What happened to the Roanoke Colony, better known as the Lost Colony, when it disappeared shortly after it was settled in the 1580s?
It’s been an object of fascination in film, literature, and art for centuries: what really became of the first colonists that settled in Roanoke in the 1580’s? It is incredibly rare for events that transpired nearly 425 years ago to hold such a grip on public interest, but the persistent mystery of what happened to the citizens of the Roanoke Colony continually breeds new theories.
For those that need a quick history brush-up, let’s step back a few years. In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of North America, with the hopes of capitalizing on the riches of the so-called New World.
After a string of bad luck, the first attempt to set up the Roanoke Colony failed, and it was abandoned in 1586. A small detachment of men was left behind to guard England’s interests until a second attempt could be made. Undeterred, Raleigh sent a new expedition of 150 colonists–led by John White–in 1587. Expecting the help of the garrison members to set up the new colony, they were surprised to find only a single skeleton remained.
Moving forward, White was able to establish relations with the Croatoan Indian tribe, but other tribes in the area were too hostile toward the English intrusion for positive associations to form; when settler George Howe was killed while out on his own, colonists began to fear for their lives.
They begged White to return to England and have the Queen send assistance and supplies back to the Roanoke Colony. White sailed back, leaving behind his newly born granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.
Upon White’s arrival in England, war with the Spanish Armada prevented him from returning to Roanoke with more supplies. After three years of delays and misfortune, John White was finally able to gain passage on a privateer vessel and arrived back at the Roanoke Colony on August 18, 1590, the third birthday of his granddaughter Virginia. But White’s homecoming was sadly reminiscent of his 1587 arrival. Fresh off the vessel, White was met with the whisper of a ghost town.
What he did see was an overgrown landscape and dismantled buildings. It didn’t appear that the colonists had left in a hurry; the only clues left behind were the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence post, and “CRO” carved into a nearby tree. (Upon his earlier departure, White had requested that the colonists etch these telltale carvings if they had to leave before his return.) He had instructed them to carve a Maltese cross into the tree if they were departing under duress.
Since no Maltese cross was found, White felt comfortable with his understanding that the people of the Roanoke Colony were unharmed and had simply moved the colony inland, or to Croatoan Island (Now known as Hatteras Island). He was unable to verify either of these theories, though, as a fierce storm was forming. As such, White was forced to depart without any real answers.
The most commonly held theory behind the colonists’ disappearance is that they assimilated into one of the nearby Indian tribes. Many speculate that men were likely killed and that the women and children were kept as servants, some even marrying into the tribe. The “Lost Colony DNA Project” is a study attempting to verify this theory, by taking samples from suspected Roanoke Colony descendants – as well as samples from the remains of known Roanoke colonists – and searching for DNA similarities.
Another credible explanation is that the colonists feared that help was not imminent, (three years is quite a long wait) and thus attempted to return to England on their own by boarding a ship left behind by White.
Other theories include colonists meeting their demise by a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, or that a widespread disease wiped them out over the years they were left without their governor. Factor in the current paranormal anomalies that fuel popular culture, and you have an age-old mystery ripe for the picking.
Between 1937 and 1941, several carved stones were unearthed around the Carolinas and Northern Georgia. They were purported to have been carved by Virginia Dare’s mother, Eleanor, as a documentation of the colonies’ movements, and the colonists’ subsequent deaths.
These stones ostensibly told the story of how the colonists, (including Virginia and her father Ananias) were killed by “savages”, and served as a plea for whoever found them to exact revenge on their perpetrators. For a time, the 48 stones were thought to be authentic, but their existence was later reduced to that of an elaborate hoax. Nevertheless, there are still some scholars who believe the stones are genuine remnants left by the colonists.
Recently, new clues have been uncovered in John White’s 428-year-old map of the area. The map contains two patches covering certain elements on the map, which are now thought to possibly indicate where the citizens of the Roanoke Colony relocated.
The patches seem to be corrections to the map and are made of the same type of aged paper as the map itself. Experts from the First Colony Foundation and the British Museum in London concluded (with the help of a light box) that one of the patches simply covers a mistake, but the other covers the symbol of a fort. Over this patch is a very lightly drawn symbol that appears to represent a different type of fortress.
Vice President of Research and Historical Interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, James Horn, says of the map, “We believe that this evidence provides conclusive proof that they moved westward up the Albemarle Sound to the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers.” At this time, the aforementioned site cannot be excavated for further evidence because it is privately owned.
For more, watch this History channel documentary on the Lost Colony: