What Really Happened To The Infamous Roanoke Colony?

Illustration of Returning Roanoke Colonist | Courtesy of history.com

As you are coming to the end of your long journey, you’re overwhelmed with the idea that you’ll be home soon, accompanied by warm, familiar faces. However, when you return home, you’re not welcomed by friends and family, but by silence and only the howl of the wind. You look around and not a single soul is in sight. Not one person in your home or in your whole village. A frightening scenario, isn’t it? This was the startling reality that John White and his fellow colonists were faced with when they returned home from their long voyage. His home was none other than the infamous Roanoke Colony.

Governor John White’s 1585 Map | Courtesy of nationalgeographic.com

In 1587, John White led 113 men, women, and children to Roanoke island on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I, in order to establish a New World colony, and claim riches for the queen and people of England.1 The land was somewhat familiar as it had been a previous military outpost.2 However, its first attempt at establishing a colony there had failed. John White and his men were determined not to fail their Queen on this attempt. They especially did not want to fail their investor, Sir Walter Raleigh, like others had in the past. So they went to all extents to make sure their colony’s needs were met.3 The colony seemed to settle well; however, they quickly outgrew supplies, which were essential for the long-term establishment of the colony; so now governor of Roanoke, John White, sailed back to England in order to restock. Upon his arrival in London, he was met with war with Spain and the Spanish Armada, England’s enemy at the time. Storms and many other factors made the return back to Roanoke a long one, one of years, leaving the colonists to wonder when their leader would return.4

Once John White and his men returned, Roanoke was bereft of all its colonists. They recalled that on their way to Roanoke, once already on land, they found a few footprints from Indians.5 However, they made nothing of it at the time. When they reached the village, White came across the letters “CRO” carved on a tree and the word “CROATOAN” carved on a post. Upon further inspection, it seemed that all the houses that the Roanoke Colonist were living in had been dismantled. After seeing this, White was more at ease because he believed that they had relocated to Croatoan, where the Croatoan tribe lived. This was due to the fact that White told the colonists that if they ever relocated, they were to carve the name of their new location somewhere visible. If the move or escape was out of distress, they were also to carve a Maltese cross, but none were in sight. One small thing bothered White though. He had told the colonists to hide his valuables underground, but he found that some were scattered and others were lost. In the end, for a reason unknown, White only looked for the colony one time, but didn’t find them. After this failed attempt, he made no others.6

One question still lingered in the mind of many others: what happened to the Roanoke colonists? It’s said that they were never seen again by Europeans, but there were also many speculated accounts of their whereabouts and fate. In 1608, John Smith wrote in his book that the Indians reported to him of people that looked like him. George Percy, another colonist, reported seeing a white boy with blonde hair among the Indians. Smith later sent two missions towards the south in order to find evidence of the remaining colonists, eventually learning that they were killed.7

“Dare Stone” recovered from the last known site of Roanoke Colony | Courtesy of thehistoryblog.com

Later, a twenty-one-quartz stone was discovered that is believed to have been a “grave marker” for the Roanoke deceased. On the smooth side of the stone was a cross and on the other were passages, speaking of deaths within the colony along with the years.8 As a last matter, in 1612, writer William Strachey reported that the Roanoke Colony did indeed live in harmony with the Chesapeake Indians for twenty-five years. Both the Indians and colonists shared knowledge and lived together until Powhatan, a leader of another Indian tribe called the Powhatan, slaughtered the colonists and the Indians sheltering them in fear that a rival to him would appear from within their tribe. A few of the colonists escaped and were later spared when they were found due to the fact that they worked well with copper, making them valuable. Still many wondered if these were facts or just stories that people wanted to hear.9 In the end, all the evidence points to the fact that the Roanoke colonists are not lost to history, but were rather killed off by brutal Indians. There is no mystery left, it’s just a matter of connecting the dots.

  1. The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained, 2003, s.v. “The Desertion of Roanoke,” by Brad Steiger and Sherry Hanson Steiger; Karenne Wood, “The Roanoke Colony,” South Atlantic Review 77, no. 1/2 (2012): 178-79.
  2. Lee Miller, Roanoke Solving the Mystery of England’s Lost Colony (London: Pimlico, 2001), 7-9.
  3. Karenne Wood, “The Roanoke Colony,” South Atlantic Review 77, no. 1/2 (2012): 178-79.
  4. Lee Miller, Roanoke Solving the Mystery of England’s Lost Colony (London: Pimlico, 2001), 10-11.
  5. Karen Odahl Kupperman, Roanoke The Abandoned Colony (New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), 133-135.
  6. Karen Odahl Kupperman, Roanoke The Abandoned Colony (New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), 136-137.
  7. Karen Odahl Kupperman, Roanoke The Abandoned Colony (New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), 137-139.
  8. Haywood J. Pearce, “New Light on the Roanoke Colony: A Preliminary Examination of a Stone Found in Chowan County, North Carolina,” The Journal of Southern History 4, no. 2 (1938): 148-150.
  9. Karen Odahl Kupperman, Roanoke The Abandoned Colony (New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), 139.

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96 Responses

  1. Great article; we honestly don’t give the first English colonies enough time for as necessary they are regarding our history. Imagine returning to the home that you work hard and only return to nothing, with only a confusing message—and never knowing where your people have moved to or are still alive. To me, that would be a terrible burden on our mind of the reminder of our days.

  2. I feel like anything I’ve read about the Colony of Roanoke has just been theories and rich with assumptions, but this article is different. This article maps out all of these ideas very well and helps me follow along with ease. I enjoy when articles give me a first-person perspective into the minds of others, and at the beginning of this one, I could really begin to resonate with the fear of John White. I liked how you talked about all aspects and theories, while also having a plausible ending to what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

  3. Like the others I have been curious about Roanoke and what might have happened. I liked the narrative of the article, it didn’t read like Wikipedia, as some might in writing a short paper on the topic.
    Like most people who follow history, I find no final answer in this article, just educated summation of what might have bee. But this is not bad history, merely reporting what is found and making no final judgement because history is always evolving as new evidence is found.

  4. The way you started off the first paragraph was incredible! It allowed to readers to be able to see what is going on by using imagery. Especially when he walks to Roanoke and sees the words “croatoan” I was able to see that very vividly. I especially liked how you included conspiracy theories in the end, it seems appropriate because Roanoke Island has always been such a mystery.

  5. I love how this article gives us a nice insight into Roanoke island and into what happened there. This story has always fascinated me since the day I heard about it, and before I always felt like this story provided more questions than answers and it was definitely the mystery of it that fascinated me and made me want to know more about what happened to the colonist and thanks to this article I was able to answer a lot of the long-held questions I had about what happened to the colonists at Roanoke. I find it interesting how the colonist was pretty much left for dead due to some unforeseen unfortunate circumstances at home but was able to relocate and co-exist with Indians for a period of time until sadly being slaughtered, and while this first attempt at colonization is always known as a “failed attempt” I think as we know as history went on it was really just the start of something very special.

  6. The author explains what happened to Roanoke, the first English Colony. Several theories are discussed on how the colony disappeared. Did the colonist die in a storm? Did they die because of lack of supplies? Did the natives help the colonist like they did in Jamestown? Did they take the colonist to live with them or was it something more brutal? The ending suggests the brutality of the Indians is the cause. There still seems to still be debate on what happened and still unanswered questions.

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