Indography pp 43-56 | Cite as

Looking for Loss, Anticipating Absence

Imagining Indians in the Archives and Depictions of Roanoke’s Lost Colony
  • Gina Caison
Part of the Signs of Race book series (SOR)


Paul Green’s 1937 symphonic drama, The Lost Colony, depicts the events leading up to the historic disappearance of 115 men, women, and children from Roanoke Island. Green’s drama continues to play six nights a week every summer in Manteo, North Carolina; because of this text, many consider Green to be the father of the “outdoor drama,” a genre characterized by its extensive production materials, use of local history, yearly staging, and of course, its location in large outdoor theaters. Although one could easily quibble with several of the textual details in Green’s play, it is clear from his papers and extensive surviving archive that he conducted rigorous research when writing the script. His grasp of the mood, tenor, and implications of the Roanoke voyages mirrors those of many of the extant texts relating to the colonial expeditions, and his use of historical details and individuals have numerous archival antecedents. Of course, any staged events on Roanoke Island after John White left the 1587 colony stem entirely from Green’s imagination. Despite this creative license, almost all of Green’s characters correlate to some part of the archive. However, the only Native woman in the play, Agona, corresponds to no written historical record. In fact, she hardly even exists in Green’s script, as she offers only one line throughout the play: “Tee-hee.” So while other Native characters (Manteo, Wanchese, Wingina) and all of the English characters (Queen Elizabeth I, Walter Raleigh, John White, Simon Fernando) are based upon individuals who exist in the historical record, the Indian Agona stands as the mark of a profound absence in the archive.1


Indigenous People Native Woman Outdoor Drama Historical Archive Visual Archive 
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  1. 1.
    Paul Green, The Lost Colony: A Symphonic Drama of American History, ed. Laurence G. Avery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Paul Green’s papers are located at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I was fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct research for this chapter. I extend thanks to Jonathan Gil Harris and the contributors to the volume as well as John Garrison and Boris Vormann for their helpful comments on previous versions of this chapter. Likewise, Martha Macri and my wonderful students in the fall 2010 “Lost Colony” seminar at University of California, Davis deserve thanks for so many fruitful conversations about the Roanoke voyages.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Hanover, NH: Weslyan University Press, 1994), 14.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Michael Harkin, “Performing Paradox: Narrativity and the Lost Colony of Roanoke,” in Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact, ed. John Sutton Lutz (Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press, 2007), 109. Harkin offers several interesting readings of Roanoke history and its latter-day renderings. I do not agree with all of his conclusions, but I follow his methodology of reading the archive alongside the repertoire in order to imagine how meaning has been made from this historical event. See also Harkin’s “The Floating Island: Anachronism and Paradox in the Lost Colony,” in Small Worlds: Method, Meaning, and Narrative in Microhistory, eds. James F. Brooks, Christopher R. N. DeCorse, and John Walton (Santa Fe: School For Advanced Research Press, 2007), 121–144.; and “Time’s Arrow: Violence and Ethnohistorical Surrealism in the Lost Colony,” Anthropology and Humanism 34, no. 1 (2009): 11–20.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Joyce E. Chaplin, “Roanoke ‘Counterfeited According to the Truth,’” in A New World: England’s First View of America, ed. Kim Sloan (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 51.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) for a discussion of how the colonial memory is staged from and against the historical archive.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    For a thorough under standing of White’s watercolors see Kim Sloan, A New World: England’s First View of America (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). The collection includes almost all of the White watercolors from the British Museum collection, as well as numerous essays contextualizing White’s works for his period.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    For varying, although representative, histories of the 1587 Lost Colony, see James Horn, A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York: Basic Books, 2010);Google Scholar
  8. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefiled Publisher,s Inc, 1984).Google Scholar
  9. Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony (New York: Penguin, 2002);Google Scholar
  10. and David Stick, Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1983). For an extended consideration of the indigenous people of Roanoke and their role in the colonial efforts of the English in the late 1500s,Google Scholar
  11. see Michael Leroy Oberg, The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).Google Scholar
  12. See Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange (New York: Picador, 2008) for an overview for how U.S. popular cultural history reimagines the Lost Colony among other colonial expeditions.Google Scholar
  13. For a discussion of the ways in which early modern events are redeployed in the present-day United States see the Epilogue to Rebecca Bach, Colonial Transformations: The Cultural Production of the New Atlantic World, 1580–1640 (New York: Palgrave, 2000), “Twentieth-Century Transformations: Pocahontas and Captain John Smith in Late-Twentieth-Century Jamestown.”Google Scholar
  14. 9.
    Gerald Vizenor, Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 21.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    See Stephen Greenblatt’s formative work, “Invisible Bullets,” in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), for an analysis of how Harriot’s work creates structures of relation between the Algonquian and English.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    For a discussion of the use of terms applied to the indigenous people of the Americas by various colonial explorers, see Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian From Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1978)Google Scholar
  17. and Alden T. Vaughan, Roots of American Racism: Essays on the Colonial Experience (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). For a discussion of the history of how the English came to imagine the indigenous people as another race,Google Scholar
  18. see Nancy Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth-Century North America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 16.
    For an extended discussion of the rhetoric of paradise, see Jonathan P. A. Sell, Rhetoric and Wonder in English Travel Writing, 1560–1613 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    Several scholars have discussed the missing silver cup at length, arguing that it constituted an early misunderstanding over the terms of commodity exchange in transatlantic contact. See Seth Mallios, The Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacan, Roanoke, and Jamestown (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006)Google Scholar
  21. and Cynthia Van Zandt, Brothers Among Nations: The Pursuit of Intercultural Alliances in Early America, 1580–1660 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 18.
    See Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).Google Scholar
  23. 19.
    See Alden T. Vaughan, Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500–1776 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) for a thorough overview of Manteo and Wanchese as cultural interpreters.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    See Ian Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  25. 23.
    Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Hanover, NH: Weslyan University Press, 1994).Google Scholar

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© Jonathan Gil Harris 2012

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  • Gina Caison

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