What Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

Roanoke, North Carolina
This engraving depicts the discovery of the "Croatoan" engraving at Roanoke.

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Roanoke Colony, an island in present-day North Carolina, was settled in 1584 by English colonists as the first attempt at a permanent settlement in North America. However, the settlers quickly ran into hardship caused by poor harvest, lack of materials, and difficult relations with the indigenous peoples.

Because of these difficulties, a small group of colonists, led by John White, returned to England in search of help from Queen Elizabeth I. When White returned a few years later the colony had disappeared; all traces of the settlers and encampments were gone, creating its history as the “Lost Colony" of Roanoke.

Settlers Arrive at Roanoke Island

Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter to gather a small group to settle in the Chesapeake Bay as part of a larger campaign to explore and settle North America. Sir Richard Grenville led the expedition and landed on Roanoke Island in 1584. Soon after settlement, he was responsible for burning a village inhabited by Carolina Algonquians, ending the previously friendly relations.

When the settlement failed due to this strained relation and a lack of resources, the first group of colonists returned to England shortly after when Sir Francis Drake offered to take them home on his way from the Caribbean. John White arrived with another group of colonists in 1587 intending to settle in the Chesapeake Bay, but the pilot of the ship brought them to Roanoke Island. His daughter Eleanor White Dare and her husband Ananias Dare were on the charter as well, and the two later had a child in Roanoke, Virginia Dare, who was the first person of English descent born in North America.

White’s group of settlers ran into similar difficulties as the first group. After arriving too late to begin planting, the Roanoke colonists had a poor harvest and lacked many other materials. Additionally, after an indigenous man killed one of the colonists, White ordered an attack on a group of indigenous people in a tribe nearby out of retaliation. This increased the already high tension between the Native Americans and the colonists who settled on their land.

Because of these difficulties, White returned to England to ask for help with gathering resources and left behind 117 people in the colony.

The Lost Colony

When White returned to Europe, England was in the midst of the Anglo-Spanish War between Queen Elizabeth I and King Philip II of Spain. Because of the war effort, there were few resources to devote to the New World. Boats, materials, and people were not available to John White, who then stayed in Europe for a few years until the conclusion of the war. When White returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, the settlement was deserted.

In his own account, White describes the island upon his return. He states, “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.” He later concludes that the colonists were safe with the Croatoan tribe because of the lack of any distress signals. However, due to inclement weather and few supplies, he never sailed to the Croatoan settlement. Instead, he returned to England, never knowing where his colony remained.

Centuries later, researchers at the British Museum examined a map drawn by John White, the original governor of Roanoke County. The examination was conducted because a portion of the map appears to have been covered by a patch of paper. When backlit, a star shape appears under the patch, possibly noting the exact location of the colony. The site has been excavated and archaeologists have discovered ceramic material that may have belonged to members of the “lost colony,” but the archaeological remains have not been definitively linked to the lost colonists.

Roanoke Mystery: Theories

There is no conclusive evidence as to what happened to the colony of Roanoke. Theories range from the plausible to the improbable, including massacre, migration, and even a zombie outbreak.

One hotly debated clue is a rock, allegedly engraved by Roanoke colonists, that was found in a swamp in North Carolina. The engraving states that two of the original settlers, Virginia and Ananias Dare, were murdered. For decades, the rock has been repeatedly authenticated and discredited by archaeologists and historians. Nonetheless, a popular theory maintained that the Roanoke colonists were murdered by the indigenous tribes nearby. This theory, which pushes the racist notion that indigenous people are dangerous and violent, alleges that tensions between the colonists and the nearby tribes (specifically the Croatoan) continued to rise, leading to the mass murder of the colony.

However, the theory fails to note the violence initiated by the colonists themselves, as well as the fact that there is no evidence of the colonists leaving unexpectedly. All of the structures had been taken down and no human remains were found at the site. Additionally, as White noted, the word “Croatoan” was etched in the tree without any symbols of distress.

There are a host of paranormal theories that are based entirely in speculation and not the evidence presented by historical accounts. The Zombie Research Society, for example, theorizes that a zombie outbreak in the colony led to cannibalism, which is why no bodies were found. Once the zombies ran out of colonists to feed on, the theory goes, they themselves decomposed into the ground, leaving no evidence behind.

The most likely scenario is that environmental degradation and poor harvests forced the colony to migrate elsewhere. In 1998, archaeologists studied tree rings and concluded that there was a drought within the time frame of the colonists' evacuation. This theory follows that the colonists left Roanoke Island to live with nearby tribes (e.g. the Croatoan) and survive the dangerous conditions.

Sources

  • Grizzard, Frank E., and D. Boyd. Smith. Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. ABC-CLIO Interactive, 2007.
  • Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606.
  • Emery, Theo. “The Roanoke Island Colony: Lost, and Found?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2015/08/11/science/the-roanoke-colonists-lost-and-found.html.