I don’t think that we can ever fully understand just how scary it must have been for the first settlers who arrived in the New World from England. Personally, I think they were incredibly brave; venturing to a land they knew very little about to start new lives with their families– without many assurances of safety. It’s doubtful whether we, modern people, would have the guts to do what they did. But they did, and thank goodness for that– they forged the way for America to become the amazing place that it is today.
But it didn’t go smoothly; especially in the beginning. The first place that the colonists arrived to set up camp was Roanoke Island and if you know anything about history, you will know that these colonists became the first missing people in America. The latest season of American Horror Story has peaked a lot of interest around the real Roanoke Island and what happened to the Lost Colony– today we explore the facts your history teacher probably missed and look at some of the theories around their disappearance– you can make up your own mind from there.
The fact is, no one knows what happened to the men, women, and children of Roanoke Island between 1587 and 1590, but there are some pretty interesting theories…
15. FACT: They Weren’t The First People To Go Missing From Roanoke Island
The 115 colonists, who landed on Roanoke Island in July 1587 were on their way to start a new colony and had stopped at Roanoke Island to check in on the few remaining members of the first established colony. But when they arrived, there was no one and nothing left of the camp, except for one human skeleton. At this point, you would have thought that they would continue on with their voyage but for reasons unknown, the fleet commander refused to allow the colonists back on board; insisting that they had to re-establish the colony at Roanoke.
They were afraid and rightly so; they were in a strange place and had no idea what had happened to the people who landed before them. They implored their leader, John White, to return to England and explain what was happening and return with help. He sailed for England late in 1587.
14. THEORY: The Lumbee Connection
A popular theory is that something unexpected happened on the island which caused the colonists to split into smaller groups and move. It’s believed that they may have been absorbed into one or more of the nearby native tribes because no single tribe could have taken them all.
The members of the Jamestown colony (which was established 17 years after the Lost Colony’s disappearance) engaged with the Native Americans hoping to find answers as to what had happened to the men, women, and children of Roanoke Island. These natives told the colonists stories about white settlements they had seen further down the coastline and reported fair-skinned people with blonde hair dressed as natives. Most historians believe that small pockets of the Lost Colony were absorbed into a friendly tribe and with interbreeding assimilated into the tribe. This may be the Lumbee tribe, native to North Carolina and while no concrete evidence exists to support this, their oral history links them to the Lost Colonists.
13. FACT: It Took John White Three Years To Return
The colonists had no way of knowing when White would return, and it must have been agonizing for them to wait. Of course, there was no way of communicating the way we do now and they may have even thought that he didn’t make it back to England when he didn’t return for such a long time.
White did make it back to England, but soon afterward the country was attacked by the Spanish Armada which led to the Anglo-Spanish War. Every able English ship was called to join the fight, leaving White with no means to return to Roanoke. In 1588, he managed to find two small boats which he filled with provisions and sailed for the New World but they were both captured by the Spanish.
Finally, White landed back on Roanoke Island on the 18th of August 1590 (his granddaughter Virginia Dare’s birthday) but found it deserted, with no trace of his granddaughter or anyone else that was left behind.
12. THEORY: The Colony Was Killed By The Spanish
A settler named Darby Glande left the Roanoke expedition when the ship stopped at Puerto Rico to take on new suppliers. He later reported that he had told some Spanish officials that he met there about the location of the Roanoke settlement. The Spanish had their own settlements just down the coast of Florida and it’s likely that the Spanish in the West Indies also knew about the colonists.
Earlier in the century, the Spanish were responsible for the massacre of the French inhabitants of Fort Caroline and also destroyed evidence of another French colony in South Carolina. It is, therefore, conceivable that they murdered the English settlers and dismantled their habitations; although some people argue that the Spaniards were still looking for the failed English colony in 1600.
11. FACT: The Infamous “CROATOAN” Carving
When John White left the colony in December 1587, he instructed them that if something were to happen to them they should carve a Maltese cross on a certain tree. This would be left as an indication that they had been moved against their will.
When he arrived back in 1590, the houses and fortifications had been taken down. White took this as a sign that the people had taken their time to leave, obviously not under duress (although someone else could also have dismantled the camp other than the colonists). There was no carved cross, only the word “CROATOAN” carved into a fence post. This was the name of an island just south of Roanoke; home to the Croatoan tribe who had been friendly with the English settlers.
10. THEORY: They Were Murdered By Hostile Native Americans
While some tribes were very welcoming towards the English and wanted to benefit from good relations with them, others were extremely hostile. This is understandable as the colonists were making claims on their land and resources. The colony who abandoned Roanoke before the 1587 colony had battled with some of these hostile Native American tribes. When they arrived, White did try to form friendly relationships, but only succeeded with the Croatoans.
It’s possible that the settlers could have been murdered or abducted by a native tribe. Although he is not considered a reliable source John Smith, claimed that during his investigation of the disappearance of Chief Powhatan of the Powhatan tribe claimed that he had killed the Roanoke settlers, although there is no evidence to prove this.
9. FACT: The Search For the Lost Colony
When White arrived back on Roanoke Island in 1590 and found it deserted he still had hope for his daughter and granddaughter. The buildings had been taken down and there were no bodies or remains in the camp. They had not left the Maltese cross, indicating violence and had carved the name of an island and tribe they had good relations with on a post. White felt sure that the colonists were, therefore, safe on Croatoan Island.
White started to search the surrounding islands, but shortly into the search the weather turned bad, producing rough seas and high winds. The ship lost three anchors during their efforts and the captain insisted they abandon their efforts for fear that he would lose the remaining one. They returned to England and White never found out what happened to his family.
8. THEORY: They Tried To Return To England
Along with being abducted by aliens, this is probably one of the most unlikely theories, however no one knows for a certainty what happened at Roanoke, do they?
The colonists must have grown desperate on the island; they didn’t know how to survive on the land of the New World and faced hostility all around them from the natives. Feeling unable to retreat inland they may have decided to try and build a seafaring vessel and return to England to seek assistance. However, it’s highly unlikely that the small group could have constructed such a vessel and, even if they had, the route was brimming with Spanish ships who would have easily overpowered them.
7. FACT: Drought Conditions
One of the most difficult aspects of forming a new colony is producing food. It takes time to plant and raise crops and we need to remember that the English were trying to farm on foreign soil so there would have been a lot of trial and error. During this time they would have needed to forage or hunt, but again they did not know the land. And it seems that the climate during the years of the second Roanoke Colony was quite harsh as well.
Tree ring cores from 800-year-old cypress trees on Roanoke Island have been used to reconstruct the rain and temperature fluctuations of the island. These findings concluded that when the settlers landed in the summer of 1587 the island was experiencing the worst growing season drought in 800 years and this drought persisted until 1589.
6. THEORY: They Starved To Death
The findings regarding the drought conditions led a lot of people to speculate that the colonists may have starved to death due to the lack of rain needed to grow the crops needed to sustain them. This, coupled with the colonist’s lack of knowledge about the land and local vegetation, seems a likely explanation for the collapse of the colony, however, it doesn’t explain why they weren’t found at their settlement. They may have left the island seeking assistance, but we’ll never know if they found it. Imagine being in a hostile, dry land, thinking you’ve been abandoned by your leader, they were probably pretty desperate.
5. FACT: Lost Artifacts
Very few artifacts have been discovered that link back to the Lost Colony. The reason for this lack of archaeological evidence is believed to be due to shoreline erosion; meaning that the settlement has dissolved into the shoreline over the last four centuries, taking any artifacts with it.
The East Carolina University organized and led “The Croatoan Project” in 1998; sending an archaeological excavation team to investigate the events at Roanoke. During their time on the island, the team uncovered a 16th-century gold signet ring and two copper farthings (dated to have been produced in the 1670s). The gold ring contained a lion crest which was confirmed by genealogists to belong to the Kendall coat of arms. It seems likely that the ring belonged to Master Kendall, who lived in the first colony on the island between 1585 and 1586.
4. THEORY: The Dare Stones
In 1937, a tourist claimed to have discovered a stone inscribed by John White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare, who was among the 115 missing colonists. The engraving on one side of the stone indicated that Eleanor’s husband, Ananias, and her daughter, Virginia had died in 1591. The other side explained that all but seven of the colonists had been killed by “savages” and it was signed “EWD”.
By 1940, forty-seven more stones had been discovered by a local farmer in the same area, although these are strongly suspected to be forgeries. These stones tell a complicated story about Eleanor; how their group traveled and how she eventually married a “tribal chief” and bore him a daughter, much to the dismay of his tribe.
3. FACT: White Never Recovered From The Loss
The Lost Colony was a tragedy for England, but most of all for White, who must have felt terrible guilt over the incident that cost him his daughter and grandchild. He never fully recovered from the loss and never again returned to the new world. In his correspondence he wrote that he handed over their fates to God, hoping that He would comfort and help the lost colonists.
After the failure of the second colony of Roanoke, White returned to Ireland where he took time to reflect on his lost hopes and dreams in America. Little is known of his later life, but it’s thought that he retired to an estate in Ireland, where he made maps of land until his death in about 1593, just three years later.
2. THEORY: They Died of Illness
It is possible (but unlikely) that it was illness that wiped out the Roanoke colony. The reason that it is unlikely is because they left no trace of their livelihood behind. If they had been struck down by disease they would not have had the time to do this and if this was the case, then why didn’t White find any bodies or graves at the settlement?
It was far more likely that the colonists would have brought with them diseases from the New World which would have affected the native population. Native Indians having never been exposed to diseases like flu and smallpox were reported to have died very quickly compared to the English who would have had some natural immunity.
1. FACT: We Could Still Trace The Lost Colony
The search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke is not over yet– in fact, it’s going high tech. In 2007, The Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA project was founded by Roberta Estes. Estes owns a private DNA-testing company and hopes to solve the mystery of the colonists using oral history (like that of the Native Americans), migration patterns, historical records and DNA testing.
So yes, we may still not know what happened, but the most likely scenario is probably a combination of the theories we’ve explored. After struggling with hostile neighbors and a drought the colonists more than likely decided to split up and leave Roanoke in order to try and survive. Some may have tried to return to England, gone inland, integrated with the Croatoans or another tribe or been killed. One thing is for sure– it’s certainly an enduring mystery!