The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Sometime between 1587 and 1590 the population of the first English colony in the Americas vanished, almost without trace. The group of 117 colonists disappeared after three years elapsed without supplies from the Kingdom of England during the Anglo-Spanish War, leaving behind the cryptic message ‘CROATOAN’ carved onto a timber post. In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh, was awarded by Queen Elizabeth a licence to establish a colony of the area of North America known as Virginia. He promptly dispatched an expedition to the newly claimed territory. The good relations with the natives that were established and the favourable reports brought back induced him to dispatch a colonising party, and in 1585 the first English colony in America was established on Roanoke Island (now in North Carolina).

Raleigh’s first colony, under the captaincy of Ralph Lane, did not fare well. They struggled to find enough food and soon fell out with neighbouring tribes. They waited impatiently for the return of their supply/relief fleet, and when Sir Francis Drake called in at the colony on his return from raiding the Spanish Caribbean in April 1586, they decided not to wait any longer and gratefully accepted his offer of a lift home. In fact they missed by only a short while the actual resupply fleet, under Sir Richard Grenville. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville decided to return to England but left a force of 15 men to maintain England’s – and Raleigh’s – claim to the area.

In 1587 a second group of colonists assembled by Raleigh stopped off at Roanoke Island to check on Grenville’s men. A landing party came ashore and made a grisly discovery: the only traces of the 15 were the bones of a single man. The one local tribe of Native Americans who were still friendly – the Croatans from nearby Hatteras Island – later explained that the small group had been attacked and the nine survivors had sailed off up the coast in their pinnace (small boat), never to be seen again. In fact the new colonists did not intend to re-establish the Roanoke colony and had their sights set on the mainland Chesapeake Bay area (where the plan was to establish the ‘Cittie of Raleigh’). But the commander of the ships that had brought them, Simon Fernandez, refused to take them any further, claiming that he would miss his window of favourable weather to make the return trip across the Atlantic.

On 22 July, Raleigh dispatched another group of 117 colonists. In all there were 91 men, 17 women and 9 children, under the leadership of John White, a friend of Raleigh’s who had been the official artist on the original colonising expedition and would have been familiar with the area. They set to work rebuilding the colony. On 18 August, White’s daughter gave birth to a girl, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas. But the tense relations with the natives, epitomised by the murder of a settler who was out gathering shellfish, prompted the colonists to elect to send Governor White back to England with Fernandez to petition for more support and supplies. He set sail on 28 August. White was never to see his family again.

White made every effort to get back to America as quickly as possible but was dogged by bad luck.War broke out with Spain and almost all available ships were requisitioned to protect England against the onslaught of the Armada. By the time White made it back to Roanoke, travelling with a small squadron of three ships under Captain Abraham Cooke, it was August 1590. A landing party, including White (who recorded the episode in his journal), went ashore, ‘& sounded with a trumpet a Call, & afterwards many familiar English tunes of Songs, and called to them friendly,’ but no response was forthcoming. At the north end of the island they found the site of the colony. The first sight that greeted White was an odd one. On a tree on a sandy bank were carved the letters ‘CRO’. Further on they came to the remains of the actual settlement. A palisade of wooden timbers had been erected since his departure, but within it, all the houses had been taken down, and the only things left behind were some heavy lumps of lead, iron and iron ore. Carved onto one of the timbers of the palisade was the legend ‘CROATOAN’. In fact the apparently cryptic code reassured White greatly.

As he explains in his own account, he had agreed with the settlers that the most sensible plan was not to stay on the island but to move, preferably ‘50 miles into the maine’ (ie 80 kilometres/50 miles inland on the mainland). They had prearranged that if they were to move they would let White know where they had gone by making just such a carving as ‘a secret token’. If they were in distress, they were to carve over the letters a Maltese (eightpointed) cross – there was no such cross, so White assumed that the settlers were safe and had simply followed his instructions.

Exploring further,White and his companions found that several chests buried on his departure were still there, although they had apparently been opened and many of the contents thrown around. This he interpreted as evidence that the colonists had taken whatever they needed and that the Native Americans had come along later and discarded items they did not understand. The boats that had been left with the colony were also absent. White was confident that the inscriptions on the tree and timber indicated that the colonists had taken refuge with the friendly Native American tribe, the Croatans, on Hatteras Island. This was not exactly what they had agreed to on his departure, but it made perfect sense.

The next day he and Captain Cooke agreed that they would make the short voyage to Hatteras Island, but fate and the elements intervened. Two of their cables (the lines attaching the ship to the anchor) broke and they narrowly avoided running aground, only for a hurricane to blow up. The ships were forced to abandon their attempt to reach Hatteras and had to return to England.

Raleigh’s patent to exploit the territory of Virginia lapsed in 1590, which may explain why he temporarily lost interest in organising further trips to America. White eventually had to reconcile himself to the fact that he would never see his family again. He retired to his estate at Killmore in Ireland. But it was generally assumed that the Roanoke colony, aka White’s company, had survived and was still out there. Raleigh himself sponsored expeditions that were partly intended to look for them in 1602 and 1603, but both were sidetracked.

Over the next few hundred years several visitors reported encountering or seeing people who looked or spoke English, or at least Native Americans who seemed to have Caucasian characteristics and a familiarity with English and Christianity, but no one was ever able to definitively claim that they had located the Lost Colonists. It seemed that 117 people had vanished, leaving a persistent mystery.

There are multiple hypotheses as to the fate of the colonists. The principal hypothesis is that they dispersed and were absorbed by either the local Croatan or Hatteras Native Americans, or another Algonquian people; it has yet to be established if they did assimilate with one or other of the native populations.

Another explanation is that they could have been killed by hostile Native Americans or starved to death. The first attempt at colonising Roanoke Island failed to feed itself adequately. Perhaps the Lost Colonists simply ran out of food and were not familiar enough with local agricultural or foraging to cope. This explanation seems much more probable since the publication of a 1998 study on tree rings from old growth trees in the area. Conducted by the Tree-Ring Laboratory of the University of Arkansas’ Department of Geography, the study showed that 1587–1590 saw the region’s worst period of drought in the 800 years from 1185–1984. If starvation had killed the colonists in Roanoke, however, White would probably have found the remains of the colonists on the site, and the colony itself would not have been carefully dismantled and stripped of most of its portable equipment. If the settlers did starve, they evidently didn’t do it on Roanoke Island.

The most widely accepted explanation for the fate of the colonists is that they were killed by Native Americans, but only after leaving Roanoke Island. The primary source to back this up is Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony. He had dealings with the hostile Native American King Powhatan (father of Pocahontas) and was specifically told by him that a group of white men had settled amongst friendly Chesapeake Indians on the south side of Chesapeake Bay – where they had originally intended to found the ‘Cittie of Raleigh’ before being dumped on Roanoke. Feeling increasingly threatened by the incursions of white men into his territories, and also hostile to the Chesapeake Indians who were not part of his confederacy, Powhatan had launched an attack and claimed to have killed most or all of the white men. He backed up his claim by producing for Smith’s inspection ‘a musket barrell and a brass mortar, and certain pieces of iron that had been theirs’.

This may not be the end of the story, however, as there is a lot of evidence that some colonists were assimilated into a Native American tribe in the Roanoke area, possibly because they did not join the group who went to Chesapeake Bay. The most probable candidates are the Croatan Indians. The colonists had good relations with them, and in particular with their chief, Manteo, who had previously travelled to England and become a firm ally of the English. Plus, of course, this location is suggested by the colonists’ final message, ‘CROATOAN’.

It is now thought likely that some of the colonists stayed behind on Roanoke and later joined up with the Croatans on Hatteras Island, leaving the message for White to find, but that the collective was then forced to move to the mainland by the drought. The settlers and the Croatans then intermarried and eventually became known by a different name. Some of the strongest evidence for this scenario is the tale of the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina. In the 19th century it was widely put about that the Lumbee were indeed descendants of the Lost Colony, and it was argued that their accents, appearance and many of their names clearly indicated this. Since then, this idea has gone in and out of fashion.

Some anthropologists have argued that the 19th-century attribution was based on confused interpretation of the actual Lumbee ethnogenesis, which saw them migrate from the Roanoke area in the 18th century, and that Lumbee names do not resemble those of the Lost Colonists. More recently a DNA testing project has been launched to compare the Y chromosomes of Lumbee who share surnames with English people who might be descendants of the families who sent colonists to Roanoke. The whole issue is complicated by questions of race and segregation, for in the Lumbee area of North Carolina there was strict segregation until the Civil Rights era, and claiming mixed or white descent had important implications for personal and political treatment.

More plausible theories centre on the role the Spanish might have played. There was an established Spanish colony at San Augustin (now St Augustine) in Florida, and they were keen to stamp out English presence in the New World. In fact they did just this to other attempted colonies. It is now known that the Augustin colonists did hear about the Roanoke colony and that the Spanish did send out an expedition to reconnoitre and possibly destroy, but that when they arrived at Roanoke in June 1588, the colony was already gone. In other words it had survived in situ for less than a year.

In 1937 the story of the Lost Colony took an intriguing twist when a stone was found in a swamp, 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Roanoke Island. The Eleanor Dare Stone, as it was soon dubbed, bore carvings which, when deciphered, seemed to indicate that it was a message from Eleanor Dare (daughter of John White and mother of Virginia Dare), explaining to her father that the colonists had fled from Roanoke Island under attack from Native Americans. Over the next three years 40 more stones were discovered, apparently tracing the colonists’ epic journey from Carolina to Georgia. The stones created a media sensation but were revealed in 1940 to be an elaborate hoax.

A team of researchers called the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research (LCCSR) think that it is. They have used a mixture of old and new techniques to attempt to locate and excavate the sites that the colonists might have occupied or passed through. Their first major coup was identifying the site of the original Croatan settlement on what was then Hatteras Island. Excavations revealed a late-16th-century signet ring that probably, to judge from the design of the crest on the seal, belonged to one of the original Roanoke colonists (ie the Lane party). This proved that the Croatan Indians of this site had had contact with the Roanoke settlers at some point.

The researchers then turned to the hypothesis that the Lost Colonists and the Croatans joined up and moved inland, with a particular focus on John White’s comment that the agreed plan had been to move ‘50 miles into the maine’. By looking at old land deeds they uncovered evidence that seemed to show that a group of descendants of Croatan Indians had owned land at a site called Gum Neck – precisely 80 kilometres (50 miles) inland from Roanoke Island, and one of the few sites suitable for settlement in an area that was previously swampy.

For the moment the theories regarding the relocation of the Lost Colonists to Chesapeake Bay and mainland North Carolina are unproven. But they fit with the available evidence, and in particular with the suggestive tales of encounters with apparent European descendants in the area. Archaeological research, guided by remote-sensing technology such as airborne radar and magnetometer scanning, may eventually pinpoint the exact location.

The "Lost Colony" and its fate, particularly the baby Virginia Dare, have had a significant effect on American popular culture. Numerous books and articles (ranging from scholarly to improbably romantic) have been written on the subject, and a number of places have been named Roanoke, Raleigh and Dare.

Phil Evans – who helped to found the First Colony Foundation, a group of historians and archaeologists who are looking on Roanoke itself for the precise site of the Lost Colony, which has been lost through neglect and the shifting sands of the area – comments, "As long as the Lost Colony is unexplained, it stays fascinating for a lot of people … I don’t want to take away the mystery. That’s what makes it different and exciting."

Sources :
Lost Histories : “Exploring the World’s Most famous Mysteries” by Joel Levy;

Pic Source :


Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite bits of early American history.

David Funk said...

I live about six hours away from where this took place, and it is indeed one of the most recognized and unsolved mysteries around.

Personally, I think the drought did drive them away from Roanoke, and they eventually joined up with one of the Croatan Indians.

This is a good topic of debate.

Powered by Blogger.