Situated in the modern day Outer Banks of North Carolina, Roanoke Island was originally named after the Native American people that inhabited the area. The entire island is only eight miles long and two miles wide. Today, it is home to 6,724 people and the “oldest cultivated grapevine in the world.”
But the island is, perhaps, best known for one of the most pervasive and unusual mysteries in North American history. On July 22, 1587, a group of 115 English colonists arrived to establish a colony on Roanoke Island. But by August 1590, the entire settlement had quietly disappeared without explanation or ceremony. The houses and fortifications were dismantled, and no “trace of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children” would ever be found.
The plan had been that if the colonists were forced out of the area (by flood, drought, Native Americans, etc), they would carve a Maltese cross into a tree to signify distress. However, those searching for the colonists would only find the letters C R O carved into a tree. Later, they discovered that the word CROATOAN was carved into a fence post, but the name didn’t exactly clarify the mystery. There was a nearby Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island); however, no evidence was ever found that the colonists, or their structures, livestock, or belongings, ended up on Croatoan Island.
Later known as The Lost Colony, the disappearance of the Roanoke Island settlement, and more specifically, the colony’s subsequent failure to reemerge within written (or at least verifiable) history, has become a favorite source of speculation for historians and countrymen alike. What happened to the colonists? If they died, where are their bones? Where are their houses and belongings? How did an entire colony effectively disappear?
A Series of Failures
The first English colony in North America was established in by Sir Ralph Lane, an English explorer “of unknown parentage and education,” on Roanoke Island in 1585. The Roanoke Island settlement attempts were organized and chartered by Sir Walter Raleigh. During this expedition, Lane and 107 male settlers were left on Roanoke Island while their fleets returned to England to procure more men and supplies.
Though the initial Roanoke Island settlement was known for relying heavily upon local Algonquian tribes, the colonists treated the locals with “suspicious harshness” and routinely kidnapped Native American leaders to extort food and information. Ultimately, Lane led an unprovoked, yet brutal, attack on the natives, and consequently, killed off their primary source of food. As a result, the entire colony returned to England with Sir Francis Drake when his fleet stopped to visit Roanoke Island (after attacking a Spanish colony in St. Augustine) in 1586.
Less than a week after the initial colony set sail back to England with Drake, their supply ships arrived with reinforcements to find the entire settlement deserted. Fifteen men stayed behind to protect England’s claim to the town while the ships returned to the motherland to figure out what exactly had transpired. Though Raleigh was angered by the desertion of the colonists, he remained focused on creating a successful North American colony.
One of the original colonists from Lane’s group, John White, was appointed chief governor by Raleigh for the purpose of creating a self-sustaining settlement in the Chesapeake Bay area. White had served as a cartographer and artist during the first expedition to Roanoke Island. By 1587, White was able to convince 113 people to join the expedition, including his wife, his pregnant daughter, and his son-in-law. Raleigh also hired Simon Fernandes, a Portuguese navigator who had served during the first expedition as well, to transport all of the colonists. However, Fernandes, a former pirate, quickly grew impatient with the second expedition. During the voyage, he and his crew desired desperately to return to lucrative privateering as tensions built between Spain and England, and war became imminent.
In July 1587, White’s expedition reached Roanoke Island to collect the fifteen men left behind by the supply ships. However, they found only bones. The men appeared to have been murdered by Native Americans in the area.
Fernandes then refused to allow the colonist to re-board the ship and sail to the Chesapeake Bay as planned. He insisted that summer was almost over and that he would not take the colonists any further. Despite White’s protests against abandoning the colonists on Roanoke Island, Fernandes and his crew conducted what ultimately amounted to a mutiny.
White’s Return To England
On August 8, 1587, shortly after their arrival, the colonists mistakenly attacked a neighboring friendly tribe of Native Americans, further deteriorating relations between the colonists and locals. White detailed in his journal:
“We were deceaved for the savages were our friendes.”
Faced with a harsher environment than that of the Chesapeake Bay, supplies quickly began to dwindle in the Roanoke Island colony. Because of their abrupt change in destination, White was also concerned that supply ships would bypass them completely en route to the Chesapeake Bay. Without the much-needed support from England and tangible supplies, the colonists realized that the encroaching winter would be disastrous.
With great reluctance, as well as fervent reassurance from the colonists and his family, White was elected by the group to sail “much against his will” back to England with Fernandes and his crew. White anxiously embarked only ten days after the birth of his granddaughter.
A Town Forgotten
White’s trip back to England was tragically prolonged by winds, storms, disease, and injury. The ship ultimately landed in the west of Ireland in October 1587, and White began the trip back to Southhampton.
He arrived back in England to the news that Queen Elizabeth I had issued a “stay of shipping” which disallowed ships from leaving English shores due to the Spanish Armada. Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to send a rescue fleet for the colonists but was “overruled” by the Queen.
In early 1588, White procured two small ships for the journey back to Roanoke Island. Unfortunately, the ships were soon intercepted by French pirates. White was shot during the altercation, and though he survived, all of their provisions and weapons were stolen. White and the crew had to abandon the voyage to Virginia, turn around, and return to England.
John White would not be able to reach Roanoke Island until August 18, 1590- his granddaughter’s third birthday. He described the settlement as deserted and wrote that “the houses were taken downe.” The colony was now surrounded by a great wall of wooden stakes had been erected around the settlement. White described the fence as,
“a high pallisado of great trees, with cortynes and flankers, very fort-like.”
White was convinced that the settlers had carved CROATOAN into the fortification fence to:
“signifie the place, where I should find the [settlers living], according to a secret token agreed upon betweene them and me at my last departure from them…for at my coming away, they were prepared to remove 50 miles into the maine.”
Many assume, due to the carvings, that the colonists either moved south to Croatoan Island or had been attacked by Native Americans from Croatoan Island. However, White insisted that they had moved 50 miles west into the mainland. He was convinced that the desertion had not been forced as there was no Maltese cross carving.
Unfortunately, the investigation in 1590 would be quickly terminated as a strong hurricane forced the ship to flee from the coast and, subsequently, return to England. John White would never return to the Americas again. He considered The Lost Colony to be a personal failure, though he never gave up hope that his daughter and granddaughter were still alive. He died peacefully in 1593 while living at an estate owned by Raleigh.
Evidence, Rumors, and Possibilities
Though hard evidence of the fate of the Roanoke Island has never quite emerged, there are some legitimate pieces of information which frame the colony’s disappearance. First of all, it is apparent through the scientific study of “centuries-old cypress trees in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina” that the settlers arrived during “the worst droughts of the last 800 years in that part of the country.” According to researchers, “the worst single season occurred in 1587, the year of Virginia Dare’s birth.”
Also, during one of the first scouting missions to the Americas, the English explorers befriended a Native American Croatoan Indian named Manteo. He had sailed to England with the explorers and then returned to the Americas with the Roanoke Island colony in 1587. Manteo is described as being “a trusted friend, teacher, and guide to the English settlers while remaining loyal to his native people during early American history, when English and Native American relations were highly unstable.” He remained and also disappeared with the colony. Manteo’s connection to the Croatoan tribe supports the notion that the colonists may have sought refuge with the natives on Croatoan Island during a drought.
The Lumbee Connection
Further supporting this speculation is that many researchers believe members of the Lumbee tribe in Robeson, North Carolina are descendants of The Lost Colony. Proponents of this theory cite facts which include that the tribe has long spoken English, observed Protestant religious traditions, and was not forced to migrate by the English.
An English explorer, John Lawson, also wrote of discovering Native Americans in 1700 who inexplicably looked European in appearance and could speak and write in English. However, a popular counter to this ‘evidence’ is that there were over a hundred years since the Roanoke Colony for these Native Americans to have assimilated with, or just learned the language from, any English visitors in the Americas. It also seems unlikely that the colonists would have traveled to the location of the Lumbee without having met or assimilated with other tribes first. One researcher describes his reluctance for this theory with the following:
“I have never thought the evidence was very strong for the Lumbee theory… Maybe it was possible, but more likely contact would have been with a closer tribe like the Algonquin or Tuscarora.”
The Dare Stones
In 1937, a Californian tourist declared that he had made an incredible discovery regarding The Lost Colony of Roanoke. He claimed to have found a stone inscribed by Eleanor Dare, the daughter of John White and mother of Virginia Dare. It read:
Ananias Dare &
Virginia Went Hence
Unto Heaven 1591
Anye Englishman Shew
John White Govr Via
On the other side of the stone, there was an inscription which explained that all but seven of the Roanoke Island colonists had been killed by the natives. The account was signed with ‘EWD.’ The legitimacy of the stone could not be immediately established or debunked; however, the stones displayed the correct usage of Elizabethan verbiage and convention.
By 1940, forty-seven more stones had been discovered in the area. They recounted that the colonists reached the Naccochee Valley and lived there in “primeval splendor.” A stone inscribed with the year of 1598 detailed that Eleanor had married the “king” of the tribe there. Another stone, dated 1599, claimed that Eleanor had died leaving behind a daughter named Agnes.
However, most historians and researchers consider the Dare Stones to be inauthentic. In fact, there is evidence that a fake stone was offered for sale in Manteo, North Carolina shortly before the Californian tourist produced his own. Also, most convincingly, some of the words used on the stones (primeval and reonnoitre) were not a part of the English language until around 50-100 years after the inscriptions.
The Virginea Pars Map
In May 2011, an organization called The First Colony Foundation was studying a particular map, drawn by John White, called the Virginea Pars Map. During the time that the map was created, errors on maps and papers were routinely covered by patches of paper and corrected. The foundation ultimately discovered that one of the correction patches on the Virgenea Pars Map was covering a symbol for a fort.
The location of the hidden fort corresponded with White’s declaration that the colonists had moved 50 miles into the mainland, though he never mentioned a fort.
Archaeologists have also found remnants of pottery in the area which correspond to the type that the Roanoke colonists would have used; however, it is the type of pottery that most colonists would have used up until the early 17th century, and bore no direct relation to the Roanoke colonists. Other archaeologists are quick to “[warn] that European goods don’t equate to European settlers” and “[note] that Native Americans were quick to scavenge any material left by Europeans.”
Practical Theories, and No Agreeable Answers
All of the evidence seems to suggest that the Roanoke Colony was faced with hardship and struggle, regardless of its actual fate. The theories surrounding the colony are numerous and usually unpleasant, though none seem to have any more real substantive corroboration than the others. Popular speculation supports the following possibilities, as well as their corresponding criticisms:
- The colonists moved to Croatoan Island and assimilated with the Native Americans there. Afterwards, they were all either killed by other Native Americans or died from famine and disease.
However, the sheer amount of colonists (over one hundred people) joining a native tribe would have given that tribe and their group an advantage in warfare. There were no real records or mentions of this kind of assimilation until later in history. Also, no bones or remains were found that could be conclusively tied to the Roanoke Colony- it is as if the colonists and all of their belongings disappeared completely.
- The colonists were killed by Native Americans, and their remains were hidden, or submerged, in a place that has yet to be discovered. Their belongings were scavenged and their structures were taken apart for materials.
But, why was CROTOAN carved without a Maltese cross? Why and where would the Native Americans hide the bodies of so many colonists? Also, how was there no real record or any indication of such a successful victory in the oral traditions of any of the early, local Native American tribes?
- The colonists deconstructed their homes and structures to build boats. They then attempted to travel back to England or, more likely, Croatoan Island out of desperation due to famine and drought. Ultimately, they were lost at sea.
Though this explains the deconstruction of their structures, it is hard to imagine that they all traveled in one boat together. And again, if there were several boats, how did over one hundred people (spread out among multiple boats) all still fail to reach land? Also, Roanoke Island is “buffered from the Atlantic Ocean” by islands only 4-5 miles away. The mainland is less than 8 miles away in the other direction. It is hard to imagine that no one made it to land, especially if their lives depended on it.
- The Virginea Pars map correctly detailed a hidden fortification or safe location for the colonists. They headed 50 miles west into the mainland and settled in that location until they all eventually died off. The fortification was located in an area which was never thoroughly searched for remains or artifacts, and the colony is essentially buried somewhere under modern-day construction.
But, when was this fort constructed? John White was only in the colony for a matter of weeks before heading back to England, so when would he have even learned about it in that time? Could the fort symbol have just been a mistake? And, does this theory even legitimately address what happened to the colonists? Where were their homes and structures? Where was the fort? Also, why was the fort symbol hidden? Though espionage was a concern during the time, what is the point of putting a secret location on a map to be viewed by many people. Could White have not just made a secret map?
Carved into American Imagination
The word CROATOAN, which was carved into the fence, and apparently attempted to have been carved in a tree, has since claimed its own ominous connotations in popular lore. According to various sources, it has reemerged throughout history in bizarre and unsettling situations:
- Edgar Allen Poe is rumored to have murmured CROATOAN during his incoherent ramblings before his mysterious death.
- The word CROATOAN was carved into the headboard of the bed that author Ambrose Bierce slept in before he vanished in Mexico.
- CROATOAN was found written in Amelia Earnhart’s journal after her disappearance.
- A famous bank robber from the 1870s-1880s known as Black Bart carved CROATOAN into his prison cell wall before mysteriously disappearing after his release.
- When the Carroll A. Deering, a commercial schooner, crashed into Cape Hatteras in 1921, CROATOAN is rumored to have been the last entry in the ship’s log book. The passengers had all inexplicably disappeared.
Though the rumors are difficult to verify, the word continues to reemerge in popular culture and it has become a recurring mention on this season of American Horror Story.
“If angered, this spirit had the power to change those who offended it into the form of animals, trees and rocks.”
If true, this would mean the colonists never made it off of the island, and were transformed by it. Regardless of supernatural implications, the colonists met their fates after being abandoned for years in an hostile environment on foreign lands. The mystery and history of the Roanoke Island settlement is terrifyingly captivating, and tragic, no matter what theory one believes.
But still, what do you think happened to The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island?