The Lost Colony of Roanoke

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The Lost Colony of Roanoke

It has all the makings of a good mystery story. A group of brave pioneers traveling to a new continent to forge a new life in the wilderness, a young mother giving birth to a baby that brings new hope, then suddenly the entire colony disappears without a trace. No this is not the latest Story by some suspense novelist. This is the true story of a group of pioneers whose disappearance have baffled school children, history buffs, and scholars for four centuries. It is the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Virginia. In order to understand the story, though, you have to go back to the 16th Century.

During the 1500s, Europeans were living in a period called the Renaissance, which was an era in history when people were interested in learning, finding new ideas, and were also looking for adventure.

Elizabeth I was the queen of England at this time. She is one of the most important characters in this mystery because without her help and influence this story would never have taken place. Elizabeth wanted England to be powerful and rich. There was also a lot of competition between England and Spain during this time. The two countries were having a race to be the most powerful. Elizabeth I wanted England to win and she didn't want Spain to have control of the New World.

Sir Walter Raleigh comes into the story at this time. Raleigh wanted great things for England, but he also wanted them for himself. He wanted to become famous and to do this Raleigh needed Elizabeth to give him money, supplies, and ships to find treasures and colonies for England. Raleigh and Elizabeth both wanted a new empire across the ocean for England. They knew the lands across the ocean had great things.

Queen Elizabeth thought Raleigh was very nice and charming. He convinced her to give him the ships. Raleigh quickly sent two explorers, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, to the New World. He wanted the explorers to search for new places to begin new colonies for England. They arrived in the New World on July 13, 1584. Everything was green with piney woods when they reached the shore. They thought the land had plenty to offer. It was summer time and there was an abundance game and fish. They gathered different types of plants to take back to England. One of those plants was a potato. Amadas and Barlowe returned to England with good news about the new land. They told Raleigh about the friendly natives and other riches. They even brought along two Indians for Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth to see. Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth were happy with their reports, and Elizabeth named the new place Virginia, although they spelled it “Verginia” at the time.

There were two expeditions to Roanoke before what would become the lost colony was established in 1587. The first was exploratory, the second (in 1585) consisted of 100 men who lived on the island for 10 months before returning to England. These early expeditions quickly deteriorated any initial warm feelings the Native Americans had toward the English. The settlers routinely kidnapped local tribal leaders and held them for ransom, despite relying on these "savages" for food and supplies.

When the 100 men left the 1585 Roanoke colony, it was due to constant threat of attack by Natives and waning food supply. Had they stayed for two more weeks, the men would have received supplies from England. A ship arrived and, finding the colony deserted, left behind 15 soldiers to maintain an English presence in the New World (so another country would not lay claim to it) until another group of colonists could be brought.

Meanwhile, in England, Sir Walter Raleigh got together a group of 91 men, 17 women and 9 children who wanted to go to the New World, naming a man by the name of John White as the Governor. The group sailed from England in May of 1587 and arrived at Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, in August of 1587. Then they were going to sail up the coast about 150 miles to Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, but wanted to stop for the 15 men who had been left at Roanoke first. Their arrival at Roanoke was a discouraging and mysterious one: they found the settlement abandoned and in shambles. The bones of one of the 15 soldiers there before them were the only physical evidence of what had befallen the previous settlers. It was strange indeed, but White and the other colonists quickly got busy, deciding to try to make a life in Roanoke. They set to work repairing and making their homes in the houses at the fort already built. They met friendly natives called "Croatoans". The Croatoans lived on an island south of Roanoke. The natives taught the colonists how to fish and hunt.

White and the colonists were excited that a woman in the group named Eleanor Dare, who happened to be White’s daughter, was expecting a baby. On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was born. She was the first English child born in America.

It was near the end of August and summer time would soon be ending. The colonists had plenty of supplies that they had brought with them including fish and game caught on the island, but winter and bad weather would be coming. So on August 27, 1587, Governor John White decided to leave the group and sail back to England for more supplies. He had to leave quickly because it was the hurricane season.

England and Spain were getting ready for war when White got back to England. Queen Elizabeth told him that England needed all her ships and supplies to fight the Spanish. Thus, John White didn't get to return to Roanoke Island that year. In fact, he was unable to return until August 17, 1590.

Three years later, White returned to Roanoke with a search party. He was anxious to return, as he had left his wife and daughter behind. They anchored their ships off the outer banks of Roanoke and sailed their small boats to shore. Some men drowned when their boat turned over in the rough waters. These rough waters are now called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic".

When White and his men reached the shore they saw a fire blazing in the woods on the northern end of the island. White got excited because he thought the fire was a signal from the colonists. White and his men searched the island, but could not find any trace of the people he had left behind. No people, no buildings, nearly no evidence whatsoever, except for some sort of cryptic messages.

They found the letters "CRO" carved on a tree, and on another part of the island, they found the word "Croatoan" carved on a wooden fence post. These carvings were the only clues they could find. White wanted to look for the lost people because he didn't see any signs of their deaths. He especially wanted to find his family, but knew fall was quickly approaching. This meant that hurricane season was on the horizon. White made the hard decision to return to England before the bad weather came, thus leaving Roanoke without ever finding the lost people.


So what happened to the Roanoke colonists? Ultimately, no one knows for sure. In the four hundred years since the colony at Roanoke disappeared there have been countless speculations as to what happened presented by scholars and those not so scholarly. When it comes to the lost colony, historians are long on theories but short on hard evidence. These theories have run the gauntlet from everyone dying of some disease such as small pox, to the colony being captured or killed by Indians, to them being abducted by Aliens from another planet. While some theories are more likely than others the colonists themselves left few clues as to what actually happened.

Gov. John White, the first person to discover the colonists' disappearance, reported everything he saw in a letter. There were no bones, like those that had been left behind from the 1585 colony. The houses had been taken down, but there was no evidence that they were burned or destroyed. The "CROATOAN" carving didn't indicate distress from the writer. Everything pointed to the settlers simply having picked up and left.

In White's opinion, they moved fifty miles inland, into the forests of North Carolina. This idea has appealed to historians over the years; exactly why the colonists moved inland or what became of them afterward if they did ignites new debate.

It's conceivable that the colonists met a less violent fate. The Jamestown colonists sent out several search parties to find members of the lost colony and made a habit of questioning any Native Americans with whom the Jamestown members made contact. Some of these natives told tales of white settlements further down the coast, with two-story, thatched-roof houses, a style unique to the English. Others told of nearby tribes who could read English and dressed similarly to Europeans. Perhaps the most dramatic report from Jamestown was the sighting of a boy dressed as a native. He had blond hair and was fair-skinned.

These reports corroborate the most widely held theory of what became of the Roanoke colonists: They assimilated into some friendly Native American tribe. Over the course of generations, intermarriage between the natives and the English would produce a third, distinct group. This group may be the Lumbee tribe.

The Lumbee tribe is native to North Carolina, yet no certain lineage can be pinned down. The tribe's oral history links them to the Roanoke settlers, and this tradition is supported by some of their surnames and the tribe's ability to read and write English. Family last names of some of the Roanoke colonists, like Dial, Hyatt and Taylor, were shared by Lumbee tribe members as early as 1719. The settlers who met them were astonished to find Native Americans that had grey eyes and spoke English. Even within the Lumbee tribe, the legitimacy of the group's link to the Roanoke colonists is in dispute. The Lumbee Connection, as it's come to be called by researchers, is intriguing.

But another explanation is that the Roanoke settlers fell victim to the Spanish, whose settlement was just down the coast in Florida. It's certain that the Spanish in the West Indies were aware of the English colonists' presence. One Roanoke settler named Darby Glande left the 1587 expedition once it set ashore in Puerto Rico to take on supplies. He later reported that he told Spanish officials the location of the Roanoke settlement.

In the opinion of Johns Hopkins University anthropologist Lee Miller, the colonists wandered into a violent shift in the balance of power among inland tribes. Natives with whom the colonists were friendly lost their hold over the area, and Native Americans hostile to the settlers took control. If the Roanoke colonists made the trip inland when this happened, the men would've likely been killed and the women and children captured as slaves. The colonists would have then been traded along a route that spanned the U.S. coast from present-day Georgia to Virginia This idea that the natives killed or enslaved the Roanoke colonists is certainly a sensible conclusion as well.

All of these theories remain debated. But if the Lumbee Connection is true, then the Roanoke colonists aren't lost -- their genes can be found in people living today in Robeson County, North Carolina.

The Six Most Popular Roanoke Theories:

  1. The people of Roanoke simply left the settlement.

  2. The whole population was killed by a disease.

  3. The village was destroyed by a severe storm, such as a hurricane.

  4. The people of Roanoke decided to leave to live with the Natives.

  5. The colonists were killed by the Natives.

  6. The colonists were captured by the Spanish.

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Lost Colony Questions

  1. After reading everything, what do YOU suppose happened to the people at Roanoke? WHY do you think so?

  1. Why is reading a primary source like John White’s letter helpful to someone studying history? Explain.

  1. What were some characteristics of John White’s letter that made it challenging to read in the 21st Century?

  1. Why do you think it is important to discuss the Roanoke Colony mystery? Why does it matter to us today? Explain.

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