Lost Colony of Roanoke

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh gained a charter from Queen Elizabeth I authorizing him to establish a colony in the area now known as North Carolina. After an initial expedition by parties appointed by Raleigh, a second expedition led by Sir Richard Grenville in 1585 resulted in the establishment of a small colony at the north end of Roanoke Island. Grenville returned to England to bring more men and supplies by April, 1586, but when he failed to return by summer, a ship returning from the Caribbean brought the colonists back to England. Upon achieving his return, Grenville found the colony abandoned. 

Undaunted, in 1587, Raleigh dispatched more settlers to England’s first colony in America. Apart from their leader, John White, who Raleigh appointed Governor, the group was unaware of earlier conflict with native tribes. When they saw that the site had been completely vacated, they no longer wished to stay and settle the area. Roanoke lacked even the minor military presence Grenville was said to have left behind. All that greeted the newcomers was a chilling sight of skeletal remains. Barred from returning to the ships, the reluctant colonists persevered under White’s leadership. 

Later that year, White, having reestablished relations with the natives, left his family and followers to sail to England, plead for further support, and bring back desperately needed supplies. Meanwhile, England was at war with Spain, which delayed everything and endangered travel by sea. Despite White’s best efforts to accomplish his objective, the ships White hired in 1588 were plundered and forced to return to England. It was not until 1590 that he was able to return to Roanoke. On arrival, August 18, 1590, White discovered that the settlement had been abandoned. 

By prearrangement, if the colonists relocated due to hostile forces they were to carve a Maltese cross into a tree. Instead, they had carved the word “Croatoan” into a post and the letters CRO into the tree. White’s interpretation of the carvings—and buildings that had been dismantled rather than destroyed—was that the colonists had moved to Croatoan Island. A hurricane, however, prevented him from sailing there and pressed him to return to England. At least White felt assured that the colonists had not been attacked by Indians or Spaniards. They had merely moved.

Nevertheless, Roanoke soon became known as the Lost Colony, and in the absence of absolute proof of the colonists’ fate, rumors spread, a legend grew, and speculation has persisted down to today. Were the colonists cannibalized by Indians or massacred by Spaniards? Did they use remaining ships in a failed attempt to go back to England? Did they move westward onto the mainland as earlier planned? Did they all die of some dread disease? Were they abducted by space aliens? Challenged to solve yet another centuries-old mystery, PluribusOne™ examined the various theories and came away surprised that this “lost colony” legend has managed to survive for so long. 

Sometimes the simplest, most obvious, and most readily-evidenced answer—although unexciting—is the correct one, and it is our opinion that this is the case with the Roanoke mystery. The settlers were compelled by climatic conditions and absent provisions to seek safe haven among the Indians after having been deceived at the outset of their New World adventure and then effectively abandoned by their “civilized” society. By 1600 or so, biracial children being born on Croatoan Island constituted a new native breed. In time, why would any Roanoke survivor want to be “found” by the culture that had left them for dead? Why leave the tribe that had rescued them and become kin?

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2 Responses to “Lost Colony of Roanoke”

  1. Valiant Says:

    You may be aware that just yesterday it was announced in the media that a discovery has been made related to the Virginia Pars Map that John White made of Roanoke and contiguous environs in 1585. Two patches have been found on the map. One patch appears to have covered up and corrected an error in drawing the shoreline, but the other patch covers a symbol apparently denoting the location of a fort on the mainland. The thinking now is that the colonists proceeded to that location and settled there.

  2. PluribusOne™ Says:

    We have two explanations for the map: (1) the map was changed because England’s plans changed, and/or (2) the map was intended to be shared with two or more audiences, each having a different “need to know”—i.e., Raleigh, the Queen, military commanders, and the colonists. Neither explanation overrides the evidence that White found in 1590 and his conclusion regarding the whereabouts of the colonists.

    Perhaps this was simply a “working map,” the unblemished version having been, in effect, a first draft that required later correction (the shoreline). If the original plan to establish a large fort (at the point of the second patch) was downsized or abandoned, then that patch indicates another correction. Such updating would, however, indicate a downsizing of the plan to establish colonies in the New World—not likely.

    It is more likely that the map was considered a document containing secret governmental planning and military intelligence. White probably used patches to hide the location of a planned fort and mask defense-related aspects of the terrain. Even if the map were to be shown only to Raleigh and the Queen, the plan for, and location of, any fort is likely to have been covered-up in case the map were to fall into the hands of the Spaniards. Nor would this information have been shared with rank-and-file colonists.

    Did any of the colonists or their children or grandchildren ever relocate to the vicinity of the planned fort? It seems probable that in time some would have moved to that area as well as other surrounding areas. Interplay among the tribes was dynamic (a DNA-testing project is underway that will provide more evidence). We are not suggesting that the colonists made Croatoan Island their permanent home, but they obviously lacked the tools and other supplies to pursue building a fort.

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