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What Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

Dive into one of history's greatest mysteries. 

John White discovers the Croatoan carving
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The enduring mystery surrounding the lost colony of Roanoke is one that has captivated people for centuries. Established 20 years before Jamestown, the colony on Roanoke Island in modern-day North Carolina set out to be the first permanent English settlement in North America. Instead, the colony was discovered abandoned only three years after its founding, with no trace of its former inhabitants. 

Over the years, there have been many theories put forward about what happened to the Roanoke colonists, some more plausible than others. But to this day, definitive answers remain elusive.

The story of Roanoke began in 1584, when explorer Sir Walter Raleigh asked Queen Elizabeth I’s permission to establish a colony in the New World. She quickly granted him permission, since an English presence in North America would provide a strategic passage to the West Indies. He sent out a reconnaissance expedition later that year, which reported back that Roanoke Island was well-suited for a colony. It was on the water, had plenty of resources, and the local Native American tribes seemed peaceful and friendly.

Encouraged by the first expedition’s findings, Raleigh arranged a much larger expedition that set sail in 1585. This time he sent around 600 soldiers and seamen under the command of his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville. This expedition did not go as well as the previous one. Conflict soon arose between the Englishmen and the members of the local Secotan tribe, and the settlers fled back to Europe in 1586. 

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Still, Raleigh was determined to make his settlement work, and in the summer of 1587, over 100 English settlers arrived on Roanoke Island. The group was made up of approximately 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children. Among them was John White, who was to be the governor of the colony. He was accompanied by his wife and daughter, Eleanor Dare. In August, Eleanor gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.

the baptism of virginia dare
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  • The baptism of Virginia Dare.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Only a few months after the settlers arrived, they found themselves in desperate need of supplies. It was decided that White would sail back to England and return with the things they needed. However, once he arrived there, he found that war had broken out between England and Spain. In order to combat the formidable Spanish armada, Queen Elizabeth ordered that every ship available be conscripted into the fight. 

John White was unable to return to Roanoke until 1590, three years after his departure. But when he arrived, he found no trace of the colony or the family that he’d left behind. All that remained was the word “Croatoan” carved into a gatepost and “Cro” etched into a nearby tree. The Roanoke colonists were never seen again, and White never learned what happened to them.

Theory 1- Escape to Croatoan Island

One of the oldest and most popular theories about the fate of the missing colonists is closely linked to the carvings left behind at the Roanoke site. Croatoan Island—known today as Hatteras Island—was 50 miles south of the settlement. Many people believe that the carvings were a message left behind by the colonists to tell White where they’d gone. Perhaps the colonists had failed to carve out an existence at their settlement, and had decided to try their luck elsewhere.

It's widely accepted that Croatoan Island played some part in the fate of the colonists, but to what extent is still the subject of debate. Upon learning that the colonists had abandoned Roanoke, White immediately wanted to sail to Croatoan Island to investigate, but damage to the ship forced him to turn back to England before the rescue mission could be completed. 

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Roanoke site
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  • The Roanoke settlement site today.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Theory 2- Splitting up into smaller groups

Another theory is that the settlers were struggling to survive, so they broke into smaller groups and dispersed to different areas throughout what is now North Carolina. With dwindling supplies, historian Eric Klingelhofer argued that it was not likely that the Roanoke colonists would have traveled anywhere as one big group: “No single Indian tribe or village could have supported them. They would be even larger than some villages.” The members of the 1585 expedition had been instructed to break off into smaller groups in the event of an emergency, so maybe the Roanoke colonists had a similar plan in place.

In 2011, researchers discovered patches on a map of the area drawn by John White. When scientists at the British Museum examined the patches, they found a small red and blue symbol drawn at the mouth of the Chowan River west of the colony. Could this strange symbol have indicated a secret emergency location or fort that was to be kept hidden from foreign agents? What if some of the settlers headed there? Archeological excavations have uncovered evidence of a colonial settlement in the area. However, it has been difficult to prove that this settlement was established prior to the 1700s.

Theory 3- Assimilation into local Native American tribes

If the colonists did voluntarily flee their settlement, most scholars agree that they would have sought the help of Native Americans. Another popular theory is that the colonists developed a friendly relationship with some of the indigenous people living in the area. As time went on and it became clear that outside help would not be arriving, they eventually became integrated into local tribes. 

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Artifacts that are clearly European in origin and were not the type of objects usually involved in trading have been found at various Native American sites in the region. Plus, there were rumors that people with European features were spotted among Native American tribes in the area in subsequent decades. In 2007, efforts began to collect and analyze DNA from local people to see if they had any relation to the Roanoke settlers, but so far it appears that the project hasn't made headway.

Drawing of Native American residents of Roanoke
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  • John White's painting of the Croaton and Sectoan people.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Theory 4- A violent end

While there are several theories that presume the colonists voluntarily left Roanoke and simply lived elsewhere in obscurity, there are others that consider a much grislier fate. As the only English settlement on the continent, and comprised of families rather than the military, the inhabitants of Roanoke were vulnerable to attack. Earlier expeditions to the site to check its suitability for a settlement had already stirred up conflict with the Secotan tribe. Perhaps the colonists were massacred in a face-off with local Native Americans who were resentful of the settlers' presence and the disruption of their way of life. 

There's also a possibility that Spanish forces traveled north from their territories in Florida and slaughtered the colonists during the ongoing tension between the two imperialist powers. Whatever the case may be, researchers are still searching for answers all these years later.