Gone to Croatan follows the nearly submerged traces of those who took the term “Land of the Free” at face value. This compilation of essays (plus collages, etc.) from Autonomedia such as “Anarchy in the American Revolution,” “Caliban’s Masque: Spiritual Anarchy and the Wild Man in Colonial America,” and “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, and the Atlantic Working Class in the Eighteenth Century” spasmodically reveals the outline of another America—not the one methodically constructed by steely-eyed homesteaders and take-no-prisoners robber barons—but a tripped-out, freer American history that they would never want you to know about in high school. The collection takes its title from the lost colony of Roanoke, Va. which disappeared entirely, leaving only the cryptic message “Gone to Croatan” carved on a tree, referring to a nearby Indian tribe in the Great Dismal Swamp. As Peter Lamborn Wilson describes the episode, “European vagabonds transmuted themselves into Noble Savages, said goodbye to Occult Imperialism and the miseries of civilization, and took to the forest.”
An important segment of Gone to Croatan deals with the obscure and ill-fated Ben Ishmael, a multiracial nomadic Muslim tribe who ventured out of the Kentucky hills and set up the first permanent settlement in what is now Indianapolis. The determined extermination and forced sterilization campaign against this steadfastly communal and anarchistic group by the “Progressives” of their day led to the world’s first eugenics laws in the state of Indiana, directly inspiring the Nazi legal codes of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The Ben Ishmael are also linked to the murky origins of the Nation of Islam in the northern Midwestern cities of Detroit and Chicago.
While at times bogged down into the kind of academic term-paper navel-gazing which generates phrases like “to (re)write ‘Louis Riel’ into a liminal textual space” and stock lefty anti-Columbus posing, Gone to Croatan is generally filled with startlingly vibrant historical detail. From the bacchanalian “Revels of New Canaan” of Mayday 1627 that freaked out the totalitarian Puritan sectarians, to the 18th century “Whiteboy Outrages” in Ireland led by such rad rebel captains as “Slasher” and “Madcap Setfire,” Gone to Croatan is the suppressed history of individualist anarchists in early colonial times, utopian communal experiments, escaped slave and Indian alliances, marauding “land pirates” and politicized trans-Atlantic waterfront “mobs.”
Paperback: 384 pages