In the early days of the New World, a band of settlers arrived on an island off the coast of North America. But within three years, they had vanished, their fledgling colony left abandoned. So where did they go? For centuries, the fate of the inhabitants of Roanoke has remained a mystery. But now, the truth might finally have been revealed.
Many years ago governor John White left Roanoke on a mission to source much-needed supplies. But by the time that he returned, the rest of the settlers – including members of his own family – were nowhere to be seen. So what happened? Even today, the fate of the missing inhabitants remains one of American history’s most enduring puzzles.
Did the settlers perish in a violent battle with the forces struggling for control of the New World? Or did they starve as they waited in vain for Smith to return? Perhaps, alternatively, they survived, abandoning Roanoke for pastures new? Whatever the truth, it has remained elusive – until now, perhaps.
In October 2020 a new chapter in this fascinating story began to unfold. According to the First Colony Foundation, a research group based in North Carolina, evidence has emerged that sheds a new light on the settlers’ ultimate fate. So has the mystery of Roanoke been solved once and for all?
The story of the lost colony began in May 1587 when a group of English settlers set sail for Roanoke Island. A small spit of land off the coast of what is now North Carolina, it had already been the setting for one community, established some two years previously. But, perhaps tellingly, that earlier venture had failed and most of its inhabitants had evacuated back to their homeland.
Undeterred, the second group of settlers arrived on Roanoke Island in July 1587. As previously mentioned, they were led by a man called White: he had been a member of the first, aborted colony. According to the records, there were 115 men, women and infants among their ranks, including the governor’s daughter, who was expecting a baby of her own. And before long, she would give birth to the first English child born in North America.
But just ten days after this momentous occasion, White was forced to leave the fledgling colony behind. Supplies, it seems, were dwindling, and he needed to return to England to drum up additional resources. So, towards the end of August, the governor left his family on Roanoke Island and embarked on the long journey across the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, White’s trip took far longer than he had anticipated. Back in England, he found his mission sidelined by the threat of the Spanish Armada, intent on invading the British Isles. Eventually, after two years, Sir Francis Drake’s forces vanquished the enemy and the governor of Roanoke could finally return.
By the time that White arrived back on the island, though, some three years had passed. And instead of a thriving settlement, he found a colony that was abandoned and overgrown. But where had the people, who included the governor’s own granddaughter, gone? It’s a mystery that continues to haunt America to this day.
On closer inspection, though, it seemed as if the people of Roanoke hadn’t quite disappeared without a trace. Almost as famous as the eerily deserted colony, in fact, is the message that the vanished inhabitants apparently left behind. Carved into a tree, White found the word “CROATOAN” spelled out in capital letters. And nearby, another trunk bore a similar legend: “CRO.”
But before White and his men could investigate any further, a dreadful storm hit the abandoned settlement. And with their ships damaged, they had little choice but to turn around and head back to England. There, the governor of Roanoke lived out the remainder of his days, unable to raise enough money to return to the New World and seek out his missing kin.
So what happened? Over the years, a number of different theories have emerged to account for what White found when he returned to the colony. One of the most popular, though, is the idea that the settlers abandoned Roanoke and relocated to Croatoan Island some 50 miles to the southeast.
Of course, this idea is seemingly supported by the carved messages that the colonists left behind. But why would they have chosen to leave Roanoke in favor of Croatoan, which is known as Hatteras Island today? According to some experts, the settlers may have found themselves struggling to survive without resources in a foreign land.
So, the theory goes, the inhabitants of Roanoke chose to join forces with the Hatteras people living on Croatoan. Certainly, the natives’ knowledge of the region would have helped the colonists to survive as their supplies dwindled to nothing. In fact, some believe that White’s descendants, along with the rest of the settlers, simply blended themselves into the indigneous tribe.
Interestingly, this theory was lent further credence in the early 18th century, when the English explorer John Lawson arrived in North Carolina and visited the Hatteras people. When he spoke to them, it seems, he was startled to discover that some of their number claimed to have a partly Caucasian heritage. In fact, some of the people he encountered had gray eyes, which would certainly appear to suggest some kind of European genetic influence.
Were these people the descendants of the original Roanoke colonists? Lawson seems to have believed so. In his 1709 book A New Voyage to Carolina, he theorized that the colonists had abandoned all hope of White’s return. Instead, he concluded, they had chosen to secure their future in North America by intermarrying with the Hatteras people.
But this is far from the only theory that has been put forward to explain what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke. According to legend, later colonists in the region embarked on a mission to find out the fate of their predecessors. And eventually, they met a chief of the Powhatan people.
Unfortunately, though, the story he had to tell them was grim. Apparently he had slaughtered the colonists, possibly in an attempt to avert predictions from native holy men about threats to his people from foreign marauders. But while the story is certainly a dramatic one, there is little in the way of hard evidence to support this version of events.
So were the Roanoke colonists wiped out by hostile natives? Or did they merge peacefully with the Hatteras people? Or, perhaps, did something else altogether occur? In the 1930s the playwright Paul Green was researching a piece about the mystery when he realized that the Spanish had recorded the settlement in great detail. Could the rival empire, then, have launched an attack on the unprepared settlers?
Yet another theory, meanwhile, posits that the colonists tired of waiting for supplies and resolved to attempt the return trip to England unassisted. Certainly, they were in possession of a ship and possibly sailors capable of making the voyage. But if they did embark on such a mission, they were lost without a trace.
Despite all this speculation, though, there has never been a definitive answer as to what happened to the people of Roanoke. But then in 2012 researchers discovered something interesting about an artifact in the British Museum. Known as the La Virginea Pars map, it was painted by White himself back in 1585.
Showing some of the early colonies along the eastern coast of North America, the map includes the fledgling settlement on Roanoke Island. But when a team from the First Colony Foundation took a closer look, they discovered something unexpected. There, on the surface of the ancient paper, were two mysterious patches.
Intrigued, the researchers shone a light through the map, and that was when they spotted it: a secret symbol hidden beneath one of the patches. In the shape of a star with four points, it is thought to represent the location of a fort some 50 miles northwest of Roanoke. Might, the team reasoned, this previously-unknown location have been where the colonists ended up?
After all the spot, dubbed Site X, was near to an indigenous settlement, and the Europeans are known often to have established their towns in similarly-positioned locations. But to really get to the bottom of the matter, the First Colony Foundation needed to conduct a proper excavation. And so, a team headed by archaeologist Nick Luccketti arrived in North Carolina’s Bertie County in 2015.
Before long, the team had stumbled upon something promising. Although they could find no evidence of any kind of fortification, they did uncover more than 20 fragments of pottery that appeared to be English in origin. Moreover, the shards were similar in appearance to those unearthed at Roanoke Island itself.
Of course, the area surrounding Site X was eventually populated by English colonists moving south from Jamestown in Virginia. But this didn’t occur until the latter half of the 17th century, and the pieces of pottery are thought to pre-date this migration. This seems to suggest, then, that the artifacts were left behind by Europeans who traveled to North Carolina before the first known settlers. Could they have been brought there from Roanoke?
Using ground-penetrating radar, Luccketti and his team tracked down another potential site of interest just two miles away. And in December 2019 they returned to conduct additional excavations. There, just as in the previous location, they unearthed pieces of European pottery believed to date from the time of the Roanoke colony.
According to reports, the fragments at what became dubbed “Site Y” are thought to have come from a number of different locations. Among them, experts believe, are pieces of ceramic from north Devon, Essex and London in England, as well as stoneware from France and Germany. So how did they end up here?
According to the team, the pottery pieces came from jars that were utilized to keep and prepare food, indicating that they had once belonged to an established community. And while it is possible that they were left behind by later settlers, Luccketti and his team do not believe that is their likely provenance.
Strangely, one of the most convincing indicators that dates the pottery to the Roanoke era has to with pipes – or rather the lack of them. Apparently, the settlers and traders from Jamestown would have habitually smoked from distinctive clay vessels. But according to the excavators, none of these were found at either of the Bertie County sites.
“We are very confident that these excavations are linked to the Roanoke colonies,” a representative of the First Colony Foundation told the news website Artnet in November 2020. “We have considered all the reasonable possibilities and can find nothing else that fits the evidence.” But not everyone, it seems, is in agreement.
“I am skeptical,” archaeologist Charles Ewen, from East Carolina University, told National Geographic magazine in November 2020. “[The First Colony Foundation] are looking to prove rather than seeking to disprove their theory, which is the scientific way.” So if these pottery shards are not evidence of the colonists from Roanoke migrating to Bertie County, then what are they?
In a 2015 interview with National Geographic, archaeologist Brett Riggs had pointed out that the artifacts did not necessarily mean that Europeans had actually settled in Bertie County. In fact, the pottery could simply have been discarded, then later foraged by members of the indigenous community – only to turn up and baffle experts centuries on.
“Anything of utility they took back to their homes,” Riggs explained. “They would vacuum it all up.” Moreover, Ivor Hume, an archaeologist who once excavated Roanoke Island, added that it was problematic to attach such a precise timeline to the finds. He said, “I couldn’t date artifacts between 1590 and 1630. Did someone keep something for six weeks or six years? It is very hard to know.”
And that’s not all. According to Scott Dawson, who co-founded the Croatoan Archaeological Society, Bertie County would have been an unlikely destination for the lost colonists. Speaking to Artnet, he explained, “[It] was the heart of enemy territory. It is the last place they would go. They literally wrote down they relocated to Croatoan.”
And Dawson is not the only person who prefers the Croatoan theory over the idea that the colonists migrated inland. In 1998 archaeologists on Hatteras Island unearthed a golden ring inscribed with heraldic symbols, believed to be from 16th-century England. Could it have been brought as a treasured heirloom all the way from Roanoke?
It certainly seems possible. Since 2009 Dawson and his partner have been sponsoring excavations at a site known as Cape Creek on Hatteras Island. And over the years, they have recovered a number of European artifacts. Among these are part of a sword known as a rapier, an ingot of copper and stoneware from Germany, all discovered in a soil layer from the late 1500s.
Of course, it’s possible that these objects could simply have been bartered by the colonists, rather than brought with them to Hatteras Island. But excavators have also discovered personal items, such as a piece of slate marked with the letter “M.” Speaking to National Geographic, archaeologist Mark Horton speculated, “This was owned by somebody who could read and write. This wasn’t useful for trade, but was owned by an educated European.”
So did the lost colonists of Roanoke end up on Hatteras Island, in Bertie County, or somewhere else altogether? According to Ewen, the jury is still out. He said, “We still don’t know what happened, and we are waiting to be persuaded. I don’t think anything is off the table.”
But for some, the artifacts discovered by Dawson’s foundation have provided substantial evidence that the inhabitants of Roanoke headed inland. Speaking to Artnet, William M. Kelso of the preservation group Jamestown Rediscovery said, “What has been found so far at Site Y in Bertie County appears to me to solve one of the greatest mysteries in early American history, the odyssey of the ‘Lost’ Colony.”