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  • Early British Travelers to the U. S. South
  • Laurie Langbauer

What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?

—Allen Tate, "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."

—Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead"

I. Roanoke

When British visitors to America decided to stay, they first stuck roots in the South. The origins of British relations to the New World seem so decidedly Yankee in character that it can be hard even in the South to remember that the earliest English explorations of America were as much southern as northern. That "New England" designates a group of northern United States is a historical accident, but one that has left any southern sense of origins skewed and belated: Plymouth Rock actually marked the third time the British came to found a colony (Jamestown in modern day Virginia was second). The first British settlement in the New World, and the first birth of an English child on this soil (Virginia Dare), happened in North Carolina, on Roanoke Island. Even the Mayflower was trying to get back to the South, but was blown spectacularly (and conclusively) off course. Americans remember the Mayflower because the Plymouth colony lasted. The United States' southern roots, on the other hand, simply did not take: Sir Walter Raleigh's colony, kept up in fits and starts from 1584, was lost, vanishing almost—but not quite—by 1590.

What would have happened if, on John White's return to Carolina's Outer Banks (thirty years before the Pilgrims landed at Provincetown), [End Page 1] his family and one hundred-odd others hadn't simply disappeared into the quiet wilderness? What if the lost colony's precedence wasn't almost—but not quite—forgotten by four centuries of recorded history, stymied by unanswerable questions (what really happened to them)? What kind of pageants of that annual rite of national origin might American schoolchildren alternatively stage at Thanksgiving? What kind of food—the early Virginians write of oysters and squirrel broth—would Americans from Maine to California bring to their groaning boards instead? What would it mean if Americans celebrated as southern the English vector that ultimately shaped their nation?

Perhaps Americans would care so little about it that nothing would really change. Before a century had passed, historians of Roanoke had begun to complain that the lost colony had vanished in more ways than one. Just twenty years after the event, those colonists "are never even mentioned and pass into oblivion" (Quinn 375). Visitors to the South in the mid nineteenth-century confessed that, although everyone could pick Massachusetts Bay off a map, few could find Roanoke Island, largely because mapmakers consistently forgot to label it.1 The historical truism of lazy Jamestown and industrious Plymouth that still pervades grade-school history books suggests that southern precedence in national origin doesn't matter much to popular myths of the U.S. in any event—or, if at all, it supposedly matters only to that other stereotype: history-mad, genealogy-obsessed southerners, the ones with a chip still on their shoulders. Although painted as a minority, such people have seemed a concentrated one: they are the force that got May 20, 1775 put on North Carolina's state seal, the date of the (probably spurious) Mecklenberg Declaration of Independence (predating Philadelphia's declaration by more than a year). Nevertheless, one must look very hard to see that fine print as preamble to the U.S. national myth. Academic historians may be the only ones who still have any stake in trying to complicate such stereotypes. For the most part, Americans seem content with the story we've been handed. We teach our children about Squanto, not Manteo. Even in North Carolina, no one buys Virginia Dare dolls.

And yet, in a recent English popular history of its relation to the United States, no less a fashionable barometer than that talk show host of the 1980s, David Frost, asserts of Roanoke, "Though this colony did not survive, it is nonetheless accepted as the spiritual beginning of an English America that was to become the United States" (13). Accepted, that is, by the British. The meaning...


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