Like their buckle-hatted neighbors to the north, the pilgrims of the Lost Colony faced strife and misfortune in the New World, enduring scarce food and hostile Indians the moment their boots touched sand.
But while the better-known colonists in Plymouth survived their first winter, North Carolina’s first English settlers vanished into history with their fate famously uncertain.
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T. Jerry Williams of Raleigh, a lobbyist and consultant with an emphasis on travel and tourism, wonders whether the 117 pioneers who landed on Roanoke Island in 1587 managed to enjoy any festive moments before they disappeared.
In short, he asked CuriousNC, did the Lost Colony have a Thanksgiving dinner? CuriousNC investigated, and brings you this unhappy report.
First, it should be noted that folklore has embellished much of what actually happened on Massachusetts’ first Turkey Day.
The image of harmonious pilgrims and Indians gathered around a “hugely breasted, cooked bird with drumsticks pointed skyward” was invented by the Victorians, wrote East Carolina University professor Larry Tise in a 2008 article for History News Network.
“Never mind that this fictionalized version of a love-feast between land-grabbing Europeans and innocent Native Americans was about as accurate as caricatures of a happy-go-lucky banjo-playing slave,” Tise wrote. “Never mind that English colonists in scattered encampments from New England to Virginia were always close to starvation; or that they literally stole their food from Indian tribes.”
As for the Lost Colony, Tise said conditions on Roanoke Island left no cause for celebration.
The colonists arrived in July, he said in an essay prepared for the N&O, months too late for planting crops. Fish abounded around the Outer Banks, but the English colonists knew nothing about building weirs or other fish traps as the Indians did. Their 16th-century guns posed little threat to deer.
“These London city slickers had no knowledge, instincts or skills for wilderness survival,” Tise wrote. “And local Indians were not in a mood to bring corn, chowder and venison for a potluck meal.”
The colonists who arrived in 1587 and vanished sometime before 1590 occupied settled on land that English scouts had occupied only a year earlier. Tise described those newcomers as “marauders” who beheaded a local chief, earning the tribes’ lasting hatred. Indians attacked and killed one member of the Lost Colony soon after its ship arrived.
“This wanton carnage left the colonists of 1587 without friends, food or a probable future,” Tise wrote.
Everyone knows the rest of the story. The colonists left little trace when a supply ship returned in 1590, delayed by wars with the Spanish. The only markings were the words “CROATOAN” carved on fence post and the letters “C-R-O” scratched on a tree.
It is unlikely, Tise concludes, that the luckless colonists ever carved a fat turkey with their native neighbors. This Thanksgiving, have a bite in their memory.
Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08