As I've pointed out all too many times in the past, November
has always been a tricky month, folklore-wise. One feels absolutely
compelled to allude to the Thanksgiving holiday, yet one usually
finds oneself when it comes time to come up with something new
and interesting to say about the festivities.
As a matter of fact, way back in 1987, I was already stumped
- and we'd only been putting out the newsletter for one year!
I'd done a brief history of the day in our first November issue
(1986), and as of November '87 I simply didn't have enough new
material to warrant a second column.
It then occurred to me, out of necessity as much as anything,
that the occasion of Thanksgiving could be used as a stepping
off point to delve into the folkloric traditions surrounding
the Colonial Period in America in general. At that point, I
knew exactly what to write - since I was perhaps seven years
old I'd been fascinated by the story of the mysterious "lost
colony" of Roanoke. It was a fun column to do.
Upon going online, I was able to revisit Thanksgiving Proper
and fill it out somewhat. In our first online November issue
(1997) I finally continued from where I'd left off back in 1986,
and the next year (1998) I came up with a brand new column, a
Having done that, I found by '99 that I'd done all I was likely
to do on Thanksgiving for a long while.
It was clearly time to return to 1987, and reprint one of
my favorite November columns ever . . .
Well, here we are again - how
time flies . . .
It seems like only yesterday I was seated with furrowed brow
before this keyboard, racking my addled brain in desperation
for something halfway original to write about that most written
about holiday: Thanksgiving.
Now, here I am - seated with furrowed brow and addled desperation
in front of this same keyboard with even less inspiration than
Let's face it - what exactly
happened at the First Thanksgiving? I'll tell you: they ate.
The pilgrims and their currently friendly Native American buddies
sat down and ate for three days, and ever since then folklorists
have been saddled with the impossible task of trying to say something
fresh and original about that most gastronomic of commemorations,
and having about as little luck as I am right at this moment.
We have managed to find at least one or two interest things to
remark upon concerning the Thanksgiving holiday, but as another
November hits it's become clear that there just isn't a whole
lot more to be said about the Founding Fathers and their -
Oh, but wait! "Founding Fathers" seems to imply that
Plymouth was the first English colony in America, and as we gaze
back into those misty days of yore, it almost seems - yes, I'm
almost sure I see another colony, a few years further
back in time, yet definitely Colonial, definitely English, and
very, very, close by . .
The Lost Colony
|It was a bit
over 400 years ago, in November of 1587, that a battered and
bedraggled John White sailed into an English Harbor to plead
with Queen Elizabeth for supplies for his colony, the first English
colony in America. It had been a scant few years since Sir Walter
Raleigh, discoverer of tobacco and Royal Favorite, had sent two
ships to the North American coast, and had named the land "Virginia",
in honor of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.
This new world seemed at the time a veritable paradise, where
everything good grew rapidly and in great quantities, the climate
was temperate, and the natives friendly. There was a slight
problem however - Spain.
Spain had, of course, financed the original Columbus excursions
nearly a century before, and had since enjoyed a virtual monopoly
on exploiting the minerals and natives of the Western Hemisphere.
Officially England and Spain were at peace, but the situation
was in fact similar to, say, the current relationship between
the U.S. and Iraq.
Which is to say that a lot of covert activities, such as piracy,
were taking place, mostly English operations directed at Spain
- all publicly decried and privately rewarded by Queen Elizabeth.
Not surprisingly therefore, the first English foothold in North
America was in reality a military base, located on Roanoke Island.
From June 1585 to June 1586, English soldiers made a series
of attacks on Spanish merchant ships from the island, until the
hitherto friendly natives finally decided that enough was enough,
and began making a few raids of their own on the somewhat perturbed
Exit English soldiers, enter John White.
John White (correctly, as it turned out) saw that England's future
in America lay in permanent colonies, and persuaded Sir Walter
and Queen Elizabeth to allow him to turn the abandoned military
garrison at Roanoke into a colonial settlement. On May 8, 1587,
over one hundred brave souls set sail across the Atlantic to
become England's first American colonists.
Unfortunately, as the Pilgrims were to discover 32 years later,
provisions can quickly prove mighty scarce in an unfamiliar region.
In a matter of months, the colony was starving. In desperation,
the colonists sent John White back to England to plead for much
This is, of course, the point in time when England and Spain
finally went to war, with the immediate result that a rescue
party was unable to return to Roanoke for nearly two years.
When such a party was finally sent off, John White was at its
head, and was thus among the first to discover the fate of the
colony . . .
They found that all the houses had been dismantled, and smaller
artillery taken away. Large cannons remained, as did chests
that had been buried and subsequently dug up by local tribes.
Of the colonists themselves, however, not a single trace of them,
alive or dead, was ever found.
The mystery has never been solved.
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