Roanoke’s Lost Colony – What happened?

John Henrique Oct 19, 2020

Governed by explorer John White, the colony disappeared unexpectedly. Although there are many hypotheses, nobody knows for sure what happened.

The Roanoke Colony is one of the greatest mysteries in the history of the United States. It was the first attempt at British colonization in North America in the late 16th century.

However, in 1590, just three years after the settlement began, all 117 settlers mysteriously disappeared. To this day, no one can say for sure what happened.

The name Roanoke returned to the spotlight when the 6th season of the acclaimed American Horror Story series came out.

That’s because the creators decided to bring to the center of the plot a legend involving the Lost Colony. In the series, the spirits of the former colony still haunt the region.

But leaving aside fiction, what do we really know about Roanoke Colony? How do 117 people just disappear overnight? Although there are several hypotheses about what happened, some of them very convincing, none of them has been proven yet. And the mystery goes on.

Roanoke: the first European colony in the United States

You may have read in the history books that the first permanent British settlement in North America, founded in 1607, was Jamestown, Virginia.

But before that, there were other attempts to settle the New World. The first was on Roanoke Island, in 1587, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Jamestown.

Map of the east coast of North America by John White. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Expeditions to Roanoke Island

There were three expeditions to Roanoke between 1584 and 1587. The first was to map the terrain. The second, the following year, was more audacious: the British tried to locate precious stones and a path to the Pacific.

To do this, they went further into the continent. And they ended up in a struggle with the natives of the region.

These conflicts resulted in the assassination of Wingina, a Native American leader. As far as we know, the explorers of this second expedition were expelled by the natives.

White's drawing representing the natives who originally lived in Roanoke.
White’s drawing representing the natives who originally lived in Roanoke. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

But in 1587 the British carried out a new expedition to settle the island permanently. At least, that was what they thought.

The new expedition, led by explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, finally settled on the island. This time, they were whole families of Englishmen, with women and children, mostly Londoners.

From the foundation of the colony to its disappearance

John White, who participated in previous expeditions, was appointed governor. He was the grandfather of the first English child born in the New World: Virginia Dare, who was named after the Colony of Virginia.

But Governor White had to return to England that same year due to shortages of supplies. The Anglo-Spanish War was going on, starting in 1585, which postponed his return to the colony a few times.

Baptism of Virginia Dare, 1880. By William Ludwell Sheppard.
Baptism of Virginia Dare, 1880. By William Ludwell Sheppard.

He only returned three years later. And in the place of the Roanoke settlement, with hundreds of people, he found a ghost colony. The mysterious event made no sense.

In addition to the abandoned houses and objects scattered on the floor, White and the sailors who landed on the island found two clues. The letters “CRO” engraved on a tree and the name “CROATOAN” carved into a palisade.

What happened to the settlers on Roanoke Island?

To this day, it is not known what actually happened to English families living on Roanoke Island. However, there are some hypotheses.

1. Assimilation by the natives

One of the most accepted hypotheses is that the colonists moved to Hatteras Island, known as Croatoan at the time, 80 kilometers to the south. This hypothesis makes a lot of sense.

Before leaving the island, White told the settlers to leave a sign indicating their whereabouts should it be necessary to leave the island.

And not just one, but two signs were left. In addition, Croatan natives were allies of newly arrived Europeans.

Therefore, it makes sense to think that, due to some difficulty (an enemy attack, for example), the settlers fled to the island to the south, where the friendly tribe lived, and started to live among the natives.

White himself believed in this possibility and wanted to go to Croatoan. But he was struggling on his journey and was forced to return to England. No further expeditions were made to try to rescue the settlers, who were left to fend for themselves.

Although this hypothesis is very plausible, archaeological excavations at Hatteras have not yet been sufficient to prove it.

2. Diseases

Another hypothesis, quite plausible, is that the newly founded colony was plagued by some type of disease.

This would have forced the settlers to abandon the settlement, dividing themselves into smaller groups, which dispersed inland.

3. Massacre, kidnapping or escape

Many tribes that lived in the territory of the present-day United States were hostile to Europeans. This hostility was usually a response to the hostility of the invaders.

The second English expedition to Roanoke created many frictions and culminated in the murder of a native leader. This may have created a warlike atmosphere that affected the families who went there in 1587.

Let us also remember that White found a defensive palisade set up when he returned to the colony in 1590, a sign that the settlers prepared themselves against enemy attacks. Such a battle could have resulted in three things:

  1. The settlers were slaughtered;
  2. The settlers were kidnapped;
  3. The settlers fled, probably to Croatoan, and may have been assimilated by the natives there.

4. Moving inland

A more recent line of research points to a destination other than Croatoan. Instead of 100 miles to the south, the settlers would have gone 100 miles west, inland, where a fort would have existed.

This theory is based on an alleged sign left by White on a map of South Carolina that he drew himself. The possible location of this fort was named by researchers at the British Museum as “Site X”. Was this the fate of the Roanoke settlers?

Despite relentless research, to date, no archaeological evidence has been found that settlers moved to this site after 1587.

5. Attempt to return to England

Another hypothesis suggests that the Roanoke settlers, without John White’s command, decided to sail back to England on their own, but that they never managed to complete the journey.

They could have been lost at sea due to lack of experience, or they were intercepted by the Spanish Armada and destroyed in a shipwreck.

Searching for the truth

Archaeological excavations on Roanoke Island are looking for answers.
Archaeological excavations on Roanoke Island are looking for answers.

According to a scientific article published in 1998 in the journal Science, the Lost Colony disappeared during one of the most extreme droughts in 800 years in the region. This may have played a role in the settlers’ disappearance.

In 2007, scientists began collecting DNA from populations in North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, for possible genealogy testing of local families.

However, it was in vain: they were unable to conclude, based on DNA samples, what was the fate of the original Roanoke Colony.

To this day, researchers are formulating hypotheses, collecting evidence, and trying to understand what really happened to Roanoke’s lost colony.

Books about Roanoke’s Lost Colony that we recommend


References

Donegan, K. 2013.  What Happened in Roanoke: Ralph Lane’s Narrative Incursion. Early American Literature.

Lawler, A. 2018. The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Doubleday.

Miller, L. 2000. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. Penguin Books.

Stahle, D. W., Cleaveland, M. K., Blanton, D. B., Therrell, M. D., Gay, D. A. 1998. The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts. Science.

Written by John Henrique

John has a degree in IT and is the founder of Hyperaxion. He is a science enthusiast and can usually be found reading a book, stargazing, or playing video games.

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