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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48 Comments

  • I feel as if there were many theories as to what happened to this colony, yet none of them provide enough convincing evidence. Thus, I feel as if its downfall due to a Native American tribe is probable but yet still one of those theories. I believe that a more probable theory is that they simply relocated. Perhaps we may never know the truth but that is what makes such mysteries intriguing.

  • I remember learning about the Roanoke colony in my 8th grade history class, and this article helped to give me a better understanding of what happened to the lost colony. Some historians do believe that the colony was attacked by a Native American tribe; unfortunately, there is not enough evidence to say that this is absolutely true. I enjoyed reading this article, and I love the fact that there is an article about the mystery of the Roanoke colony.

  • Although the author of this article seems to think that the story of the Roanoke Colony clean cut and (literally) set in stone, I like to believe that there is still a little bit of mystery behind their disappearance. To me, the evidence is not convincing enough to say what exactly what happened, and the clues left behind by the colonist are somewhat contradictory. But even if the colonist did fall victim to a Native American tribe, it seems to me that their demise was just karma taking its course.

  • Roanoke Colony before reading this I knew little to nothing about this colony only that it’s people and settlement disappeared without a trace. But after reading this article it seems someone just needed to piece together all of the evidence. It doesn’t surprise me that the colony fell victim to a brutal indian attack and its inhabitants got scattered, similar to other colonies that got attacked.

  • What a fantastic mystery! The history of Roanoke sounds almost like an M. Night Shyamalan Movie. Your opening paragraph did a great job of setting up the ominous feeling that John White must have felt when returning to Roanoke. Like with any good mystery story you did a wonderful job of bringing it to a close. I would be interested to know what trigged the attack from the Powhatan.

  • No matter how you look at it, over 100 colonists up and vanished without a trace. I think that is the greatest mystery of all. The fact that they gave two clues and yet were still never definitively found is what interests me the most. I’ve read about possibilities of cannibalism as well as theories of alien abduction, but to me I think the most plausible idea would be that the settlers relocated to Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island), which was just south of the Roanoke colony. The reason for this is the fact that settlers had been to Roanoke once before, where they befriended a Croatoan Indian named Manteo, who had previously helped them through the winter.

  • This is article is very capturing. From the very beginning it immediately made me want to continue reading to learn more on the topic. I first heard about the Roanoke Colony about a year ago and it was always intriguing to me, however, I never really researched much more into it. The fact an entire group of people could disappear, vanish, and only leave very little tracks and signs behind is very astonishing. Also, John White returning to find no one there must have been a shock. This was a great article and was very informative.

  • This is a fascinating article. When I read about Roanoke from the textbook I became very interested. I wanted to know what exactly happened to the colonists. It must have been completely baffling to come back and not find anyone. This was a mystery that really kept me interested after reading this article because now I know that they had a way of sending messages if something had happened but they only left one saying where they went. I am glad they were able to find out what happened later on.

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