A Kingdom Strange

The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, James Horn, Basic Books.

Just about every part of the established view about what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke is incorrect. That’s the bold sentiment of “A Kingdom Strange,” in which James Horn — Vice President of Research and Historical Interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation — argues that the intrepid English colonists who landed at Roanoke in 1587 did not abandon the island and settle in the Chesapeake Bay area, as has been the predominant theory for the past thirty-five years. Horn argues instead that after expedition leader John White returned to England (in hopes of persuading sponsors to rescue the struggling settlers), most ventured inland, with at least a dozen or so surviving long-term and integrating into Indian society.

In the midst of putting forth this new theory, Horn also considers what might have prompted White and his charges to leave England in the first place — namely, the promise of creating a Puritan community. The author also discounts the established view that the primary purpose of the Roanoke colony was agricultural, arguing that its primary mission was to plunder Spanish ships. Horn’s rationale? The cost and risks of establishing a colony in the New World could not be justified by mere agricultural rewards.

I don’t purport to know enough about early American history to appraise Horn’s theories, but I do know that the endeavor ended badly for White, who was unable to get back to Roanoke until 1590, only to discover that everyone had vanished, including his daughter and son-in-law. Horn contends that White’s inability to locate his friends and family dealt him a blow from which he would never recover, writing: “Unable to reach them, he would go to his grave bearing the guilt of his failure.”