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The Mystery Behind This Season’s American Horror Story

Archaeologist alum on the history of the Lost Colony of Roanoke

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The sixth season of FX’s popular anthology series American Horror Story premiered last week, and in a departure from the show’s typical fictional demons, witches, and other macabre characters, this year’s storyline focuses on the true story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke—a group of 115 English colonists who arrived on Roanoke Island off the coast of what is now North Carolina in 1587. Their disappearance shortly thereafter remains a mystery. When a search party set out to find the settlers in 1590, the only signs of them were two carvings on a fence post that offered little in the way of clues. Over the centuries, different theories have developed about the fate of the colonists.

Luke Pecoraro (GRS’15), who earned a master’s and a doctorate in archaeology from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, both in 2015, is now the director of archaeology at the Mount Vernon Estate, the home of George Washington. He has worked in cultural resource management archaeology in sites across the mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake area, and New England, and for several years was a staff archaeologist on the Jamestown Rediscovery project. In addition to his position at the Mount Vernon Estate, he volunteers as a project archaeologist for the First Colony Foundation, a nonprofit searching for archaeological evidence of the Lost Colony’s whereabouts.

The second episode of American Horror Story: Roanoke, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Sarah Paulson, airs tonight. BU Today spoke with Pecoraro about the Lost Colony, what he thinks happened, and what kind of research is being done today.

Archaeologist Luke Pecoraro

Archaeologist Luke Pecoraro (GRS’15) volunteers with the First Colony Foundation, which is trying to find out what happened to members of the 16th-century Lost Colony, who settled on Roanoke Island and whose mysterious disappearance is the subject of the FX anthology series American Horror Story. Photo courtesy of Pecoraro

BU Today: What do we know about the Lost Colony?

Pecoraro: I’ll give you the abridged version.

There is interest by the English in the East Coast. They want to establish a base, where they can not only raid the Caribbean, but also try to establish a fortified permanent settlement that will enable goods to flow back to England. It’s a moneymaking venture, first and foremost.

There is a connection with Sir Walter Raleigh, a courtier at the First Court, the man with the plan, who can make something like this happen. He is friends with a lot of early English pirates who know good locations to raid. The Carolina coast looks very attractive because of the Outer Banks, known to seafarers during this early period because ships would frequently get wrecked along its shores—the area is called “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” for a reason. A fledgling settlement in this area could be protected by these barrier islands.

In 1584, Philip Amadis and Arthur Barlowe are chosen to make a pilot journey to the Carolina coast to select an area for the settlement and establish relationships with the Native Americans tribes who might turn out to be friendly allies. They arrive in April 1584, scout around the interior of the Barrier Islands, and establish friendly relationships with the Indians on Roanoke Island, going so far as to take two of them back with them to England. Then Raleigh and some of his financial backers send another group of colonists back to Roanoke Island with the two Indians. They establish a military presence on the island, set up a scientific workshop, and look to exploit the island for precious metals, so it’s a military expedition. Relations with the Native Americans quickly sour, and the English end up departing, but leave a small, token garrison to claim Roanoke Island for England.

In 1587, you get the famous Lost Colony, which I think most people are familiar with in American folklore. That’s the attempt, sponsored by Raleigh and others, to establish a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island, and to really make a go of it. The governor of that colony, John White, had been on some of the earlier expeditions and had done a watercolor map of the Carolina coast, which holds up remarkably well. When supplies start to run low in 1587, he sails back to England for a resupply, and that’s the last anyone ever sees of the colonists on Roanoke Island. The Spanish Armada in 1588 basically sucks up any vessels that England might use to defend the coastline, so White is unable to return until 1590. When he returns, he sees the settlement completely torn apart and overgrown, and the mysterious letters “CRO” carved into a post in the fort, and the word “Croatoan” carved on another post (the Croatoans were one of Roanoke Island’s native tribes). Those are really the only clues about the colonists’ whereabouts, where they might have gone. There is a storm brewing up when White is out there looking for the colonists, and the captain of the vessel he sailed on is reluctant to stay. So he goes back to the vessel and that’s pretty much it; the colonists become lost.

What are some plausible explanations for the colonists’ disappearance?

Well, a lot of people hash this out and there are lots of different theories floating around. I think the most plausible explanation is that the colonists were under duress, because they landed at a time when they couldn’t plant crops, so they would have been relying on the food they brought with them and the goodwill of the neighboring Native Americans. With food shortages and things like that, I imagine they likely assimilated with friendly Native Americans, or if they had irritated the Indians to the point where that relationship was no longer tenable, they may have been wiped out by them.

I think the theory of assimilation is quite strong for a few reasons. One of these is that when the Jamestown colonists arrived in the area in 1607, part of their instructions were to figure out what happened to the Fort Raleigh colonists. There are some excerpts from Captain John Smith’s journal that suggest there were “European-looking people,” for lack of a better term, living with the Native American tribe centered in present-day Virginia Beach. Smith recounts that the paramount chief in Virginia orders these individuals be “done away with” before the Jamestown group can meet up with them. I think that is a compelling story line right there.

Is there any archaeological evidence supporting this hypothesis? Can you talk about the First Colony Foundation’s work to determine what happened to the colonists?

The archaeological work the First Colony Foundation has done to date is kind of a continuum of work that had been done in the 1990s by a prominent archaeologist named Ivor Noël-Hume. He had done work with Bill Kelso, who is the project director of Jamestowne Rediscovery, and the two of them had gathered together experts on the Elizabethan period and gotten permission to dig on Roanoke Island, where the National Park Service has a historic site. Through several campaigns of archaeology, they found the remains of the “science center,” which was the site where metals were tested in 1585.

With momentum from the earlier work by Noël-Hume and Kelso that there were Elizabethan remains to be found on Roanoke Island, that morphed into the First Colony Foundation, and they started doing some more archaeological testing in 2006 on the National Park Service site. We did some shoreline surveys and found several shards of European pottery on the site, but not a huge enough amount to say there was a large-scale, permanent settlement. That archaeological evidence is very tantalizing and keeps us going back to Roanoke Island.

One of the researchers on our team went to the British Museum, where the Virginea Pars map, John White’s map of the Carolina coast, is housed. We wanted to take a closer look at this. Some X-ray work with the parchment paper that the map was done on showed two sections where patches had been applied to the map. One was covering up a symbol that looked like a fortification, and another was covering a tear or a stain. The location where the fort-shaped symbol appeared was not developed. We got permission to test a site a little further up the way on the banks of the Chowan River. That site has yielded European artifacts that are contemporary with the Roanoke settlement, alongside Native American pottery and other objects like that. The site is being called Site X, and we return to that site periodically. We normally dig in two-to-three week time frames, and a lot remains to be done out there. That site holds promise that it might really be able to back up the idea that the settlers went elsewhere and assimilated.

What is the likelihood of finding human remains?

There could be the potential to find human remains. The sandy soils of the North Carolina coastal plain traditionally are not the best for preserving human remains, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

Why do you think the story of the Roanoke colonists continues to pique interest so many centuries later?

It’s a mystery, and it’s a little more compelling than other colonization attempts in the early history of America, because men, women, and children were sent. They were family units, and the idea was that there was supposed to be a sense of permanence with the site. Also, there is the pervasive story that the settlement was home to the first English-born child in America, whose name was Virginia Dare. That’s a story that perseveres—what happened to Virginia Dare?

We love a good mystery. This is certainly one that has been out there. It’s been Roanoke Island’s bread and butter in terms of tourism; it’s not a story that’s going away. It gave rise to the longest running outdoor drama in the United States, called The Lost Colony, which was written for the anniversary of the settlement in 1930. Everyone needs their origin story, and this is certainly it for North Carolina, but also for the United States, because it is the first English settlement attempted, although they were later successful with Jamestown.

American Horror Story: Roanoke airs tonight and each Wednesday night at 10 p.m. on FX.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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