Strangers in a Strange Land
Patterns of European Colonization in the New World

Charles R. Ewen


    The preceding chapters in this volume run the full gamut of the Roanoke colonization experience and attempt to solve, or at least speculate about, some of the mysteries associated with the "Lost Colony." These diverse contributions show that many routes lead to understanding the Roanoke colonies and that each approach, be it folklore or literature or history or archaeology, can help to reach that goal.

    As a historical archaeologist, I get to dabble in more than one approach to knowing but am always after the ‘truth” of what happened in the past. My post-modernist colleague and coeditor, Tom Shields, on the other hand, jokes with me that as an English professor he is less concerned with the truth, so long as it’s a good story! I have always thought that the best stories usually are the true ones. With the paper in this volume we have both: the truth (at least as we understand it) and several good stories.

    I would like to conclude this book with a look ahead toward the stories yet to come, specifically the stories we can tell once the historical gaps have been filled when we find all the lost colonies and determine what happened to them. What kind of questions do we ask then? Or is the story over? A reexamination of the processes of colonization in the New World, looking beyond the shores of Roanoke Island, will illustrate what kind of new questions answering the old questions will inspire.

The Colonial Experience

    Europe had little colonial experience prior to Christopher Columbus’s voyages of discovery to the New World. Its nations had spent most of their time squabbling over their holdings within Europe itself or in North Africa and the New East. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that many European powers even knew of other lands, let alone entertained notions of conquest and colonization.

    Spain was one of the first European powers to look outside the known world for colonial purposes. It had planted a small colony in the Canary Islands by the end of the fifteenth century, but that limited experience beyond its borders hardly prepared it for colonizing its discoveries in the New World. Yet, even before the full extent of its discoveries was realized, Spain rushed to solidify its claims by establishing colonies. Columbus, Spain’s point-man in the New World, proved to be a better explorer that colonizer, and the Spanish crown quickly relieved him of any real administrative responsibility. A string of successors of varying abilities followed, and the early colonial experience was turbulent. After this shaky start during the last decade of the fifteenth century, the Spaniards quickly rebounded and had overrun the Caribbean by 1550. La Florida (Spain’s name for what would become the southeastern United States), however, would prove an even greater challenge.

    Following the abortive colonial attempts of Juan Ponce de Leon (1521), Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón (1526), Panfilo de Narvaéz (1528), and Hernando de Soto (1539), Spain decided that North America was not worth its immediate attention and focused its efforts on areas in which gold and silver rewarded those endeavors. French intrusions on their domain at Charlesfort (Jean Ribault in Port Royal Sound in South Carolina) in 1562 and then at Fort Caroline (Rene de Laudonnière on the St. John’s River in Florida) in 1564 caused Spain to reconsider the strategic importance of la Florida. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, governor and captain general of la Florida, responded by massacring the French and establishing colonies at Saint Augustine (in present-day Florida) in 1565 and Santa Elena (on present-day Parris Island, South Carolina) in 1566.

    But what of the English? For most of the sixteenth century, England settled for trying to pirate the wealth that Spain was extracting from its New World colonies. Though the English might have preferred to go to the source of the gold and silver, Spain’s grip on the Caribbean was sufficient during the sixteenth century to make England look elsewhere for establishing a foothold in the New World. The ill-fated first colony at Fort Raleigh in 1585 represents England’s initial bid to challenge Spain in la Florida.

Roanoke Colonization

    I will not recount here the story of Sir Walter Raleigh’s repeated attempts to establish a colony in Virginia. Nor will I recapitulate the repeated attempts of archaeologists to find solid evidence of that venture. What I would like to discuss is what we should be looking for and why it is important.

    At the 1987 annual conference of the Society of Historic Archaeology, a plenary session gathered the leading scholars in the field to discuss the “questions that count” in historical archaeology. What sorts of questions should we be asking of the archaeological record? Some immediately obvious questions arose, such as “Where did Columbus first make landfall?” but many less obvious but possibly even more important questions quickly followed, among them “What were the long-term biological consequences of the landfall?” Similar questions could be asked about the Roanoke colonies.

Questions that Count

    The first question that archaeologists have asked and continue to ask is “Where was the fort?” Well, there is a modest earthwork at the Fort Raleigh National Monument that the National Park Service presents as a likely candidate for the original site of Fort Raleigh. Recent archaeological interpretation has called this choice into question, however. Is this Ralph Lane’s fort? Is it Richard Grenville’s 1585 fort” Is it a sixteenth-century fort at all, or perhaps an earthwork built more than one hundred years later? If these earthworks do not date to the sixteenth century, where should we look? It has been suggested that the original fort was lost to the sound’s encroaching water, but perhaps the fort might still be found, as was the fort at Jamestowne, which was likewise considered lost to erosion.

    The next obvious question, and one that has more to say about the colonists, is “Where is the accompanying settlement?” That is, where did the people who built the fort live? The prevailing wisdom has been to find the fort first, and the settlement must then be nearby. The extensive archaeological work around the earthworks at the Fort Raleigh National Monument (see the essay by Bennie C. Keel in this volume) has yet to turn up any solidly residential artifacts beyond some scattered sixteenth-century material.

    The final big question is “Where did the ‘Lost Colony’ go?” This designation is ironic, since the sites of all three colonies—both those on Roanoke Island and the place where the third colony relocated—are lost. Paradoxically, the “lost” colony site may be relocated first, since it commands the most attention.

Questions That Will Count

    These are all important questions that must be answered before any further research can be conducted. Nonetheless, we should be ready with a research design that is built around the “questions that will count” when these important sites are finally pinpointed.

    A guiding research question that immediately springs to mind would be “Why did the colony fail?” Several hypotheses can be tested. Conventional wisdom has it that the colonists were too poorly supplied and inexperienced to sustain a colony. Another hypothesis, perhaps affiliated, holds that bad relations with the local Indians made settlement impossible. A recent hypothesis based on newly acquired dendrochronological data suggests that the English were trying to found a colony during the worst drought in eight hundred years on the Carolina coast (see the essay by Dennis B. Blanton in this volume). Thus, nature, rather that ineptitude, caused the crops to fail, and the resulting competition for scarce resources precipitated the conflict between the European colonists and the Indians.

    Investigations into the failure of the Roanoke colony must consider the English strategy for survival. How did the colonists try to adapt to their new environment? This question is not as obvious as it might seem and has been the object of my own research, though in a different region of the New World.

Patterns of Colonization

    To examine patterns of colonization, one must weigh the range of possibilities available to the colonist. This is not to say that you ask “What would I do if I were a sixteenth-century English colonist?” You are not, and it is important to keep that in mind. It has been said that “common sense” is neither. Our actions in different situations are often culturally determined. This phenomenon explains why businessmen wear coats and ties in the summer when it would make more “sense” to wear something cooler. Instead, the question should be “What are the range of possible cultural responses when confronted with a new environment?” After identifying the possible responses, the next step is to determine how they compare with the documentary and archaeological evidence.

    The first response to a new colonial endeavor might be to re-create you country of origin. After all, this is the only experience from which you can draw. At least initially, though, this was simply impossible, given the logistics of the time. How do you pack for such an adventure, especially when you know that the next supply boat is at least a year away? Some changes of the colonists’ pattern of living occurred even before they departed for the New World. Decisions had to be made as to what supplies to take and what skills the colonists chosen had to possess. The personal preferences and idiosyncrasies of the colonists themselves were magnified in the select group that left Mother England. The Founder Effect, which holds that the genetic characteristics of the initial colonists determine those of the descendents, well accepted in biological evolution, applies to cultural formation as well.

    The opposite response is to reject your own culture and “go native.” After all, wouldn’t that make sense, since the Indians had been living there for centuries and probably understood the best way to adapt to the environment? Such a response is not borne out in the documentary record and points up the fallacy of “common sense.” It would make sense to shed bulky clothing in the hot and humid Coastal Plain or to forgo the clumsy arquebus in favor of the more efficient bow and arrow, but there is no record of that having happened anywhere in colonial America. Far from it, as only captives seemed to “go native,” and this was not necessarily by choice.

    No, clearly the response to the new colonial environment is a compromise on the part of the colonists. They preserve as much of their familiar culture as possible and adopt elements of the indigenous culture to facilitate their own adaptation. This term is known anthropologically as acculturation or, more recently, as creolization.


    Anthropologist Edward H. Spicer defined acculturation, as I have used it in my studies of the sixteenth-century Spanish colonial experience, as “the augmentation, replacement or combination in a variety of ways of the elements of a given cultural system with the elements of another.” Geographer George Foster insisted that the idea of dominance—that is, one culture having supremacy over another during the exchange of traits—should be included in the operational definition. He used that concept, dominance, to develop his model of the “conquest culture.”

    The formation of a “conquest culture” is characterized by a stripping-down process in which elements of the dominant culture are modified or eliminated. Two types of selective processes are involved in the formation of the “conquest culture.” The first is formal: intentional changes through which the government, church, or some other authoritative body of the home nation directs the introduction of selected innovations (e.g., the grid plan imposed on the construction of Spanish cities in the New World). The second selective process is informal and includes the habits of the colonists themselves; examples include food preferences, ideologies, and attitudes. According to this model, the European colonial culture was being formed even before it left the docks of the mother country.

    Another source of influence upon the “conquest culture” comes from the subordinate culture. Although clearly the major changes are found in the culture of the subordinate group, the dominant group likewise experiences a degree of change. Foster emphatically states, “During the American conquest, Spanish ways were profoundly modified by the existing cultures.” The results of these changes (formal and informal) make up the proposed Spanish colonial pattern.

Spanish Colonial Pattern

    Anthropologists, and hence archaeologists, have long believed that human activity is patterned—that is, within a given set of circumstances, humans will behave in predictable ways. Archaeologists believe that these patterns in human behavior can be detected though patterns in the archaeological record left behind. Thus, by determining the patterns in the archaeological record, one can predict the past, so to speak.

    Such a search of archaeological patterns can be seen in the work of Charles Fairbanks of the University of Florida, later continued and elaborated by his student Kathleen Deagan. Their research in Saint Augustine sought to illuminate the processes related to the formation and development of the Hispanic-American cultural tradition in Florida. Specifically, they attempted to identify the elements of the native culture that the Spaniards adopted in adapting to their New World colony. Deagan concluded that acculturation in eighteenth-century Saint Augustine was undertaken largely by Indian women in mixed-Spanish or mestizo household units within a primarily male-oriented (military) cultural setting. Thus, the Spanish colonial adaptation pattern incorporated native elements into low-visibility subsistence activities while maintaining a Spanish appearance in socially visible areas such as clothing, tableware, and religion. That is to say, a European veneer was maintained over a Native American infrastructure. Based on the archaeological evidence accumulated from more that a decade of fieldwork, Deagan suggested that the processes involved in forming Hispanic American tradition in Saint Augustine were common to much of the Spanish New World. She invited other archaeologists to test that hypothesis, and, as her first doctoral student, I was the initial “volunteer.”

    The first step in examining the Spanish colonial pattern was to find a suitable site to dig. I considered Puerto Real, Haiti, an ideal site to test the hypothesis because it fitted the parameters of the society to which this pattern applied. There a predominantly male group (the Spaniards) imposed itself on a group with a normal sex distribution (the native Taino population). As a different type of site (a commercial colony instead of a military outpost), Puerto Real would indicate whether the proposed pattern was truly panhispanic or tied to site type.

    Puerto Real was one of thirteen towns founded across Hispaniola in 1504. Originally envisioned as a mining center, the town soon resorted to slave trading when gold and copper deposits proved disappointing. That business ended after the Bahamas and other surrounding islands had been depopulated by the mid-sixteenth century. Cattle thrived in this new environment, so the citizens of Puerto Real turned to the hide and tallow trade as their chief source of livelihood.

    Finding it impossible to compete with the more lucrative precious-metal trade of the mainland, the merchants of Puerto Real were unable to secure space on the treasure fleets that serviced Spain’s colonies in the circum-Caribbean area. The struggling town then embraced its only remaining alternative: it dealt with smugglers. The slowly turning wheels of Spanish commercial control eventually forced the abandonment of Puerto Real in 1578. The losses sustained by the town’s citizens became archaeology’s gain, since this site has a well-defined beginning and end date. Its known early chronology and cultural affiliation made it ideal for testing ideas on colonial patterning.

    My excavations at Puerto Real in 1984-1985 focused on a high-status residence occupied primarily during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Living in that residence were a relatively wealthy Spaniard, his Spanish wife, and possibly a child. The interior of their home and their possessions reflected the family’s high status. Their table was set with fine Spanish majolicas (tin-enameled ceramics) and Italian glassware. Their clothing, as reflected in the ornaments and buttons recovered during the excavation, apparently followed the fashions prevalent in Spain. In the rear of the house, slaves, probably African, prepared the food they had collected in cooking vessels they themselves had made. Their master, judging by the abundance of coins and leather-working tools, may have been a merchant dealing in hides and slaves. The porcelain in his household suggests that a least some of his business was conducted illicitly with the Portuguese corsairs who frequented the harbor (the only dealers in porcelain before 1573).

    Conclusions based on the results of the analyses of the artifacts recovered by the archaeologists tend to support the hypothesized pattern of Spanish colonial adaptation. Ceramics associated with low-social-visibility food-preparation and -storage activities did reveal a significant proportion of locally made wares. Tableware, ornamentation, clothing accessories, and other highly visible artifacts were exclusively European in origin. The house itself, insofar as could be determined from the configuration of the foundation and associated building rubble, was built in accordance with Spanish architectural traditions and new ideas concerning urban design. The colonial diet, while significantly different from the native diet, did incorporate locally available wild foods, as well as domesticated animals that the colonists had imported.

    The Spanish colonial pattern, as outlined above, was established early and changed little through time. New styles of ceramics and other artifacts did appear through time, but the proportional distribution in the high- and low-visibility categories remained roughly constant throughout the seventy-five years of the town’s occupation. Thus the creolization process appears to occur relatively rapidly.


    So how does this book at how one of England’s colonial rivals tackled the New World help us to understand the colony on Roanoke Island? It is too soon to tell, but it does suggest a fruitful avenue of inquiry once archaeologists discover the colonial sites on Roanoke. In fact, many questions have been raised in the volume. David Hurst Thomas, an archaeologist who has investigated the Contact Period, suggests that researchers employ a cubist perspective on the past—that is, they should look at the past from multiple persepctives at the same time. Clearly, the investigation should be a multidisciplinary endeavor.

    The Spanish colonial pattern has been and continues to be tested at other Spanish colonial sites. But the tests should not stop there. This model of colonial adaptation for Hispanic sites can be tested at non-Hispanic colonial sites in the Americas. Did the French and British adapt to their new surroundings in a manner similar to the Spanish? Historical records indicate that the English had a very different attitude toward the native inhabitants. If so, how did their attitudes differ, and what factors might account for that difference?

    Can the Roanoke colonies serve as a test case for an English colonial pattern? Not yet. First we need to find the Cittie of Raleigh settlement. The contextual control on previous archaeological work is not very good but may be good enough for some initial modeling. Data from the fort (if it could definitely be tied to the fort!) would be interesting but perhaps not comparable to the Spanish data. Ideally, solid household data would be necessary both for comparative purposes and to re-create the daily life of the English colonist. Should the “Lost Colony” be located, such data would likewise be interesting, but for other research questions. The life-style of those English survivors would probably be anomalous to the general colonial pattern.

    Finally, we must all ask the question I make all my students ask of their work. So what? Why should we care about these other questions? Wouldn’t finding the site be enough? No, it would not. It is not enough simply to repeat the same stories, even if we are able to tie them to a specific plot of land. We must constantly question our assumptions concerning the past. The recently discovered evidence of the sixteenth-century drought, discussed by Blanton in this volume, shows that.

    The collected essays in this volume demonstrate the wide range of questions inspired by the colonization of Roanoke Island. We have sought hard facts: Where was the Cittie of Raleigh? Where did the colonists go? What is the evidence of their experience? We have asked more subjective questions about the colonists themselves: Who were they? Why did they come? What did they expect to find? We have asked questions that go beyond the shores of Roanoke Island: How did the experiences of the Roanoke colonists affect later colonial efforts? What were the native inhabitants like, and how did they interact with the colonists? How has the story of Fort Raleigh and the “Lost Colony” changed through history, and how does it affect us today?

    For the Roanoke researchers, the journey has become as important as the destination. On the way to finding the “Lost Colony,” we have investigated topics ranging from the effects of climatic change on the colony to the reasons why Spanish pottery appeared in the settlements of a dreaded enemy, the English. Clearly we are interested in more than just who, what, and when. We also want to know how and why. It would be nice to find the “Lost Colony,” but even then the journey will be far from over.

Note: Notes follow essay in original volume.

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