The Roanoke Colony of 1585 was one of the first attempts by the English to establish a colony in North America. The English colonists set sail in April of 1585 and landed in modern-day North Carolina in July. In 1590, Queen Elizabeth sent another fleet of ships to relieve the desperately hungry and ill colonists. But the new ships arrived only to find that the Roanoke colony had been abandoned and not a single living person remained. No obvious signs or letters were left to indicate what occurred, and the circumstances of the colonists’ disappearance remains a mystery. But recent discoveries have lead archaeologists and historians to have a clearer answer to the question: what really happened to the ‘lost colony’ at Roanoke?
A Tough Start for the New Colony
Before the last known contact with the colonists, we know that they were having an extremely difficult time adapting to the land and the neighboring Native American tribes. Before the spot for the colony was officially settled upon, English colonists blamed the members of the nearby Aquascogoc tribe for stealing a silver cup. After the confrontation, members of the tribe supposedly burned down their camp in retaliation. Undeterred, the colonists kept exploring and finally decided to settle in an area on the north end of Roanoke Island.
One of the expedition leaders, Sir Richard Grenville, returned with some of the ships back to England. He promised to come back the next year with additional supplies. A year came and went with no relief ships and no word back on why they didn’t come. Surviving written records show that in June of that year, the Aquascogoc tribe attacked the settlement as issues between the tribe and colonists continued to erupt. Right after the attack, Sir Francis Drake, who had just raided and plundered in the Caribbean, stopped by the settlement before heading back to England. Finally, toward the end of 1586, the relief fleet arrived. Many of the original colonists had returned to England on Drake’s ships, but a small garrison of English soldiers were left in Roanoke to guard England’s first permanent colony.
The First Disappearance
More colonists were sent to North America in 1587 in hopes of establishing another permanent colony in the Chesapeake Bay area. They planned to first stop by Roanoke to pick up the soldiers left guarding the small fort and settlement, but they found not one single living English person left on the island. They could only find one skeleton, which they assumed was one of the English garrison soldiers. Instead of immediately heading to Chesapeake Bay, the ship’s main captain ordered that the colonists re-establish the colony at Roanoke. At the time, this was unexpected but records show that the captain had been told to issue such orders in this circumstance.
The colonists had a tough time cultivating and finding enough food to eat. The new colonists tried to establish friendly ties with the Aquascogoc, Croatan, and other nearby native tribes in hopes of learning more about local agriculture. However, relations seemed to be shaky at best- records show that multiple people were killed in various scuffles and confrontations with different tribes. The colonists begged their governor to return to England and explain their desperate situation. Governor John White sailed back to England that same year, but with England being embroiled in a naval war with Spain at the time, the English could spare no ships to make the journey back to North America. White managed to procure two small ships and supplies in 1588, but the boats were captured and their cargo stolen by the Spanish. With no supplies, White was forced to return to England.
Vanished into Thin Air
Because of the war, White could not manage to find any ships willing to sail to Roanoke until 1590. Only then could he find some privateering ships that agreed to stop off by Roanoke after plundering Spanish settlements in the Caribbean. When they landed on Roanoke Island in August of 1590, White returned to find no trace of the 115 people left behind and no evidence of a battle or violent struggle.
The only thing White found was the word “CROATAN” carved into a post in the fence that surrounded the village. “CRO” was also carved into a nearby tree. White had instructed the colonists to carve a Maltese cross on a nearby tree should they be attacked or otherwise forced to abandoned the settlement. However, White could not find the symbol anywhere. All of the houses had been neatly dismantled- not destroyed. Nor were there any skeletal remains to indicate rampant disease or death through violent means. Despite the lack of Maltese cross, White assumed that “CROATAN” meant that the settlers were forced to moved to the nearby Croatan Island. Unfortunately, poor weather prevented White from being able to search that area.
How Did the English Respond?
White quietly returned to England and spread the news that the Roanoke colony had disappeared. Given the lack of money and resources, little could be done in terms of evidence-gathering or possibly searching for the colonists. In 1602, Sir Walter Raleigh (one of the primary masterminds behind the English settlement of North America), privately funded a ship and crew to return to Roanoke Island and conduct a thorough search of the area. Unfortunately, weather prevented the crew from even landing on the island. By the time they returned, Raleigh had been arrested for high treason and was in no place to send another ship himself.
Another expedition was sent out in 1603, but the crew was attacked by Native Americans and was forced to leave prematurely. After Jamestown was established in 1607, settlers from that colony were able to seek out and acquire more information about the lost colony. Captain John Smith personally discussed the matter with Chief Powhatan, who supposedly admitted to slaughtering the colony. The Roanoake colonists had apparently allied themselves with the enemy of the Powhatan tribe, the Chesepians. For over 400 years, this was the accepted reason for the colony’s disappearance.
What Are the Current Theories?
For hundreds of years, historians accepted the explanation that Chief Powhatan had personally ordered the killing of the Roanoke colony. This story had been recorded by two independent sources- both Captain John Smith and William Strachey, the head secretary of Jamestown who had investigated the issue himself. This explanation prevailed for a very long time until archaeological studies came up with no evidence to suggest a massacre. No human remains were found anywhere nearby the settlement either immediately after the supposed massacre, nor hundreds of years later. Also, archaeological evidence does not suggest a sudden ransacking of Roanoke’s houses or structures. In other words, there was zero evidence of a violent struggle.
Around the 2000s, a popular theory suggested that colonists at Roanoke, facing serious food shortages, were forced to integrate with nearby Native American tribes in order to survive. This theory gained traction after some historians found numerous historical accounts of other later colonists finding blonde haired, blue eyed Native Americans. In the 1880s, a small community around Roanoke Island claiming both English and Croatan ancestry claimed to be the descendants of the Roanoke colonists. However, over time, a number of similar communities in the same area have claimed similar ancestry with little proof to back it up.
Other theories given less traction include the theory that Spanish ships secretly captured and killed the colonists. This isn’t entirely off-the-mark, considering that Spain had massacred both English and French settlements a few hundred miles away. However, Spanish records indicate that they had no idea where Roanoke existed until well into the 1600s. Climatologists have looked at the tree rings of an 800-year old cypress tree. They found that the tree’s rings around the late 1500s suggest that the area experienced an extremely severe drought- the worst drought in the tree’s 800 year-old life. Their findings led some historians to think that the drought may have caused colonists to venture out from the settlement in a desperate hunger.
Unfortunately, extreme coastal erosion has caused massive loss of archaeological evidence. A team of scientists have taken up the idea of testing DNA samples and matching it with migration patterns, local lore, and oral histories to discover whether the any of Roanoke’s colonists managed to survive. While we may never have a definitive answer for what happened to the colonists at Roanoke, modern science and historical study is slowly inching towards a clearer idea of it.
Katie Blank is a Content Moderator and staff writer for Sporcle. She is also a PhD student studying South Asian history. Her guilty pleasures include binge-watching The Office and going to every metal concert she can.