Illustration by North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy
Published December 6, 2013
It's a mystery that has intrigued Americans for centuries: What happened to the lost colonists of North Carolina's Roanoke Island? (See "America's Lost Colony.")
The settlers, who arrived in 1587, disappeared in 1590, leaving behind only two clues: the words "Croatoan" carved into a fort's gatepost and "Cro" etched into a tree.
Theories about the disappearance have ranged from an annihilating disease to a violent rampage by local Native American tribes. Previous digs have turned up some information and artifacts from the original colonists but very little about what happened to them.
Thanks to technological advances and a cover-up on a map, researchers are getting closer to finding out what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke Island.
What Do We Know?
The lost colonists were the third group of English arrivals on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island, settling near the modern-day town of Manteo.
The first group to arrive, in 1584, came to explore and map the land for future groups. A second group, which arrived in 1585, was charged with a military and scientific mission. But this second group's trip was far from peaceful.
"That's where tensions begin [with the local Native American tribes]," said Clay Swindell of the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a member of the archaeology team investigating the colony. He says that this second group was driven out in 1586 by local tribes angry that the colonists were taking up good land and resources.
The third group arrived in 1587. Entire families came with children—17 women and 11 children accompanied a party of 90 men. That meant the group wanted to settle in the New World and was not a military excursion, which would have included only male explorers.
A Map With Secrets
A clue uncovered in a long-forgotten, centuries-old map of the area called "La Virginea Pars"—drawn by the colony's governor John White—kicked off a reexamination of the fate of the lost colonists. An artist and employee of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, White was later appointed governor of the new lands; he was also the grandfather of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.
Two patches on the map made Brent Lane of the First Colony Foundation (the group behind the latest archaeological trip and whose work is supported by National Geographic and the Waitt Grants Programs) in Durham, North Carolina, wonder if they might hide something beneath.
Scientists at the British Museum looked into the patches and discovered a tiny red-and-blue symbol. Could it have indicated a fort or a secret emergency location?
"Our best idea is that parts of Raleigh's exploration in North America were a state secret, and the map 'cover-up' was an effort to keep information from the public and from foreign agents," said Eric Klingelhofer of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, a historian and the principal investigator on the project.
Most researchers think the colonists likely encountered disease—caused by New World microbes their bodies had never encountered before—or violence.
The research team thinks that when the crisis—whatever that may have been—hit, the colonists split up into smaller groups and dispersed.
"It's a good strategy," he said, explaining that the previous group from 1585 had been ordered to do so if disaster struck. "We don't definitely know that they do, but it's obvious that that's the only way they could have survived. No single Indian tribe or village could have supported them. They would be even larger than some villages—I mean, they were over a hundred people."
The prevailing theory has been that the colonists abandoned Roanoke and traveled 50 miles south to Hatteras Island, which was then known as Croatoan Island. But, Klingelhofer said, what if they went in another direction?
What if some of the colonists traveled west via Albemarle Sound to the mouth of the Chowan River, to a protected inlet occupied by a sympathetic tribe? (See "What 'Sleepy Hollow' Didn't Tell Us About Roanoke's Lost Colony.")
Furthermore, archaeologists have identified the nearby site of a small Native American town named Mettaquem, which may have adopted some of the colonists. Klingelhofer said that while researchers don't know much about the Native American town and its inhabitants, its existence has been verified.
"It's a very strategic place, right at the end of Albemarle Sound," he said. "You can go north up the Chowan River to Virginia or west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were big trading partners" with other Native American tribes.
After the map's secret was revealed, Klingelhofer, along with the First Colony Foundation, which studies the first attempts at colonization in the New World, proposed a return trip to the area, with a twist. This time, shovels would have 21st-century helpers—magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar (GPR).
Using Modern Technology
Malcolm LeCompte, a research associate at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, was responsible for the addition of GPR in the archaeological search for what happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke.
The process began earlier this year with a satellite survey of the site.
"What we do is we get the oldest maps we can find—so we can get a historic sense of what was there and what's there now—and orient them," LeCompte said. The point is to compare "what may have been there in the past to what is there now."
Researchers look for similarities between the old maps and the current geography of the area. Once they identify where the spots on the map correspond with today's landscape, a painstaking process of laying out a grid and systematically searching it with their GPR ensues.
The technology emits radio waves into the ground and measures the echo as the signal bounces off of various things buried underground. Essentially, it measures the depth that signals travel before hitting something that causes a measurable bounce back. In other words, signals potentially indicate a hidden object underground.
Metal objects—like the iron cannons that have been found at the site—act like "giant antennas." Graves and coffins are also detectable, because they contain voids with different densities and poorer conductive properties than the surrounding soil.
LeCompte and his colleagues found a previously undetected pattern that may indicate the presence of one or more structures, possibly made of wood, under about three feet (a meter) of soil.
"I don't know if it's one or a group [of structures]," he said, adding that they "could be joined or they could be close together." Perhaps the wood of the structures collapsed over time, leaving impressions in the surrounding soil, LeCompte speculated.
The Museum of the Albemarle's Swindell suggested the use of a proton magnetometer to enable the researchers to double-check their GPR findings. Much more sensitive than a metal detector, the device can spot objects buried about 13 feet (four meters) underground.
The device measures distortions of the Earth's magnetic field due to the presence of various objects buried underground.
"We're looking for anything that affects the local magnetic field," Swindell stressed. "That could be things like burn pits."
Swindell, for his part, thinks there may also be remains of a palisades that would have been used by farmers to keep wild animals away from crops.
The presence of the buried structure and the fence strongly indicate that there was some sort of colonial presence in the area. What complicates the story further is the presence of later colonial sites in the area through the 1700s.
Unfortunately, neither piece of technology has shed light on the role of Native American populations in the area. That's a puzzle that remains to be solved.
In the days of the Roanoke Colony, relations with the local Native Americans were mixed.
Tensions were especially high between the colonists and the Secotan tribe.
"There is no doubt that there was a lot of hostility," Klingelhofer said. "Not all the tribes were hostile, but some of them were hostile. They felt imposed upon. There was fighting between [the groups]"—both among the tribes, and between some of the native peoples and the English settlers.
It didn't help that the English attempted to explore the area multiple times. The group that arrived prior to the lost colonists were driven back to England, which meant when the ill-fated third group of colonists showed up, some sour feelings remained.
"It would not surprise me that the Secotan would want to be done and get rid of the English," Swindell said.
Whether groups of Secotan banded together to rid themselves of what they saw as interlopers is anyone's guess, he said.
The area does seem to hold clues to contact between local tribes and European colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The next step in solving this age-old American mystery? "We have to go in and dig some holes, I guess," Swindell said.
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When I first moved to NC a few years back, I remember taking a group of students to the site. I remember teaching about it and actually writing a small historical account of the Lost Colony.
Although, I am sure there is something significant in the Lost Colony, I am not sure of how significatnt it is in the overall scheme of US history. Short of being an attempt and ultimate failure to achieve a settlement by the English in the Americas, I cannot see who benefits from this piece of history.
This does not mean that I do not find the story interesting, I do. I just wonder in the overall scheme of history where its significance lies?
My best guess is the old fashioned notion of Exceptionalism that has been hijacked by some as only meaning that we think we are better than everyone else. My understanding of Exceptionalism is more about the ambition to try and not stop upon failure; to keep trying until the task has been successful. The Lost Colony would be an example of that kind of Exceptionalism in my book.
If were in the classroom today, that kind of Exceptionalism is how I would teach it.
The fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of America's most famous unsolved mysteries. What began as a strategic venture ended with a string of tragic events. By the late 16th century, the race for the New World was on, and Sir Walter Raleigh was charged with establishing an English foothold in the Americas. This would allow England to scout out resources (i.e. gold), claim some territory, convert some pagans and establish a base camp for raids on Spanish ships.
In 1584, Raleigh financed a scouting expedition in order to find the perfect spot for his new venture. Captains Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlow returned with glowing reports of a "most pleasant and fertile" land, inhabited by a "loving and faithful" people, and it was decided that Roanoke Island's protected shores would be the perfect place to start England's first colony in the New World. With the Queen's blessing (and financial support), a boatload of soldiers was promptly sent off to the shores of North America.
The 108 men dropped off on Roanoke settled on the north side of the island and built a defensible fort. Artist John White diligently recorded the local people, flora, and fauna of Roanoke. Scientist Thomas Hariot busied himself with the metals and minerals of the island. Initially the colonists traded beads and trinkets to the Indians for food and supplies. As winter set in, food became scarce and tensions grew between the ill-prepared colonists and the Roanoke Islanders. By spring, there was open conflict between the parties. At war with the Native Americans, and tired of waiting for overdue supply ships, when the colonists saw Sir Francis Drake's fleet passing by, they hopped on board and headed back to England. The tardy supply ships showed up just days later, and a group of 15 men were left to "hold down the fort" until a new group of settlers could be recruited.
For his second attempt at colonization, Sir Walter Raleigh decided to mix it up and add women and children to the group. He offered each settler a plot of land in the "cittie of Raleigh" that they were sent to establish. These brave new colonists (two of them pregnant!) arrived at Roanoke in July of 1587. They had planned to make a quick stop to resupply the 15 soldiers and then move inland. Upon their arrival, they found little evidence of the soldiers, and it was feared to be too late in the season to safely venture further. The colonists were left on Roanoke to settle in the abandoned ruins of their predecessors. Shortly after the colonists arrived, they celebrated the birth of the first English child in the New World, baby Virginia Dare.
Relations with the Native Americans were still troubled and grew worse after a series of miscommunications and ill-fated actions by the colonists. John White, now governor of the fledgling colony, left for England on what was to be a quick supply run. The colonists were instructed to leave a note if they moved on or ran into trouble. Due to a series of unfortunate events, White was unable to return for three years. Upon his belated homecoming, he found his family and community missing and the colony in ruins. The letters "CRO" were carved into a tree near the water, and "CROATOAN" was carved into the gate post. In what must have been a most frustrating situation, White was forced to leave with his ship without searching for the colony. White would make several more attempts to find his family and friends, but the fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains a mystery to this day. Theories abound on the fate of the settlers: drought-induced starvation, Spanish attack, lost at sea trying to return home or the possibility that the colonists moved inland and set up camp with the friendly Indians on Croatoan. We may never know what happened to the Lost Colony, but finding where the settlement was on Roanoke Island would be a great place to start unravelling this 400-year-old mystery.Fort Raleigh Site Timeline
Having trouble keeping all of this straight? So did we! Here is a timeline to help:
- 1584 — Sir Walter Raleigh's men Captains Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe first land on Roanoke Island and find it suitable for settlement.
- 1585 — 108 soldiers come to Roanoke to establish first colony.
- 1586 — Colonists and Native Americans at 'war,' and colony abandoned.
- 1587 — Second group of 117 colonists come to Roanoke.
- August 18, 1587 — Birth of Virginia Dare, first English baby born in the New World.
- 1587 — John White returns to England.
- 1588 — White's ship taken to hold off Phillip II of Spain's armada.
- 1590 — White finally returns to Roanoke to find the colony gone.
- 1602 — Raleigh makes another attempt to locate the colony.
- 1862-1867 — Freedmen's Colony on Roanoke Island. Originally a Union Army base, it became a community for African Americans during the Civil War.
- 1921 — The Story of the Lost Colony movie made on site.
- 1936 — Palisade reconstruction built.
- 1937 — Lost Colony outdoor theater begins.
- 1941 — Fort Raleigh designated National Historic Site.
- 1940s — Professional archaeology begins at Roanoke.
- 1950s — Replica fort built.
- 1991 — Science Center found in excavation led by Sir Ivor Noel Hume.
- 1998 — Excavations at Croatoan (50 miles from Roanoke) intriguingly unearth some English artifacts.
- 2004 — First Colony Foundation formed.
- 2008 — Time Team America investigates the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
What is the connection between Roanoke Island and Roanoke the city, in Virginia? Being born in that city I've long wondered if the name came with settlers from the island. the Roanoke valley is one of the most protected ( from weather and possibly natives) areas in the region. There is no good explanation for the coincidence of names.
wow! for years I've been sitting in class wondering what it meant. maybe we could even find Amelia Airheart in another 200 years!
Following some good ole diggin'that surely needs to be done, I am sure should any human remains come up, they would be subject to modern DNA discovering techniques. That should give some more light on the interesting matter...
There is evidence that they were assimilated into the native populations:
"John Lawson was an early English explorer who left a permanent record of his travels among the tribes of the Carolinas. He commenced his journey on December 28th, 1700. Lawson's History of North Carolina is regarded as the standard authority for the period it covers, and he says that there was a band of Indians in the eastern part of North Carolina known as Hatteras Indians, that had lived on Roanoke Island and that these told him that many of their ancestors were white people and could "talk in a book." That many of these Indians had grey eyes that were found among no other Indians, that they were friendly to the English and were ready to do all friendly services.
He says it is probable that White's Colony miscarried for want of timely supplies from England, or through the treachery of the natives, for we may reasonably suppose that the English were forced to cohabit with them and that in process of time, they conformed themselves to the manners of their Indian relations....
"Just when the colonists and Indians, with whom they amalgamated, removed to the interior is not certainly known, but it is believed to have been as early as 1650. At the coming of the first white settlers to what is now known as Robeson County, there was found located on the banks of the Lumber River a large tribe of Indians, speaking the English language, tilling the soil, owning slaves, and practicing many of the arts of civilized life. And what is of greater significance, a very large number of the names appearing among the Lost Colony are to be found among the Croatan Indians, a fact inexplicable upon any other hypothesis than that the Lost Colony amalgamated with the Indians.
The carved 'Croatoan' seems an obvious indication that is where they were headed. This did put them closer to the Secotan tribe with which they had the worst relationship of all the tribes. Looking at the map, it seems that they might feel Croatoan would offer a more defensible position and one where they could hope for rescue.
It makes no sense for them to have traveled to some place unknown to possible rescuers. I think that an extensive search, such as that undertaken, could turn up similar possible houses or fences almost anywhere. They definitely intended to head to Croatoan. The unfinished message on the tree suggests they left in a hurry (probably wore out their welcome with neighboring tribes). Indians may have killed them or as someone else has suggested a hurricane or storm may have washed them off the face of the earth.
Just wondering if there has been any work on the weather patterns of that time in history. Could a hurricane have devastated those exposed islands?
I have always thought this story was super creepy. Can you imagine the colonists trying to escape and communicate where they were going, by carving "Croatoan" into the gate post, then trying to write it again in a tree but only able to finish the letters "Cro" before being force to flee. Creepy!
The second expedition ended its year-long stay by attacking the Roanoke Indian town of Dasemunkepuec and beheaded its leader. The expedition leader spread ill-will wherever he went. It is doubtful that the local nations, Chowanoke, Secotan, Moratuc and Weapemoc would have allowed a fort or a settlement at the Albemarle/Chowan/Roanoke crossroad. Also, the third group of settlers probably would be diying of hunger and disease while attempted to settle to another location. I wish the researchers good luck on their quest.
....discovered a tiny red-and-blue symbol. Could it have indicated a fort or a secret emergency location?
"Our best idea is that parts of Raleigh's exploration in North America were a state secret, and the map 'cover-up' was an effort to keep information from the public and from foreign agents"
Oh, those nasty politicians, always hiding, lurking and tapping everyone cell phones. When will ever end?
Just kidding. Intrigue is just another human emotion and we shouldn't be shocked that it is going on today. Well I am not anyway, I have nothing to hide. But I did inhale back in the eighties!
In 1492 Columbus Discovered America. When he returned to Spain he left behind a colony of 39 Spanish men near what is now Cap-Haïtien in Northern Haiti. When he returned in 1493 he found that all of those 39 men were dead, having been eaten by the Taino Indians. The Taino Indians complained that the Spanish men had monopolized all the Indian women, taking five women for each man. Columbus found the arm of one of the men in a cooking pot in an Indian hut. Does this help explain what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke Island? In view of the absence of three years, it would explain what happened to the dead bodies of the more than one hundred English settlers when the ships returned three years later in 1590.
Fascinating! - Had heard of the Roanoke mystery, but obviously it is still unresolved. A most unfortunate decision to send a bunch settlers with women & children into an area where a military group had previously been driven off. - Wasn't that a hint????
I'm interested in this but sorry I had to read this article. It's the Internet Age. Indicate a Subject, give straight and direct information. This article rambles everywhere but there.
Plus -- I guess you'd have to be a scientist or maybe an academic to not think these people went to WHERE THEY CARVED A NAME IN A TREE....gosh...get a clue.
Seems the mystery is why they carved the word "Crotoan" into the tree instead of "Hey, dummies, we're moving to Croatoan". Of course, carving paragraphs into trees can be somewhat tedious.
The natives killed and ate them. They would have hidden any metal objects as they knew it would get them in trouble by future colonists. No big mystery at all.
So, in other words, the mystery about the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists is in essence, still a mystery.
@Erik Kajca You are a teacher of some sort? And you don't see how significant the Lost Colony is? Are you a Gym teacher?
These settlers were the first. Before Jamestown....the first people who came with the idea of living here, and the first who made their home here from Europe. The were the first European women in the new world, who gave birth to the first child,...and they disappeared without a trace.
I have to say, I'm really confused how somebody could NOT find it extremely significant, much less a somewhat educated person...
Somehow this isn't historically valid, but an example of "Exceptionalism",...I don't know when I've heard something so abstract.
What exactly do you teach?
@David Stacy Hurricanes erasing land evidence was my initial thought when I first read about the lost colony. It is a vulnerable area. Couldn't the entire coastline (and islands) have been altered? I haven't run across any research in support of the theory.
Greedy Native Americans refusing to share the land with the brave colonists? I thought Native Americans rejected the idea of land ownership and that the land was for everyone.
The Native Americans had no right to prevent undocumented citizens from another land from simply moving into the Native American's land. Or so I am told by La Raza.
@Ben Mclovein GREED IS AN ON GOING DIESEAE
@Sam Sloan You do realize that Hispaniola isn't in present day North Carolina, correct? You just drew parallels between two peoples that most likely never were aware of the other. Which means they were culturally distinct from the Antillean Islands cultures. Maybe you should look at the other cultures that surrounded present day North Carolina instead of one tribe out of thousands covering two continents. If not, you might as well compare the inhabitants of the Roanoke Islands with Indians in India. It would be roughly just as accurate.
But those Indians were not ever known to be cannibals. I thought that it was the Carib Indians that did the cannibalizing. All of the other tribes in the Caribbean were terrified of them, for some strange reason. (humor) And the Caribbean would have been a long way from the North Carolina area in those days.
"Plus -- I guess you'd have to be a scientist or maybe an academic to not think these people went to WHERE THEY CARVED A NAME IN A TREE....gosh...get a clue."
if it's so obvious that they went there, why is there no evidence of them ever being there? yeah, thought so. might want to work on the critical thinking skills a bit there bud
@Barry Contrary It probably was their initial intention to go there, but did they make it? Maybe they chased from there. Maybe they became lost. Carving a name and the reality of the conclusion are two different things.
@pierre pierre ugh. Any civilized person would know, you don't do that to colonists, you fry them, with saffron and parsley.
@Michael Lovett Do you have proof that the natives at that time in that place consumed human flesh?
@Michael Lovett Any metal the natives took after killing the colonists would have been use in everyday life. Such as for knives, axes, and arrow heads. So the metal would have worn away over time. As to the natives fearing trouble by future colonists, would the natives have known there would be more colonists?
...no, the reverse was more accurate-- the starving 'settlers' dug Indian graves for 'food' and corn or other artefacts buried with the deceased ... further, they ate their own deceased. But first, the settlers/plunderers infected the Indian denizens with smallpox, killing thousands.
@S. Gonzalez-Delpozo I'm excited about the potential for archaeological projects which might come out of this new development.
@laurence Soronen Hmmmm ... so, not greedy colonists helping themselves to established resources of the natives? If your second para is correct, how do most countriest today justify their immigration restrictions on refugees, for instance, or others seeking to live in their space?
@laurence Soronen I think you just lumped millions of different people into one generalization.
@cj h.Intending to go there doesn't mean they made it. They were presumably moving for a reason, and the move to an island suggests that it was hostile locals. If they tried to make the whole journey by sea, what were they using for boats? I suspect they wouldn't have had many (if any) decent ones, and may have tried to do it on improvised rafts that would not have survived any rough weather. If they tried to make part of the journey by land, the hostiles would have probably been able to destroy them in a series of ambushes just as other small groups wiped out Cabeza de Vaca's large armed expedition in just a few days. All this apart from simple hardships of the journey that might have seen them all perish en route.
@cj hoef You comment contains nothing constructive and is chalked full of anger. I hope figure out what you are angry about. I doubt it is National Geographic. I'd hate for you to hurt yourself or someone else due to unresolved anger issues.
Carving the name may only means they were planning on going there, not that they made it. The partial carving may indicate they were interrupted, say by an attack. The attack may not kill everyone but might drive them into ill prepared, overloaded boats and rafts. Such craft would be very vulnerable to the weather turning bad. Such a scenario would mean most of the artifacts we are hoping for are lost in the mud of the bay. Any scattered survivors would be completely at the mercy of the tribe on whatever shore they washed up on.
Another theory might be the natives on Croatan wouldn't let them land so they had to go somewhere else in an area where nobody really likes them and many hate them. They may have been weakened enough by disease and or combat that they could no longer force the issue.
If, instead of being so eager to slap someone with the 'you might want to work on your critical thinking skills' chestnut, you had done something as basic as look at a simple wiki on the subject, you would have begun to discover that there is plenty of documented evidence in the form of explorer's journals and other document-based or oral-history-based sources as well as genetic evidence, that supports the conclusion that the colonists were absorbed into one or more of the nearby tribes including the Croatoans. Enough so that most serious historians consider the 'mystery' solved, give or take one or two minor details.
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