The New World. Well, at least to the Europeans, it was new. For the Indigenous people, this was home and had always been; there was nothing new about it.
However, the new fad in Europe was sending groups of people over to this shiny new land to claim as much of it as possible in the name of whatever country and monarch they represented. Never mind that people had lived on that land for millennia before they got there; they saw it, they wanted it, so they took it at all costs.
Even with the ruthless mentality of colonizers, survival was not guaranteed, and many struggled to establish permanent settlements, and there were many failures in the early years. Today’s story is about one of these failed settlements. However, this settlement’s name is now associated with mystery and intrigue due to the unanswered questions that still linger today. Yes, today we are talking about Roanoke (Row-ah-noke), the Lost Colony.
THE FIRST ATTEMPT
Spain had already set up camp throughout the southern parts of North America and some of the Caribbean and South America. The French and Dutch were also checking things out. Not wanting to be left out, England wanted in on the whole New World land grab. So, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh to establish an English settlement in the New World. Essentially, a charter was a legal document that permitted Raleigh to claim a portion of land to settle in the name of England, which he would then govern on behalf of the Queen. He had a deadline, but as long as he got things arranged and settled by then, he was all good. If he were successful, Raleigh would be the first to establish a permanent English settlement in The New World, a distinction he was eager to claim.
Now, Raleigh didn’t go to set up this settlement himself; he did, however, fund the entire thing and hired men to go on his behalf. The first man sent was Sir Richard Greenville in 1584. The settlement was meant to be in the Chesapeake Bay; however, they landed on Roanoke Island instead. Roanoke Island is located off the coast of what is known today as North Carolina. Roanoke Island is part of what is referred to as The Outer Banks, which consists of over 200 miles of barrier islands.
Things could have gone better. They established a small fort and Greenville left a group of men there as he explored; however, Greenville burned down the village of a community of Carolina Algonquians (Al-gon-kee-an), which ruined the friendly relationship they had previously had. Through a series of unfortunate events, Greenville could not get back to the fort on Roanoke, and those who were left behind caught a ride with Sir Francis Drake and returned to England. Some men stayed behind on the fort. However, all the other settlers were out of there.
THE SECOND ATTEMPT
While the first attempt was a disaster, this did not deter Raleigh from trying to find someone else to settle there and fulfill his charter. The first attempt was primarily for soldiers and other men to establish the settlement. However, for the second attempt, Raleigh felt it would be better to have more families go and create more of a village than a fort. Raleigh enlisted John White to be the mayor of this colony, and in 1587, White arrived in The New World with 115 colonists, which included his wife, his pregnant daughter, and his son-in-law.
Like the first expedition, they were meant to settle in the Chesapeake Bay. However, the ship’s captain was determined to return to Roanoke Island to check on the men left at the fort. It was sometime in July or August, so while Roanoke was not where they wanted to start their settlement, White decided they had no choice but to start a colony there as winter approached. It is unclear if the men were still at the fort. However, the structure was still there, and the colonists built other structures to house the people there.
White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare, gave birth to Virginia Dare on August 18th. Virginia is known as the first English baby born in North America. However, life was fraught with challenges, and it became apparent they had arrived too late in the season to have enough of a harvest. Additionally, the relationship between the colonists and Indigenous people was tense. Out of retaliation for the death of a colonist, White ordered several attacks on nearby Indigenous villages. This caused a back-and-forth between the two groups. Between the lack of harvest and conflict with the Indigenous people, White felt that he needed more manpower and resources if the settlement was to survive. So not long after he had arrived in Roanoke, he sailed back to England to get what was needed.
White planned on going to England and then returning with what they needed, so he left his family behind, intending to see them within a few short months. However, upon arriving back in England, White found a country at war with Spain and its impressive Armada. Every ship was enlisted to fight in the naval war, and White could not get anyone to take him back to Roanoke. White was stranded in England and what was meant to be just a few months turned into three years. Three years of worrying about his family, especially his granddaughter Virginia. However, in 1590, White finally got the resources together and sailed back to Roanoke to be reunited with his family.
THE LOST COLONY
White landed on Roanoke Island in August of 1590, very close to the 3rd birthday of his granddaughter. However, there was no warm welcome awaiting him when he stepped foot on the island. There was no welcome at all.
White and company found the settlement wholly abandoned. The overgrown brush was everywhere, and all signs of life had been removed. However, there were no signs of an attack, or they fled in distress. Everything was as tidy as an abandoned settlement could be, and no bodies or graves were found. All was eerily quiet and untouched.
In his journal, White writes, “we passed toward the place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found the houses taken downe, (…) and five foote from the ground in fayre capital letters was graven CROATOAN without any crosse or signe of distresse.”
Croatoan (Crow-ah-toe-an). That was the only signal left behind carved into one of the fortifications. Some reports say that “CRO” was carved into a nearby tree. The word was not unfamiliar to White, as it was the name of a community of Indigenous people occupying another nearby island. White concluded that the settlers, facing a dismal chance of survival, joined the nearby Croatoan community and left this message so that White would know where to find them later.
Sadly, White would not be able to search further for his family. A hurricane was barreling towards them, and so before any more could be done to locate the colonists, White and his men had to leave and make their way back to England. White would never be able to gather the resources needed to return to The New World and would later die in England, not knowing what happened to his family.
Over the coming years, searches were done for the lost colonists. When Jamestown was established seventeen years later, some attempts were made to send search parties for the missing colonists. When they would ask some of the Indigenous communities if they knew of the colony’s fate, they would be regaled with reports of pale-skinned people living further south and Indigenous people who could speak and read English. However, none of these stories were ever substantiated, and the mystery continues today: What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?
As with most mysteries, there are always theories that range from plausible to completely outlandish. One group claims that a “zombie outbreak” led to cannibalism– when no more “food” was to be found, they decomposed, thus why there are no remains. Others posit that they were all abducted by aliens.
Some theories are rooted in Indigenous folklore. Some say that a spirit on the island turned them all into trees. There were also stories from the Indigenous communities about a dangerous reptilian spirit roaming the area. However, many of these stories come from colonists and are rooted in the tendency to blame Indigenous communities for the plights of colonists. If they couldn’t claim that a direct attack happened, stories of Indigenous spirits or “cursed land” were often used to villainize Indigenous people.
In 1937, something called The Dare Stone was found, which had etched a letter to John White from his daughter, Eleanor. The front of the stone says that her husband and daughter, Virginia, died in 1591 and that should an Englishman find the stone to show it to her father. On the back, Eleanor states that not long after White’s departure, a sickness swept through the colony and reduced their number to 24. She then says that the Indigenous people spoke of angry spirits and murdered all of the colonists but 7, which included her husband and daughter. She says a mass grave is buried and a stone with all their names carved into it.
After this stone was found, other “Dare Stones” were also discovered, indicating that the rest of the colony moved nearer to modern-day Atlanta. However, these stones were proven to be a hoax in the 1940s. The original stone, however, is still up to heated debate. At times it has been authenticated; other times, it has been debunked. It is not connected to the man who faked the other stones, so we have a mystery here.
The most accepted theory is John White’s theory: the colonists joined one of the local Indigenous communities. The Lumbee (Lum-bee) tribe of North Carolina has long claimed that they are partially descendent of The Lost Colony. It has been noted that amongst the Lumbee tribe, blue or grey eyes are a common genetic trait. It has always been reported that as early as 1719, surnames used amongst the Lumbee included Dial, Hyatt, and Taylor– all surnames of some of the Roanoke colonists. It has also been noted that when other European groups encountered the Lumbee, a fair number were already speaking English. Nothing definitive has been proven, but the coincidences are very strong.
Some early English items were found on Indigenous settlements on Hatteras (Haa-ter-rus) Island to the south, which leads some to believe that is where they ended up. Yet more intriguing are the X and Y sites where The First Colony Foundation has excavated.
It was discovered that under a stain on the map John White used, there was what looked like a symbol of a fortified city. Site X and Y are efforts made by the foundation to find evidence that this is a possible second location for the colony. Some conjecture that a “back-up” settlement was established and not all 115 colonists lived in Roanoke alone. Excavations have recovered shards of ceramics consistent with English ceramics that could have been brought over. The pandemic slowed down the progress of these excavations, but they have started back up, and we hope to learn more soon.
We may likely never know what happened to the 115 people of Roanoke. However, even if we did find out, who knows that people would accept reality? Sometimes the mystery is more intriguing than the truth.
- The Lost Colony of Roanoke | Britannica
- The First Colony Foundation: In Search of Elizabethan America
- What Happened to the ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke? – HISTORY
- The Lost Colony of Roanoke (outerbanks.org)
- What Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke? (thoughtco.com)
- Roanoke Mystery: Evidence and Theories of the Lost Colony – Roanoke Mystery | HowStuffWorks
- The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 7 Theories on What Happened – ANNA DARELLI-ANDERSON
- 17 Theories Behind “Croatoan” and the Roanoke Colony Disappearance (ranker.com)