The Lost Colony of Roanoke: How Did an Entire Village Disappear

The fate of the lost colony of Roanoke is one of American history’s most well-known mysteries. With a village’s worth of people missing, and the only evidence as to their whereabouts being two cryptic words someone carved into a post, the possibilities as to what happened to them are endless.

The Original Colony of Roanoke

In 1584, England’s Queen Elizabeth I asked explorer Sir Walter Raleigh to colonize the recently “discovered” Americas. In search of land not yet occupied by the Spanish, Raleigh sent an expedition to Roanoke Island—located off the coast of present-day North Carolina—with the intent of founding a colony.

The colony of about 100 people encountered harsh weather conditions, illness, and attacks from local Native American tribes, who, for obvious reasons, did not appreciate the colonists’ occupation of their land. With life on the colony not being as idyllic as residents expected, they returned to England in 1586.

The Origins of the Lost Colony of Roanoke

This is an engraving by John White, the leader of the 1587 expedition to Roanoke.
The Arrival of the Englishmen in Virginia (1590). Engraving by Theodor De Bry, from a drawing by John White.
Source: Wikipedia

In 1587, Raleigh sent another expedition to Roanoke, hoping to this time permanently colonize the land. This expedition was led by Raleigh’s most trusted friend John White. 

After arriving, White and his roughly 100 colonists immediately began to build homes and form positive relationships with local tribes, hoping that this Roanoke colony would not fail as the last one did. 

In 1588, White returned to England in order to gather supplies for the colony. However, a Spanish invasion of the motherland prevented him from returning to Roanoke until 1590 (despite the colonists expecting him to return after only a few months).

What Did John White Find When He Returned to Roanoke?

When White did finally return to the colony, he was shocked to find that it had been abandoned. With no evidence of a struggle, the only clue as to where the colonists may have gone was in the words “Cro” and “Croatoan” carved into a post. 

Croatoan was the name of an island and Native American tribe nearby Roanoke. But due to harsh weather conditions, White was unable to sail to the island to search for the colonists, among whom were his wife, daughter, and granddaughter.

He returned to England and eventually passed away without ever discovering what happened to the colonists.

Theories As to What May Have Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke

In the nearly 500 years since the colonists disappeared, the lost colony of Roanoke mystery has stirred the imaginations of historians. But with a lack of evidence, historians have never established a clear consensus on what happened to the colonists. Still, they have proposed several prominent theories throughout the centuries.

The Roanoke Colonists Were Killed by a local Native American Tribe, Most Likely the Croatoan

This is an engraving depicting the attack on the Native Americans that some historians believe sparked the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists.
The 1585 assault on Aquascogoc village
Uncredited – John L. Denison (ed.) (1868) An Illustrated History of the New World p. 205
Source: Wikipedia

Evidence does not suggest that relations between local tribes and the lost colony of Roanoke were soured. Still, it is certainly feasible that Native Americans were upset with the mere fact that their land was being colonized to begin with.

Factor in the fact that in 1586, just before the original Roanoke colony was abandoned, English soldiers—under the command of Sir Richard Grenville—attacked a nearby Native American village, killing several tribesmen and pillaging their homes. According to purveyors of the “killed by a local tribe” theory, this attack planted the seeds for an eventual massacre against the Roanoke colonists.

It must be noted, however, that the 1586 attack was not directed towards the Croatoan tribe, making the etchings on the post all the more confusing.

Bereft of Supplies, the Roanoke Colonists Attempted to Sail Back to England Themselves, Eventually Getting Lost at Sea

Seeing as John White took an entire two years to return to Roanoke with supplies, the colonists were clearly lacking in resources. This theory suggests that, tired of waiting for John White’s return, the colonists attempted to sail back to England themselves and eventually got lost at sea. 

This theory neglects to consider that the colonists did not have a ship large enough to carry themselves, nor did they have the navigational prowess to return to England. Still, driven by hunger and a lack of resources, it is vaguely possible that they attempted such a voyage regardless. 

The Roanoke Colonists Joined the Croatoan Tribe

This theory suggests that, because of their need for supplies, the colonists joined forces with the Croatoan tribe. Reports from Jamestown colonists, who sent out several search parties for their Roanoke neighbors, seem to confirm this. 

According to one report from Jamestown, a boy on the island of Croatoan was dressed as a Native American, despite having blonde hair and pale skin. This theory also explains the carvings on the abandoned colony’s post.


This is a recreation of the post inscribed with "Cro," discovered by John White in 1590.
Re-creation of the post inscribed with “CRO”, from a production of The Lost Colony, by Sarah Stierch
Source: Wikipedia

As one would expect, the above listed theories are merely the tip of the iceberg. The lost colony of Roanoke mystery has inspired legends and conspiracies that are now staples of American culture. Regardless of whatever happened to the colonists, they have been made history through their bizarre disappearance.

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