Roanoke Colony deserted

Roanoke Colony deserted


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John White, the governor of the Roanoke Island colony in present-day North Carolina, returns from a supply-trip to England to find the settlement deserted. White and his men found no trace of the 100 or so colonists he left behind, and there was no sign of violence. Among the missing were Ellinor Dare, White’s daughter; and Virginia Dare, White’s granddaughter and the first English child born in America. August 18 was to have been Virginia’s third birthday. The only clue to their mysterious disappearance was the word “CROATOAN” carved into the palisade that had been built around the settlement. White took the letters to mean that the colonists had moved to Croatoan Island, some 50 miles away, but a later search of the island found none of the settlers.

The Roanoke Island colony, the first English settlement in the New World, was founded by English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh in August 1585. The first Roanoke colonists did not fare well, suffering from dwindling food supplies and Indian attacks, and in 1586 they returned to England aboard a ship captained by Sir Francis Drake. In 1587, Raleigh sent out another group of 100 colonists under John White. White returned to England to procure more supplies, but the war with Spain delayed his return to Roanoke. By the time he finally returned in August 1590, everyone had vanished.

In 1998, archaeologists studying tree-ring data from Virginia found that extreme drought conditions persisted between 1587 and 1589. These conditions undoubtedly contributed to the demise of the so-called Lost Colony, but where the settlers went after they left Roanoke remains a mystery. One theory has them being absorbed into an Indian tribe known as the Croatans.

READ MORE: Archaeologists Find New Clues to “Lost Colony” Mystery


Roanoke: “The Lost Colony”

Many countries including France, Spain, Britain, and Sweden, were looking to expand into the mostly unexplored continent across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1500’s. One of the first attempts was Roanoke Colony, on the island of Roanoke, by Sir Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh was an English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, courtier, spy, and explorer. His family was strongly Protestant and developed strong anti-Roman Catholic feelings when they were persecuted during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I. When Protestant Queen Elizabeth I began her reign and Sir Raleigh and his brothers were introduced in court, he became a favorite of the queen.

Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh circa 1585
by Nicholas Hilliard
Public domain image.

Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Raleigh a charter to explore. In 1585, he sent a few men to investigate the new world, who returned with a few Native Americans.

Based on their reports, Raleigh sent five ships the next time, led by his distant cousin Sir Richard Grenville. When all of the ships finally arrived at “Virginia” (named by Raleigh in honor of their virgin queen), they were low on supplies. Establishing relations with the resident Native Americans was difficult, to say the least. Several fights ensued.

Sir Grenville decided to leave Ralph Lane and 107 men to begin a colony on Roanoke Island while he sailed back to England for more supplies.

Sir Francis Drake, on his way back from a successful privateering trip in the Caribbean, stopped at the island and the colonists, tired of fighting with the Native Americans and extremely low on supplies, abandoned their fort and went home to England with him. Grenville arrived shortly after Drake’s departure, and, finding the fort abandoned, left several men there to maintain an English presence and departed for home again.

In 1587, Sir Raleigh sent another fleet of 115 colonists over to Roanoke Island, this time headed by John White, Raleigh’s friend. They were unable to find Grenville’s men. The native tribes were still hostile, and the colonists begged White to travel back and ask for help. He arrived home to find England at war with Spain. The Queen had ordered that no ships were to leave in case they were needed to fight the Spanish Armada.

After two years, White finally got passage on two privateering ships considered too small to be useful to the British fleet and sailed out, but the captains chose to try and overtake several Spanish vessels instead. They failed, and with no supplies left, the ships sailed back to England, having never made it to Roanoke Colony.

It took another three years, but White finally got passage on another privateering expedition that agreed to stop off at Roanoke Island. When they arrived, the colony was deserted. There was no sign of struggle or hurried departure. White and the colonists had previously agreed on a sign in case the colonists had to leave in distress the sign was nowhere to be found.

The only note they left behind was the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree, and “Cro” carved into a gate post. White took this to believe that they had moved to the Croatoan islands nearby, but as a huge storm was brewing, he was unable to conduct a search and sailed back to England. No one knows what really happened, and they are now referred to as “The Lost Colony.”

John White discovers the word “CROATOAN” carved at Roanoke’s fort palisade.
Author Unknown | Public domain image

Sir Walter Raleigh did eventually try to find out what happened to Roanoke colony. He bought his own ship and crew and sailed over, but stopped in the outer banks to collect wood and plants to make a profit on back home. Before he ever made it to Roanoke, the weather turned bad, and he had to turn around and go home without ever seeing the island. Raleigh was accused of being involved in a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth’s successor, King James I, was found guilty of treason, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for thirteen years. The king spared his life and he was released, but he was eventually executed in 1618.


The Real Colony of Roanoke

A small barrier island that is only eight miles in length, Roanoke rests on the northern coastal tip of North Carolina. Wet but seemingly fertile, the island was not the first choice of John White, the governor of the colony, when he and his settlement of 117 souls—97 men, 17 women, and nine boys—made landfall in July 1587. After all, it had already been the site of a previous colony that was lost to dangerous forces.

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While the White Colony is viewed as the first serious attempt by the English to place a permanent foothold in the New World (Spain was already plundering plenty further south), it was in actuality the culmination of nearly a decade of false starts. Queen Elizabeth I originally granted a patent to one Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 to discover “remote, heathen and barbarous” lands not held by any Christian ruler or people. In other words, if Spain hasn’t set foot there yet, call dibs as quick as you can!

Unfortunately for Gilbert, that ended abruptly in a shipwreck during his second expedition to the New World. After his death, half-brother Walter Raleigh took over the patent that included potential tracts of land that spanned all the way from Spanish Florida to the arctic. Prior to John White’s doomed decision to set up residency in Roanoke, the barrier islands proved very attractive to parties sponsored by Raleigh, who never himself stepped foot in North America.

Conversely, White was on the first of Raleigh’s two earlier charters to Roanoke, the second of which ended in another “lost colony” of sorts. That eventual bloodbath was headed by Sir Richard Grenville in name, but led to infamy by the hawkish Ralph Lane. For in 1585, Grenville transported a military force onto Roanoke to set up a fort before returning home for supplies. Following the previous expedition, Englishmen had initially positive relations with nearby Native Americans, including the Roanoke and Croatan tribes, both of whom had representatives travel with White to England to meet Elizabeth’s court: they were named Wanchese and Manteo.

The friendly tidings did not last.

Lane would lead two separate, bloody warpaths against Native American villages over a matter of months. Local hostilities became so violent, with attacks on the fort, that when England’s beloved Sir Francis Drake passed by as a literal ship in the night, Lane and his men abandoned Roanoke—including three poor bastards on an expedition in the woods—to the Natives and caught the big boat home. By the time Grenville returned, he found the Lane Colony abandoned, and three Christian souls vanished. So he left another 15 men behind to defend the remnants of his failed enterprise with two years-worth of food before high-tailing it back to England. No white man ever saw the fightin’ 15 alive again.

Hence, when the White Colony landed in Roanoke to pick up those 15 and found only the remains of what was a massacre, they had little reason to want to stay. Unfortunately, ship Capt. Simon Fernandez forced White to abandon his initial plan to sail further north and place a settlement in Chesapeake Bay, which in modern day Virginia would eventually become the site of the first successful English colony, Jamestown. Instead, White and company were compelled to set up shop and repair relations with the locals as fast as possible… especially since colonist George Howe was killed a brief nine days after landing by American Indians while crabbing along the shoreline.

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White, unlike Lane, at least temporarily soothed relations by having Manteo, who was now the first Native American to be baptized as a Protestant, make peace between the colony and the Croatans, his native tribe living on Hatteras Island. Intriguingly, Wanchese went a different way than Manteo, souring toward the English as an invading force. Legend has it he even participated in the force that killed Grenville’s Unlucky 15.

In the meantime, White’s colony seemed to be able to flourish where Lane’s failed. Unlike Lane, White led a group of families that were not employees they each had a grant, and thus a stake, in the success of this grand enterprise. White, originally an artist himself on his first expedition who drew maps and paintings of locals, even had the bragging rights of being the grandfather to the first Protestant soul born in the New World. A literal face for America’s future promise.

Virginia Dare was born on Aug. 18, 1587 to White’s daughter Eleanor Dare and Ananias Dare. Yet, on Aug. 27, White left his colony, daughter, and newborn granddaughter for England because the colonists arrived too late to plant crops and desperately needed new supplies. The governor departed with the hopes of being back for winter in the New Year—he didn’t return for three winters. By the time he stepped foot again in Roanoke on Aug. 18, 1590, the 117 colonists had vanished like ghosts. His granddaughter would’ve been three-years-old, to the day.


The Roanoke Colonies

European exploration of the Outer Banks of modern-day North Carolina began in the early decades of the sixteenth century. The Florentine Giovanni da Verrazzano in the service of the French king, Francis I, skirted the Outer Banks in 1524 and the following year the Spaniard Pedro de Quejo passed by on a voyage to the Chesapeake Bay. Neither the French nor Spanish made any effort to settle the region, however, and other than a brief visit by the Spanish in 1566 Europeans showed no interest in the Outer Banks until the Roanoke voyages sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh nearly twenty years later.

“Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, Oval” by Nicholas Hilliard. c. 1585. National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 1584, Raleigh, an enormously wealthy courtier and favorite of Elizabeth I, sought the queen’s permission to establish a colony in North America. Letters patent, the legal instrument for the venture, were issued in the spring and permitted him to “discover search find out and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands Countries and territories not actually possessed of any Christian Prince and inhabited by Christian people” and to “hold occupy and enjoy . . . forever all the soil of all such lands Countries and territories so to be discovered or possessed . . . ” In effect, he was given exclusive rights to possess and exploit the resources of the whole of the continent under the sovereign authority of the crown, excluding only those parts already inhabited by Christians, that is, other Europeans.

Raleigh’s aim was to establish a colony so as to stake England’s claim to the largely unknown (to Europeans) landmass of North America and from which he could launch raids on the Spanish West Indies and annual treasure fleets. In late April 1584, he dispatched two small ships commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe on a reconnaissance expedition that arrived off the Outer Banks a few months later. Entering into the shallow waters of the Sounds (Pamlico Albemarle, and Currituck), they discovered numerous fertile islands covered with valuable timber and teeming with game. Local Indians were described as a “very handsome, and goodly people, and in their behavior as mannerly, and civil, as any of Europe.” One island in particular might turn out to be a suitable location for the first English colony: Roanoke, ten miles long and two and a half wide, which was inhabited by peaceful Indians who would be their friends and allies.

Map of the E coast of N America from Chesapeake bay to Cape Lookout with royal arms, English vessels, Indian canoes by John White. 1585-1593. Image courtesy of the British Museum.

On his return to England in the fall Barlowe wrote an enthusiastic account of Wingandacon,” as the English initially called coastal North Carolina. Besides information gathered by the English during their own explorations, two Indians, Manteo and Wanchese, brought back to England provided valuable reports about the peoples of the region and settlements inland, including a large city to the west called “Schycoake” and rumors of gold as well as a passage to the South Sea that lay at the head of a large river called “Occam.” Raleigh was delighted with the outcome of the voyage and began planning a full scale expedition to plant a colony on Roanoke Island the following year.

In April 1585, Raleigh fitted out a fleet of five ships and two pinnaces carrying approximately 600 soldiers and seamen under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, his cousin. After a difficult crossing during which the fleet had been scattered for much of the voyage, the expedition arrived off the Outer Banks in June and began exploring lands along Pamlico Sound. A couple of months later, Grenville moved the fleet to a mooring off Hatorask Island and sent Ralph Lane, a veteran of the wars in Ireland, to establish a fort and settlement on Roanoke Island. Grenville and the fleet departed shortly after to return to England for additional settlers and supplies leaving behind a garrison of 108 men under Lane’s command.

In the winter and spring of 1585-86, Lane sent out two exploratory parties to the north and west. The first expedition discovered the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and made contact with Indian peoples along the southern shore of the Bay. The second, in the spring, explored the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers, during which the English picked up stories from Indians of copper (possibly gold) mines far inland. By this time, Lane had concluded that the colony should be relocated to the Chesapeake Bay where deep-water rivers would make better harbors for English shipping than the treacherous waters of the Outer Banks, and from which colonists could mount further expeditions into the interior of North Carolina to find the Indian mines that had eluded him.

Lane was forced to abandon Roanoke Island in late June 1586 owing to hostilities between the English and the Secotans on whom Lane’s men depended for food. He arranged with Sir Francis Drake, who had arrived off Hatorask Island with a large fleet from the West Indies earlier in the month, to transport the colonists to the Chesapeake Bay but a hurricane hit the coast as the men were about to embark and persuaded Lane to return to England instead. Back in London, he reported his discoveries to Raleigh and emphasized the advantages of the Chesapeake Bay as a location for a settlement from which to fit out explorations inland to search for gold mines and a passage to the South Sea. Determined to make another attempt, Raleigh sponsored a final expedition and placed in command John White, who had been on the two previous voyages.

“The manner of their attire and painting them selves when they goe to their generall huntings or at theire Solemne feasts” by John White. 1585-1593. Image courtesy of the British Museum.

In April 1587, White led a group of 118 men, women, and children, including his daughter Eleanor, and son-in-law, Ananias Dare, besides many friends and associates to establish a settlement on the Chesapeake Bay called the City of Raleigh. They never reached their destination, however. The mariners responsible for transporting them, led by the master pilot, Simon Fernandes, put the settlers off at Roanoke Island instead and refused to take them any farther. After remaining on the Island for six weeks, White returned to England with Fernandes at the end of August for supplies and reinforcements.

He was unable to get back to Roanoke Island for three years by which time the colonists had disappeared, leaving behind only a cryptic message, “CRO” and “Croatoan” that told him they had moved to Croatoan Island 50 miles to the south, where Manteo’s people lived. Whilst trying to reach them a fierce storm drove his ship out to sea and the attempt was abandoned. White returned to England and then moved to Munster in southern Ireland, where he likely died in the early years of the seventeenth century. What happened to the colonists remains a mystery.

Standard historical accounts argue that a small group removed to Croatoan Island probably in late 1587 or early 1588, while the main group went to live with the Chesapeake Indians on the southern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, possibly near the Lynnhaven River or Elizabeth River. Other research has provided a different theory, whereby the main group moved due west up the Albemarle Sound to the lands of the Chowanocs. Some might have eventually moved farther west up the Roanoke River and joined Tuscarora peoples.

Whether on the southern shore of the Chesapeake Bay or in North Carolina, it is generally believed that many of the colonists and their descendants were killed by a large raiding party of Powhatan warriors sent in the spring of 1607 by the Powhatan paramount chief, Wahunsonacock (father of Pocahontas), to destroy the colonists and their Indian allies. Wahunsonacock apparently feared the possibility that the Jamestown settlers, who arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in late April, might develop contacts with the Roanoke settlers and peoples they lived with and thereby threaten his chiefdom. A few of the Roanoke colonists survived the attack, however, and fled up the Chowan River or found refuge with the Tuscarora people at a place called Ocanahowan on the Roanoke River, and to the south, possibly on the Tar River, at a town named Pakerackanick. Descendants of the small group of settlers who went to live on Croatoan Island also survived.

Paul E. Hoffman, Spain and the Roanoke Voyages (Raleigh, N.C., 1987).

Paul E. Hoffman, A New Andulucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century (Baton Rouge, La., 1990).

James Horn, A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York, 2010).

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony 2nd ed. (Lanham, Md., 2007).

David Beers Quinn, Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985).

David Beers Quinn, ed., The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590 2 vols., (London: Hakluyt Society 2nd ser., nos. 104-105, 1955).


What Do We Know?

The lost colonists were the third group of English arrivals on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island, settling near the modern-day town of Manteo.

The first group to arrive, in 1584, came to explore and map the land for future groups. A second group, which arrived in 1585, was charged with a military and scientific mission. But this second group's trip was far from peaceful.

"That's where tensions begin [with the local Native American tribes]," said Clay Swindell of the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a member of the archaeology team investigating the colony. He says that this second group was driven out in 1586 by local tribes angry that the colonists were taking up good land and resources.

The third group arrived in 1587. Entire families came with children—17 women and 11 children accompanied a party of 90 men. That meant the group wanted to settle in the New World and was not a military excursion, which would have included only male explorers.

A clue uncovered in a long-forgotten, centuries-old map of the area called "La Virginea Pars" —drawn by the colony's governor John White —kicked off a reexamination of the fate of the lost colonists. An artist and employee of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, White was later appointed governor of the new lands he was also the grandfather of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.

A clue uncovered in a long-forgotten map kicked off a reexamination of the fate of the lost colonists.

Two patches on the map made Brent Lane of the First Colony Foundation (the group behind the latest archaeological trip and whose work is supported by National Geographic and the Waitt Grants Programs) in Durham, North Carolina, wonder if they might hide something beneath.

Scientists at the British Museum looked into the patches and discovered a tiny red-and-blue symbol. Could it have indicated a fort or a secret emergency location?

"Our best idea is that parts of Raleigh's exploration in North America were a state secret, and the map 'cover-up' was an effort to keep information from the public and from foreign agents," said Eric Klingelhofer of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, a historian and the principal investigator on the project.

Most researchers think the colonists likely encountered disease—caused by New World microbes their bodies had never encountered before—or violence.

The research team thinks that when the crisis—whatever that may have been—hit, the colonists split up into smaller groups and dispersed.

No single Indian tribe or village could have supported them. They would be even larger than some villages.

"It's a good strategy," he said, explaining that the previous group from 1585 had been ordered to do so if disaster struck. "We don't definitely know that they do, but it's obvious that that's the only way they could have survived. No single Indian tribe or village could have supported them. They would be even larger than some villages—I mean, they were over a hundred people."

The prevailing theory has been that the colonists abandoned Roanoke and traveled 50 miles south to Hatteras Island , which was then known as Croatoan Island. But, Klingelhofer said, what if they went in another direction?

What if some of the colonists traveled west via Albemarle Sound to the mouth of the Chowan River , to a protected inlet occupied by a sympathetic tribe? (See "What 'Sleepy Hollow' Didn't Tell Us About Roanoke's Lost Colony." )

Furthermore, archaeologists have identified the nearby site of a small Native American town named Mettaquem, which may have adopted some of the colonists. Klingelhofer said that while researchers don't know much about the Native American town and its inhabitants, its existence has been verified.

"It's a very strategic place, right at the end of Albemarle Sound," he said. "You can go north up the Chowan River to Virginia or west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were big trading partners" with other Native American tribes.

After the map's secret was revealed, Klingelhofer, along with the First Colony Foundation, which studies the first attempts at colonization in the New World, proposed a return trip to the area, with a twist. This time, shovels would have 21st-century helpers—magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

Using Modern Technology

Malcolm LeCompte , a research associate at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, was responsible for the addition of GPR in the archaeological search for what happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke.

The process began earlier this year with a satellite survey of the site.

"What we do is we get the oldest maps we can find—so we can get a historic sense of what was there and what's there now—and orient them," LeCompte said. The point is to compare "what may have been there in the past to what is there now."

Researchers look for similarities between the old maps and the current geography of the area. Once they identify where the spots on the map correspond with today's landscape, a painstaking process of laying out a grid and systematically searching it with their GPR ensues.

The technology emits radio waves into the ground and measures the echo as the signal bounces off of various things buried underground. Essentially, it measures the depth that signals travel before hitting something that causes a measurable bounce back. In other words, signals potentially indicate a hidden object underground.

Metal objects—like the iron cannons that have been found at the site—act like "giant antennas." Graves and coffins are also detectable, because they contain voids with different densities and poorer conductive properties than the surrounding soil.

LeCompte and his colleagues found a previously undetected pattern that may indicate the presence of one or more structures, possibly made of wood, under about three feet (a meter) of soil.

"I don't know if it's one or a group [of structures]," he said, adding that they "could be joined or they could be close together." Perhaps the wood of the structures collapsed over time, leaving impressions in the surrounding soil, LeCompte speculated.

The Museum of the Albemarle's Swindell suggested the use of a proton magnetometer to enable the researchers to double-check their GPR findings. Much more sensitive than a metal detector, the device can spot objects buried about 13 feet (four meters) underground.

The device measures distortions of the Earth's magnetic field due to the presence of various objects buried underground.

"We're looking for anything that affects the local magnetic field," Swindell stressed. "That could be things like burn pits."

Swindell, for his part, thinks there may also be remains of a palisades that would have been used by farmers to keep wild animals away from crops.

The presence of the buried structure and the fence strongly indicate that there was some sort of colonial presence in the area. What complicates the story further is the presence of later colonial sites in the area through the 1700s.

Unfortunately, neither piece of technology has shed light on the role of Native American populations in the area. That's a puzzle that remains to be solved.

In the days of the Roanoke Colony, relations with the local Native Americans were mixed.

Roanoke was geographically located in the crux of sociopolitical friction between the Secotan —who held sway over Roanoke—and the Chowanoke , who controlled the nearby waterways.

Tensions were especially high between the colonists and the Secotan tribe.

"There is no doubt that there was a lot of hostility," Klingelhofer said. "Not all the tribes were hostile, but some of them were hostile. They felt imposed upon. There was fighting between [the groups]"—both among the tribes, and between some of the native peoples and the English settlers.

The area does seem to hold clues to contact between local tribes and European colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries.

It didn't help that the English attempted to explore the area multiple times. The group that arrived prior to the lost colonists were driven back to England, which meant when the ill-fated third group of colonists showed up, some sour feelings remained.

"It would not surprise me that the Secotan would want to be done and get rid of the English," Swindell said.

Whether groups of Secotan banded together to rid themselves of what they saw as interlopers is anyone's guess, he said.

The area does seem to hold clues to contact between local tribes and European colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The next step in solving this age-old American mystery? "We have to go in and dig some holes, I guess," Swindell said.


The Roanoke Colony is one of the greatest mysteries in the history of the United States. It was the first attempt at British colonization in North America in the late 16th century.

However, in 1590, just three years after the settlement began, all 117 settlers mysteriously disappeared. To this day, no one can say for sure what happened.

The name Roanoke returned to the spotlight when the 6th season of the acclaimed American Horror Story series came out.

That’s because the creators decided to bring to the center of the plot a legend involving the Lost Colony. In the series, the spirits of the former colony still haunt the region.

But leaving aside fiction, what do we really know about Roanoke Colony? How do 117 people just disappear overnight? Although there are several hypotheses about what happened, some of them very convincing, none of them has been proven yet. And the mystery goes on.

Roanoke: the first European colony in the United States

You may have read in the history books that the first permanent British settlement in North America, founded in 1607, was Jamestown, Virginia.

But before that, there were other attempts to settle the New World. The first was on Roanoke Island, in 1587, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Jamestown.

Map of the east coast of North America by John White. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Expeditions to Roanoke Island

There were three expeditions to Roanoke between 1584 and 1587. The first was to map the terrain. The second, the following year, was more audacious: the British tried to locate precious stones and a path to the Pacific.

To do this, they went further into the continent. And they ended up in a struggle with the natives of the region.

These conflicts resulted in the assassination of Wingina, a Native American leader. As far as we know, the explorers of this second expedition were expelled by the natives.

White’s drawing representing the natives who originally lived in Roanoke. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

But in 1587 the British carried out a new expedition to settle the island permanently. At least, that was what they thought.

The new expedition, led by explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, finally settled on the island. This time, they were whole families of Englishmen, with women and children, mostly Londoners.

From the foundation of the colony to its disappearance

John White, who participated in previous expeditions, was appointed governor. He was the grandfather of the first English child born in the New World: Virginia Dare, who was named after the Colony of Virginia.

But Governor White had to return to England that same year due to shortages of supplies. The Anglo-Spanish War was going on, starting in 1585, which postponed his return to the colony a few times.

Baptism of Virginia Dare, 1880. By William Ludwell Sheppard.

He only returned three years later. And in the place of the Roanoke settlement, with hundreds of people, he found a ghost colony. The mysterious event made no sense.

In addition to the abandoned houses and objects scattered on the floor, White and the sailors who landed on the island found two clues. The letters “CRO” engraved on a tree and the name “CROATOAN” carved into a palisade.

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What happened to the settlers on Roanoke Island?

To this day, it is not known what actually happened to English families living on Roanoke Island. However, there are some hypotheses.

1. Assimilation by the natives

One of the most accepted hypotheses is that the colonists moved to Hatteras Island, known as Croatoan at the time, 80 kilometers to the south. This hypothesis makes a lot of sense.

Before leaving the island, White told the settlers to leave a sign indicating their whereabouts should it be necessary to leave the island.

And not just one, but two signs were left. In addition, Croatan natives were allies of newly arrived Europeans.

Therefore, it makes sense to think that, due to some difficulty (an enemy attack, for example), the settlers fled to the island to the south, where the friendly tribe lived, and started to live among the natives.

White himself believed in this possibility and wanted to go to Croatoan. But he was struggling on his journey and was forced to return to England. No further expeditions were made to try to rescue the settlers, who were left to fend for themselves.

Although this hypothesis is very plausible, archaeological excavations at Hatteras have not yet been sufficient to prove it.

2. Diseases

Another hypothesis, quite plausible, is that the newly founded colony was plagued by some type of disease.

This would have forced the settlers to abandon the settlement, dividing themselves into smaller groups, which dispersed inland.

3. Massacre, kidnapping or escape

Many tribes that lived in the territory of the present-day United States were hostile to Europeans. This hostility was usually a response to the hostility of the invaders.

The second English expedition to Roanoke created many frictions and culminated in the murder of a native leader. This may have created a warlike atmosphere that affected the families who went there in 1587.

Let us also remember that White found a defensive palisade set up when he returned to the colony in 1590, a sign that the settlers prepared themselves against enemy attacks. Such a battle could have resulted in three things:

  1. The settlers were slaughtered
  2. The settlers were kidnapped
  3. The settlers fled, probably to Croatoan, and may have been assimilated by the natives there.

4. Moving inland

A more recent line of research points to a destination other than Croatoan. Instead of 100 miles to the south, the settlers would have gone 100 miles west, inland, where a fort would have existed.

This theory is based on an alleged sign left by White on a map of South Carolina that he drew himself. The possible location of this fort was named by researchers at the British Museum as “Site X”. Was this the fate of the Roanoke settlers?

Despite relentless research, to date, no archaeological evidence has been found that settlers moved to this site after 1587.

5. Attempt to return to England

Another hypothesis suggests that the Roanoke settlers, without John White’s command, decided to sail back to England on their own, but that they never managed to complete the journey.

They could have been lost at sea due to lack of experience, or they were intercepted by the Spanish Armada and destroyed in a shipwreck.

Searching for the truth

According to a scientific article published in 1998 in the journal Science, the Lost Colony disappeared during one of the most extreme droughts in 800 years in the region. This may have played a role in the settlers’ disappearance.

In 2007, scientists began collecting DNA from populations in North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, for possible genealogy testing of local families.

However, it was in vain: they were unable to conclude, based on DNA samples, what was the fate of the original Roanoke Colony.

To this day, researchers are formulating hypotheses, collecting evidence, and trying to understand what really happened to Roanoke’s lost colony.

Books about Roanoke’s Lost Colony that we recommend

References

Donegan, K. 2013. What Happened in Roanoke: Ralph Lane’s Narrative Incursion. Early American Literature.

Lawler, A. 2018. The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Doubleday.

Miller, L. 2000. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. Penguin Books.

Stahle, D. W., Cleaveland, M. K., Blanton, D. B., Therrell, M. D., Gay, D. A. 1998. The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts. Science.


The savages attack

In the spring of 1585, seventy-five men, mostly former soldiers, were landed on Roanoke island. Alas, they behaved like soldiers against the Algonquins. They were friendly, but relations degenerate very quickly. After a visit to an Indian village, the English found that they lacked a silver bowl. Persuaded that it had been stolen from them by the Algonquins, they returned to the village to chastise these "primitive savages". They burned their leader and set the village on fire. Without finding their silver bowl.

After a very difficult year - surrounded by now hostile Indians and no news of the ships supposed to supply them - the Roanoke settler soldiers took advantage of the passage of Francis Drake's fleet in the area to be repatriated. Arriving at the scene a month later, Raleigh's ships found the Roanoke colony abandoned. They left fifteen men on the spot then resumed to sea.

When the next contingent - 117 settlers in total - arrived a year later, the fifteen men had disappeared. The Croatan, an Indian tribe living on a neighboring island, who had maintained good relations with the English, told them that their compatriots had been attacked by an unknown tribe: nine of them, having survived, had fled aboard a boat, and no one had ever seen them again. It was under these dark auspices that the lost colony of Roanoke island was officially founded on July 22, 1587.


The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Over thirty years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, a group of 117 weary men, women and children waded ashore and made history on Roanoke Island in July 1587, establishing the first attempted settlement of its kind in the Americas.

Recruited by Sir Walter Raleigh, among these settlers was John White, his pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare, her husband Ananias Dare, and the Indian chief Manteo, who had become an English ally during a previous visit in Britain.

They unloaded their belongings and supplies and repaired an old fort previously erected on the island. On August 18, 1587, Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter she named Virginia, thus earning the distinction of being the first English child born on American soil. Ten days later, John White departed for England promising to return with more supplies. It was the last time he would ever see his family.

Three years later, John White returned to Roanoke Island on his granddaughter&rsquos third birthday only to find the settlement deserted, plundered and surrounded by overgrown brush. On one of the palisades, he found the single word "CROATOAN" carved into the surface, and the letters "CRO" carved into a nearby tree. White took the carving as a sign that the colonists had moved inland to Croatoan, the home of Chief Manteo&rsquos people south of Roanoke in the Outer Banks in present-day Hatteras Island.

Before he could make further exploration, however, a great hurricane arose, damaging his ships and forcing him back to England. Despite repeated attempts, he was never able to raise the funding and resources to make the trip to America again. Raleigh had given up hope of settlement, and White died many years later on one of Raleigh&rsquos estates, ignorant to the fate of his family and the colony. The 117 pioneers of Roanoke Island had vanished into the great wilderness and into folklore. Their collective fate subject to many theories and controversies, and their story reenacted every summer during performances of The Lost Colony, the nations longest symphonic drama.


Archaeologist discovers 6,000-year-old island settlement off Croatian coast

Whatever happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke, Virginia?

The answer to one of America’s longest and most puzzling questions is now in a new book.

In “The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island,” author Scott Dawson surmises the colonial settlers were assimilated into the Croatan tribe on Hatteras Island. Later, the tribe was wiped out by smallpox. The upshot: the tribe was lost, not the colonists.

But the book’s bombshell is Dawson’s allegation that the truth has always been known but ignored because of racism, the Daily Mail reported.

The “mystery” started in 1587, when over 100 English settlers arrived on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. Three years later, they had vanished. The only clue to their whereabouts was the word “Croatan” carved into a wooden post.

Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claims there have been clues throughout the past 430-plus years about the colonists.

“The entire concept of the colony being lost is total fiction, Dawson told the British news outlet. “The truth of the Croatoan was lost in order to prop up a racist myth designed to hide assimilation… In 1937 the lost colony play was created and North Carolina was still 30 years away from being desegregated. If they had a play that ended with the colony assimilating with the Croatoan the public would have torn down the stage. Also it would be impossible to pretend the colony was lost if the relationship they had with the Croatoan was explained.”

Dawson insists the governor of the new colony, John White, knew the tribe lived on Hatteras island .


Roanoke’s ‘Lost Colony’ Was Never Lost, New Book Says

A new book aims to settle a centuries-old question of what happened to a group of English colonists. Archaeologists said that its theory was plausible but that more evidence was needed.

In 1590, the would-be governor of a colony meant to be one of England’s first outposts in North America discovered that more than 100 settlers weren’t on the small island where he left them.

More than 400 years later, the question of what happened to those settlers, who landed on Roanoke Island, off the coast of modern North Carolina, has grown into a piece of American mythology, inspiring plays, novels, documentaries and a tourism industry in the Outer Banks.

Stories have taken root that the colonists, who left no clear trace aside from the word “Croatoan” carved on a tree, survived somewhere on the mainland, died in conflict with Native Americans or met some other end.

A new book about the colonists, “The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island,” published in June and citing 10 years of excavations at nearby Hatteras Island, aims to put the mystery to bed. The book’s author, Scott Dawson, a researcher from Hatteras, argues that the Native people who lived there took in the English settlers and that historical records and artifacts can end the debate.

“Basically, the historical evidence says that’s where they went,” said Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, in England, who worked with Mr. Dawson. Dr. Horton acknowledged that there was no “smoking gun” but said that with everything in context, “it’s not rocket science.”

Historians and archaeologists not involved in the recent research on Hatteras were more skeptical, saying that the evidence was inconclusive and that they wanted to see peer-reviewed work. They also said the argument was not new: The idea that the Croatoans, as the Native people on Hatteras were called, adopted at least some of the settlers has long been considered plausible.

“Sure, it’s possible — why wouldn’t it be?” said Malinda Maynor Lowery, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “People don’t get lost. They get murdered, they get stolen, they get taken in. They live and die as members of other communities.”

Dr. Maynor Lowery presented a similar possibility in her 2018 book on the history of the Lumbee people, the descendants of dozens of tribes in a wide region including eastern North Carolina. Despite violence by the English against Croatoan villagers, she wrote, the settlers probably took refuge with them.

“The Indians of Roanoke, Croatoan, Secotan and other villages had no reason to make enemies of the colonists,” she wrote. “Instead, they probably made them kin.”

The English landed into a complicated fray of conflict and shifting alliances, said Lauren McMillan, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

“They’re all interfighting, and these different groups are trying to use the English against one another,” she said. “The Croatoans perhaps saw the English as a powerful ally and sources of valuable new things.”

Dr. Maynor Lowery, who is Lumbee, added that the “lost colony” story is itself based on the incorrect premise “that Native people also disappeared, which we didn’t.”

The story, she said, was like “a monument that has to come down,” adding that “it’s harder to dismantle an origin story than a statue.”

Mr. Dawson, a founder of the Croatoan Archaeological Society, a local research group, said he hoped his book would dismantle some of that story.

“I was trying to get the Croatoans’ history back from the depths of mythology,” he said. “They played a huge role in American history, took these people in and in school you’re taught that no one knows what Croatoan means.”

He also wanted to counter the mystique around the settlers, which has ballooned over the centuries in popular culture. They were made the heroes of 19th-century romances Confederate sympathizers tied them in with themes of the “lost cause” and a nationalistic, outdoor musical has drawn more than four million people, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, since 1937.

Before those works, the colonists had been historical footnotes, said Charles Ewen, an archaeologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. It is not clear how much their contemporaries even wondered what happened to them, he said, given how common failure, death and disappearances were in European ventures across the Atlantic.

“It’s no big mystery until you start to get a historical type of writing in the 1800s,” he said. “Then it gets to be our big mystery, and it fits into racist ideas.”

Dr. Ewen, who is also working on a book about the colony, said there were so many stories about it in part because there was so little evidence about what happened to the colonists. The settlers could have been killed by hostile Native people or by England’s rival, the Spanish, or faced famine, a hurricane or shipwreck. They could have moved into the mainland, allying with Native groups there, or moved in with the Croatoan people on Hatteras.

“I’m not saying it’s not true,” Dr. Ewen said of the last theory. “I’m just saying I’m very skeptical.”

Experts disagreed about how reliable sources were from the era and the next, including one Englishman’s account, published in 1709, about Native people on Hatteras whose ancestors could read.

They were also skeptical that artifacts found on Hatteras, including a rapier hilt, late 16th-century gun hardware and part of a slate writing tablet, could definitively be traced to the colonists. (Dr. Horton said he was preparing a study for peer review on the Hatteras research.)

“It’s very easy to find European things intermingled with Native American things,” said Dennis Blanton, an archaeologist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. “There were Europeans in and out of the Mid-Atlantic and the Southeast for a long time, and a lot of those landfalls were brief, unrecorded or poorly recorded.”

He said that it was “very hard to know” how objects wound up on Hatteras, given how much trade, conflict and contact was going on. “The scenarios are so varied, it just makes your head spin,” he said.

Dr. Blanton added that feeding and sheltering about 100 colonists would have been “a fairly significant strain” on the Croatoan community. “If experience is any guide, the adoption of Europeans into an Indigenous community would have been quite limited,” he said.

James Horn, a historian and member of the First Colony Foundation, a research nonprofit, said that most historians over the past 50 years had considered Hatteras a destination for the settlers. But he said it was unlikely that all of the colonists ended up there.

Mr. Horn and an archaeologist with the First Colony Foundation, Nicholas M. Luccketti, believe they have evidence that some of the settlers moved about 50 miles inland to a place they call Site X.

Dr. Luccketti said the colonists could have split up, with some on Hatteras, others at Site X and another group somewhere else.

Although there have been no excavations at Site X since 2018, Dr. Horn said he expected the search for evidence to continue.

“It’s a 400-year-old mystery that revolves around all sorts of mysteries within it,” he said. “It’s too tempting for many people.”

Mr. Dawson continues to lead a small team on Hatteras, which is now dotted with luxury homes and vacation rentals. “I just wanted to salvage something before it’s under somebody’s 10-bedroom house with a pool,” he said. “At least we can salvage something to argue about.”



Comments:

  1. Tut

    It is true! I like your idea. Offer to consolidate the argument.

  2. Mattias

    Good morning everyone! That smiled at me !!!!

  3. Borak

    This is evident, you have not been wrong

  4. Brarisar

    There may be another option



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