EARLY CROATIAN CONTACTS WITH AMERICA
AND THE MYSTERY OF THE CROATANS*
Were Some Croats Present at Discovery of America?
George J. Prpic
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Journal of Croatian Studies, I, 1960 – Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.
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By permission of Georgetown University, from doctoral dissertation The Croats in America, Department of History, Georgetown University, Washington D.C., 1959.
After 1420 the whole eastern Adriatic coast with few exceptions was firmly in the possession of Venice, whose perennial policy was to rule these Croatian shores. Although the population of the entire eastern Adriatic region remained predominantly Croatian, a new political, religious and cultural center began to form in and around present day Zagreb - formerly Pannonian Croatia. However, one section of the southern Adriatic coast escaped Venetian hegemony. This was the Republic of Ragusa; an independent merchant state for over one thousand years. While all other Croats were for centuries to live either under Venetian or Turkish rule or under Austrian and Hungarian domination, the Croats in Dubrovnik (Latin "Ragusa") enjoyed complete political freedom and realized achievements which bordered on the miraculous.
Dubrovnik was founded in the seventh century in the vicinity of Epidaurus, which had been previously destroyed by the Slavs. The population which was originally Roman became slowly Croaticized, so that the end of the fourteenth century saw it as almost completely Croatian. From the beginning, the city developed a seafaring tradition, which manifested itself in early trade throughout the Balkans. Her commercial routes were eventually extended to all the Mediterranean countries and the Near East, and her trading ships sailed as far as Spain, Portugal and England.
She had exchanged Byzantine for Venetian suzerainty in 1205, which then lasted until 1358. The following era was to witness her complete independence. With a combination of diplomatic skill and sufficient gold, Dubrovnik succeeded in preserving her freedom from the powerful Turkish Empire, even though the Turks subjugated all the neighboring regions. The period from 1358 until 1808 - when Dubrovnik finally lost its independence to the military forces of Napoleon - was the golden era of the little republic's history.
In the beginning of the fifteenth century the city itself numbered only 40,000 inhabitants. Its government was composed of wealthy merchants and nobles who had already introduced in the Middle Ages many progressive institutions and measures. By the law of January 27th, 1416, slavery was abolished. The navy consisted of 300 vessels. "In all the large towns of the Balkans the speech of Dubrovnik was heard, the colonies flourished and Catholic churches and chapels were constructed... Dubrovnik was the channel through which flowed the trade between Turkey and Italy." The example of Dubrovnik was the best proof of the seafaring qualities of the Adriatic Croats. In the 1930's the Seaman's Guild in Dalmatia celebrated the one-thousandth anniversary of its existence.
Louis Adamic, fascinated by the history of Dubrovnik, goes as far as to claim: "Ragusa ... in its day was a greater sea power than Britain." "For hundreds of years Ragusan ships and seamen were among the most famous in the world. Ragusan shipmasters and sailors served not only under the Ragusan ensign, but under the flags of various Italian states, Greece, Spain and other foreign countries. It is almost certain that Ragusans were on Columbus' ships when he sailed to India and bumped into America. In fact; it is probable that Ragusan ships touched the American continent before Columbus. Certain is that a number of them reached Mexico, Central and South America, in the few years immediately after Columbus adventure."
In Ragusa the shipowners were the ruling class, the social aristocracy and "their ships sailed every known sea … Like themselves, their peasants were Slavs, Croats, calling themselves Ragusans." In the seventeenth century these Ragusan shipowners sacrificed enormous profits by refusing to ship negro slaves to the American colonies because slavery was forbidden in Ragusa.
As Adamic was a better writer than historian we would like to carefully examine his statements. It is true that centuries before America was discovered the sailors of Dubrovnik navigated all the then known seas, while at the same time their countrymen from Dalmatia composed the backbone of the rival Venetian navy. According to another writer "Ragusa was indeed a powerful republic." It is therefore not surprising that not only Croatian writers but American historians as well, after establishing the fact that Dalmatian sailors were "world renowned for seamanship and love of adventure" are claiming that these sailors are believed to have been among Columbus' crew.
"According to tradition," says the Croatian historian Josip Horvat, "several Dalmatian Croats were present on the historic date of October 12, 1492, when Columbus and his sailors for the first time spotted the shores of the New World." It is the opinion of Horvat that this tradition might be based on some truth and that Columbus may have hired some Croatian sailors who at that time were roaming all the known sea ports. Some authors are more specific in determining the exact origin of these sailors by claiming that they were from Dubrovnik.
It is important to examine what some historians from Dubrovnik have written concerning this theory. One of them says, "it is rumored that one man from Dubrovnik was with Columbus at the discovery of America in 1492." Only two years afterwards, Ferdinand of Spain made an important agreement with Dubrovnik granting various trade concessions. Another Ragusan historian thinks that to assume the possibility that some sailors from Dubrovnik participated in the discovery of America is not "without good cause." He points out that exactly in those regions from where Columbus came, the merchant marine of Dubrovnik enjoyed a world reputation. Since this historian was well acquainted with the rich archives of that old city, yet in making this comment did not produce any evidence to the fact that the sailors of his native city were present at the discovery of America, it is only logical to assume that there is no evidence of this kind available.
An article published during the last war in Zagreb stated: "It is supposed that the Croatian sailors participated in the enterprise of Columbus." Another article concerned with the first Croatian immigrants in America, published in this country, admits only the possibility that sailors from Dubrovnik were on Columbus' ships.
A Croatian writer in America stated: "Columbus, himself, counted among his crew some Croats, natives of the cities of Dubrovnik and Šibenik;" while another also accepts it as a very probable fact. The first of the writers based his whole evidence on the statements of Professor J. S. Roucek according to whom the tradition which links Dubrovnik with the discovery of America was retraced by an American, Myrtle Hague Robinson. She was told in Dubrovnik by B. Radmili, member of a patrician family, that according to tradition, two Ragusan sailors were in the crew of Columbus. One of the sailors, returned with a fortune and built a palace in Dubrovnik, now known as the Palace of Ronda.
Adamic repeated his statements on the Croats in Columbus' crew in some of his other works. In My America he stated that the Croats "were sailors on Columbus' ships when he bumped into this continent." Here he did not, as in his previous work, repeat the idea that the Ragusans may have even preceded Columbus in the discovery of America, but stated only as follows: "Little doubt exists that on. Columbus' ships were cosmopolitan Croatians from the famous Dalmatian city-republic Ragusa." Emphasizing the reputation of Ragusan sailors and shipbuilders who were "among the best in the world, with a long tradition behind them," he stressed the fact that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the sailors of Ragusa "sailed on ships of all seafaring nations".
American-Croatian writer Z. Kostelski accepts it as an established fact that "Columbus hired some sailors from the Dubrovnik fleet to accompany him on his voyage westward," because these sailors were known as experts in navigation and as audacious men. "We have no record about the number of his men of Croat origin," continues Kostelski, "but we have a record that two of them returned to their native city of Dubrovnik where they spread the word about the discovery of a short route to the Indies." Afterwards the Bishop of Dubrovnik made a lengthy report about this to Pope Alexander VI in which he also stated that Dubrovnik had invited the cities of Dalmatia to equip and send their own boats "to bring the gold, spices, and other valuables" from the faraway Indies. Unfortunately, 'Mr. Kostelski does not produce any source to confirm these statements and we do not learn from him where that record concerning the return of the two Ragusan sailors from Columbus' expedition is.
Again in another of his books on the same subject Mr. Kostelski writes: "The matter of record is that in the crew of Columbus were some Croats, hired probably on account of being fearless navigators." In this version of the return of the two sailors, we also learn that they "ordered Masses of thanksgiving to be said for their happy return," and that the lengthy report of the Bishop to Pope Alexander VI was written in 1493.
In a work on the Slavs in America, Croatian writer B. N. Miloševi� refers to the sailors of Ragusa as those who during the time of Columbus, and even long before him, "led the way in chartering the high seas in many an adventure." Further he mentions "documentary evidence from the Spanish archives which undoubtedly proves the presence of Croatian sailors on Columbus' ships." However, the writer could not find any such published evidence in the Spanish archives. Neither was I more fortunate to trace any proof in reference to another statement mentioning documentary evidence in the Croatian archives. Rev. Dragutin Kamber in a study on Croatian immigration wrote: "It is asserted that in the crew of the three Columbus' caravels there were also two authentic Croats, one from Dubrovnik, and another from Šibenik. About the latter a study soon will be published based on documents which are located in Šibenik.” It could not be ascertained whether such a study was published as yet.
In a most recent article printed in a newspaper in Zagreb, a student in the field of Croatian immigration, writing about the earliest Croatian immigrants in America, mentions the Croatian sailors on Columbus' ships. However, he bases his whole evidence on Adamic's statements, and does not quote any other study or document concerning those two sailors. It is the opinion of this writer that for more reliable sources and more dependable information one should have access into the archives of Dubrovnik and Zagreb as well as various secondary works and studies of Croatian historians.
The theory that some sailors from Dubrovnik were present when Columbus discovered America is plausible. However, as long as we do not have any documentary evidence to support it, we cannot accept it as a historical fact.
First Croatian Immigrants in America
The commercial treaty of 1494 between Dubrovnik and Spain was a very important agreement for these two states. In fact it was the basis of all subsequent relations between the contracting parties. Dubrovnik now more than ever developed its sea-borne trade and extended it, as an ally of Spain, as far as newly discovered America. Large transoceanic ships were built at the wharfs of Dubrovnik and the peninsula Pelješac which also belonged to this republic. Soon the first emigrants from there sailed for the New World.
As the Croatian historian Tijas Mortidjija stated: "We know on the basis of completely authentic evidence from the archives that already in the beginning of the sixteenth century, only twenty years after the Columbus achievement, there were the first Croatian emigrants in the real meaning of the word. They crossed the Ocean with the purpose to settle over there [in America], to get rich and then again to return home. These emigrants are among the very first European emigrants."
Thus according to the above statement based on evidence from the archives of Dubrovnik, in the decade following 1510, the people of Dubrovnik started to emigrate to the West Indies and South America. It is very likely that this emigration had two principal causes. One being the desire for wealth in those reputedly rich countries about which the Ragusan could obtain any necessary information from his allies and business associates in Spain. The second reason may also have played an important role. We should keep in mind that the territory of the whole republic, which comprised only Dubrovnik and vicinity, was really small. On all sides except the sea, Dubrovnik was encircled by Turkish territory from whence thousands of refugees fled to this small island of liberty and prosperity. It is very likely that Dubrovnik, hearing the reports of vast, newly discovered regions was thinking of sending some of these refugees, who came from Bosnia, Hercegovina and other parts of Croatia, to the American continent. There was never a problem of transportation, for Dubrovnik was in possession of a large fleet capable for trans-Atlantic travel. Her ships communicated via regular trade routes with many ports in Spanish America and could always carry a few passengers. It is known that the families Basiljevi�, Divo�i�, and Škrabonja were among those first Croatian immigrants to American
In 1520 two brothers Mate and Dominko Konkendovi� sailed from Dubrovnik for Spanish America. After a thirty-year sojourn in Mexico they embarked for home with some 13,000 gold ducats. While en route they were taken prisoners by a French ship and brought to Marseilles where they were robbed of all their wealth. It is evident from the archives of Dubrovnik that a serious diplomatic conflict developed over this affair between France and the republic of Dubrovnik. A special diplomatic agent was sent to France. Even the Turkish government in Constantinople was asked in 1552 to intervene in an attempt to settle this matter. After the money was finally returned, Mato Konkendovi� was mysteriously murdered in France, which again resulted in a severe protest on the part of Dubrovnik. The French king ordered a strict investigation and prosecution of the murderers.
Bazilije Basiljevi�, a patrician from the same city, arrived in 1537 in Peru. Interesting reports about his adventures were written by a Ragusan businessman in London, Jero Credi�. These were related by the historian Tijas Mortidjija who read them in the Ragusan archives. "These first Croatian emigrants, were followed by several others", and around the middle of the sixteenth century "the government of Dubrovnik obtained from Spain a regulation in the question of the estates of those who deceased in the New World without determining their inheritants." There was probably at that time a considerable number of emigrants from Dubrovnik in America to necessitate such a diplomatic measure.
Although the Ragusans were on very good terms with Spain, they were as strict businessmen - resembling in this respect the Dutch - engaged in a lucrative trade with England, the main rival of Spain. There was a considerable Ragusan colony in London and for centuries a Ragusan graveyard was preserved in Southampton. To bear out the extent of these relations with England and as 'a proof of the renown of this seafaring republic," "Ragusa" - the Latin form of Dubrovnik - - even appeared in the English dictionary. Shakespeare had already used the word "Argosy" which is an English derivation of the corrupted word "Ragosy," meaning Ragusa. When the foremost Croatian expert on Shakespeare and translator of his numerous works into Croatian, Vinko Kriškovi�, tried to prove that "Argosy" is an English derivation of "Ragusa," he probably did not know that this question was already settled by an Englishman who almost a century earlier traveled to Dalmatia, Dubrovnik and the neighboring regions: "The reputation of Ragusan merchantmen for wealthy cargoes had been stereotyped in the word Argosy (quasi Ragosy) - synonymous for the richest kind of carack."
In salt-water slang, says an American traveler to Dalmatia, the "vessel of Ragusa became 'argosy' which will remain a synonym for home-ward-wafting wealth as long as poems are penned:" To Rebecca West, another of the many enthusiastic travelers through the enchanting regions of Dubrovnik and Dalmatia, the whole history of Dubrovnik is illuminated by one word - "argosy," which means nothing more than "a vessel from Ragusa." J. S. Roucek explaining the word "argosy" as a derivation from "Ragusa" points out that Ragusan shipyards constructed vessels for Oliver Cromwell.
The Mystery of Croatans
Thus it happened that the little republic, which had such importance in the seafaring history of Europe, not only compiled a complex code of maritime law and built ships for Spain, but even sent her mariners with the conquistadorial expeditions to the New World. It is also possible that Ragusa was connected with one of the still unsolved mysteries of American history, namely, the "lost colony" of Roanoke Island and the name of the Croatan Indians.
Many Croatian authors claim that the name of the Croatan Indians should be linked to the Croats. A Dalmatian legend is that ships from Dubrovnik sailed westward around 1540 with a large number of refugees fleeing from the Turks. One or more of the vessels, the legend continues, was sunk off the hazardous coast of what is now North Carolina and the survivors mixed with the Indian population, who then acquired the name "Croatan." Some of the writers claim that "it is almost sure" that such a fleet left Dubrovnik with refugees desiring to settle in America. What puzzles this writer is the question of why the Ragusan ships should have sailed to unknown regions instead of sailing to Spanish America, where they had, as it is proved, frequent contact. There is the possibility that the ships sailed off course and were shipwrecked off the coast of whit is today North Carolina, however, this does not necessarily mean that this was their destination.
Various authors differ in the claim that such ships from Ragusa may have been wrecked off North Carolina. Even when there is agreement on this point, there is disagreement as to the time of departure. Adamic, for instance, says: "There is also little doubt that Ragusan ships - called "argosies" ... sailed to America during the half century immediately following the Discovery." He mentions "a persistent Dalmatian legend, backed by some circumstantial evidence" that the Croatian voyagers "preceded by about four decades Sir Walter Raleigh's ill-fated attempts to establish an Anglo-Saxon colony" on Roanoke Island. Adamic thinks also that "it is almost certain" that Ragusan ships with Croatian refugees left Ragusa in 1540, or thereabouts, for America. Kostelski mentions several Croatian historians who claim that some years before the battle of Lepanto (which took place in 1571) "one Croat boat sailed westward" with the intention of reaching the Indies and that the boat was wrecked on the coast of North Carolina in 1558. Kostelski thinks that the survivors of this boat founded the "Croatan" colony. In his opinion; "This confirms the tradition still prevailing in Dalmatia about the settlement of the Dalmats in America. Whether this was a forceful or voluntary settlement makes little difference. The fact remains that the Croats were here when Sir Walter Raleigh founded his first English colony on this continent."
Kostelski himself, however, thinks that the Croats came to North Carolina after the battle of Lepanto, when two boats flying the colors of St. Blase (the patron saint of Dubrovnik) were about to make the long voyage to the Indies by a short route. "These two boats failed to return and two years afterwards the families of the sailors gave them up for lost and Requiem Masses were said for them - as far as it is known in Dubrovnik and Šibenik." By piecing together the subsequent events he thinks a reasonable conclusion may be that these two boats reached America and were shipwrecked on the shores of present North Carolina.
Professor Roucek sides with the Croatian writers, especially with Mladineo. In both of his books which he edited with J.F. Brown, and which are counted among standard histories of the American immigration, he writes on Croatan Indians. We would like to quote in this respect one of his statements: "There is good reason to believe ... that a Croatian ship called at the first permanent settlement in America, Sir Walter Raleigh's second colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia, for one of the chief trees or posts at the entrance had the bark taken off and five feet from the ground, in capital letters, was carved "Croatan." Whatever the facts, an island in the groups of the coast of North Carolina is named, to the present day, Croatan.”
It is obvious that Professor Roucek disagrees with some of the Croatian writers as to the time of the alleged arrival and the number of Croatian ships. Adamic and other writers in connection with this case, refer to several older and some more recent American authors in an attempt to shed light on this mystery - which might never be successfully solved. Therefore, let us analyze some of these accounts which are of great importance. In the light of the evidence which we shall find particularly in the oldest accounts on North Carolina, we shall see whether we can accept as probable the theory of Professor Roucek that the Croatian ship which allegedly called at Roanoke "salvaged the entire settlement from the destruction that, was taking place."
Of foremost importance as a source on the origin of Croatan Indians and for containing precious information on the first colonization of the English speaking people at Roanoke Island is Francis, L. Hawks' History of North Carolina, in two volumes, published a century ago. For our problem, the first volume is of greatest importance inasmuch as it contains valuable information on old Virginia from the third volume of Voyages by Richard Hakluyt, which was published in Paris in 1600, and contains the original reports of the first Englishmen who visited the region around Roanoke Island.
The first expedition from England, led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlow, arrived in July 1584. In the vicinity of Roanoke Island they found friendly Indians, among whom were Manteo and Wanchese. Amadas and Barlow reported in Hakluyt's Voyages: "We saw children that had very fine auburn, and chestnut-coloured hair." Hawks concludes, on the basis of the complete report of these first English visitors to that part of America, that "Europeans had been among these aborigines before Amadas and Barlow." "Who they were and whence they came," continues Hawks, "we never shall know; but children were seen by our voyagers with auburn and chest nut colored hair." American Indians were all Mongoloids, marked by straight, coarse black hair. Auburn hair might well therefore excite surprise and demand explanation. The natives themselves gave Amadas and Barlow the necessary explanation, which is the invaluable clue to this mystery.
"Twenty-six years before, (in 1558) a ship was cast away near Secotan, manned by white people; ... some of the crew were saved, and preserved by the natives; ... after remaining some few weeks at Wocokon (Ocraoke) they attempted to leave in the frail craft of the country, which they had endeavored to fit for the purpose, and probably perished, as their boats were subsequently found stranded ,on the shores of another island not far from Wocokon; the natives added that these were the only whites that had appeared among them, and that they were seen by the dwellers around Secotan only."
The natives also reported about another wreck on the coast, which took place approximately six years after the first one; which would be in 1564. There were no survivors of this second wreck, but the Indians - who at that time did not know iron tools nor weapons - obtained from this wreck nails and spikes out of which they made edge tools.
The expedition of Amadas and Barlow sailed again after two months for England taking with them the Indians Manteo and Wanchese. The second expedition under the leadership of Sir Richard Greenville and with Manteo and Wanchese on board arrived on July 3, 1585 at Roanoke. In the English reports of this expedition there appears for the first time the name "Croatoan" as the place where Manteo was born and which was located on the island of the same name. This name was applied by the Englishmen also to the friendly Indian tribe to which Manteo belonged. In later use it was spelled "Croatan." Hamilton McMillan, who also tried to explain the mystery of the Croatans, writes, "The name Croatan was given to the tribe by the English from the name of a locality within their territory." The Indians did not call themselves Croatan but, as Hawks proves in his first volume, Hatteras.
It is certain from the first reports on Virginia that there was a "locality of Croatan" or as it was then spelled "Croatoan," and that there was an island Croatan where Manteo was born. This island is marked on an old map of North Carolina. On an old German map published in Nuremberg in 1660, Croatan seems to have been some portion of the banks lying between Cape Lookout and Cape Hattera, which is in the vicinity of Roanoke.
Only fifteen men were left by Greenville in August 1586 on Roanoke Island. They were supposed to be joined by more colonists in the following year. On July 22, 1587, a colony, equipped in England by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by John White, who was to be the Governor of what was supposed to be the first permanent English colony in Virginia, arrived at Roanoke. It consisted of ninety-five men, seventeen women, and nine children. They learned from friendly Indians that all fifteen men left behind at Roanoke had perished.
As it is evident from Governor White's report, published in Hakluyt, later on reprinted in Hawks' History, the friendly Indians, called by the Englishmen Croatans, often visited the island. On August 13, 1587, Manteo was christened, and on August 18th of the same year the first white child was born in North America. This was Virginia Dare, a grandchild of Governor White. Because White had to sail back to England on business for the colony, the Croatan Indians invited the colonists, prior to White's departure, to reside with them. White was informed by the colonists that they would probably accept the invitation. Since White was supposed to return from Europe the next year, "it was understood that if they went to Croatoan, they were to carve the word, Croatoan on the bark of a tree or some conspicuous place, that the Governor might know where to find them on his return. It was further understood that if they left the Island in distress they were to carve the Christian cross above the word Croatoan."
On August 27th of that same year John White sailed for England. This was the last day these colonists were seen by white men. The year 1588 was a fateful one for England; it was marked by war with Spain and the defeat of the "Invincible Armada." This turmoil of war prevented Governor White from returning to his colonists at Roanoke. When on August 15, 1590, he finally returned there, he found no trace of the colonists he had left behind. Of great significance is the following report by White: "We found the houses taken down and the place very strongly enclosed with a high palisade of great trees with curtains and flankers, very fortlike, and one of the chief trees or posts at the right side of the entrance had the bark taken off, and five feet from the ground, in fair capital letters was graven CROATOAN, without any cross or sign of distress."
Near the same spot he also found on the stump of a live oak the three capital letters "CRO." Although, as he says, it grieved him much not to find his colonists - his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were among them - "on the other side I greatly joyed that I had safely found a certain token of their being at Croatoan, which is the place where Manteo was born, and the savages of the island our friends." Foul weather prevented White from sailing to Croatan Island, and by October 1590 White was back in Plymouth, England. Thus the colony passed out of history and its fate with ill the unanswerable questions became a matter of much historical speculation.
Hawks is of the opinion that the colony driven by want of supplies, perhaps also by a savage enemy, sought an asylum among the friendly Hatteras Indians on the Croatan Island. From the report written by Governor White it is evident that the island- of Croatan is situated southward from Roanoke. It is one of the long islands curtaining the coast, embraced within the present county of Carteret. The sound immediately off Roanoke Island, connecting Albermarle and Pamlico sounds, still bears the name of Croatan.
There has been much speculation as to what happened to the "Lost Colony." There are indications that the colonists were absorbed by the Croatan Indians whose descendants are still today living in Robeson County, southern North Carolina and in some parts of South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. However, we are less concerned with the fate of the "Lost Colony" than with the identity of those Hatteras Indians who were called Croatans by the English. Some Croatian and American writers offer incomplete evidence in their claim that the Croatan Indians, first seen by the English exploring party of Amadas and Barlow in 1584, were mixed with the Croatian sailors from wrecked Ragusan ships. These writers mention the legends circulating in Dalmatia of the ships, which sailed for America and never returned. They also point out that the word "Croatan" or "Croatoan" is the old English form for the Latin word "Croata," which during the time when Latin was the official language in Croatia and many other European countries designated the name "Croat."
Is the word "Croatoan" English or Indian? An American historian thinks that "Croatan, or more properly 'Croatoan', is an Indian word, and was applied by the Hatteras Indians to the place of their residence." But as we have seen, more than one place was designated as Croatan. If it was an Indian word then accidental similarity of the words "Croatoan" with the words "Croat," and "Croata" is indeed striking.
It is amazing that only a few of the American historians who were trying to solve the mystery of Croatans were surprised by the similarity of the names "Croatan" and "Croatian." Those, like Professor Roucek, who recognized this linguistic factor often quote to support their theory the small but brilliant analysis of Hamilton McMillan. There are some passages in McMillan's study which are very significant in this regard. He admits that before the coming of the English colonists there were colonies on our coasts, which "in course of time were neglected and forgotten by the parent countries and became absorbed by native tribes."
"What may have been the origin of the tribe, known to us through the English colonists as Croatan, can only be a matter of conjecture. They had traditions of vessels wrecked in past times, and they affirmed that iron implements found among them were obtained from such wrecks. Children with auburn hair and blue eyes were noticed among them, which impressed the belief that they had communication with white people."
McMillan further stresses, as a characteristic, the friendly demeanor of the Croatans towards the whites. To support his theory of the white origin of these Indians he quotes John Lawson, who was a surveyor general of North Carolina and visited the Hatteras Indians. The Croatans told Lawson in 1714 that "several of their ancestors were white people and could talk in a Book as we do; the Truth of which is confirmed by gray eyes being found frequently amongst these Indians and no others."
After carefully examining all reports of the first English visitors in Virginia as well as the traditions prevalent among the Croatans, McMillan expresses his firm conviction that the Croatans "are descended from the friendly tribe found on our eastern coast in 1587," and they "also descended from the lost colonists of Roanoke who were amalgamated with this tribe."
Most American historians while discussing the origins of the Croatans are concerned only with the question of whether the Roanoke colonists were absorbed by them and whether present day Croatans are descendants of those Indians and Englishmen. They completely overlook the fact, confirmed by the first English reports, that the traces of white race were found among the Croatans already before the arrival of the first permanent English settlers. On this important point most historians depart from Hawks and McMillan, whose argumentation is acceptable for it is based on authentic documentary evidence. Also the finding of the inscription "Croatoan" by John White a puzzle to many writers is nothing mysterious but quite explainable if we take into consideration the particulars given by White concerning the understanding which existed between him and the colonists prior to his departure for England in 1.587.
At the other extreme are historians and writers, both Croatian and American, who are inclined despite all lack of evidence, to declare, as Z. Kostelski did in concluding his discussion of the subject: "Thus it could be safely stated that the Croats were the first European settlers of America." We cannot agree with this statement, nor can we agree with those who for unknown; reasons confusedly mark the time of the alleged settling of the Croatan island by the Croats as the year 1800. Ivan Mladineo, later to correct this error, was the first to state that "the locality of Croatan in North Carolina was founded in 1800 ... by shipwrecked Croatian sailors, who landed here and thus founded the first [Croatian] settlement." One can only wonder where Mladineo obtained such fantastic information. M. S. Stanoyevich accepted this as a historical fact stating in addition that "the descendants of these sailors are, of course, totally Americanized, but the name of the place recalls the race of the original settlers."
Another writer adds to this whole fantastic story even more details and determines the time as September, 1800. In his own colorful story a Croatian ship was just approaching the shores of North Carolina when a terrible storm occured, and the whole crew almost perished. "Safe after all, they settled on the very place they landed and called their little colony Croatan." Unfortunately, even a very serious symposium published in Zagreb in 1936 accepts this fantastic second version of the Croatans of 1800.
The story of the Croatans and the first Croats in America was heard even in the House of Representatives on April 8, 1957. The Hon. John A. Blatnik (D. Minnesota), a Congressman of Slovenian descent, addressed the House and subsequently made an insertion in the Congressional Record paying tribute to the first Croatian, immigrants in America. Said Hon. Blatnik; "One of the little-known facts concerning the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the 350th anniversary of which is being commemorated this year, is that numbered among Capt. John Smith's crew were two men of Croatian descent. They were the first of many thousands of people of Slav descent who came to the New World to make their homes."
Congressman Blatnik quoted from an article written by John C. Sciranka in the Frank ford Bulletin, published in Philadelphia, stating that the Croatian Island "was named in honor of the Croatians.” In addition, Hon. Blatnik mentioned the statement of the Croatian writer Vlaho S. Vlahovi� that "the Dubrovnikians (Ragusans) sailed to America with Sir Walter Raleigh's band of colonists in 1587." All the given names of the crew and passengers, of course, were English. Vlahovi� explains that in those days it was a practice - among the Ragusans to have their names translated into the language of their adopted country so that they would be considered citizens of it. This is evidenced by the Italianized names of many Dalmatian and Ragusan nobles and writers.
It is the opinion of Mr. Vlahovi� - and Hon. Blatnik accepts it as a historical fact - that the word "Croatoan" carved on the tree at Roanoke Island was nothing else but the English spelling of "Hrvat" (Croat), and is accordingly the earliest historical record pointing to the presence of the Croats in America. Hawks', Lawson's, and McMillan's statements were also included in Honorable Blatnik's report.
The following is another interesting detail which escaped the attention of most historians with the exception of Vlaho Vlahovi�; "The oldest known grapevine in America (Still producing delicious grapes) is located on the island close to the spot where the lost colony is believed to have landed. Governor White noted that this grapevine was bearing abundant fruit in 1590 which supports my [Vlahovi�'s] contention that those preceding the Colonists could have been Croatians."
Vlahovi� further states that, "transplanting grapevines is a custom with Dubrovnikian and Dalmatian navigators … When u Dubrovnikian or Dalmatian sailor embarked on a long voyage he frequently took with him seedlings, roots, and plants, especially grapevine cuttings. These he would sow or transplant into the soil of whatever country he visited. When returning home he would bring back seeds, shrubs, and strange fruit trees."
As the name of the Croatan Island was mentioned in this statement we should again go back to I. Mladineo. His explanation is that "it is likely that a Croatian ship met with disaster on the coast of North Carolina, and that the sailors, saved from the wreck, gave the name of their nationality to the Croatan Island (Carteret County, N. C.), which name the English then used as a designation for the Indians of that section." Whatever may be the solution to this mystery, the main problem seems to be centered around the single word "Croatoan" or "Croatan." S. B. Weeks thinks it to be an Indian word. If the term "Croatan" did not originate from that island, why then did the first English colonists use it and where did they originally hear it? Did the Englishmen call the Indians "Croatans" merely because they heard the name of Croatan Island or because they had other reasons to so call them? Neither these nor many other questions referring to this historical puzzle can be safely answered.
We may speculate, but no one knows the positive answer to this whole mystery. The story that some Ragusan sailors were shipwrecked in the vicinity of Roanoke Island and subsequently absorbed by the Indians there is plausible. Lacking positive evidence to confirm this, we cannot, however, accept it as a historical fact. If it were confirmed and documented it would show the earliest contact between America and the Croats. It also would be a proof that the first Croatian settlers were in America before the coming of the first English immigrants, and that the inscription "Croatoan" is the first historical record of the presence of Croats in North America.
The present Croatan Indians of Robeson County made headlines in January and February 1958, when they clashed with some Ku Klux Klan members. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines across the nation reported on the present status and life of the Croatans and renewed the mysterious story of their descent. Croatian papers in America and in Croatia joined the American press in the discussion of the old and still unsolved question on the origin of the first Croatans.
Prepared for portal: Zvonimir Mitar, firstname.lastname@example.org