A garrison of 15 men had been posted to the island to uphold England’s claim. But by the time a ship arrived bearing 115 colonists, the garrison was gone, the island was abandoned, and the only clue to the men’s fate was a single human skeleton. It was a bad omen, but since the colonists had disembarked, they were not permitted to return to the ship.
In the late 16th century, the New World presented significant opportunities for European expansion and commerce. The Roanoke Colony, popularly known as the Lost Colony, was founded by royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I to gain a strategic foothold in North America. From Roanoke Island – which is located in present-day North Carolina – it was hoped that English privateers would be able to launch attacks on Spanish treasure ships.
And so on March 25, 1584, Walter Raleigh was granted the charter to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories … to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy.” Raleigh, who was knighted by the Queen in the next year, was a notable explorer and an influential figure in the royal court. However, his attempt to colonize Roanoke was a historic failure.
The work began on April 27, 1584, when Raleigh sent an expedition to explore North America’s Atlantic coast. It returned with two indigenous Croatans, who divulged useful information about the area. On that basis, Raleigh organized a second expedition, led by Sir Richard Grenville. Grenville left 108 men on the island in August 1585, but when Sir Francis Drake visited in June 1586, all of them elected to leave.
The men chose to abandon the colony because Grenville had failed to return with promised supply ships in April as planned. When he finally did arrive, he found the island empty, so he set sail for England, leaving behind 15 men to guard it. And it was those men that a second contingent of colonists had expected to meet in July 1587.
Those 115 colonists were headed by an artist friend of Raleigh called John White. Assisted by Thomas Harriot, who notably documented the region’s flora and fauna, Governor White surveyed the area and established diplomatic contact with nearby tribes. According to a written report by Harriot to the English government, relations with those tribes were friendly and beneficial.
However, conditions at the colony soon began to deteriorate. Supplies dwindled. The colonists grew desperate. A colonist was murdered while hunting for crabs. In late 1587 the Roanoke colonists petitioned Governor White to sail back to England and beg help. Although crossing the Atlantic in the winter was a dangerous undertaking, he agreed, leaving behind his people.
White safely landed back in England but encountered problems organizing a relief fleet. First, the captain refused to sail until the spring. Then the Anglo-Spanish War broke out, diverting most of England’s vessels to the war effort. Nonetheless, White managed to commission two small ships, but these were subsequently captured by the Spanish. In the end, three years passed before White returned to Roanoke.
White disembarked on the island on August, 18, 1590 – the third birthday of Virginia Dare, his granddaughter, the first English child to have been born in America. However, White found the colony abandoned. There was no evidence of a fight or sacking. The buildings had been dismantled. And some 90 men, 17 women and 11 children had vanished without a trace.
White had told the colonists that in the event of a forced departure they should carve a Maltese cross on a tree. There was no such cross. However, there was a single word carved into a fence post: “CROATOAN.” Had the colonists relocated to Croatoan Island (today known as Hatteras Island)? White believed so, but inclement weather prevented him from exploring further. He departed the next day.
The fate of the colonists remains a long-running mystery. For 400 years, the orthodox explanation was that they were massacred. In 1607, Chief Powhatan informed Jamestown settler Captain John Smith that he himself had slaughtered the colonists who were then living with Chesepians – a tribe that refused to assimilate into the Powhatans. However, no physical evidence has been found to support this claim.
Nonetheless, the idea that the colonists integrated into a local tribe has been thoroughly explored by several historians. Dr. David Beers Quinn, for example, hypothesized that the colonists traveled north on small boats before assimilating with the Chesepians, as per mainstream accounts. Historian Lee Miller suggested that some colonists may have joined the Chowanoke.
If the Roanoke colonists did assimilate into a local tribe, is it not possible that they left descendants? In 1709, John Lawson wrote that the Hatteras tribe was partly descended from the colonists. “Several of their Ancestors were white People,” he wrote in A New Voyage to Carolina. “… which is confirm’d by gray Eyes being found frequently among these Indians, and no others. They value themselves extremely for their Affinity to the English…”
Lawson’s claim appears to validate White’s suspicion that the colonists relocated to Croatoan Island. Nonetheless, the Hatteras islanders are not the only people to claim Roanoke lineage. In the late 1880s, Hamilton McMillan, a state legislator for North Carolina, claimed that the indigenous inhabitants of Robeson County were directly descended from the colonists. Another claim linked them to the Saponi of Person County, another to the Catawba tribe, and another to the Coree.
In 1940 historians thought the mystery was solved when some 48 stones were found bearing messages apparently inscribed by White’s first daughter, Eleanor White Dare. Known as the Dare Stones, they described how the colonists took refuge in the Nacoochee Valley, assimilated into a local tribe and lived in “primeval splendor.” Despite an initial verification of authenticity from the Smithsonian Institution, the stones are now thought to be fake.
In 2011 a member of the First Colony Foundation was examining a map of Roanoke made by White when he noticed two paper patches. After placing the map on a light box, researchers identified a hidden symbol resembling a fort. Its location corresponded to Salmon Creek in the community of Merry Hill in Bertie County, causing some scholars to claim that the colonists had relocated there.
Archaeological excavations at the site have yielded pottery shards, a metal hook for stretching tents or hides, a storage jar, a copper tube and gun flintlocks. Nicholas Luccketti of the First Colony Foundation believes that these items once belonged to the colonists. However, physical evidence also links the group to Hatteras Island.
In 1998 East Carolina University excavated parts of the island and recovered what appeared to be 10-carat gold signet ring dating to the 16th century. Its crest depicted a lion similar to that on the Kendall family coat of arms, leading some to argue that it belonged a former colonist called Master Kendall, who was part of the first wave of settlers that departed with Francis Drake.
However, in 2017 archaeologist Charles tested the metallurgic content of the ring and discovered it was made of brass, not gold, casting doubt on the hypothesis. “Everyone wants it to be something that a Lost Colonist dropped in the sand,” Ewan told Smithsonian Magazine in April 2017. Instead, he thought that the ring was probably a mass-produced trinket traded with the tribe years after Roanoke colony.
It is doubtful that the mystery of the Lost Colony will ever be solved. However, the findings of climatologist David W. Stahle and archaeologist Dennis B. Blanton go some way to explaining why the colonists may have abandoned the island. According to their analysis of tree cores on Roanoke Island, the region suffered an intense three-year drought from 1587 to 1589. If true, the colonists had compelling reasons to leave. Where they went, however, remains a matter of fierce debate.