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The Mystery of Roanoke Colony

Ronzani is an online writer of fiction and non-fiction whose all-time favorite work of literature is Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

1587 Map of the Colonies

1587 Map of the Colonies

What Was Roanoke?

This colony was a late 16th-century effort by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a permanent colony in the Americas. Roanoke was established in 1587. When John White returned to the colony in 1590 to bring back supplies, there were few clues as to where all the people went. There are also few accounts about what life was like living in the first experimental colony in the Americas. Many think they might have migrated to Croatoan Island because the word “Croatoan” was carved into a nearby fence post and “Cro” was carved into a tree. Otherwise, there was little to tell what had happened to this group of people. There are countless theories about what did happen and where these people might have migrated to. Others thought that they might not have had any supplies, left leading to their death by starvation. The most likely explanation is that these people moved and left behind no clues as to where they went. However, no one knows for sure what happened.

Efforts Made Prior to 1587

The new colony that was to be established in the Americas was first planned in 1578 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert was granted the right to explore North America and establish colonies. However, Gilbert was not successful, and he was later lost at sea attempting to travel from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. The first successful expedition to Roanoke Island happened in 1584. Despite what many people believe, Sir Walter Raleigh did not take part in these first voyages (Carney). He only oversaw them and he was given the charter to do so by Queen Elizabeth I. An excerpt from this charter reads, “We give and grant to our trustie and welbeloved servant Walter Ralegh . . . to discover, search, finde out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince, nor inhabited by Christian People . . . ” (Queen Elizabeth I, Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh). The charter was issued on March 25, 1584, and it declared that no Englishman could travel to North America south of Newfoundland without Raleigh’s permission (Kupperman 11). This gave him an advantage when it came to colonizing North America; even though Raleigh was one of the first, if not the first, Englishman to try to begin a new colony in the Americas. Before him, no one had ever truly tried to create a lasting colony. Most others just sailed to the coasts to try to gain resources.

Raleigh sent Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe on the first voyage to the island. Amadas commanded the flagship and Barlowe was in charge of a smaller side ship. Although it is not known for sure which ships were used it is believed that Raleigh's vessel Bark Raleigh and a small sailboat were used (Evans). These vessels sailed through the Canary Islands and reached the American coast on July 4, 1584. They landed near today’s Ocracoke Island after having trouble finding a harbor to enter from the ocean. Barlowe documented this struggle in his diary, “ . . . the fourth of the same month we arrived upon the coast, which we supposed to be a continent and firme lande, and we sayled along the same a hundred and twentie English miles before we could finde any entrance, or river issuing into the Sea” (Barlowe 2). However, these colonists did not have sufficient supplies and they lacked the skills to befriend the nearby Native Americans, thus a settlement could not be established on this first journey. Nonetheless, this did not discourage Sir Walter Raleigh. He would try two more times after this to colonize North America.

Raleigh was successful in his next two attempts at colonization. On the second voyage to America, he sent Ralph Lane and appointed him as governor. This was supposed to be a military outpost for men only. However, like the first voyage, the colonists lacked supplies and had to abandon the colony. This forced them to return to England in October after only seven months. The difference between these two trips was that their communication with the Native Americans improved. Ralph Lane also kept a personal journal much like Barlowe. Lane described a friendly encounter between himself and a Native American chief, “The king of Chawanook promised to give me guids to go over land into that kings countrey whensoever I would: but he advised me to take good store of men with me, and good store of victuall, for he said, that king would be loth to suffer any strangers to enter into his Countrey . . . ” (Lane 4). Even though the colonists were able to befriend the Native Americans, they had to once again leave. A hurricane also hit the colony, thus adding to their reasons for evacuation.

Third Time's a Charm

Colonization was achieved on Raleigh’s third attempt. On July 22, 1587, John White landed on Roanoke Island. With him, he brought one hundred and twenty men, women, and children. Raleigh had appointed White as the new governor and with a sufficient amount of people and supplies they set up the first colony. The first task they began with was repairing houses that were destroyed by the hurricane that drove Sir Ralph Lane out. John White was also often accompanied by Thomas Hariot. Hariot was an English mathematician, astronomer, linguist, and experimental scientist. Together they created maps and paintings and wrote descriptions of the native culture around Roanoke (Wolfe). Then Eleanor White Dare, daughter of John White, gave birth to a baby girl on August 18th and named her Virginia. She was the first European child born in the ‘New World.' Meanwhile, the relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans improved as well. An Algonquian named Manteo was of great help to these colonists. Manteo was taught some English, and he helped by being an interpreter between the colonists and the nearby tribes (Kupperman 37). Later he was brought to England, and on August 27, 1587, he was baptized and named Lord of Roanoke. This helped the colonists become closer and understand Native Americans better. A wave of peace had finally swept across the region. Manteo had great loyalty to John White while Raleigh had much respect for Manteo. Their “alliance” would help the Roanoke Colony last longer and make life easier for the foreign colonists.

Contrary to many beliefs, once the colonists and their families arrived at the New World settlements, they did not just stay there. Many voyages went back and forth to England for various reasons. The first voyage taken was the voyage that put the colonists there in the first place. The last two known voyages to Roanoke Island were commanded by John White, and these were to try to relieve the colonists, yet, these voyages were not very successful either.

The Return to Roanoke

When John White returned to England in late 1587, he only intended to be gone a short amount of time to collect provisions for the colonists, but storms on the way back to England hurt his crew and ships, severely delaying the voyage. They did not arrive back in England until mid-October 1587. Once he had gotten what he needed, he tried to sail back. However, the Queen had forbidden any ships to leave English ports because of the Spanish Armada. This was when the Spanish planned for a fleet of one hundred and thirty ships to invade England. Then, in 1588 White made another attempt to return to the colony. He used the Brave and the Roe, which were two ships that were too weak to be used in the navy so he was allowed to take them (Isil). Nonetheless, White did not make it back to the colony. These two vessels encountered French pirates who took everything that they had. White and his crew were still able to make it back to England safely, though. Finally in March 1590, White was able to return to Roanoke even though this trip was hindered because of storms and battles at sea. The Hopewell and the Moonlight were the ships used in this voyage (Isil). They reached the island on August 18th, which was Virginia Dare’s third birthday. But when he reached the island on that day he was utterly shocked that he found no one from the colony. White documented his return in his journal and this excerpt describes what happened, “We let fall our Grapnel neere the shore, & sounded with a trumpet a Call, & afterwardes many familiar English tunes of Songs, and called to them friendly; but we had no answere . . . ” (White). This was when White realized that his colony was “lost”.

First English Colonies Sign

First English Colonies Sign

Clues and Theories

White only really found two clues as to the whereabouts of his daughter and granddaughter. The letters “CRO” were carved into a tree and “CROATOAN” was carved into a nearby fence post. This led White to believe they had migrated to the nearby Croatoan Island, which was inhabited by the friendly Croatoan tribe (Drye). They took a trip to the island to try to find clues, however, the Native Croatoans offered no answers. Many historians have come up with various theories about what happened to these people. Numerous people believe the same as White: that they just migrated to Croatoan Island. However, no theory has ever been proven. There were violent storms and hurricanes around this island during the 1580s. So some think that a hurricane might have wiped out the colony, but there was no sign of any water damage to the colony. Also, White described a high fence post still standing outside the colony, which would not have survived a hurricane, and many supplies were left that would have been swept away. “We entred into the palisado, where we found many barres of Iron, two pigges of Lead, foure yron fowlers, Iron sacker-shotte . . . ” (White). Another theory is that the natives rose up and killed them to try to prevent future colonization. One historian who believed this was David Beers Quinn. He is the author of Set Fair for Roanoke: “Had the Powhatans found them they would have been summarily killed” (Quinn 153). This theory does not seem plausible, though, because White never found any bodies or bones. There were no signs of blood or fighting and it is highly doubtful that the Native Americans took all the remains with them. The most likely explanation is that the colonists migrated to the Chesapeake Bay to build a new colony. This was where they were originally supposed to settle. It was known that they were running out of supplies and the bay provided many more resources than Roanoke had. Some argue that this is not likely because of the carved words. However, it is possible that the Croatoans plundered the abandoned colony after everyone had moved. It was also unlikely that these Croatoans killed them because they were friendly and had no animosity toward the colonists. James Horne defends this theory, “The majority favored a move to the southern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where they had originally planned to settle and where they believed the Chesapeake would welcome them into their community” (Horne). None of these theories can definitively be wrong or right, however, new evidence might make it easier to tell what happened.

Current Research

Scientists, historians, and archeologists have been working endlessly to figure out where the Lost Colony went. Today the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site protects the area where the colonists tried to settle the first colony. Surrounding this is the town of Manteo, North Carolina. In February of 2004, the First Colony Foundation was set up. It was to try to raise money for excavations and digs in Fort Raleigh to uncover new evidence, however, this is certainly not the first time people have tried to search for answers. It is known that Union soldiers who were stationed at Roanoke during the Civil War dug up artifacts. In 1895 Talcott Williams, a Philadelphia journalist, searched for clues in what is now Fort Raleigh (Drye). More recently in 2000, National Park Service archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to try to find clues. They discovered rectangular-shaped objects hidden beneath sand; however, they did not dig these items up. The First Colony Foundation now wonders if erosion had put the site of the colony underwater. An underwater archaeologist, Gordon Watts, believes that at least six hundred feet of the island has gone underwater since the 1500s, "That's one fact that you cannot ignore . . . If you're doing a comprehensive search for the 1585–1587 settlement, you can't ignore the possibility that the site is now underwater" (Drye). Later in 2005, he found about two hundred and thirty possible artifact sites during a magnetometer survey of the waters just off Roanoke Island, but all of this is just a race against time so that more evidence does not get lost. Some don’t even want to find the colony. Archeologist Phil Evans says, “As long as the Lost Colony is unexplained, it stays fascinating for a lot of people. It's their entry into the story. They go in trying to figure out what happened to the colonists, and then they learn history. I don't want to take away the mystery. That's what makes it different and exciting” (Drye). People will always be intrigued by Roanoke because it doesn’t seem likely that it will ever fully be explained.

Excavation site May 2008

Excavation site May 2008


"About: DocSouth." About: DocSouth. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

Carney, Richard. "Roanoke Island." North Carolina History Project. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

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Read More From Owlcation

Drye, Willie. "America's Lost Colony: Can New Dig Solve Mystery?" National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 28 Oct. 2010. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.

Drye, Willie. "Search for America's "Lost Colony" Gets New Boost." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 28 Oct. 2010. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.

Evans, Phillip W. "Amadas and Barlowe Expedition." NCpedia Home Page. 2006. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Horn, James. "Roanoke's Lost Colony Found?”. pag. Rpt. in American Heritage. Vol. 60. Rockville: AHMC, 1990. 60-65. Print.

Isil, Olivia. "Ships of the Roanoke Voyages." National Parks Service. Ed. Lebame Houston and Wynne Dough. National Parks Service, 16 Nov. 2013. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 2007. Print.

"Primary Sources." Early Colonies. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606. University of North Carolina, 1985. Print.

"The Women of the Lost Colony." National Parks Service. National Parks Service, 24 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

Wolfe, Brendan. "The Roanoke Colonies." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 16 May. 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.


Kayla Ronzani (author) from Connecticut on July 22, 2017:

Thank you! I have always been very interested in American history and especially Roanoke.

Mary Wickison from USA on July 22, 2017:

I am ashamed that as an American, I had never heard of this before. I love not only American history but also a good mystery.

You have given some interesting insights and now have whet my appetite for more information. I would love to visit the area.

Interesting and well written article.

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