What Happened to the English Colonists at Roanoke?

What Happened to the English Colonists at Roanoke?



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Mysterious disappearances have always gripped public imagination, from the Bermuda Triangle to the vanished crew of the Marie Celeste.

However, many people have never heard of Roanoke Colony, an attempt to set up an English presence in the Virginia Colony (now modern-day North Carolina in the US).

The ‘Lost Colony’ at Roanoke deserves its place in history – it was the brainchild of Sir Walter Raleigh, and is believed to be the place from where tobacco and potatoes were brought to Europe by Sir Francis Drake.

So why is its name unfamiliar to so many people – and what actually happened there?

Sir Walter Raleigh, the ‘brainchild’ behind the English colony at Roanoke.

First contact with the New World

The Roanoke Colony was established in August 1585, after over a year of exploratory expeditions from England to the east coast of America.

Raleigh arranged the missions – Queen Elizabeth had granted him the right to colonise the area then known as Virginia, but only on the proviso that he established a permanent English colony there – but he never actually sailed to the region in person.

Dan talks to Helen Castor about her book on Elizabeth I and the way she governed.

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The timeline of the Roanoke Colony soon gets messy, though. From August 1585, a group of over 100 men were left by Sir Richard Grenville with orders to construct a fort and protect Raleigh’s claim to Virginia.

Fighting with the local indigenous tribes soon followed, and may have been one reason why the colonists were quick to accept Sir Francis Drake’s offer of a lift back to England when he sailed by in 1586.

Grenville arrived at Roanoke soon after, and again left a group of men to maintain an English presence there.

There are no reports of anyone hitching a lift this time but, in 1587, a further detachment of would-be colonists found Roanoke deserted, apart from the gruesome sight of a single skeleton.

Around 115 men, women and children, led by Raleigh’s friend John White, were forced to stay behind by the fleet commander Simon Fernandez, to re-establish an English presence… again.

Further hostilities led White to set sail for England late in the year, but the Spanish Armada in 1588 meant he was unable to return to Roanoke, the colony, and his newborn granddaughter Virginia Dare.

The baptism of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America.

Three years later…

Are you still following this? So far we’ve had one deliberate desertion by the colonists, and one grisly discovery of a skeletal guardsman. But it gets even more interesting…

It was August 1590 before White was able to return to the Roanoke Colony and, for the third time, it was found to be empty.

This time there were no reports of escape by sea, and no signs of a struggle – houses had been carefully dismantled, and no warning signs had been carved into nearby trees, as had been agreed in the event of an attack.

So, where were the colonists?

The simple answer is that nobody knows – some historians think the colonists were probably killed by cannibals, but that doesn’t tally with the lack of disturbance seen at the site.

It’s likely that they chose to move for some reason, but again nobody is sure why.

Perhaps they tried to sail back to England, and were shipwrecked along the way; perhaps they moved elsewhere on the east coast of America and were killed later on; perhaps they joined local indigenous tribes.

This last option is at least supported by some scant evidence, such as European-style stone buildings seen constructed by the local tribes in the following years, but the colonists themselves were never found.

Sir Walter Raleigh. Wikipedia Commons

In 1587, Raleigh sent a third and final expedition, making his friend John White leader and governor of the colony. This third voyage was different in that it included women and children, which indicated that they meant to settle the island. When White and his group arrived, all they found of the previous small group of fifteen was one skeleton. John White re-established good relations with the Croatoan, but some Native Americans that the previous travelers had struggled with refused to meet with him.

John White returned to England in late 1587 and planned to return with more supplies. The Spanish Armada&rsquos assault on England in 1588 delayed his return. The ensuing war between Spain and England made it difficult for White to go back to Roanoke he couldn&rsquot gather supplies and book passage back to the colony for three years. He finally returned on August 18, 1590, his granddaughter&rsquos third birthday. Roanoke was completely deserted there was no one there and no sign of a struggle, a battle, or any foul play.

John White&rsquos sketch of the Roanoke area c. 1585. Wikipedia Commons

The only clues left that gave any hint to the fate of the colonists of Roanoke was the word &ldquoCroatoan&rdquo carved into a fence post and the letters &ldquoCRO&rdquo carved into a tree. All of the buildings had been disassembled, so the people had not been forced to leave in a hurry. The colonists were instructed to carve a Maltese cross in a tree if they were compelled to leave against their will. There was no Maltese cross found at the site. White assumed, with all of these clues, that the colonists had moved to the nearby Croatoan Island, but bad weather prevented he and his men from going to look for them. His men wouldn&rsquot go with him to look for the missing colonists, and they left the next day.

Since the colonists disappeared in 1590, there have been investigations into what happened at Roanoke. In 1602, Sir Walter Raleigh decided to find out what happened himself. He hired his own ship and paid his sailors&rsquo wages so that they would focus on the mission. They reached Virginia, but a severe storm forced them to go back to England before they were able to reach Roanoke Island. When he arrived back in England, Raleigh was arrested for treason before he could organize any more missions back to Roanoke.

In 1603, another fact-finding mission to Roanoke led by Bartholomew Gilbert ended in disaster. A storm blew the expedition off-course, and the team that went ashore was attacked and killed by Native Americans. The remaining crew returned to England without having found any information on the colonists of Roanoke. It seemed as if there would never be a definitive answer to the mystery of the disappearances.

Over the years, there have been many theories and hypotheses put forth to help try to explain this long-standing mystery. They range from the potentially true to the just outlandish. Some incorporate spiritual beliefs while others use strictly scientific and historical data to solve the mystery. While many explanations have been put forth, these are the most common theories that have been discussed that could help us figure out what happened to the people of Roanoke.

Zuniga Map. Wikipedia Commons


August 18, 1587 The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Within the next twenty or so years, English colonists would put down roots in a place called Jamestown, and again in Plymouth. These roots would take hold and grow yet, what happened to that first such outpost, remains a mystery.

The 16th century was drawing to a close when Queen Elizabeth set out to establish a permanent English settlement in the New World. The charter went to Walter Raleigh, who sent explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to scout out locations for a settlement.

The pair landed on Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584, establishing friendly relations with local natives, the Secotans and Croatans. They returned a year later with glowing reports of what is now the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Two Native Croatans, Manteo and Wanchese, accompanied the pair back to England. All of London was abuzz with the wonders of the New World.

Queen Elizabeth was so pleased that she knighted Raleigh. The new land was called “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen.

Raleigh sent a party of 100 soldiers, miners and scientists to Roanoke Island, under the leadership of Captain Ralph Lane. The attempt was doomed from the start. They arrived too late in the season for planting, and Lane alienated a neighboring indigenous tribe when a misunderstanding led to the murder of Chief Wingina. That’ll do it.

By 1586 they had had enough, and left the island on a ship captained by Sir Francis Drake. Ironically, their supply ship arrived about a week later. Finding the island deserted, that ship left 15 men behind to “hold the fort” before they too, departed.

The now knighted “Sir” Walter Raleigh was not deterred. Raleigh recruited 90 men, 17 women and 9 children for a more permanent “Cittie of Raleigh”, appointing expedition artist John White, governor. Among this first colonial expedition were White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare, and the Croatans Wanchese and Manteo.

Raleigh believed that the Chesapeake afforded better opportunities for his new settlement, but Portuguese pilot Simon Fernandes, had other ideas. The caravan stopped at Roanoke Island in July, 1587, to check on the 15 men left behind a year earlier. Fernandes was a Privateer, impatient to resume his hunt for Spanish shipping. He ordered the colonists ashore on Roanoke Island.

It could not have lifted the spirits of the small group to learn that the 15 left earlier, had disappeared.

Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter on August 18, 1587, and named her Virginia. Fernandez departed for England ten days later, taking along an anxious John White, who wanted to return to England for supplies. It was the last time that Governor White would see his family.

White found himself trapped in England by the invasion of the Spanish Armada, and the Anglo-Spanish war. Three years would come and go before White was able to return, and the Hopewell anchored off Roanoke. John White and a party of sailors waded ashore on August 18, 1590, three years to the day from the birth of his granddaughter, Virginia. There they found – nothing – save for footprints, and the letters “CRO”, carved into a nearby tree.

It was a prearranged signal. In case the colonists had to leave the island, they were to carve their destination into a tree or fence post. A cross would have been the sign that they left in an emergency, yet there was no cross.

Reaching the abandoned settlement, the party found the word CROATOAN, carved into a post. Again there was no cross, but the post was part of a defensive palisade, a defense against hostile attack which hadn’t been there when White left for England.

The word CROATOAN signified both the home of Chief Manteo’s people, the barrier island to the south, (modern-day Hatteras Island), and the indigenous people themselves.

White had hopes of finding his family but a hurricane came up, before he was able to explore much further. Ships and supplies were damaged requiring return to England. By this time, Raleigh was busy with a new venture in Ireland, and unwilling to support White’s return to the New World. Without deep pockets of his own, John White was never able to raise the resources to return.

Within the next twenty or so years, English colonists would put down roots in a place called Jamestown, and again in Plymouth. These roots would take hold and grow yet, what happened to that first such outpost, remains a mystery. Those 115 children, women and men, pioneers all, may have died of disease or starvation. They may have been killed by hostile natives. Perhaps they went to live with Chief Manteo’s people, after all.

One of the wilder legends has Virginia Dare, now a beautiful young maiden and example to European and Indian peoples alike, transformed into a snow white doe by a spurned and would-be suitor, the evil medicine man Chico.

The fate of the first English child born on American soil may never be known.

“An Indian girl shows off an English doll in one of many scenes painted by John White, the Lost Colony’s artist governor. White’s realistic portraits of Native American life—including ritual dances (shown here)—became one of the earliest lenses through which Europeans saw the New World”. H/T National Geographic

A personal anecdote involves a conversation I had with a woman in High Point, NC, a few years back. She described herself as having Croatoan ancestry, her family going back many generations on the outer banks of North Carolina. She described her Great Grandmother, a full blooded Croatoan. The woman looked like it, too, except for her crystal blue eyes. She used to smile at the idea of the lost colony of Roanoke. “They’re not lost“, she would say. “They are us“.

Four hundred and twenty-eight years ago, the English colony at Roanoke Island vanished, along with the 115 men, women and children who lived there. Since that time, efforts to solve the mystery have concentrated on the island itself, with precious little to show for it.

Approximately fifty “Dare Stones” have been discovered containing carved inscriptions, purporting to describe what happened to the lost colonists. Almost all have been debunked as hoaxes, yet research continues on at least one.

Photo credit to Mark Theissen with permission of Brenau University

In 1993, a hurricane exposed large quantities of pottery and other remnants of a native American village, mixed with seemingly European artifacts. In the 1580s, Hatteras Island would have been an ideal spot, blessed with fertile soil for growing corn, beans and squash, and a bountiful coastline filled with scallops, oysters and fish.

Since then, two independent teams have found archaeological evidence, suggesting that the lost colonists may have split up and made their homes with native Americans. There are a number of European artifacts unlikely to be objects of trade, including a sword hilt, broken English bowls and the fragment of a writing slate, with one letter still visible. In 1998, Archaeologists discovered a 10-carat gold signet ring, a well worn Elizabethan-era object, almost certainly owned by an English nobleman.

Fifty miles to the northwest, the second team believes that they have unearthed pottery used by the lost colonists on the Albemarle Sound, near Edenton, North Carolina.

Research concluded at “Site X” in 2017, the cloak & dagger moniker given to deter thieves and looters. The mystery of the lost Colony of Roanoke, remains unsolved. “We don’t know exactly what we’ve got here,” admitted one archaeologist. “It remains a bit of an enigma.”

Hat Tip to NationalGeographic.com, for this image


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What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke? Find clues here

T he Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of the biggest mysteries in American history. Over 100 men, women and children, along with their entire village, vanished without a trace from a island over 400 years ago. The lack of clues is astonishing, and the only hint left behind further confounds: the word "Croatoan" carved onto a tree. It seemingly pointed to a nearby Native American tribe, but there's not a drop of evidence that the colonists ever sought refuge with them.

Were they kidnapped? Did something terrible cause them to flee? Or perhaps they were slaughtered in some kind of massacre? Hundreds of years of speculation haven't turned up any new clues, or any solid theories, only wild conjectures. It's even inspired a whole season of American Horror Story. But if you're more interested in uncovering what really happened to the settlers, you can visit the site where the colony disappeared from and hunt for clues to form your own opinion.

First, it helps to have a little background info on what exactly happened. The colony of Roanoke was established by Sir Walter Raleigh (whose Wikipedia page describes him as a "landed gentleman, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer") in 1587. The colony consisted of 90 men, 17 women and 11 children, all from England, who were ready to establish a village on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. Between being far away from home and supplies, and the contentious relationship with the Croatoan tribe who also lived on the island, it was a risky task. In fact, when the colonists arrived, they found that the skeletal remains of the British garrison left on the island from an earlier expedition, which understandably freaked them out. They tried to abandon the plan to colonize, but the ship's captain refused to let them back on the ship. As things grew even more tense with the Croatoans, the colonists begged their leader John White to go back to England and bring more colonists and supplies. He set sail for the Motherland, promising to return as soon as possible with help.

Things didn't exactly work out. White didn't want to immediately sail back to America once he got to England, since winter was setting in, and screw long ocean voyages during stormy, cold weather. But, shortly after that, the Anglo-Spanish War happened, and it required that every able British ship take arms against the Spanish and their formidable Armada. After the English finally bested the Spanish, White was able to turn his attention back to his colonists. but when it was all said and done, it was three years before White could return to Roanoke with supplies. To his surprise, when he arrived, he found nothing. Nada. Zippo. The colonists were gone, and had totally disassembled their village. The only clue? The word "Croatoan" carved on a nearby tree. No remains or descendants were ever found.

Theories on what happened to the disappeared colony run the gamut. Many believe that the colonists carved "Croatoan" on the tree as a sign that they were moving to nearby Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island). Some think they were slaughtered by hostile tribes, or by the Spanish, but the most likely explanation is that the colonists simply integrated themselves into another tribe. They took the time to disassemble the village, and no bodies were ever found nearby, so we have to assume that the colonists voluntarily left at some point. but why? And where did they go? And what happened to them after they left?

Even to this day, no one is quite sure what exactly happened at Roanoke. Archaeologists, geneticists, historians, and conspiracy theorists all have different ideas on what happened to the colony. and new theories are still being tossed out.


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.


Myths of the Lost Colony

As we approach the 81st year of the outdoor drama “The Lost Colony,” it seems like a good time to reflect back on the mystery of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated attempt at a colony. Written in 1937, Paul Green’s play script still provides a useful roadmap to guide us through what we know, what we guess, as well as rumors and fact.

We’re not going to look at nuance of the play, just a few points where truth and storytelling both intersect and wander away form each other.

The Colonists Fear of the Spanish

Near the end of the play, with the colony in dire straits, a lookout calls out that he sees a Spanish ship on the horizon. Some of the colonists rejoice wanting to signal the ships, hoping they will be saved.

Others react with near panic until John Borden asserts his authority, notes that the Spanish cannot be trusted and that the colony has to migrate to CROATAN.

There is no way to know if this particular sequence of events actually happened, but if it did, John Borden was absolutely right to fear discovery by the Spanish.

Twenty years earlier at what is now the Matanzas Inlet in Florida, the French established a fort and small colony about 10 miles south of St. Augustine. The Spanish had already established their claim to the area and moved to expel the French.

Present Day Matanzas Inlet – from Wikipedia

There are some twists and turns to the plot, but in the end, the Spanish hunted the French down and proceeded to slaughter almost 500 of them after they had surrendered.

The reason for the death sentence? The French were Huguenots (French Protestants) at a time of intense religious strife. When the colonists refused to convert, they were killed.

The English settlers were certainly Protestant. England had just fought a bloody civil war between Catholics (Queen Mary) and Protestants (Queen Elizabeth I).

Given the history of how the Spanish treated what they viewed as trespassers in their domain and the history of religious violence between Catholics and Protestants, John Borden’s decision was prudent under the circumstances.

Since We’re on the Subject of the Spanish…

Paul Green got a lot right. But not everything.

As a plot twist and foil to the loyal English settlers, character Simon Fernadez is perfect. He speaks with a Spanish accent. He is short-tempered and quick to go to his sword. He warns the settlers of the dangers of Spain. He seems at times to be intent on sabotaging the enterprise.

Every plot needs a bad guy, and Simon Fernadez seemed perfect for the role.

Except that does not come very close to matching history.

In real life, Fernandez was of Spanish/Portuguese descent, married to an English woman, and had converted to the Protestant Church of England.

He had gotten his pilot training from the Spanish, but at some point he renounced all allegiance to either Spain or Portugal and threw in his lot with the English pirate John Callis. Because he preyed almost exclusively on anything but British shipping, English authorities did little to curtail his activities.

The complaints from ambassadors eventually became too loud, and in 1577 Callis and his navigator were captured

Callis promptly cut a deal with authorities to sell out his fellow pirates. Fernandez, however, was so highly regarded by the Court of Queen Elizabeth, that government officials intervened on his behalf and he ended up sailing to the Americas with Sir Walter Raleigh’s half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

When Gilbert drowned at sea, Fernandez entered the employee of Raleigh.

Well-known to the Spanish, when it was discovered he would be sailing with Raleigh, the Spanish ambassador sent a letter to describing his dismay.

“They are taking with them one Simon Fernandes, a Portuguese, a thorough-paced scoundrel, who has given and is giving them much information about that coast, which he knows very well. As I am told, he has done no little damage to the King of Portugal…”

It would seem that Fernandez’s bad reputation comes from John White.

The original plans called for the ships bearing the Lost Colony to be transported to Chesapeake Bay. When he got to Roanoke Inlet and Roanoke Island, Fernandez insisted the colonists disembark.

We only have John White’s words on what happened, and he excoriates Fernandez, claiming among other things that Fernandez was more interested in renewing his raiding of Spanish shipping than the safety or wellbeing of the colonists.

We have nothing in writing from Fernandez, but according to accounts from the time, he indicated he was concerned about the Atlantic hurricane season and he wanted to get his fleet back to England.

Has the Lost Colony Been Found?

There is speculation, hints, guesses and educated guesses, some of them quite good, but the consensus increasingly is we will never know definitively what happened to the 120 colonists.

The best clue that has been found in some time is the Virginia Pars map, a 16th century map drawn by John White from a journey into the interior of northeastern North Carolina.

Virginia Pars Map –
Courtesy of British Museum

A seemingly innocuous question from a researcher of the First Colony Foundation—the North Carolina group trying solve the mystery—created one of the most significant finds in the search for the Colony.

The map, residing in the archives of the British Museum, had a mark on it, as though someone had blotted something out. What, the researcher wondered, was under it.

The Virginia Pars map shows a corrected section to the left of the ship, which researchers believe may be significant. Courtesy of the British Museum.

As it turns out something very significant—a symbol White often used to denote a fort on his maps. The symbol sits on a point of land created by the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers approximately 50 miles west of Roanoke Island. According to researchers, White did discuss with Ralph Lane, the military leader of the expedition, moving the colony 50 miles west.

Although some excavations of the site have been done, they have been limited because it sits on private property. Some material dating from the American colonial experience has been found, but nothing from the late 16th Century.

This is the latest in a series of finds indicating a possible location for the Lost Colony. In every case to date, close examination has raised significant doubts that the fate of the colony has been discovered.


What We Now Know About the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Explore the story of the Roanoke disappearance. And the latest findings and theories that have brought us a bit closer to understanding what might have happened.

One hundred and fifteen English colonists deserted Roanoke Island between 1587 and 1590, forever lost to the historical record. To this day no one knows exactly why they abandoned the colony or where they went.

Archaeologists, however, believe they’ve found intriguing evidence that can shed light on this 430-year-old mystery.

Sir Walter Raleigh. “Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 2”. 1865.
Author: John Cassell

The first voyage was a reconnaissance mission. The explorers involved travelled along the East coast and identified Roanoke Island as an ideal location for settlement. Roanoke Island is now located in Dare County, North Carolina.

The Second Roanoke Voyage

A year later, in 1585, Raleigh sent a second voyage to Roanoke. This party consisted of 100 scientists, soldiers, and miners – all men.

The second voyage was a total failure. Supplies ran out, winter set in, and tense relationships with neighbouring Native Americans escalated, leading to the colonists murdering the local, native chief.

They abandoned the fort and colony, unaware that two English supply ships would arrive less than a week later. These supply ships, upon finding the site abandoned, left 15 men behind to hold the fort in the name of England.

“Elizabeth II, Roanoke Island Festival Park, Manteo, North Carolina” by Ken Lund.

The Third Roanoke Voyage

For his third attempt, Raleigh recruited 115 men, women, and children – mostly middle-class Londoners.

He appointed John White, painter and illustrator, as the governor. White travelled to the New World accompanied by his wife and pregnant daughter.

The third voyage didn’t intend to settle on Roanoke Island. They had decided to settle in the Chesapeake Bay area this time. But first, they stopped to check in on the 15 English men left by suppliers. While they were there, they were pressured by their pilot to stay on Roanoke Island.

The Anglo-Spanish war was breaking out and their pilot was a Portuguese privateer. He was anxious to get back to intercepting Spanish shipping, a more lucrative role during war-time.

The Anglo-Spanish War – The Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1657) By Charles Dixon.

The colonists were uneasy about remaining at Roanoke because they found the 15 men preceding them had been killed by natives.

Yet their pilot left them no choice, so they remained on Roanoke Island. Governor White decided to return to England with the pilot, to resupply. But when White got to England, he became stranded by the war.

When White was finally able to return to the settlement three years later in 1590, he found it abandoned.

Governor White’s Return

Not only had the village been abandoned, but everything had been taken. White found the village surrounded by wooden palisade walls, an indicator that the colonists feared an attack. But they found no slain bodies or graves.

Carved into one of the palisade logs, White found a single word in capital letters, CROATOAN. He and his search party also discovered the letters CRO carved into a nearby tree.

The Lost Colony, design by William Ludwell Sheppard, engraving by William James Linton. This image depicts John White returning to the Roanoke Colony in 1590 to discover the settlement abandoned.

Two Possibilities for the Missing Colonists

White was not immediately distressed. He was certain that the word ‘Croatoan’ indicated the missing colonists’ location.

Croatoan was the name of a Native American tribe located around 50 miles south of Roanoke. Croatoan also happened to be the name of the island that these natives inhabited – modern-day Hatteras Island in North Carolina.

If he could not find them there, he would also search 50 miles inland of Roanoke.

Before White departed three years before, the settlers decided that if they should need to move, they would go 50 miles inland to an agreed-upon location.

The colonists had also agreed that if they left the colony due to hardship or force, they would leave a carving of a Maltese cross to communicate their misfortune. Finding no cross, White was confident he would find them alive.

Villages visited by the English in the 16th century.

A Failed Search Party

Before White could begin the search for his wife, daughter, grandchild and some 112 other English colonists, his crew was hit by a strong storm.

The storm, possibly a hurricane, damaged the ships and an anchor was lost. White’s rescue mission was forced to return to England where White was never able to raise enough funds to return to the New World and search for his family.

Raleigh was forced to give up on his American-settlement venture. This task would be carried out by the London Company shortly after, when they established the first English settlement in the U.S. at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

As English colonies began to grow in North America throughout the 1600s and 1700s, it was common for men, women and children to be welcomed by Native Americans as members of the tribe. Smaller Native American societies supported the idea of safety in numbers.

Village of the Secoton, Watercolour painted by John White, explorer and artist 1885 – British Museum, London.

Some tribes captured colonists and taught them their ways. Most colonists who were captured preferred to stay with their tribe, even when given the chance to return to English colonies.

There is also evidence that some tribes killed young adult men and spared women and children. As well as evidence of tribes capturing colonists and selling them to other tribes as slaves.

Looking at what we know from the historical record about later colonists and their complex relationships with natives – The people of Roanoke likely succumbed to (or welcomed) a similar life among the natives.

Splitting Up and Survivor Camps

Archaeologists look to the soil and the historical record for answers, but they also use comparative observation in human behaviour.

A popular theory today is that colonists – troubled by possible famine, disease, harsh weather, and the uncertainty of White’s return – went their separate ways.

Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol tells National Geographic, “This is typical in situations like shipwrecks. Order breaks down and you end up with several survivor camps.”

It’s very possible that the survivors of Roanoke split up: some moving inland, some moving to Croatoan Island, and then assimilating with various Native tribes.

The Archaeological Evidence on Croatoan Island

In 1993, a hurricane exposed evidence of a Native American village on Croatoan Island. Horton has led a dig on the island every year since 2013. His teams have uncovered European artefacts mixed with Native American artefacts at the centre of the village.

Archaeological Site, Historic Jamestowne, Colonial National Historical Park, Jamestown, Virginia
Author Ken Lund.

The early Elizabethan artefacts include the remains of a gentleman’s dress sword, pieces of European copper, lead shot, the barrel of a gun, a piece of drawing slate, and a lead pencil.

These artefacts could be evidence of the Roanoke colonists on Croatoan Island. Or they could be evidence that the Croatoans plundered Roanoke Island.

The problem is that these artefacts are found mixed with later Elizabethan pottery and beads. It’s impossible to say with certainty if these objects belonged to Roanoke colonists or if they arrived later through trade.

The Archaeological Evidence for an Inland Escape

Governor White had created a watercolour map of Roanoke which is now at the British Museum.

In 2011, Brent Lane, a heritage economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noticed light patches on a copy of the map.

Professor Lane pushed the museum to explore those patches on the original. After three months of pushing the British Museum, they obliged Lane’s requests and placed the painting on a light table.

They were shocked at what was revealed – a fort located about 50 miles inland of the Roanoke colony, exactly where the colonists told White they would go.

This exciting find ignited archaeological digs to locate the Roanoke colonists’ inland fort and survivor camp.

Although archaeologists have unearthed exciting finds, like early Elizabethan brass and pottery, nothing has proved conclusive enough to link these artefacts to the Roanoke colonists with certainty.

This is how the storey goes for around 240 years.

Until the 1830s, when the way we tell the storey starts to change. This is around the time when you see President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and black slavery nearing its peak.

Historians in the U.S. began to prefer to say the colonists ‘disappeared’ and shroud the storey in mystery, rather than say the colonists likely intermarried and assimilated with natives.

The people of the 1830s who were breaking treaties with natives and keeping black slaves didn’t have any use for assimilation as part of their origin story.


isappearances from history have intrigued researchers for centuries. Where did the Confederate gold go after the government fled Richmond? What happened to solo aviator Amelia Earhart on her round-the-world flying trip in 1937? Did D.B. Cooper survive his jump from Northwest Flight 305 with $200,000 from the hijacking? What happened to the Sir Walter Raleigh-sponsored English colony that landed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1590, then seemingly vanished without a trace within two years? There is an answer.


1585 La Virginea Pars map, by John White, with Croatoan Island marked with #1 and Roanoke Island marked with #2

The Outer Banks are a two-hundred-mile chain of barrier islands off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina, mostly the latter. Those sand islands are not tethered to coral reefs in any way, and exist by the providential recipient whims of hurricanes. The weather there is always windy and the treacherous nature of the area has made offshore waters, “the graveyard of the Atlantic” for five hundred years.


Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c. 1539-1583) member of Parliament, explorer, adventurer, and soldier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I

International competition and hatred between England and Spain, provided the setting for attempted permanent English settlements in the New World in general and the Outer Banks in particular, starting in the 1580s. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a Devonshire MP, bloodthirsty conqueror of Ireland, explorer, writer, and rogue, convinced Queen Elizabeth I to support English colonization efforts in America, north of the Spanish settlement in Florida. Gilbert went down with all hands aboard off the Azores, but his younger half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, picked up where Gilbert left off, and set sail with a royal patent to search for “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People,” in return for one-fifth of all the gold and silver that might be mined there. Raleigh himself set off for the coasts of South America to poach Spanish treasures, but sponsored others to probe for settlement along the Virginia coast.


Sir Walter Raleigh (c. 1552-1618) English soldier, politician, spy and explorer

A first attempt in 1585 failed to stick they returned to England with Sir Francis Drake’s ships, along with a chief of the Croatan tribe named Manteo. The Roanoke settlers led by Ralph Lane, had found survival difficult without enough food, plus they antagonized the local tribes. Geographer and spy, the Rev. Richard Hakluyt and several others, lobbied for another try and Raleigh complied. A second colony was planted by John White on behalf of Raleigh’s Joint-stock company, in 1587, with all the hopes of a permanent settlement, bringing whole families. The expedition of about 115 people landed on Croatoan Island without an organized military force, mostly middle class Londoners. Some opposed the colony since the previous company had killed Indians and beat a hasty retreat. Hakluyt thought the Chesapeake region safer, but the settlers landed on Croatan, where the fighting had taken place and an English stockade stood empty.


Secoton Village on Roanoke Island as painted by Governor John White in 1585


Manteo, chief of the Croatan tribe who twice traveled to England (1584 and 1585) and in 1587 became the first Native American to be baptized into the Church of England

They discovered the bones of men left previously to maintain the claim to the island. When the colonists and Manteo failed in an attempt to strike a treaty with the Croatans and their native coalition, the colony moved up the Pamlico Sound to Roanoke Island.

“The relationship that Manteo shared with the English serves as an early example of positive racial and cultural relations in North America . . . [he] was a trusted friend, teacher, and guide to the English settlers, while remaining loyal to his native people.”

He was also the first known native to become a Christian. The town of Manteo, North Carolina is named after him.

On August 18, Governor White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare gave birth to her first child whom she named Virginia, the first English baby born in the New World. The Governor, however, realized the colony faced a very difficult future without more colonists and food. He reluctantly agreed to return with the fleet to England and bring back a relief expedition. Soon after the harrowing return voyage (the Atlantic is the most dangerous ocean in the world, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ships lie at the bottom of it), the Spanish Armada set sail to defeat England and restore the island nation to Roman Catholicism and Spanish domination. White did not get permission to return to Roanoke until 1590!


Detail of a 1937 US postage stamp commemorating the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth


The baptism of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America

They made landfall at Roanoke Island on the third birthday of Virginia Dare, but she was not there to greet them. No one was. The colony had disappeared altogether. The only sign that they had existed were the letters CRO carved on a tree. They later found the word CROATOAN carved on the palisade that had been built for defense. No trace of the colony has ever been decisively found. Rumors abounded over the years of a massacre, of English people being taken inland by other tribes, of blond-haired blue-eyed natives fifty years after, in western Carolina.


Upon their return to Roanoke Colony in 1590, Governor John White and his men discovered the word CROATOAN inscribed on the palisade, but no trace of the colonists

The solution to the mystery of the disappearance of the Roanoke colony is: no one knows but God. Seventeen years later the first permanent English colony would be founded at Jamestown, Virginia. But that is another story, about which a great deal is known.


There are two theories involving witchcraft: the Croatoan either executed the colonists as witches, or the colonists were the victims of witches who live in the North Carolina woods.

The Croatoans believed in witches and witchcraft. Their definition of witches were people who used black magic to commit evil acts in everyday life.

While there is no evidence that the Croatoan executed witches, or that the Croatoan accused the people of Roanoke of witchcraft, they were known for condemning dangerous outsiders. They easily could have blamed the people of Roanoke for spreading diseases to which the Croatoan had no immunity.

The Croatoans and other Native American tribes tell legends of witches who live in the North Carolina woods who used black magic to hurt other people. There is a story that the people of Roanoke became the victims of these witches when they left the island, and that is why they were never heard from again.


Watch the video: Jamestown Rediscovery - a world uncovered