The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke. By Andrew Lawler. Doubleday; 426 pages; $29.95.

THE tale of the “Lost Colony” is a 400-year chronicle of madness and delusion. As Andrew Lawler recounts in “The Secret Token”, it begins in 1587 with the ill-conceived, ill-executed attempt to found the New World’s first English settlement on Roanoke Island, and continues to this day in the obsessive quest to discover how and why the colony disappeared. Both the original settlers and those who, over the subsequent centuries, have quixotically tried to trace them seem equally deluded. They are all mirage-chasers, confident (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that the ultimate prize is within their grasp.

In the case of the colonists, that prize was mountains of diamonds or gold, or a quick passage to Asia. For historians, archaeologists and amateur sleuths, it is the equally elusive object or text that will reveal the Lost Colony’s fate. Yet in truth there is nothing very mysterious about the failure of the Roanoke settlement.

This bid to establish a European outpost off what is now the coast of North Carolina was doomed by ignorance of the basic facts of geography, geology and geopolitics. Conceived by Sir Walter Raleigh, a favoured courtier of Elizabeth I, as a means to “wrest the keys of the world from Spain”, the site was chosen “because on the mainland there is much gold”—and because Raleigh assumed it was strategically placed near an easy passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

None of these assumptions was grounded in reality. And reality quickly struck back, in the form of disease, starvation, hostile natives and even more hostile Spaniards. Hoping to obtain desperately needed supplies, John White, the governor, sailed for England. Delays caused by war, storms and other catastrophes meant it was three years before he was able to make it back. By then, the colony—which included his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America, according to legend—had vanished, leaving only a few tantalising clues behind.

Thus begins the second part of this saga: the fruitless search for answers—and the strange form of madness that seems to overcome anyone who gets too close to the subject. “The Lost Colony has a kind of inexorable pull, like a black hole,” a researcher tells Mr Lawler. But if the hunt itself is a matter of “chasing ghosts”, Mr Lawler is on firmer ground in his effort to explain its hold on the American imagination. Above all, the legend of the Lost Colony fulfils the need for an origin story, one that is all the more powerful for its pathos.

Still, it is an origin story of an exclusionary, even racist, cast. Given the devastation wrought on native populations, the obsessive focus on a handful of Anglo-Saxon settlers—including, most poignantly, the infant Virginia—is overblown. The notion that America began here, in the bogs and shifting sands of Roanoke Island, provides a distinctly Waspy pedigree for a nation with a far more complicated heritage.

Mr Lawler is an intrepid guide to this treacherous territory. When he attempts to track down one of the most controversial artefacts associated with the Lost Colony, he confesses: “No scholar in his right mind would risk his reputation on the Dare Stone, which by now was academically radioactive. Fortunately, I was no scholar.” This can-do spirit serves him well. His willingness to chase down every lead, no matter how outlandish, and his enthusiasm for the journey as much as the destination, make “The Secret Token” a lively and engaging read.