted with the First Colonists

By Helen Sonner

Big Chief Elizabeth and Roanoke book jacketsA musket barrel, mortar, and "certain pieces of iron." These items are to Sir Walter Raleigh's lost colony what the grassy knoll and the Texas School Book Depository are to the JFK assassination.

How you approach the mystery of the lost colony depends in some ways on what you make of the reports that King Powhatan had these items in his possession when the colonists arrived at Jamestown. Was this European booty proof that some of Raleigh's settlers had been among the Chesepians that King Powhatan had ordered massacred on the eve of the Virginia Company's first landing? Or were reports of these items part of a seventeenth century public relations effort to convince contemporaries that there was no hope of finding the lost colonists alive?

The lost colony and the Jamestown settlement are the old familiars of our regional history, and this familiarity often makes it hard to maintain a sense of excitement in hearing the tales retold.

In advance of the Jamestown 2007 anniversary, however, two recently published books reinstill a sense of awe into this familiar history. If you think you know all there is to know about Jamestown and the lost colony, Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton and Roanoke by Lee Miller may take you by surprise.

Big Chief Elizabeth is a captivating retelling of the traditional narrative, beginning with early European explorations of North America and ending with Powhatan's likely slaughter of the remaining lost colonists only hours before the Jamestown settlers arrived at Cape Henry. A Londoner, Milton paints a rich sense of the time and place that gave birth to the colonies, successfully placing the settlement of Virginia in the broader context of Elizabethan history.

Although it shares much of the same source material, Roanoke contradicts almost every element of the story told in Big Chief Elizabeth. Person by person, event by event, artifact by artifact, Miller challenges the familiar narrative, pulling it apart thread by thread. In the process, the lost colony is transformed from a settlement doomed by poor planning and bad luck into a hapless group of men, women, and children actively destroyed by courtly intrigue. While most readers will find Miller's questions provocative, opinions will vary on how successfully she reassembles the existing evidence into a more compelling version of events.

The two portrayals of Sir Francis Walsingham illustrate the books' varying perspectives toward the same material. Queen Elizabeth's spymaster and secretary of state receives only passing references in Milton's book. In Miller's detective story, however, he looms large as a malevolent force who may have purposely sabotaged the lost colony as part of a political battle with Raleigh.

Other players in the story also receive greater attention in Miller's book. Just as Milton's English viewpoint strengthens the story's European context, Miller's Kaw heritage brings greater depth to the portrayal of the native inhabitants of Virginia and North Carolina who played such a central role in this history.

Fair warning: these books may threaten your comfortable familiarity with the story of the lost colony, and you may find yourself poring over the Zúñiga map of Virginia's English settlements the way JFK assassination buffs study the Zapruder film.

In the end, however, you don't have to reconcile the contradictory theories to find treasure in these two books. Read them both, and the people, places, and politics of Virginia's first colonies will come alive. And, as the 2007 quadricentennial celebration approaches, 1607 will seem both more real and more remarkable.

Helen Sonner is vice president of the Norfolk Historical Society.


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