Mysteries, Oddities, and Everything Strange: Roanoke

Bridget Vaughan, Staff Writer

Roanoke: A Colony Lost to the Elements

Practically everyone has endured a lesson about the lost colony of Roanoke. One of the first European civilizations in North America disappeared without a trace while its leader ventured back to England to fetch supplies. With only a single world left carved into a tree and no remains of human life, the disappearance of the society is nothing short of puzzling. Although many of us have been forced to come to conclusions about where exactly the colony ended up, there might just be a historical solution that puts social studies teachers to rest.

The colony was established in 1587 after a voyage of 115 people, mostly men, docked on the island nearby Virginia and North Carolina. This settlement was bound to be the first permanent British landstead in the Western Hemisphere and was a major step in England’s exploration of the “New” World. They docked in 1585 and began to thrive with their mayor and leader being John White. The mission was mostly funded by investors hoping to find gold and silver. The colony suffered plenty of misfortune in its first year, lacking food and enduring harsh winters. They encountered some native tribes as well throughout the area.

After a particularly challenging year, John White decided to return to England and gather more supplies to keep the colony afloat. Unfortunately, a war between Britain and Spain was reaching a climax as he arrived, so the government ordered any available ship to dock and help in the fight. White was enveloped in the fighting and could not return to his people for another 3 years. Once he did, he found the area completely deserted. Some supplies still remained, but most of the colony had seemingly disappeared into thin air. The only remaining traces of any civilization came in the form of the word “CROATOAN” carved into a tree. White’s family, including his wife, daughter, and newly-born granddaughter, were completely gone.

The mystery of the Roanoke Colony plagued history for centuries after it occurred. The nature of the disappearance was so simple, yet the single clue and the countless possibilities made it difficult to pinpoint an actual solution. The word Croatoan also held some significance, as a local indigenous tribe shared the name and likely had some sort of clue. The first assumption made was that the Native Americans had captured or even massacred the English settlement, but the lack of bloodshed or weapons made this possibility very unlikely. 

Another theory claimed the settlement attempted to take matters into their own hands and mount a sail back to England but failed and became stranded. At this point, Spain had occupied Florida, so the people could have also met and been killed by Spanish soldiers or incorporated into the civilization. A terrible storm could also have simply wiped out the entire population, as they would have likely been unprepared to handle such a threat. A disease or plague, possibly brought on by the foreign conditions, could also likely have been a cause.

Throughout history, though, the solution most likely and most commonly accepted is that the colonists conceded to the local tribes and joined them. A lack of resources or knowledge of the surrounding area would have prompted the Englishmen to seek help from those who were familiar with the land. The island of Croatoan (now called Hatteras Island) had a sizable population of Native Americans living there, so access would have been easy. Throughout the village of the Hatteras tribe, there were English artifacts that could not have possibly been created by those living there. A map was also discovered containing hidden locations of forts and other structures further inland that the people of Roanoke might have been living in. In addition, there is some genetic evidence that the Hatteras tribe and the Roanoke colonists began to procreate, resulting in children with shared ancestry.

There might not ever be a definitive solution to whatever occurred at Roanoke, but there are definitely theories that have some grounding and could even explain the events that occurred at Roanoke. The most shocking detail of this whole scenario is that White and his crew did not check the nearby Croatoan island that was hinted at by the carving in the tree, which might have eliminated the air of mystery surrounding this historical event. Despite this, the mystery of the island might forever be unsolved, and the civilization paved the way for Jamestown and other colonies to spring up along the Atlantic Seaboard. These colonies eventually lead to a thriving British colony that would eventually become the United States of America.