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David Beers Quinn, the Roanoke Voyages, and North Carolina
(Or, ‘Trotting Out David Quinn’)


Professor H. G. Jones

I feel the presence of the keen sense of humour of David and Alison Quinn, so I am subtitling my remarks, ‘Trotting Out David Quinn’. That term will be explained at the end.

David Quinn’s research and writing extended far beyond English exploration and settlement in America, but it is that interest – particularly his work on Sir Walter Raleigh – that brought us together. In his prodigious research, he paid absolutely no heed to Raleigh’s admonition, ‘Whosoever shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth’, for David Quinn delighted in squelching myths – such as the one spread by Chowan County’s official seal that in 1772 contained the words ‘Sir Walter Raleigh Landed in America A.D. 1584’ and a relief of the courtier, in all his splendor, stepping ashore on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I am afraid that, considering the low status of the teaching of history in our schools, even David Quinn failed to correct that false image in North America.

Immortality tends to crown success and conceal failure, so the very fact that Raleigh’s North American colonies failed while later ones at Jamestown and Plymouth succeeded helps explain the scant attention given in the national literature – until David Quinn came along – to the ill-fated activities on Roanoke Island in the 1580s. However, Raleigh’s efforts did not go unheralded in ‘Ould Virginia’, as a seventeenth-century cartographer called North Carolina, for we are reminded of them through the name of our capital city and a lengthy list of towns, counties, lakes, streets, ships, organizations, businesses, and commercial products, not to mention America’s pioneer outdoor symphonic drama, Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, performed at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site each summer.

Consequently, when the Governor of North Carolina in 1977 asked me to organize and chair America’s Four Hundredth Anniversary Committee (the statute for which I had written four years earlier while I was director of the State Department of Archives and History), I knew that our first goal must be the legitimation of the Roanoke voyages as a subject worthy of serious international study. Not being a specialist of the period, I viewed my task as chairman to be that of stocking the committee with professionals and laypeople knowledgeable of the subject and of enlisting the active participation of English and American scholars eminent in the field. We had not yet recovered from the subordination of history to politics and tacky frivolity during the bicentennial of the American Revolution, and state government reorganization had exposed my old department to the political patronage system. I was determined, therefore, to conduct a commemoration rather than a celebration, based on history rather than politics, directed toward education rather than fleeting amusement, emphasizing substance rather than show, and fostered by specialists of the period being recognized. Above all, this was to be an international observance, not one hidden behind our provincial borders.

That is why I began my courtship with David and Alison Quinn, and through them, other Elizabethan scholars. I had known Dr Quinn through his two-volume Roanoke Voyages and other contributions to North Carolina history, and in November 1977 I met him and Alison during another of their visits to speak to the Roanoke Island Historical Association. From that first conversation, mine was a soft-sell approach, but a persistent one, to involve him with the four-year observance, 1984–1987.

I pursued him at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians in New York the following April; there he offered his and Alison’s full cooperation. In May he formalized in a letter a particularly welcome proposal: a major commemorative volume containing all of the John White drawings of the 1580s, supplemented by ‘the principal original documents’. He added, ‘... a publication team consisting of Bill Powell, myself and Paul Hulton could do such a book. ...’, and he enclosed an outline. I was elated, and at the Sir Francis Drake quadricentennial in California in 1979, we discussed the proposed book during our amusing travels to the several places seeking academic endorsement as Drake’s landfall.

My elation was premature, for as so often happens when a splendid idea is put in the hands of a subcommittee, an entirely different publication program was proposed. It eliminated the grand volume and proposed instead the reprinting of Quinn’s Roanoke Voyages (with additions) and an inexpensive (if there be such) edition of White’s drawings relating only to the Roanoke enterprises. To this Quinn was predictably unenthusiastic, noting that the revision of Roanoke Voyages, even with the willingness of the Hakluyt Society, would be enormously expensive, and that his contract with Oxford University Press, whose Virginia Voyages from Hakluyt was still in print, would preclude his participating in a competing book. He did, however, say that if Oxford would give the Department of Archives and History softcover rights to Virginia Voyages, he would prepare a new preface. This was promptly agreed to, and the book appeared in 1982 as The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of the First English Settlements in North America, 1584–1590.

Faced with this challenge to the Quinn - Jones plan, I threw down my trump card by inviting David and Alison Quinn to come to North Carolina for a series of meetings of America’s Four Hundredth Anniversary Committee. They participated in discussions, never proselytizing but always expressing a ‘beyond-our-borders’ professional view, and did much to stem accusations that my emphasis on scholarship reflected elitism (an odd attribution for a boy brought up on a tenant farm). Dr Quinn’s dinner address cemented the respect of members, and before he and Alison finally left the snow-bound village, his new offer – to write for the anniversary committee a narrative summarizing the lessons learned from four decades of study of the Roanoke venture (an offer that was a surprise to everyone but me) – was accepted. That major contribution appeared from the University of North Carolina Press in 1985 as Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584–1590. In the interim, David received an honorary degree from the University of North Carolina in 1980, returned to the area as a Fellow of the National Humanities Center, delivered the Brewster lecture at East Carolina University, and generally became a loyal if adopted Tar Heel. In fact, he was so much at home that at the inauguration of the four-year observance on Roanoke Island, he and Alison were there to welcome Princess Anne.

David Quinn’s role was not limited to his direct assistance; he opened doors for us and enlisted other scholars such as the beloved Helen Wallis of the British Library, the erudite Paul Hulton of the British Museum, and the energetic Joyce Youings of the University of Exeter. A veritable trans-Atlantic coterie was formed, with David and Alison Quinn at the centre. During the 1985 Sir Walter Raleigh Conference at the University of Exeter, we spent a day on a field trip, stopping for a box lunch atop a hill overlooking Raleigh’s birthplace, Hayes Barton. There Helen Wallis, along with the Quinns, Paul Hulton, Andrew David, Joyce Youings, and several other Elizabethan scholars signed a postcard, addressed to myself, certifying our presence on the very trail where young Walter Raleigh walked more than four centuries earlier. I have that card with me.

David Quinn’s involvement helped us withstand natural tendencies of politicians and promoters to trivialize the quadricentennial. True, there were some activities little related to the subject, but more than any previous anniversary observance, this one emphasized the historical events and personages being commemorated. Education, not hoopla, set the tone. If the Elizabeth II, a credible representation of a sixteenth-century sailing vessel, drew – and still draws – hoards of visitors, and if public ceremonies in England and the United States drew more television and press coverage, the outstanding British Library exhibition Raleigh & Roanoke in London, Raleigh, and New York provided a lasting impression to hundreds of thousands. But above all, the real legacy of the quadricentennial was its outstanding series of publications – books like Quinn’s Set Fair for Roanoke, Paul Hulton’s America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White, David Stick’s Roanoke Island The Beginnings of English America, Joyce Youing’s Ralegh’s Country: The South West of England in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and Helen Wallis’s catalogue Raleigh & Roanoke; and leaflets on native Americans prepared by David Stick. In 1987 I edited for the North Caroliniana Society Raleigh and Quinn: The Explorer and His Boswell, which contained two reminiscences of Quinn himself, papers presented at our Sir Walter Raleigh Conference in North Carolina, and essays in honor of David Quinn when he was elected an honorary member of the American Historical Association in Chicago. In addition, of course, were fine books on the subject by Karen Kupperman, David Durant, and others, produced by commercial presses.

At least eighteen inches of shelf space is required for the new publications dealing directly with the Roanoke voyages. In no small measure, these additions to the historical literature of English exploration and settlement in North America were due to the personal involvement by and influence of David Beers Quinn, whom we trotted out every time politicians and vendors threatened to divert our attention from history.