Nestled in the annals of American history, a question mark hangs over the mysterious disappearance of a community of English settlers known as the “Lost Colony”. The events that transpired in Roanoke Island remain a captivating mystery that has puzzled historians for centuries. Roanoke, in today’s North Carolina, was the site of the first attempted establishment of a permanent English settlement in the New World.
In 1587, an expedition led by John White and financed by Sir Walter Raleigh founded the Roanoke Colony. The group consisted of 117 settlers including men, women, and children. White, appointed governor, returned to England later that year to gather additional supplies for the struggling settlement. However, his return to Roanoke was delayed due to the Anglo-Spanish War, and he did not make it back until 1590. Upon his return, he found the colony deserted with no sign of the settlers.
The only trace left behind was a word “Croatoan” carved on a wooden post and the letters “CRO” etched on a tree. From that point forward, the whereabouts and fate of the Lost Colony became one of the most enduring mysteries in American history. This article will attempt to dive deep into the mystery of Roanoke, examining the early history, the puzzling disappearance, the theories around what might have happened, and what Roanoke is like today.
The early history of Roanoke
Roanoke’s early history begins with the English expeditions financed by Sir Walter Raleigh in the late 16th century. England, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, was keen to establish a permanent settlement in the New World, partly to counter the expansion of the Spanish Empire and partly in the hope of finding gold.
The first group of settlers arrived in 1585 but struggled to survive due to harsh weather, lack of food, and strained relations with the local Native American tribes. This first colony eventually abandoned Roanoke, returning to England with Sir Francis Drake in 1586. Nonetheless, Raleigh, undeterred by the initial failure, sponsored a second expedition in 1587.
Roanoke held strategic significance for the English settlers. Its location provided an ideal base for privateering raids against Spanish ships. Additionally, it had fertile soils, abundant fish and game, and access to timber for construction. However, the area was fraught with challenges including weather unpredictability and occasionally hostile relations with indigenous populations.
The second group of 117 settlers led by John White arrived in Roanoke in 1587. They found the island deserted, with the remains of the previous settlement overtaken by nature. Undeterred, they decided to establish a new colony, hoping to succeed where the previous expedition had failed.
The Roanoke Mystery
The mystery of Roanoke starts with the disappearance of its settlers. When White returned in 1590, he expected to be greeted by a flourishing colony. Instead, he found it eerily deserted. The dwellings had been carefully dismantled, suggesting an organized departure rather than a rushed escape. There were no signs of a violent struggle or any of the expected hardships that might explain a sudden abandonment.
Even more puzzling, White found the word “Croatoan” carved into a wooden post and the letters “CRO” on a tree. Despite promising to leave a sign indicating their destination if they had to leave, no other clues were found to point to where the colonists had gone. The lack of bodies, artifacts, or any other evidence of what might have happened added to the intrigue.
The fate of the settlers was never determined, and they became known as the “Lost Colony”. The story of their disappearance transformed into an enduring mystery, fueling speculation and theories. The settlers seemed to have vanished without a trace, leaving behind only a cryptic message and a series of unanswered questions.
The mystery deepened over the centuries as various efforts to locate the lost colonists or any sign of a struggle failed. Early excavations in the 19th century and more recent archaeological projects in the 21st century have unearthed artifacts of Native American, European, and even possible Roanoke colony origin. Yet none have definitively linked to the Lost Colony.
Why was the word Croatoan carved on a tree in Roanoke?
The carving of “Croatoan” remains one of the most intriguing aspects of the Roanoke mystery. Croatoan was the name of an island south of Roanoke, now known as Hatteras Island, inhabited by a Native American tribe of the same name who were allies of the English. The settlers had agreed with White that they would leave a sign if they moved and carve a Maltese cross if they left due to danger.
However, no cross was found, and the message was simply “Croatoan”. This has led many historians to theorize that the colonists may have moved to Croatoan Island. White himself believed this to be the case and planned to search the island, but harsh weather and a lack of resources forced him to abandon his search and return to England.
The lack of a cross and the presence of the word “Croatoan” suggest that the settlers left voluntarily and possibly in a state of calm. However, without further evidence or accounts, the true meaning and implications of this message remain a subject of speculation and debate.
What really happened at Roanoke?
Several theories have been put forward to explain the disappearance of the Roanoke settlers. One theory suggests that the colonists, facing food shortages and harsh winters, integrated with local Native American tribes for survival. This theory is backed by reports from later settlers who claimed to have encountered Native Americans with European features and goods.
Another theory proposes that the colonists tried to return to England on their own but were lost at sea. Given the dangers of transatlantic travel at the time, this is certainly plausible, though there is little concrete evidence to support it.
Some speculate that the Spanish, who were not far in Florida, may have attacked the settlement. However, the lack of signs of violence at the abandoned colony site makes this theory less likely.
More recent archaeological investigations have suggested that the colonists might have attempted to split up and move inland. Artifacts that could link to the Roanoke colonists have been discovered at various sites inland from the original settlement.
Despite the many theories, the truth remains shrouded in mystery. Each theory has pieces of circumstantial evidence supporting it, but none provide a complete answer. The fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke continues to be one of history’s unsolved puzzles.
What Roanoke is like today
Today, Roanoke Island is a vibrant community that embraces its historical significance. It is part of Dare County, North Carolina, and home to the town of Manteo. The history and mystery of the Lost Colony are integral to the identity of the place.
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves the location of Roanoke Colony. Here, visitors can learn about the history of the English settlers, their interactions with the Native Americans, and theories about the colony’s disappearance. The site includes a visitor center with exhibits and a pathway to a monument marking the believed settlement location.
Moreover, each summer, the outdoor drama “The Lost Colony” is performed at the Waterside Theatre in Manteo, telling the story of the ill-fated Roanoke settlers. The mystery of Roanoke continues to be a topic of fascination, studied by historians and archaeologists hoping to one day uncover the truth. Despite the passage of time, the legacy of the Lost Colony endures, a poignant reminder of the early attempts at settlement and the enduring mystery they left behind.