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America’s First Mystery: What Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

In 1587, a group of men, women, and children settled on Roanoke Island ... only to vanish without a trace.

lost colony of roanoke
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

History books point to the passengers on the Mayflower as some of the earliest colonists to arrive in the New World—and the group at Jamestown as the first established British colony in the Americas. But there was another boatload of pioneers who volunteered to set up life in North Carolina’s Outer Banks decades earlier. That brave group of 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children settled on Roanoke Island in 1587, but there’s a reason we don’t learn about them in History 101: They vanished without a trace three years later.

The Roanoke colonists’ mission was tough from the start. Sir Walter Raleigh sent them to settle in Chesapeake Bay (just to the north of Roanoke), but their ship’s captain took them ashore to Roanoke instead and forced them to disembark.

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Other colonists had attempted to settled the island already—with miserable results.

An expedition in 1585 had arrived at the island with a shortage of supplies (one of their ships hit a shoal, and most of its food rations were ruined). They made initial contact with the Aquascogoc tribe native to the area, but the relationship was shaky at best. At one point the colonists accused their Native American neighbors of stealing a silver cup and set fire to the tribe’s entire village in retaliation.

Naturally, the Aquascogocs were angered by the colonists’ attack, and they ambushed the Roanoke fort. The British colonists fended off the invasion, but when they received an offer from Sir Francis Drake to return to England on his ship, they immediately accepted and left the island less than 10 months after they arrived.

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So when the new group of settlers—led by John White—arrived a year later, they didn’t realize there was already a history of bad blood between their countrymen and the native people. Unfortunately for them, the Aguascogocs still had a taste for vengeance. And soon after the group’s arrival, a colonist named George Howe was murdered by an Aguascogoc while crabbing.

One bright spot in the settlement was the colonists’ relationship with the friendly Croatoan tribe. But after Howe’s death, they attempted a raid on their Native American enemies while it was dark outside and accidentally attacked the Croatoans instead. The botched attack made their situation in Roanoke more dangerous and unpredictable than ever.

The colonists, including White’s daughter Elenora, her husband Ananais Dare, and their infant daughter Virginia, pleaded with their leader to return to England for supplies and reinforcements. They still had an ally in the Croatoan tribe—Chief Manteo, who had been baptized as a Christian—but they knew they couldn’t survive the winter without help from England.

Under protest, White left his group of settlers on Roanoke … not realizing he would never see them again.

baptism of virginia dare

For years, White tried to get back to the colony, but his plans were halted time and again. The ships he chartered couldn’t travel because of poor weather and then the Anglo-Spanish War. Once he finally got out to sea, a group of Spanish ships took his supplies, forcing his crew to return to England.

On August 18, 1590—his granddaughter Virginia’s third birthday—White finally returned to Roanoke.

All that he found were two inscriptions. On a post from the old fort, the word “CROATOAN” had been carved, and on a nearby tree, the letters “CRO.”

The settlement was simply gone. It appeared the houses and buildings had been dismantled by the colonists, suggesting the group left on their own free will. White had instructed them to carve a Maltese Cross into a tree if they were threatened by force, but no such symbol was found.

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White translated the colonists’ message to mean they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island), not far from Roanoke. He wanted to go look for them, but a dangerous storm was descending on the area, and he had to call off the search. White eventually returned to England, never knowing what happened to his family and their colony—a fact that haunted him for the rest of his life.

Attempts to uncover the truth behind the lost colony were inconclusive—and it’s a mystery that still puzzles historians today.

What Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

A prevalent theory is that the colonists went to live with a native tribe for protection and were eventually assimilated into the group. Many tribes claim to be descended from European ancestors, including the Hatteras Indians, who lived on Roanoke or Croatoan Island. British colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries recorded meeting Native Americans with gray eyes, likely handed down from white descendants.

French Huguenots, who settled in the area a century later, noted that several members of the Tuscarora tribe, a friendly native group to the west of Roanoke, even had blond hair and blue eyes. Jamestown was the closest settlement, and there were no records of the Tuscaroras and those British colonists intermingling, which led to the natural assumption that the Roanoke settlers were their ancestors.

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Another theory centered around John Smith’s reports from Jamestown years after the Roanoke settlers vanished. Smith had been asked to find the missing group and asked his neighbors, the Powhatan tribe, for any information regarding the vanished settlers. Chief Powhatan revealed that his tribe had personally slaughtered the Roanoke settlers because they were living with the Chesepian tribe, who refused to join his confederacy. Although the wars between those two tribes are probable, historians have come to the conclusion the Roanoke settlers weren’t involved in it.

Other theories include the Spanish destroying the colony—or that the colonists were kidnapped by natives. A series of stones, supposedly carved with the story of the lost colony by Elizabeth Dare (Virginia’s mother) have surfaced. Their story tells of death by “savages” sometime around 1591, and alternatively Elizabeth’s own marriage to a chief. However, many historians regard the stones to be a hoax.

virginia dare stone

Whether the colonists were slaughtered, absorbed by the local culture, or moved inland seeking food and shelter from the harsh sea storms—or a combination of the three—the missing Roanoke settlement will forever remain a mysterious start to the New World.

[Via First Colony Foundation; Stuff You Missed in History Class]

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All Photos: Wikimedia Commons