The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Near the end of the 16th century,
a man by the name of John White embarked on a transatlantic voyage. His destination was the island of Roanoke
along the southeastern coast of North America. On this island, White had established
an English colony some three years before and he was now returning
to resume his position as Governor. After a long and difficult journey,
White finally reached the site of the colony only to find the more than one hundred
men, women, and children he’d left behind had disappeared. A secret message carved into a tree was one
of the only clues left behind at the scene. Before White had a chance to conduct a more
extensive search, the ship returned to England and in its wake, it left a mystery. What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke? Before we can tackle the lost colony we first need to understand the events
leading up to its disappearance. The story begins in 1584 when two ships sailed across the Atlantic to scout for a suitable location for planting the first permanent
English colony in America. In mid-July, they made landfall on a string
of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. The English quickly developed friendly relations
with the local Native Americans and were soon invited to their village
on Roanoke Island. After about a month,
the scouting expedition returned to their ships and sailed back to England. Upon the expeditions return in late September,
the man in charge of the enterprise Walter Raleigh immediately began preparations to plant a
permanent colony somewhere along the Outer Banks. Raleigh was soon thereafter knighted
by Queen Elizabeth I and the new land was to be named Virginia
in honor of the Virgin Queen. In April of 1585, a fleet of seven ships departed
England with a complement of roughly 600 men and loaded with enough provisions
to sustain the colony for about a year. The fleet reached the Outer Banks at the end of June
but was soon faced with a crisis. Navigating the waters of the Outer Banks
can be notoriously treacherous as indicated by these sinking ships and when the flagship passed through
one of the shallow inlets it stuck a shoal
and was nearly destroyed. As the flagship carried the bulk of the provisions
and most of it was now spoiled by seawater the scope of the colony
had to be dramatically reduced. About 100 men, far fewer than initially intended,
were stationed on Roanoke Island and, with the native’s approval, they began construction
of what was to become the Roanoke colony. The island was primarily chosen
for its strategic value. It provided quick access to the ocean while still making the colony invisible
to Spanish patrols. You see, Spain had already colonized and laid claim
to much of what the English now called Virginia so they had to be careful
not to attract any unwanted attention. A second wave of supplies and reinforcements
was expected to arrive before the winter but, unbeknownst to the colonists the resupply mission
had been countermanded by the Queen to deal with more pressing concerns
back in England. As such, once the colonists ran out of food,
they had to rely on the generosity of the natives. However,
the natives only had so much to spare and struggled to meet
the increasing demands by the colonists. This overdependence
quickly began to strain their relationship. Meanwhile,
people had begun to notice a disturbing trend. Every time the English
visited a Native American village many of its inhabitants
would inexplicably collapse and die. The natives believed the English could kill
from a distance by shooting invisible bullets and they were not too far off. While unknown at the time,
the English were carrying deadly pathogens to which the natives lacked immunity,
and thus an epidemic was unwittingly unleashed
upon the indigenous population. The two leaders back on Roanoke colonial governor Ralph Lane
and Indian chieftain Wingina eventually grew so suspicious of one another
that cohabitation was no longer possible. Wingina decided to remove his people
from the island and retreated to a larger village
on the mainland. Meanwhile, Lane came to believe that
Wingina had formed an alliance with other tribes and that they were plotting
to launch an attack against the colony. Whether he was paranoid or not,
Lane decided to take preemptive action. On June 1, 1586, Lane and his men
made their way to the mainland village and massacred its people. One of the Englishmen chased after
and decapitated Wingina and his head was later impaled
outside the fort of the colony. A week later,
a large English fleet commanded by the renowned sea captain
Sir Francis Drake dropped by the Outer Banks
on its way back to England. Given the lack of food
and violent clashes with the natives it was decided
to abandon the colony. The colonists were hastily evacuated off the island,
and then, after nine long months they all returned home. All, except three,
who were not located in time for the evacuation and so the fleet left them behind. They were never heard from again. If the scouting expedition of 1584
had been a resounding success the colony of 1585
was a categorical failure. Relations with the Native Americans
had completely fallen apart the severe lack of food
had made life miserable and they had failed to track down
rumored sources of gold and copper which could have
made the venture worthwhile. In spite of all this,
at least one man was eager to return. His name was John White. White was a painter and artist by trade and many of the maps and sketches
that you’ve seen so far were either drawn by him
or based on his work. Somewhat ironically, however,
there are no surviving portraits of White himself. White’s participation in these earlier voyages
is slightly ambiguous. He may have been part
of the scouting expedition in 1584 but he was definitely part
of the voyage in ’85. What is a bit unclear
is whether he stayed behind at the colony or returned to England
with the outbound fleet. For instance, White’s name is not included
in a surviving list of all the colonists. But some historians
believe this is merely an oversight and that he was, in fact,
part of the colony. In either case, Sir Walter Raleigh
was eventually persuaded by White and others to attempt a second venture. Unlike the first colony,
which had been more akin to a military outpost the second would include women and children, including White’s pregnant daughter, Elenore Dare. After a long struggle
to secure the necessary funding a fleet of three ships, commanded by White,
who would also serve as Governor of the colony departed England in late-spring of 1587. The misfortune of the first colony
did not end with its evacuation in 1586. Only days later, a ship filled with provisions,
sent by Sir Walter Raleigh arrived at the Outer Banks. The crew spent some time searching for the colonists,
but when they found no sign of them including the three men that had been left behind,
they returned home. The same thing happened two weeks later
when an English-bound fleet loaded with supplies and reinforcements
also found the colony deserted. Unwilling to leave the colony vacant, however,
the Captain left 15 crewmen on Roanoke before the fleet
resumed course for England. John White had been told about the 15 crewmen
before he departed so when his fleet approached the Outer Banks
in late July of 1587 he intended to pay them a visit. But this is where things get confusing. You see, the second colony
was never intended to be established on Roanoke. After all, the long list of complications
encountered by the first colony made it clear that Roanoke
was far from an ideal location. Instead, the second colony,
or the Cittie of Raleigh as the man in charge
had so immodestly named it was to be planted
somewhere along the coast of Chesapeake Bay. This made a lot more sense. The water was deeper to allow for larger ships,
and not nearly as precarious as those around the Outer Banks. There was plenty of open space. The soil was more fertile, and, all around,
it seemed an improvement to Roanoke Island. But the fleet’s Portuguese navigator,
Simão Fernandes, had other plans. Fernandes had also been the navigator
of the two previous expeditions and was a far more experienced sailor
than White. So even though White
was officially the Captain it seems much of the crew
respected the authority of Fernandes. As such, when Fernandes decided
to ignore the plan about Chesapeake Bay and, instead,
simply dump the colonists on Roanoke White did nothing to challenge his decision. The rest of the crew quickly fell in line,
and, soon enough, everyone disembarked for Roanoke. Upon reaching the abandoned colony there was no sign of the 15 crewmen
they had come to assist. Instead,
they found a pile of bones that appeared to be the remains
of one of them. White suspected
the men had been attacked by vengeful Indians and any doubts he might have had
were soon to be erased. After only a few days on the island,
a colonist by the name of George Howe was attacked by a group of natives
who pelted him with 16 arrows before caving in his skull
with a wooden club. A brutal yet unmistakable message. The English were no longer welcome on Roanoke. Even so, the colonists were not without allies. You see, when the scouting expedition
returned to England in 1584 two Native Americans,
named Wanchese and Manteo were brought along with them. Wanchese was from Roanoke,
while Manteo was from a neighboring village on the island of Croatoan. When they were finally brought back
to North America in 1585 they had developed vastly different opinions
of the English people. As soon as they made landfall,
Wanchese returned to Roanoke with nothing but resentment
for these foreign invaders. Meanwhile, Manteo was fascinated
by everything the English had to offer. He became their trusted guide and a mediator of sorts
to smooth out relations upon first contact. So, following the death of George Howe,
White reached out to the Croatoans and they confirmed
what he’d initially suspected. A large group of Indian tribes had indeed
attacked the 15 crewman station on Roanoke. This coalition was spearheaded
by none other than Wanchese. At least two of the crewmen
had been killed in the attack while the rest escaped in a small boat,
never to be seen again. Roanoke had become
a much more dangerous place to live. Simão Fernandes remained anchored
near the Outer Banks for about a month before he decided to return to England. In the meantime, the colonists had grown concerned
about the long-term survival of the colony. If the colony
were to be truly self-sufficient, they argued they would require more people
and more food. As such, they implored Governor White
to return to England with Fernandes so that he could bring back supplies
and restock the colony. White was initially hesitant to leave
as he feared he’d be accused of desertion if he returned to England alone. Not to mention,
he would have to abandon his daughter who had recently given birth
to a daughter of her own, named Virginia on this remote
and precarious island. But, in time, he was persuaded to go. And as the fleet departed
in late August of 1587 he could not have known
he would never see any of them again. After a long and difficult voyage,
John White returned to a country at war. By orders of the Queen,
no ships were to leave England until the threat of Spanish invasion
had passed. This was bad news for White,
and his best efforts notwithstanding he remained trapped in England
for three long years. It was not until the spring of 1590,
with the help of Sir Walter Raleigh that White finally managed to book passage
on a convoy bound for America. Upon reaching the Outer Banks in mid-August plumes of smoke
appeared to emanate from Roanoke Island. Two boats were quickly dispatched and the crew fired the ship’s cannons
to make their presence known. The men could see a great fire
as they approached the island but White never clarifies
whether it was natural or lit by people. Once ashore, they made their way to the west end
of the island and found a set of footprints. They appeared to be fresh,
but there was no sign of those to whom they belonged. The search party then headed north
and happened upon a tree where someone had carved
the letters C-R-O. Upon reaching the entrance of the colony,
they came across a second inscription. It was the word CROATOAN,
engraved into a wooden post. The post was but one of many
that now formed a defensive barrier around the colony. The colony itself was deserted
and clearly had been for some time given the overgrowth
of grass and weeds. The houses had been taken down
and stripped of valuables. All they found were bars of iron, a few cannons,
as well as five looted chests. There was no trace of the roughly 115 colonists
nor the small boats left in their possession. As far as anyone could tell,
no one had lived here for quite some time. The story of the Lost Colony
is often centered around the two engravings and without the full context, it’s easy to see
how an author might imbue these inscriptions with intrigue and mystery. In truth, the carvings are some of the more
well-understood elements of the entire story. At least,
John White had no doubts about their meaning. White explains in his notes
that before he left in 1587 he and the colonists
had come to an agreement. If they decided to abandon the colony
before the Governor’s return they were to leave behind
a secret token of their destination. Furthermore,
if this abandonment was forced upon them they were to include a cross
to signify distress. Because no such cross had been found,
White was confident the colonists had safely relocated
to the island of Croatoan. Thus, White swiftly returned to the ship
and convinced the Captain to set course for Croatoan. But while the crew prepared for departure,
the anchor cable snapped. And without a spare anchor,
the Captain felt it was too dangerous to continue. In the end,
White never made it to Croatoan and it was the last time
he ever ventured across the Atlantic. While an unsatisfying conclusion,
it seems relatively safe to assume the Lost Colony of Roanoke
simply relocated to the island of Croatoan. Case closed? Well, not quite. You see, while explaining the meaning
of the inscriptions White revealed another interesting
yet puzzling detail. With a single sentence,
White explains that before he left in 1587 the colonists were preparing to move
50 miles into the mainland. While Croatoan is about 50 miles
south of Roanoke it’s also an island,
distinctly not part of the mainland. As such, this lone sentence introduces,
if but a modicum of doubt to White’s version of events. Perhaps, Croatoan was not
their intended destination after all. If so, where could they have gone? Twenty years after the Roanoke colony was lost,
the Anglo-Spanish war had come to an end. John White faded into obscurity and Sir Walter Raleigh had been found guilty of treason
for conspiring against the crown. Yeah, I know, it’s a whole other thing. Anyway, renewed interest in America
saw the plantation of a third colony in 1607. The Jamestown colony was established within the
borders of a vast confederacy of Native American tribes ruled by a man
the English called Powhatan. One day, Powhatan captured
the future Governor of the colony John Smith and told him about a place
where men wearing European clothing lived. Then, after his release in 1608,
Smith drew a rough map of Virginia and this is one of the notations. Unfortunately, this claim, and others just like it,
were never properly investigated. So we can never know
if this was anything more than a rumor. Another unconfirmed report
was that all but a few of the colonists had been massacred by Powhatan. The survivors of this slaughter at Roanoke
had then supposedly scattered across the region. The problem is, White did not report
any human remains or signs of a battle when he returned to Roanoke in 1590. Even so, an acquaintance of John Smith later wrote
that Powhatan had confessed to the massacre after Smith was captured. Smith himself, however,
makes no mentioned of this alleged confession and he was not exactly known
to shy away from embellishment. *cough* Pocahontas *cough* Other reports included sightings of Native American
children with unusually pale skin and blonde hair which led many to suspect
they could be the descendants of the lost colonists. What they had no way of knowing at the time,
however, was that albinism is far more prevalent
among Native Americans than Europeans. A more solid lead emerged a full century later
when the English explorer John Lawson made contact with a tribe
known as the Hatteras. The Hatteras occupied
the same land as the Croatoans but the island was now much larger
and known as Hatteras Island after a storm
had closed one of the inlets. The Hatteras explained to Lawson that some of their ancestors
had been white and able to read. Several members of the tribe
also had gray eyes a unique trait of the Hatteras,
according to Lawson. They also spoke of a local legend
about a ghost ship which they referred to as
Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship. Hearing all this,
Lawson grew convinced the Hatteras was, in fact,
the descendants of the lost colony. Much like John White, Lawson believed
the colony had been relocated to Croatoan and, over time,
the two peoples had become one. Okay, so we now have two sources,
over a century apart arguing for the same version of events. John White says they went to Croatoan
because carvings. John Lawson says they went to Croatoan
because gray eyes and ghosts. Not the most decisive evidence, perhaps,
but it does make for a compelling argument. Following Lawson’s encounter
with the Hatteras in 1701 nothing of significance
would be uncovered for centuries. That is until the late 1930s
when a series of peculiar stones suddenly brought the mystery
back to life. The stones had been inscribed with messages,
supposedly written by Elenore Dare the daughter of John White. Unfortunately,
they all turned out to be fake. Well, all except the first stone
whose authenticity remains in doubt. This stone features a message from Dare
addressed to White in which she describes the tragic death
of her husband and child. The composition of the stone
makes it well-suited for inscribing a message but a poor choice for a forger as they would have had to
chemically age the fresh markings to match the weathered surface. It would not have been impossible
but quite difficult to do so in the 1930s. On the other hand, the man who supposedly found
the stone was never heard from again and the precise location of its discovery
was conveniently kept secret. The credibility of the writing
is equally contested and there is just no consensus
on what to make of it. Modern archaeological research
has also been plagued by uncertainties. Excavations at Roanoke have mostly confirmed
the presence of a 16th-century English colony but have done little in the way
of determining its fate. Meanwhile, excavations on Hatteras has yielded
a mix of Native American and European artifacts including the hilt of a light sword but nothing that can be definitively linked
to the lost colony. To make matters worse,
much of the evidence may now be underwater due to centuries of shifting sands
and erosion of the islands. It was partially out of frustration
for this lack of progress that researchers made
a remarkable discovery in late 2011. While inspecting White’s map of Virginia,
a member of the First Colony Foundation took note of these patches. Historically, patches like these
have been used to correct minor mistakes so no one had ever given them
a second thought. This time, someone did
and had the patches carefully examined. Underneath the lower patch,
they found precisely what you’d expect. Minor corrections. Underneath to upper patch, however,
they found this. This four-pointed star
is a typical representation of a fort. A comparable symbol can be seen on this map
from the early 17th century. The paint used to draw the symbol
matches the paint used elsewhere on the map including the corrections drawn
on top of the lower patch suggesting it was drawn and concealed
by White himself. More puzzling still… A slightly smaller four-pointed star
enclosed by two concentric squares has been painted with invisible ink
on top of the patch. This symbol can even be
faintly discerned with the naked eye meaning it’s been hiding in plain sight
all along. Finally, this fort is situated on the mainland,
approximately 50 miles west of Roanoke. The location of the concealed fort
was quickly named Site X in reference to the expression:
“X marks the spot”. While the fort itself has yet to be found,
presuming it was ever built archaeological digs have uncovered
a few items of interest. Fragments of pottery and bits of metal
are indicative of an English presence but much like the findings on Hatteras,
an indisputable link to the Lost Colony has yet to be established. That being said, the research is still ongoing,
and the smoking gun, whatever it may be will perhaps have been found
by the time you’re watching this. Presuming this is the intended location
for the Cittie of Raleigh, one has to wonder… Why was it concealed with a patch? Tempting as it may be to envision some elaborate
conspiracy, there is a very simple explanation. Remember how, in 1608, John Smith sent this
rough map of Virginia back to England? Well, this is not the original map
but an illicit copy. A copy made in secret by the Spanish ambassador
and covertly passed along to the King of Spain. So England had good reason
to worry about sensitive information such as the location of a fort,
being intercepted by enemy spies. Another example is how the colony on Roanoke
was concealed through omission. We still don’t know the precise location
or layout of the colony because it was never indicated
on any of the surviving maps. While it continues to be a source of aggravation
among historians and archaeologists this secrecy did serve a purpose
as it prevented Spain from ever finding the colony. In fact, Spain continued to search for the colony
long after it was lost so it’s unlikely they had
anything to do with its disappearance. On the other hand,
if the fort was never built the patch may be precisely
what it was always assumed to be. Nothing more than a correction. Then again, the near-invisible symbol
drawn on top of the patch strongly imply concealment
as opposed to a simple revision. After going through all the available evidence,
this is what I’m thinking. So John White left Roanoke in 1587. When he failed to return,
the colony was split into two groups. One decamped for Site X
while the other went to live with the friendly Croatoans to await the Governor’s return. The region is known to have suffered
a severe drought just after White left so the relocation may not only have been motivated
by diminishing supplies and hostilities but also by a lack of water
and crop production. As years turned into decades,
the colonists may have started families with and thus become inseparable from,
the indigenous people amongst whom they lived. Not only would this explain the disappearance
but also the CROATOAN inscription the “50 miles into the main” as well as the gray eyes
of the Hatteras. While I’m still leaning towards it being fake,
I do find it interesting how the Dare Stone was supposedly discovered
just a few miles north of Site X. After all, if you’re a hoaxer and you want to convince
1930s America that this stone is genuine, why claim you found it
so far away from Roanoke? One should also keep in mind
that much of the evidence relies solely on the words and paintings
of one man. Parts of White’s account could easily be a
misinterpretation or exaggeration. So depending on what evidence you regard as
credible, other solutions are equally plausible. For instance, some believe
the colony went ahead with the original plan and relocated somewhere
along the coast of Chesapeake Bay. Others believe they were all lost at sea
after a failed attempt to return to England. But these “solutions” are about as helpful
as saying the colony vanished into thin air. Without a more localized place of interest
to search for corroborating evidence there is virtually no hope of resolution. So with all that being said,
many questions remain. What happened to the three forsaken colonists
and the 13 crewmen? Why did Simão Fernandes disobey orders
and dump the colonists on Roanoke? Why was one of the two engravings left incomplete? Why was everyone named Joh- As for the most important question of them all… Well,
if there is an answer to that question chances are,
it lies buried somewhere at Site X just waiting to be found.


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