THE SECRET TOKEN: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke by Andrew Lawler looks at how an 1830s story by one Eliza Cushing (“Virginia Dare, or, The Lost Colony.”) transformed Roanoke from one of many failed settlements into the Lost Colony of legend (the woodcut below is from Harper’s).
This was then seized on by the anti-immigrant forces of the era — wasn’t that noble, chaste white maiden, surrounded by Native Americans, a perfect allegory for Anglo-Saxon Protestants being swarmed by Irish Catholics, Italians and other lesser races (it was very much in line with 19th century captivity narratives)? It’s a myth that still endures, as witness one white supremacist website is known as VDARE (and possibly one reason the legend ignores that Dare was not the first European child born in North America — the Spanish were ahead of us there).
Lawler only gets to this part of the legend late in the book. First he recounts the history of the colony and the many mysteries around it, then the various efforts to find out what happened to the colonists, whether by archeological digs or DNA research (not very effective for reasons Lawler explains). This introduces us to archeologists with a variety of theories, a fair number of scammers and even more unsolved questions (while the once famous “Dare Stones” turned out to be fakes, the very first stone might be genuine … maybe). Lawler’s own theory is that the colonists found refuge with the neighboring tribes but he admits there’s no solid proof, nor any way to figure out exactly where they went. An excellent book on the topic.
FORGET THE ALAMO: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford is written with such a breezy tone, it’s a little off-putting. Happily, it doesn’t stop the authors from chronicling the history of Texas’ revolution against Mexico, fueled primarily by Texians wanting to go big on cotton planting, which meant slavery, which wasn’t allowed under Texas law. The futile effort to defend the Alamo would probably have been meaningless if Sam Houston hadn’t made “Remember the Alamo!” the big inspirational message to rally the rest of his troops; from there it passed into Texas legend, though in a wildly distorted form — the Texians were fighting for freedom! The Mexicans killed Davy Crockett (despite the fact Tejanos fought in the revolution, making it White vs. Mexican has been flung at Latino kids for generations).
From there it passed into wider use, largely thanks to Disney turning frontiersman turned politician Davy Crockett into a hero on his Disneyland TV show. Fess Parker’s Davy became a pop culture smash inspiring everyone from Vietnam enlistees to anti-war radicals (one of whom said he’d been influenced by Davy’s declaration that you have to stand up fight for what’s right, no matter what). Late in the last century, historians and Tejanos began pushing for a more realistic, nuanced account but unsurprisingly that hasn’t gone well. Not to mention feuds over who owns and manages the Alamo property, how much taxpayer money should be spent on it and whether Phil Collins really owns a mass of collectibles such as Jim Bowie’s knife or he’s just really gullible (spoiler: pick option B). The authors are confident that if the legend can’t be revised to appeal to more people, it’ll end up fading away, but I’m less convinced. Still, this was a good read.
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