Day 918: The Historically Misplaced Colony Of Roanoke Island

originally published July 6, 2014

While I’m anything but the most amateur of amateur historians, I’ve got a feeling that people went missing all the time in the 16th century. You dig yourself into some serious debt, maybe sleep with a nobleman’s wife or abscond with the goodies from the church collection plate, making yourself scarce would be a pretty easy feat. Got yourself murdered? Bad news for you – forensics don’t exist and if your killer knows even a little about properly hiding a body, you’ll simply make the ranks of the missing.

But how do 115 people disappear? Ruling out a violent attack (since there would be some leftover evidence of such) or a sudden collective yen for new surroundings, a mass vanishing of this scale has to turn some heads. Some four centuries years later, we still don’t know for certain what became of the residents of the Roanoke Colony.

There are theories, of course. And investigators are trying to use modern scientific gadgetry to uncover the mystery, but it’s not easy reconstructing an event when your only crime scene photos are a handful of 400-year-old etchings and there’s a good chance your archeological data may be presently sitting beneath a Walmart parking lot. But historians love a good challenge, so chances are this hunt will remain at the forefront of someone’s life’s work for the foreseeable future.

In March of 1584, Queen Elizabeth I decided it was time to slap down some English tootsies into the North American mud and start earning a profit and staking out some land. England was at war with Spain, and she thought North America would be a good vantage point from which they could mess with the Spanish treasure fleets. She put Sir Walter Raleigh on the job, which he immediately subcontracted because hey, Walter was a busy Sir and he had other things to do.

After a preliminary recon mission, Sir Richard Grenville departed with five ships in April, 1585, bound for Roanoke Island, located just off the coast of what is now North Carolina. After a little brouhaha with the Aquascogoc natives (they allegedly stole a silver cup, the colonists burned an entire village to the ground – fairly typical 16th century justice), a colony was set up at the island’s north end. Grenville left just over 100 men – and by ‘men’ I hope they mean ‘people’, otherwise it would have been a fairly dull place – and promised to return the following year with supplies.

The colonists were attacked (the Aquascogocs weren’t big fans of whitey-justice, I guess) but successfully repelled the natives. Still, when Sir Francis Drake happened by and offered to take everyone back to England, they all left. Sir Richard Grenville returned and found the colony deserted, and Drake (with the colonists on board) got credit for bringing potatoes, maize and tobacco to England.

Another fleet of about 115 colonists was dispatched in 1587. The new group made some friendly relations with the Croatoan tribe, but the Aquascogocs weren’t very welcoming. Around this time Virginia Dare, the first European child to be born in North America, entered the world as part of the Roanoke Colony. The colonists celebrated this event, but they weren’t feeling too comfortable in the crosshairs of a tribe that didn’t care for them. They spoke with John White, Virginia Dare’s granddad, a friend of Walter Raleigh’s and the man who had been appointed governor of the new settlement. White was sent back to England to ask for some support for the colony. That was the last time anyone would see the settlers, alive or dead.

This was a case of historically bad timing. Virtually every English ship was busy dealing with the Spanish Armada, and White was only able to scrounge a pair of unoccupied vessels to head back to Roanoke with supplies. They got greedy along the way and tried to capture a number of Spanish ships and seize the goodies on board, but wound up getting captured themselves and losing all the Roanoke supplies. It took until 1590 – another three years – before White could return. His crew landed on August 18, what should have been Virginia’s third birthday. They found no one there.

The colony had been instructed to carve a Maltese cross on a nearby tree if they were attacked and forced out of the settlement, but there was no cross to find – only the word ‘Croatoan’ carved into a tree. White figured this might have been a clue that the colony had relocated to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island), but bad weather made the voyage there impossible. For whatever reason, White’s party never went that way – they returned to England with nothing more than a big ol’ shoulder-shrug to show for their trip. Sir Walter Raleigh wanted answers. He dispatched an expedition to find out… twelve years later. He must not have wanted answers very badly.

The fate of the Lost Colony was ultimately never known. One theory was that the colonists looked for support from the Chowanoke people when the fighting got out of hand. These were 115 people with a handful of weapons and no backup – it’s not a big stretch to assume that they’d need some allies. A 1607 map drawn by Jamestown settler Francis Nelson supports this theory, as it describes “four men clothed that came from roonock” who were living in an Iroquois site on the Neuse River.

Right through the mid-18th century colonists encountered gray-eyed natives who claimed to be descendants of the Roanoke colony. The French Huguenots who formed settlements along the Tar River not far away from Roanoke Island reportedly met some Tuscaroras with blond hair and blue eyes. The nearest English settlement at Jamestown had no record of being attacked by the Tuscarora so there’s a solid chance those blondies were the children of a colonist-native union from the Lost Colony.

Of course there’s always the possibility that the colony had relocated and were subsequently massacred by an unwelcoming tribe. There was no evidence of any struggle on Roanoke, and no such relocated site has ever been found, but nature eventually washes away evidence. They may have also become so restless waiting for new supplies that they hopped on board their few boats and set sail for England, never making it there.

The Spanish were also searching for Roanoke; they’d heard the colony had been established by the English and wanted to wipe it out. But while the Spanish had successfully covered up the massacre of the French colony of Fort Charles a few years earlier, there was evidence that the Spanish were still searching for Roanoke in 1600, ten years after the colony had gone missing.

Archeologists are still digging around for clues, though coastal erosion has significantly wiped out a lot of the land they’d like to dig up. The Lost Colony DNA Project was launched in 2005, but it hasn’t produced any conclusive results. The Roanoke colony remains one of America’s oldest mysteries. As such, my inner skeptic is doubtful it will ever be solved. Some mysteries are too big and too old to land in the ‘solved’ pile.

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