Mysteriously inscribed on an abandoned stockade post, the word “Croatoan” lives on in our collective memory–a lone, lingering remnant of “The Lost Colony” of Roanoke, North Carolina. The story of the 115 European colonists who, in 1587, set out to settle in the new world and then inexplicably “disappeared” in the American wilderness has captured our popular imagination, inspiring both scholarly inquiry and conspiracy theories.
Having sorted through both legend and historical fact and having scrutinized the archeological and archival evidence, author Andrew Lawler understands the Lost Colony to “represent far more than a mystery.” Instead, he sees it as “a doorway into a pivotal moment in world history, giving us insight into early British explorations in the Atlantic world and the settling of the Americas and also into many current conversations on race, gender, and national identity.”
Lawler is the 2017 Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Library Fellow in residence this summer at Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
Incorporating recent archeological findings at digs on Hatteras Island and “site X,” his forthcoming book and fellowship project, The Secret Token, will put the Roanoke voyages in their larger global context, while also addressing the mystery of the colonists’ fate.
The first half of Lawler’s fellowship was spent at the John Carter Brown Library conducting primary source research in the library’s collections surrounded by other historians pursuing hot topics in the settlement of the new world. After finishing the research portion of his fellowship, Lawler arrived in Chestertown, where—based at the Patrick Henry House—he is enthused to craft his manuscript in the colonial surrounds of Chestertown’s historical district.
Lawler says he is grateful to have the uninterrupted time to truly focus on his writing and looks forward to delving into the rich resources of the Starr Center’s Leo LeMay library collection. In his research, Lawler asks: why did the colonists come? How did they relate to the native Americans? What is the connection between the Roanoke and the later Jamestown settlement? “The startling upshot,” says Lawler, “is that this venture was more than an expensive fiasco ending in human tragedy. It helped kick-start not just the United States, but the British Empire, and with it, the modern world. Roanoke provided a template for future and more successful efforts, like the East India Company and the Virginia Company.”
An accomplished journalist, Lawler’s interests are far ranging. He has traveled widely around the world writing about space, science, and technology. Lawler began his career as an associate editor at The Futurist and then landed a job as a reporter for a space publication just days before the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. For the next decade and a half, he covered Washington politics for a host of newsletters, newspapers, and magazines. Lawler has produced more than a thousand stories, including a 2015 piece funded by the Pulitzer Center on threats to isolated peoples in the Peruvian Amazon for Science Magazine. In the Middle East, he wrote extensively about the impact of war on cultural heritage. His book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? chronicles how this common bird transformed society. He is a contributing editor for Archaeology and Science, and has written for The New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and several other publications.
The Starr Center administers the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Library Fellowship in partnership with the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious institutions for the study of early America. Founded with a $1 million endowment from The Hodson Trust, the fellowship supports work on significant projects related to the literature, history, culture, or art of the Americas before 1830. Now in its fifth year, it welcomes submissions not only from traditional historians, but also from filmmakers, novelists, and creative and performing artists.