The Settlement of Roanoke Island

Map of Roanake IslandIn 1587, a colony of 118 men, women, and children became one of the earliest attempts to colonize the new world – America.  Traveling from Britain to Roanoke Island, near Chesapeake Bay on North Carolina’s coast, they were the first true attempt at colonization of the New World.  Not long after settling, they became one of the Nation’s first great mysteries.

The colony, led by John White, settled on Roanoke Island, near Virginia.  John’s granddaughter, Virginia Dare, became the first American born in this new land.  But times were tough in the new world and supplies became scarce.  Ten days after Virginia’s birth, Simon Fernandes, a Portuguese sailor, was forced to return to England for more supplies.  After much protest, John White was ordered to return with him.  Leaving his wife, daughter (Eleanor Dare) and granddaughter behind, John boarded a ship and set sail for England.

John’s Arrival in England

Upon his arrival in England, John found that his mother country was engaged in a grave war with the Spaniards.  Force to assist in this wartime effort (and forbidden to set sail during the war), John was unable to return to Roanoke Island until three years later.

The Mystery

Map of Roanake Island with strange symbolsWhen John arrived back in the Americas on August 18, 1590, he could find no trace of the colony, no people, living or dead.  90 men, 17 women, and 11 children had simply disappeared.  Houses had been “taken down” and personal belonging were left in place as if the colonists simply vanished into thin air.  His only clue was a carving on a tree – ‘CRO’ was all he could decipher with certainty.

Before leaving the settlement, John had given specific instructions to the colonists.  If they left the settlement, they were to carve the name of their destination and a distinct Maltese cross into a tree.  Thinking that the 3 letters may have been a unsuccessful attempt to spell out the word CROATOAN, a nearby island, John attempted to sail to Croatoan (modern-day Hatteras Island) to search for his family and fellow Englishmen.  However, foul weather and a frightened crew kept him from venturing south to search for the colonists.  He was forced to return to England.  John never returned to the New World and the settlement earned the name, “The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island”.

Assimilation by Indian tribes

Several solutions to the mystery have been proposed, one of which is that the colonists were simply assimilated into local Indian tribes.  In 1709, an English explorer named John Lawson, visited Roanoke Island and spent time with the local Hatteras Indian tribe.  He wrote:

“Several of their ancestors were white people and could talk in a book as we do, the truth of which is confirmed by gray eyes being found infrequently among these Indians and no others.”

In the 1880’s it was noted that an Indian tribe in southeastern North Carolina, the Pembroke Indians, also claimed that their ancestors were from “Roanoke in Virginia”.  Some of the tribe members bore the same last names as some of the missing colonists.  In addition, many members of the tribe had Anglo features – fair eyes, light hair, and Anglo bone structure.


Migration to Albemarle Sound

Another solution proposes that the colony simply moved westward to Albemarle Sound, near the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers. Researchers noted strange symbols, barely legible, that may have been drawn in by the colonizers as they moved west.

The Virginea Pars Map – relocation to Salmon Creek

In May 2011, Brent Lane of the First Colony Foundation was studying the “La Virginea Pars” map, which was made by John White during his 1585 visit to Roanoke Island, and noticed two patches where the map had been corrected. The patches are made of paper contemporaneous with that of the map and contain “a large, square-shaped symbol with oddly shaped corners.” This symbol, presumed to represent a fort, is visible only when the map is viewed on a light box. Some scholars speculate that the colonists relocated to that location, on what is now called Salmon Creek in the Bertie County community of Merry Hill.

La Virginea Pars map - 1585 (John White)

The colony splits amidst controversy

In 2015, two independent teams found archaeological remains suggesting that at least some of the Roanoke colonists might have survived and split into two groups, each of which assimilated itself into a different Native American community.  One team excavated a site near Cape Creek on Hatteras Island, around 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of the Roanoke Island settlement, while the other searched on the mainland about 50 miles to the northwest of the Roanoke site.  In each case, British jewelry and other items were found in or around Indian camps.  However, the items could just as easily been stolen or taken by Indians during raids.

A fit of madness

Another theory holds the colonists became sick with a plague which caused madness, leading them to war and eventually killing and eating each other.  That the colonists were likely starving is without question so the theory cannot reasonably be ignored.  The theory is further supported by findings of noted Harvard Archeologist Lawrence Stager who claims to have unearthed evidence of mass cannibalism at the Roanoke site.

Under this theory, it is believed that the word “Croatoan” carved into the tree was an indication that the peaceful Croatoan’s (aka Hatteras Indians) would understand what happened to the colonists.  The Croatoans were known spiritualists who believed in spirit possession, demons (Wendigos), and often conducted ceremonies to raise the spirits of the dead to assist with the harvest.

Colonists murdered by Indians

Oddly, death by Indian attack is the least credible theory.  The English settlers were known to be friends with both the Roanoke and Croatan Indians.  Unless relationships broke down during the three years John was away in England, it is unlikely the Lost Colony were murdered by Native American Indians.

Death by climate factors

In 1998, a team led by climatologist David W. Stahle used tree ring cores from 800-year-old bald cypresses taken from the Roanoke Island area of North Carolina and the Jamestown area of Virginia to reconstruct precipitation and temperature chronologies.  The researchers concluded that the settlers of the Lost Colony landed at Roanoke Island in the summer of the worst growing-season drought in 800 years.

“This drought persisted for 3 years, from 1587 to 1589, and is the driest 3-year episode in the entire 800-year reconstruction,” the team reported in the journal Science. A map shows that “the Lost Colony drought affected the entire southeastern United States but was particularly severe in the Tidewater region near Roanoke Island.”

The discovery lead some to believe that the Roanoke Island settles had simply died from starvation.


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