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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, August 18, 2014

Historical Tidbit: The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Do you know...about the lost colony of Roanoke?

Of course you do! It's one of the most famous unsolved mysteries in the history of, er, unsolved mysteries.

Map of area, including Roanoke
Island, drawn by John White
The facts: 

  • Colonists from England under the supervision of Sir Walter Raleigh made several voyages to the island of Roanoke, the first few of which were unsuccessful and ended in returns to England. 
  • In 1587, 115 new colonists were dispatched to begin a colony in Chesapeake Bay. They were to go first to Roanoke to pick up some colonists who had previously established a colony there. They were to use these men to help them establish Chesapeake Bay. When they arrived, the settlement was empty. There was only one skeleton to be found, which may or may not have been the remains of the previous settlers.
  • For reasons unknown, the fleet commander, Simon Fernandez, refused to let the 115 colonists return to the ships, insisting they establish a new colony on Roanoke rather than going on to Chesapeake Bay. Despite the change of plan, things went well at first. John White was appointed governor of the colony and he re-established friendly relations with Native American tribes (including the Croatoans) that settlers had battled the year before. There were plenty of hostile natives around, though, and they refused to even meet with White. When one of the colonists ventured out on his own and was murdered, the others became afraid. Eventually they persuaded White to return to England, present their plight, and return with aid. White left the 115 settlers behind, including his own newborn granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.
Discover of "Croatoan" (Source)
  • White's attempts to return to Roanoke were less than successful. When the Spanish Armada appeared off the coast of England, every ship in her fleet was commandeered to fight. White hired two small vessels, but the captains of the two ships were greedy. They tried to capture some Spanish ships and steal their cargo, but were captured and relieved of their cargo themselves. With no aid for the colony, White returned to England. A continuing war with Spain meant that he didn't manage a return voyage for another three years.
  • Finally he hitched a ride with a privateering voyage that agreed to stop by Roanoke on their way back from the Caribbean. When he arrived, there was no sign of the 115 colonists. Their houses and fortifications had been dismantled, and there was no trace of anyone. The only clues were the words "Croatoan" and "Cro" carved into two trees.


  • Despite a report written by Thomas Harriot that didn't reach England until well after the colony disappeared, which said things were entirely peaceful at Roanoke, most historians disagree. The Harriot report is seen as propaganda for the colony, meant to bring more settlers from England. Harriot would have purposely left out dangers and other negative details. 
  • Other historical evidence suggests bloody struggles between the Roanoke Indians and the colony's commanders. Of course there were friendly natives as well. However the colony fell, perhaps the settlers fled and were hunted down or captured by hostiles. Perhaps some found sanctuary among tribes willing to take them in. Historical evidence suggests it was some of both.
  • Reports from the Indian settlements of Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen, say there were two-story houses with stone walls. The Indians supposedly learned how to build them from the Roanoke settlers Years later, the Croatoans living on Hatteras Island claimed to have white ancestors. Their claims were backed up by the fact that many of this tribe had grey eyes, which weren't to be found anywhere else among the natives. Colonists reported encounters with grey-eyed indians who claimed white ancestory for years. 
  • "There were also reported sightings of European captives at various Indian settlements during the same time period. Strachey wrote in 1612 that four English men, two boys and one girl had been sighted at the Eno settlement of Ritanoc, under the protection of a chief called Eyanoco...For four hundred years, various authors have speculated that the captive girl was Virginia Dare." (Source)
Powhatan--in case you forgot
what Disney thought he
looked like (Source)
  • When John Smith and his group arrived to colonize Jamestown, one of their main objectives was to find the Roanoke colonists. (I for one totally didn't know that!) Chief Powhatan--yes, that's Pocahantas's father--claimed he destroyed the Roanoke colonists because they were living with his enemies, the Chesepians. There is no evidence to back up his claim, however, and quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.
  • Still others believe the entire colony picked up and left, boarding one of the small vessels White left with them to explore the coast, and were lost in the depths of the sea. 
  • Of course, modern mystery aficionados have chalked the lost colony up to everything from space aliens to demons (I'm looking at you Eric Kripke.)

Modern Investigations:
Reconstructed fortifications at
Fort Raleigh National Historical
Site (Source)
  • More recently, expeditions have found that if more evidence of what happened at Roanoke exists, it may be under water. The area has experienced extensive erosion, which might have taken the truth of Roanoke beneath the surface with it. 
  • In 1998, a climate study was done using tree rings from the Roanoke area. It showed that during the time of the Roanoke colony, the island was in it's worst ever growing season. A drought lasted three years and could only have added to the colony's troubles. Reports of Indians that were shot by the colonists might mean the natives were scavenging for food, which might have led to war between them and the settlers. Or perhaps the settlers were starved out and finally decided to leave on their own.
  • Also in 1998, an archaeological excavation discovered a 24-carat ring at the ancient capital of Croatoan on Hatteras Island, fifty miles from the Roanoke colony. The signet ring was traced to a man who indeed lived in the colony for a time. This is the first hard evidence linking the missing Roanoke settlers to other local tribes.
  • In 2005, the Lost Colony DNA Project was launched. It will attempt to use DNA evidence to determine if the Roanoke settlers did indeed integrate with the natives there.
Well, that's most of the major points. Myself, I tend to think it's a combination of most theories. Whether things went south in a blaze of attack, or the colonists just made a conscious decision to leave, they probably didn't all go the same direction. Some ended up as captives, some as permanent residents of more friendly tribes. Perhaps a few attempted a return to England and were lost at sea, while others perished from drought, starvation, or exposure. Either way, this is such great fodder for story-telling, that we can't help but keep referencing it, can we?

The lost colony of Roanoke remains one of the most intriguing and baffling mysteries in America's history. Will we ever know what really went down? Probably not. But will we keep thinking, musing, and writing about it? Absolutely.

What theory do you ascribe to concerning the Lost Colony of Roanoke?


  1. Looks like the drought really did a number on them, but I'd say it's a combination of things too Liesel.

    1. Yeah, I'm sure the drought was one of the biggest factors. Thanks Maurice. :D