By Jordan Peitz
Have you ever heard of the Lost Colony of Roanoke? Maybe, you’ve seen the sixth season of American Horror Story? The one about the couple who move into a house in the middle of the boondocks and face all kinds of supernatural entities. Well, that horrific season is based on an actual historical mystery yet to be solved. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me inform you. Roanoke is an island off the mainland of North Carolina. It was the first (yes, you read that correctly: “FIRST”) attempts at a permanent English colony. 1587 was the last time those 116 individuals, who would later become known as the Lost Colonists, were supposedly seen. They had sent the governor of the colony back to England to get more supplies in order to survive. He was unable to return for three years. Upon returning, he found no one. They had apparently taken down their houses that they had built in the process of disappearing. Save for a few miscellaneous items, only two unsettling messages, “CRO” and “CROATOAN,” carved into a tree and wooden palisade were discovered in the colonists’ stead. Croatoan is the name of another island of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, now referred to as Hatteras Island. It was home to one of their earlier Native American allies, Manteo. Their governor, John White, was convinced that they left this to signal the colonists’ departure further south to Croatoan. However, storms and further mishaps prevented White from ever continuing on to Croatoan to verify this. No one knows what truly happened to them. Perhaps, they scattered amongst the natives or they died in a perilous attempt to cross the ocean back to England. The list of possibilities goes on and on….
Regardless, Roanoke Island has a mysterious past. I had never set foot here before this internship started. Unfortunately, I chose the night of a full moon to drive onto the island. My gps had me driving along a path, called the Alligator River Route. It was eerily dark except for the low-sitting full moon barely peeking over the trees, and the name of my route did not help the chill running down my back either; I knew I was driving through a swampy area with little civilization out here to help a girl out if either a ghoul or a gator popped out of nowhere. Anyways, I continued along when a car quickly rode up and began to ride my tail. Joy.
I sped up a little to get some distance between me and them (keeping in mind the speed limit!). All of a sudden, the road ahead was blacked out. I thought to myself “did my eyesight just go bad?” I flicked my brights on, and what do you know?! A black bear was patiently waiting there to greet me! I only happened to see him one, maybe two seconds before I was sure to collide with him. Thankfully for the both of us, I noticed the glare of the lights on his eyes and nose and quickly swerved. I have never screamed so genuinely in fear in all of my life or gone as stiff. I was so relieved to have left him unharmed. I was also glad that the person behind me had that space I had given them earlier to allow time to react and swerve to miss the bear as well. I shook the rest of my drive, which was 13 minutes to be exact. Lucky number 13. Almost five hours of travel time without any problems, and I had arrived in this place and immediately almost took out a bear (and myself). Spooky stuff is happening here, I swear.
That was all of the excitement I needed for the rest of my time here in the Outer Banks. And so far, this has been the case. My first day of work was spent wandering around Fort Raleigh strictly as a visitor and journaling my experience. There is a nature trail that leads to the Albemarle Sound, and you can just imagine yourself as one of the colonists traipsing through the thick mess of trees while cicadas sing in your ears and the humidity just clings to your skin. I found my way to the sound and collapsed on the beach, scrunching my toes through the sand. The water gently licks the sand, and the sound is mesmerizing if you just pause to listen. This is to be my home for the next 11 weeks, and I’m absolutely thrilled.
My mentor, Josh, is extremely passionate about the mission of the National Park Service; he’s wanted to be a park ranger since he was a kid, and he devours and lives by the philosophies of Freeman Tilden. I sat down with him after exploring the earthen fort, the nature trail, and the waterside theatre, all of which rest within the realms of this national historic site. Discussing my experience as a first time visitor, he began to illuminate the role of the interpreter at National Parks. As I have come to understand it, the interpreter is one who clarifies the significance of our resources and presents them in a way that we can make meaningful connections to them.
All of this is done in the hopes that the visitor fully gains appreciation for the natural or cultural resource and will be inspired to actively protect and conserve them. I’ve thought about this often as I’ve attended the rangers’ programs at Fort Raleigh and observed the techniques they utilize to lure their audience to engage with the abstract ideas and universals that our concrete resources symbolize. Ranger Byron is a storyteller who weaves emotion into his programs, often relating stories of his childhood to it, whereas Ranger Mike delves deeper into fact, displaying charts and quotes for visitors to absorb. It is interesting to see how the same topic can be discussed in a variety of ways.
Speaking of the same topic, too many visitors get Fort Raleigh mixed up with Festival Park, a reenactment of the colony. They have a Native American village as well as costumed actors who create a live version of how the colonists lived. You can even take home a freshly pounded nail from the local blacksmith. Josh sent me there to see how they interpret the secrets of the Lost Colony and reveal them to visitors. While Festival Park cannot replace Fort Raleigh, it can certainly supplement it as it allows visitors to actively interact with the past as they can go inside native longhouses, carve a table leg, or talk to the crew aboard the Elizabeth II (a ship modeled off of the ships used in the early English expeditions to the New World).
In addition to visiting here, I spent the week also exploring other local attractions to get a sense of the Outer Banks and its history as communicated to visitors. Everyday, I went somewhere new! The Elizabethan Gardens one day, Jockey’s Ridge State Park on another, followed by the Wright Brothers National Memorial as well as the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge visitor center.
Not a bad workload if I do say so myself!! All have led me to believe that the Outer Banks are beautifully disastrous yet resilient, forever transforming yet remaining steeped in history. These islands have beared witness to hurricane after hurricane, the migration and formation of islands, the birth of the first English child in the Americas, the establishment of a refuge for freedom, shipwreck after shipwreck (sometimes at the hands of Nazi Germany U-Boats), piracy, the exchange of cultures meeting for the first time, the first voice transmission over radio waves, rising sea levels, the near extinction and comeback of various species including the red wolf, and the first flight.
For the next 11 weeks, I hope to do a little digging and uncover more of the stories entangled in the rich narrative of the Outer Banks.