European History History North American History

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 7 Theories on What Happened

The Carte of All the Coast of Virginia [1]

On May 8th, 1587 Englishman John White, along with some 115 others (including his wife, his pregnant daughter Eleanor Dare, and his son-in-law Ananias Dare), left England for the Americas. The party arrived on Roanoke Island, off the coast of present-day North Carolina, just a few months later.

It is here that the Roanoke colony was established in July 1587, with John as their governor. The group was short on supplies and John was convinced to sail back to England for more in late August, expecting to return shortly.

(Side note: John’s daughter Eleanor had her daughter on August 18th, 1587 and named her “Virginia” in honor of her being the first Christian/English child born in Virginia – the first of Anglo-Americans.)

However, when John arrived in England that November he soon realized that that would not be the case. Though the Anglo-Spanish War had been going on for at least a couple of years by this point, the unofficial war was heating up – and Queen Elizabeth did not want any ship to leave England in case it was needed.

While John attempted to return to Roanoke several times during this period, he was ultimately unable to until August of 1590, some 3 years later. He was heartened to see “a great smoke rise in the Ile Roanoak neere the place where I left our Colony in the yeere 1587.” [2] But what he found upon docking was nothing less than shocking: the site had apparently been fortified, but everyone was gone – not a single soul remained.

WHERE DID THEY GO?

Sir Walter Raleigh
Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh [5]

The only clues they found were the word “Croatoan” carved into a wooden post and “Cro” carved into a tree. (Side note #2: “Croatoan” was the name of the nearby present-day Hatteras Island and a tribal group of Carolina Algonquians.)

John and those with him tried to investigate, to search for the missing souls, but were met with rough seas and an approaching storm. They lost the anchor to one of their two ships and seven of the 11 crewmen drowned. They planned to come back to search later on, but that never happened…and the colony of Roanoke remained lost.

Indian Chief Manteo

Sir Walter Raleigh, who had funded the expedition, had previously endeavored to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island in April of 1585 (the Lane colony, named after its governor Ralph Lane).

Commanded by Sir Richard Grenville (Raleigh’s cousin), the excursion was comprised of seven vessels and dozens of men, including Thomas Cavendish, Thomas Hariot, Philip Amadas, and our very own John White. They left the port of Plymouth on April 9, 1585 and arrived at their destination on June 26th. [3]

Upon landing the men immediately encountered the native Secotan Indians, an Algonquian people, with whom they would have a contentious relationship with during the short year they would spend with them. The hostility began soon after their arrival, when the English accused the villagers of Aquascogoc (one of the Secotan hamlets) of stealing and set fire to their homes and crops.

Following a number of hardships, the final straw for the colonists came when the Secotans, after refusing to sell them corn, planned to massacre them on June 10th, 1586. The English were able to thwart this scheme, in turn murdering all those who took part in planning it, and abandoned the colony soon after. With the help of Sir Francis Drake they withdrew on June 19th, arriving at their native Portsmouth on July 27th.

“Thus ended the first actual settlement of Englishmen in the New World.” [4]

So what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke? Some popular theories…

  1. They split up. This idea can stand alone or be applied to the rest of the following theories.
  2. The settlers assimilated into the society of the nearby Croatoans and/or other local Indian tribes. This theory is the OG, having been considered as early as 1605 by Jamestown colonists upon hearing reports of Europeans living among the Indians in the area. Additionally, a number of European objects, including a sword hilt, a gentleman’s ring, tobacco pipes, and a piece of a slate writing tablet, were recently found on Hatteras Island (~50 miles southeast of the colony) and further inward on the mainland (~50 miles northwest of the colony). Archaeologist Mark Horton believes that “the evidence [shows] that they assimilated with the Native Americans but kept their goods,” after splitting into two camps. [6]
  3. They were all killed by Native Americans…or Spaniards. After all, the land was originally the Native Americans’, and the Spanish had “claimed” the area before the English had.
  4. Everyone died off from famine or disease. Maybe…it’s plausible. Diseases such as smallpox, malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, diphtheria, and scarlet fever (to name a few) ran rampant once contracted. [7]
  5. The colonists perished at sea during a deadly storm trying to return to England or hurricanes and storms just wiped them out.
  6. The Dare Stones: Found in November 1937, a stone inscribed with a letter to John White supposedly from his daughter Eleanor Dare herself, details what happened to those left behind after White had left for England. The story written on the stone claimed that the colonists met with “Onlie Misarie & Warre” (only misery & war) for two years shortly after his departure, leading to the death of more than half of the group and leaving just 24 alive. They had moved inland toward the Chowan River (where the stone was found) and experienced further hardship when all (including Eleanor’s husband Ananias and daughter Virginia) “save seven” were executed by “savages” in 1591. Directions specify the location of a mass grave some 4 miles east of the river on a small hill and ask that the stone be placed there. Forty-seven other stones were then found by a stonecutter named Bill Eberhardt that continued the group’s narrative and move toward present-day Atlanta, Georgia through 1603. [8] Unusually, these additional stones were stylistically different than the first, peaking the interest of reporter Boyden Sparkes, who then exposed them all as fakes in 1941. [9] The first stone has yet to be proven, or disproven, as genuine.

7. Sites X & Y:

“Analysis [of John White’s Virginea Pars map] by the British Museum indicated that a patch at the junctino of the Roanoke and Chowan rivers covers the symbol of a Renaissance-style fort and to the north the dot indicating a Native American village. Additional scrutiny of the patch surface, moreover, revealed a different symbol, perhaps draw in invisible ink, and interpreted…as a fortified town.” [10]


This led archaeologists from The First Colony Foundation to investigate the area in question (“Site X”) located in present-day Bertie County, North Carolina in 2015. Though they only found a couple dozen pottery fragments at this site, ground-penetrating radar revealed another protentional location two miles away, north of Salmon Creek, dubbed “Site Y.”

The team had begun their excavation of Site Y in December 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and were able to find “many more” fragments of ceramic vessels (used for food preparation and storage), originating in different parts of Europe. [11][12] Some consider this evidence that a small number of the lost colonists settled in the area, but the claim has been disputed by others arguing that there is no way to know if these artifacts were left behind by this group or other colonists of the time.

John White’s 1585 La Virginea Pars Map

What do you think? Any ideas?

Anna


References:

[1] Theodor de Bry, The Carte of All the Coast of Virginia, 1591, Washington, D.C.

[2] Haywood J. Pearce, Jr., “New Light on the Roanoke Colony: A Preliminary Examination of a Stone Found in Chowan County, North Carolina,” The Journal of Southern History 4, no. 2 (1938): 148-163. https://doi.org/10.2307/2192000.

[3] Stephen B. Weeks, The Lost Colony of Roanoke: Its Fate and Survival. (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1891).

[4] Ibid 3.

[5] Nicholas Hilliard, Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh), c. 1585, watercolor on vellum, 4.8 x 3.8 cm (1.8 x 1.4 in.), National Portrait Gallery, London, Collection of People & Portraits.

[6] Andrew Lawler, “We Finally Have Clues to How the Lost Roanoke Colony Vanished: Artifacts suggest some members of ill-fated English settlement survived and assimilated with Native Americans,” National Geographic, August 7, 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/08/150807-lost-colony-roanoke-hatteras-outer-banks-archaeology/#:~:text=Now%20two%20independent%20teams%20say,Americans%20but%20kept%20their%20goods..

[7] Larisa R. Schumann, “Epidemics in Colonial North America, 1519-1787: A Genealogical Perspective,” Tully (NY) Area Historical Society News & Databases, https://www.tullyhistoricalsociety.org/tahs/medical.php.

[8] Atlas Obscura, “Dare Stones,” accessed January 21, 2021, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/dare-stones.

[9] Boyden Sparkes, “Writ on Rocke: Has America’s First Murder Mystery Been Solved?” The Saturday Evening Post 213, no. 43 (1941): 9-11.

[10] Phillip Evans, Eric Klingelhofer, & Nicholas Luccketti, “An Archaeological Brief for Site X: A Summary of Investigations of Site 31BR246,” https://www.firstcolonyfoundation.org/documents/site_x_brief.pdf.

[11] Sarah Cascone, “Archaeologists May Have Finally Solved the Mystery of the Disappearance of Roanoke’s Lost Colony,” artnet news, November 6, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/archaeologists-mystery-lost-roanoke-lost-colony-1921594.

[12] Catherine Kozak, “‘Lost Colony’ Moved Inland: Archaeologists,” Coastal Review Online, October 16, 2020, https://www.coastalreview.org/2020/10/lost-colony-moved-inland-archaeologists/.

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