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Where Did They Go?: Unsolved Disappearances

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Everyone loves a good mystery. We love to hear the details and questions left. We love to put our brains to the facts and puzzle out what may have been missed. A small part of us hopes (however unlikely it may be)  that we may actually be able to find that crucial overlooked bit, or make that perfect leap that could bring the mystery to an end. It’s one of the reasons the mystery genre has been so popular since Poe created it, through books, radio, film and television. Sometimes though, the mysteries are real, the people have disappeared. I’m not talking about the search for mysterious creatures like big foot or the investigations of odd phenomenon like the Bermuda triangle.  I’m talking about the actual mysteries from the real world that puzzle investigators and theorists every day.

The Lost Persian Army

Painting of a Persian Army in circa 1500AD by Chingiz Mehbaliyev

Some mysteries go back in time, way back in time. For instance, in 524 BCE the emperor of Persia sent an army into Egypt. The emperor, Cambyses II, was attempting to solidify his claim to the throne of Egypt. This meant destroying an oracle and priests of Amun that declined his invitation to legitimize his right to pharaonic glory. To do this he sent 50,000 troops from Thebes in the east of Egypt into the desert. These were Persian soldiers and Egyptian conscripts, men used to the harsh deserts. However not a one of them ever made it to the oasis where the temple was. They had simply vanished into the desert. Theories have abounded to explain their fate for millennia. Herodotus believed they were lost in a sandstorm and the entire army is buried beneath the dunes of Egypt. Most recently an Egyptologist and Professor, Olaf Kaper, has said he believes they were slaughtered by the rival claimant and Cambyses just claimed they were lost to avoid the embarrassment according to some hieroglyphics he has just discovered.

Roanoke

John White discovers the word “CROATOAN” carved at Roanoke’s fort palisade

Let’s jump forward about 2000 years. While we are all at least somewhat familiar with the lost colony of Roanoke, most of us never understand the immensity of it. Sure there were other colonies that failed. The initial attempts at Jamestown collapsed. The Popham colony in Maine thirteen years before the pilgrims also ceased to be. There was even a late 1600s colony near the site of Roanoke on Colleton Island that ceased to exist. These examples have one thing that Roanoke does not. We know what happened to the people. Poor planning, internecine strife and fiscal mismanagement brought those colonies to an end, and we have the records, survivors and graves to prove it. Roanoke has none of this. Here an entire colony just simply vanished from the face of the Earth in the time it took the governor to sail to England and back. Governor White had gone back to England for supplies for the struggling colony and left 115 people, including his granddaughter, and first English child born in the new world, Virginia Dare.  When he returned three years later the colony was deserted. A fence post had the word Croatoan carved into it and a tree had the letters cro. All the buildings had been taken down showing it was not a hasty departure and no new graves were located. The agreed on sign that they were forced to withdraw, a Maltese cross, was not found anywhere. The people had just gone and, despite much trying and many theories, no one has figured out their fate in the intervening five hundred years.

MV Joyita

MV Joyita towed on shore after found drifted 1955 partially submerged and listing heavily to port side

Closer to today we have the case of the MV Joyita. This was a yacht built for a 1930s film director that was found adrift in the south pacific in 1955. But this was no luxury toy, discarded when the next shiny bauble appeared. This boat had gone from luxury yacht to U.S. Navy patrol ship to a charter boat for hauling or fishing. She was sturdy, despite some radio range issues and leaky pipes. She was found listing, but afloat, five weeks after and 600 miles off course from her last planned trip. She was found with the dingy, life rafts, emergency supplies, firearms and crew of twenty-five missing.  Not a person was aboard, which was odd considering the fact that she’d been afloat all that time. Here too you find a lot of theories, from injured captains to attacks by Japanese military personnel that refused to believe the war was over, but no answers.

Apollo Mission Goodwill Displays

Rock fragment (encased in acrylic) from the Apollo 17 mission to the moon. Donated to the State of Illinois along with the state flag, which accompanied the mission

Here we find the theft of an object. Not too irregular, right? Things get stolen all the time. How about when twenty-seven versions of the same thing go missing? Now we have your attention.  After the Apollo program managed to reach the surface of the moon, NASA put together plaques and displays of moon dust and a flag that was carried on an Apollo mission. They were made for all the United States Territories and States and multiple other countries as well as the United Nations as good will gifts by the Nixon administration. Since that time the displays from Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Honduras, Ireland, Malta, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and West Virginia have all vanished mysteriously. Several attempts have been made to locate the displays but none have surfaced, not even on the illicit markets catering to less than scrupulous collectors. This is made more suspicious by at least five more thefts of moon materials.

While we like a mystery that ends with a solid resolution, there is something to the unexplained mystery that draws us to seek new answers and solutions. Maybe someone should write and unsolved mystery novel next?

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Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony of Roanoke

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Baptism of Virginia Dare, lithograph, 1880

Baptism of Virginia Dare, lithograph, 1880

Virginia Dare was the first child born in any British colony and part of the first mystery in the “new world.” She was born in 1587, in the Roanoke Colony (located in North Carolina now) and named after the Virginia colony where her parents lived. She was also the grand-daughter of the colony’s governor, John White. The Roanoke Colony was later known as the Lost Colony, one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our country’s history.

Sir Walter Raleigh received the right to set up a colony from the Queen; he wanted the gold and riches the Spanish were getting, while the Queen wanted a base in the area to attack (and plunder) the Spanish ships coming from the new world full of gold. Even though Raleigh himself never visited North American, he sent two representatives to explore the area. They landed on Roanoke Island in 1584 and established good relations with the natives, taking two natives back to England. Raleigh met with the natives and decided to send an expedition, led by Sir Richard Grenville. As the men explored the area, they discovered that a silver cup was missing and accused the natives. They killed the villagers and burned the town—all for a silver cup. Grenville left the colonists to establish a fort and went back to England for more supplies. Surprisingly, the natives no longer viewed the English as friendly, and often attacked the fort. The ship promising to return didn’t come with fresh supplies. Sir Francis Drake stopped by to say hello, and offered to take anyone back to England who wanted to go; some did—they were the lucky ones. A second colony expedition, organized by Raleigh, was led by John White (a friend of Raleigh’s), and were to settle near Chesapeake Bay. Before they unloaded at Chesapeake, they had orders to check on the Roanoke Colony.

roanokeThis second expedition found no one in the colony. The colonists were forced to stay behind by the fleet’s commander, Simon Fernandez (reasons unknown), while the ship went back to England for reinforcements. Before he sailed away, White tried to re-establish friendly relations with the Native Americans; some tribes were friendly, others still were angry over the previous treatment of their tribesmen. The colonists watched as the ship left them in the new world. White wanted to get back as soon as he could, after all his daughter and granddaughter, Virginia Dare, were at Roanoke. He could find no captain to take him back in the winter months, and then in 1588, the Spanish attacked the English in the grand Armada, which further delayed his return. In 1590, White’s relief ship finally landed on Roanoke Island and found the settlement deserted. No people, no bodies, no signs of struggle. They only found this word carved in a pole: CROATOAN.

The return of Governor White to the "Lost Colony"

The return of Governor White to the “Lost Colony”

As to what happened to the 115 colonists living on Roanoke Island, no one has ever found any clues or remains. Only the word CROATOAN. Was it a clue? What did it mean?

Several ideas have been explored over the centuries. They could have been killed, but where were the bodies? They could have been assimilated into other friendly tribes; there was a Croatoan tribe that was friendly with the colonists. This would have accounted for no bodies and no struggles. But wouldn’t other tribes in the area have given this news to other white men? No one really tried to investigate until Captain John Smith, of Jamestown fame, tried to ask the nearby tribes if they knew what happened. He was told that a friendly tribe took them in. He was also told by Chief Powhatan that he and his tribe had murdered them all. He even showed Smith things he said had belonged to the white colonists. There were wild rumors of two story Native American buildings, possibly erected by the missing colonists.

Virginia Dare’s name has become a way to attract tourists for North Carolina. Many locations are named after her, including Dare County, North Carolina; the Virginia Dare Trail and the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, which spans the Croatoan Sound. Her birthday is celebrated annually on Roanoke Island. On her 350th birthday in 1937, the community of Roanoke Island launched a play entitled “The Lost Colony.” This drama was supposed to be a one year run, but has become a permanent and popular Outer Banks attraction.

Marble sculpture of Virginia Dare formerly in St Bride's Church, Fleet St

Marble sculpture of Virginia Dare formerly in St Bride’s Church, Fleet St

In 2005, PBS aired a Time Team America program: the team traveled to Roanoke Island looking to find the site of Fort Raleigh and any clues as to what happened to the Lost Colony. This was a collaboration of archaeologists and scientists who are given 3 days to dig and study interesting historic sites to see if they can find more information. In an different program, aired on the History Channel in 2015, archaeologists searching around an old settlement area found some intriguing items, including a gold ring, a musket barrel and a slate that may have been used for children to learn their alphabet. Perhaps, someday, we’ll finally find out what happened to the vanished Roanoke colony.

To read about Virginia Dare, we suggest these books: Read the rest of this entry

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