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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This Post Has 62 Comments

  1. Avatar

    The opening paragraph by Ezequiel De La Fuente was a haunting one, to say the least, and definitely set the tone for what was in store with this article. The mystery behind Roanoake County is something I have minimal knowledge of, so this was a great and informative read for me. Though it is interesting to go deep into the conspiracy, I think that it is safe to say that the colonists of Roanoake were unfortunately murdered by Native Americans.

  2. Avatar

    This is a story that many, regardless of their relationship with their history classes, still remember to this day. This article’s title and exposition was both gripping and exciting to me. I think it is in part due to the intrigue: How does an entire colony just go missing? I like that the article went in-depth as to what the remnants of the colony when they went missing, while leaving it open for the reader to make their own conclusions surrounding the mystery of the lost colony.

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