This History Will Curl Your Toes

Published:June 1, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

If you’re like my wife, then after reading today’s “This Day” post, you’ll give me kind of a queer look and say, “That’s a little dark.” And it is. I know. But to really understand the first English colony called Virginia—by which I mean the one on Roanoke—then you need to wrap your head around this kind of violence. (To recap: English attack Indian town. Behead chief. Call it a day.) To gloss it over, as the above BBC video does, is to inflict a different kind of violence, this time to history.

Listen to the proper-sounding, king’s-English voice-over dude:

For awhile, the Indians were friendly, but the settlers depended on them for food, as their own seeds had been lost or had rotted. And the Indians began to resent the persistent English demands. This led to tension and finally to violence. Reduced to scavenging for crabs and oysters, they were taken off Roanoke by Drake, who brought them home.

All of these sentences, by themselves, are accurate. And yes, the tensions finally did lead to violence. But to what kind of violence? And perpetrated by whom? With what outcome?

[Insert primal scream here.]

“Look,” you say. “Why curl people’s toes when you don’t have to?”

Because the story doesn’t make sense otherwise.

Listen again as the king’s-English voice-over dude explains what happened next, when John White and his crew arrived a year later at Roanoke:

From here they made contact again with the Indians. Relations, though unpredictable, seemed friendly once more. But soon they found themselves very short of stores. White was persuaded to return to obtain them, but after his departure, the settlers were never seen again.

Remember that the BBC has elided over the gruesome bit of violence that preceded the English abandoning their first colony: attacking an Indian town and beheading their leader. So one can’t help but wonder what it means that relations “seemed friendly once more.” And perhaps by “unpredictable” the BBC means that shortly after arriving, one of White’s men went missing. They soon found him out in the woods, dead from sixteen arrows and a beating.


Oh, and a garrison of fifteen soldiers left behind the previous year on Roanoke had disappeared and were presumed dead. What’s unpredictable to the BBC might actually be perfectly predictable—but only if you explain the part about beheading the chief.

Luckily for John White, there was one group of Indians left who were friendly. They were Manteo’s people and they lived on the barrier island of Croatoan. So White asked them to put the word out that the English were seeking peace. But when none of the hostile tribes responded, White attacked the same Indian town where, the year before, the English had killed the Indian chief.

Except you know what? It was occupied by Manteo’s people.

[Insert primal scream here.]

White’s men killed the only friends they had left.

“Unpredictable” is the least of it, don’t you think?