The Lost Colony That Should Have Been Found

Were the colonists of Roanoke Island ever really “lost”?

Jamie Winfield
Sep 4 · 5 min read
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Governor White finds Roanoke Island deserted Wikimedia Commons

Founding the first permanent English settlement in the New World. That was the goal for the 117 colonists that landed on Roanoke Island in 1587. But just three years later, the colony was abandoned and the whereabouts of the remaining colonists was a mystery.

The expedition begins

Sir Walter Raleigh sponsored the enterprise to set up a permanent English settlement in the New World, hoping both for fame and to profit from the rumored riches of these new lands. Two exploratory expeditions, consisting only of men and largely military in nature, were sent in 1585 and 1586 to determine if the area was suitable and profitable.

The men explored Roanoke Island and the surrounding areas in what is today Dare County, North Carolina. These early parties suffered many setbacks due to lack of supplies and poor relations with nearby Native American tribes.

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Sir Walter Raleigh Wikimedia Commons

The Roanoke colony

Despite these early failures, Raleigh forged ahead with his mission and sent a full party made up of not only men, but also women and children. Most of these colonists were middle-class Londoners, likely hoping to become landed gentry in the New World.

The fleet set sail in May 1587 from Plymouth, England and landed in the Croatan Sound in July 1587. Governor John White led the group of 117 colonists as they begin to set up their new home. Low food supplies, poor weather, and testy relations with local Native American tribes also beset these new colonists as they attempted to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island.

Governor White made the decision to sail back to England to gather provisions and leave the colonists behind, including his daughter Eleanor and his newborn granddaughter Virginia. Virginia Dare is famous for being the first child born to English parents in the New World.

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Baptism of Virginia Dare Wikimedia Commons

The colony disappears

White promised to return by Christmas 1587 with much needed food stores and supplies. However, shortly after he arrived in England, the Spanish Armada delayed any sea traffic out of England and White was forced to put his return on hold for three years.

In 1590, Governor White finally returned to Roanoke Island. Upon going ashore, he found the settlement totally abandoned. Houses were dismantled. Any and all supplies had been stripped from the settlement. The only clues left behind — the word CROATOAN carved into a post and the letters CRO etched into a nearby tree.

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Recreation of tree from Roanoke Island Wikimedia Commons

With zero signs of struggle or attack, White attempted to get to the Croatoan settlement on nearby Hatteras Island to seek more information on the missing colonists. However, he was stymied by both poor weather and a snapped anchor cable on his ship. He was forced to return to England without discovering the whereabouts of his daughter, granddaughter, and over one hundred other English colonists.

The Lost Colony

In the years since the 1590 disappearance of the colonists of Roanoke Island, multiple theories have been posed to explain their whereabouts. Some say they were massacred by a hostile Native American tribe. Others theorize that they attempted to return to England and were lost at sea. Or even that the colonists were attacked by the Spanish, as part of an ongoing conflict with England.

But were the colonists of Roanoke Island ever really lost? Or were they right next door the entire time? Evidence dating back to the 17th century suggests that these English settlers never actually disappeared. It appears they simply moved in with their neighbors, the Croatoans.

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Watercolor by John White, 1585 Wikimedia Commons

Lost in plain sight?

Author John Lawson recounted stories about some unusual new members of Croatoan tribe in his 1709 book, A Voyage to Carolina. These accounts say that some among the tribe had light-colored eyes and could “talk in a Book” (write and speak English).

Digs on Hatteras Island reveal a mix of English and Native American artifacts on the same levels of soil. Pottery and arrowheads laying right next to metal clothing clasps and European weaponry. An examination of the post holes uncovered at a Croatoan settlement show both the round style favored by Native Americans for the long houses and the square style used by English settlers. All of this suggests that the colonists were living right alongside the Croatoan.

Based on archeological evidence and oral history accounts, the most likely explanation for the disappearance of the Roanoke Island colonists was that they took shelter with the local Croatoan tribe. At some point between late 1587 and 1590, we can surmise that the colonists reached a point where they could no longer maintain their settlement. Low food stores and a lack of supplies were a constant plague at the Roanoke Colony. Without the ability to feed and care for themselves, they turned to the Croatoan tribe for shelter and protection.

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Engraving based on drawing by John White Wikimedia Commons

Why was the colony never found?

A lack of funds, poor timing, and conditions conspired to keep Governor White and other explorers from venturing to the Croatoan settlement to locate the lost colonists. It’s also very likely that finding the colonists of Roanoke Island became a low priority as new settlements were founded in places like Jamestown and Plymouth.

But what is the danger in still calling Roanoke the Lost Colony? Archeologist Scott Dawson says that

You’re robbing an entire nation of people of their history by pretending Croatoan is a mystery on a tree. These were a people that mattered a lot.

Popular history must acknowledge the history of the Roanoke Island colonists as an important part of the early colonization of North America that impacted future settlements.

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Jamie Winfield

Written by

Writer | Major interests in History and Culture

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Jamie Winfield

Written by

Writer | Major interests in History and Culture

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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