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Roanoke Colony - most haunting historical mystery in America

Updated on January 15, 2016
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis believes it is so important to educate our children on Early American History, for it is what shaped our country.

Lost Colony Theater ~

Lost Colony Theater on Roanoke Island where re-enactment plays are performed
Lost Colony Theater on Roanoke Island where re-enactment plays are performed | Source

The Lost Colony ~

Bertie County, in northeastern North Carolina, has a stunningly beautiful golf course that lies along the eastern coast. Researchers and archaeologists have found new clues which indicate under that golf course may lie the remnants of Roanoke Colony, the most haunting historical mystery in America. It is often referred to as The Lost Colony.

What clues or answers to America's most famous and hauntingly sad mystery lie beneath this golf course -- and how many lost souls wander around on the lush green of the hills and gentle slopes? Are they there still, after more than 400 years, looking out to sea hopefully, watching for John White to return from England?

When John White, governor of Roanoke Colony, returned to England in August of 1587, he had no idea that he would never again see the people of the colony he left behind, including his daughter and granddaughter. The colony was in need of more supplies and food. White had hoped to get back to the colony before the hard winter months hit. Yet that was not to be. Due to England's war with Spain, White was not able to return to the colony for three years.

Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1559 ~

Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine.
Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine. | Source

Sir Walter Raleigh ~

Going further back in time to England, we learn that under the auspices of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh was granted a charter, in March of 1584. This charter was to allow Raleigh colonize the new land the Queen had named Virginia.

Raleigh financed, organized and appointed commanders for expeditions. In April, his first expedition to explore for suitable sites to build a settlement was lead by Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe. In early July, arriving on Roanoke Island, Amadas and Barlowe met with the Secotans and Croatoans, two Indian tribes living in the Carolinas, and focused on creating good relations with them.

Manteo and Wanchese, two chiefs of small Croatoan tribes, were encouraging and helpful in showing Amadas and Barlowe the land. Barlowe took them both back to England with him to meet Raleigh. When Raleigh was satisfied with information he received from the Croatoan chiefs about the splendid possibilities of a settlement, he sent a second expedition to explore what would become Roanoke Colony.

Sir Richard Grenville was in charge of the expedition in April of 1585. The ship that carried the men who would be staying at Roanoke had scraped a sandbar on the way through the inlet, which caused enough damage to destroy most of the food supplies in the ship's hold. Grenville appointed Ralph Lane as Governor to be in charge of the group of 107 men who were left at Roanoke. They built a settlement on the north end of the island.

The extreme reaction of Grenville over a minor incident of a stolen cup, caused very strained relations between the natives and Lane's colonists. One Indian had stolen the cup, a silver one, and Grenville retaliated by burning the Indian village and having several Indians killed. Grenville then left Lane and his colonists and returned to England to obtain more supplies to bring back.

Sir Walter Raleigh ~

Walter Raleigh, 1585
Walter Raleigh, 1585 | Source

Tensions Escalate ~

Tensions between the natives and colonists escalated into open warfare. On June 9, 1586, word came to Lane that Sir Francis Drake was just off the coast and would anchor the next day. Negotiations were made between Lane and Drake. Lane accepted Drake's generous offer to give all the colonists passage back to England.

Grenville finally managed to return to Roanoke with the supplies that Lane and the colonists so needed, but he did not get there till after Drake sailed off with the colonists. Grenville left fifteen men with supplies of food and other necessities that would sustain them for two years, then returned to England.

In 1587, Raleigh sent another group of colonists to Roanoke. Some accounts mention 120 men, women and children, and others say 150. Among them was the appointed Governor John White and his twelve assistants. White's daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, Ananias Dare, were among the new colonists. Eleanor was pregnant and the baby was due at any time.

Upon arriving at Roanoke Colony, White wanted to confer with the fifteen men Grenville had left there. They found only the bones of one man and no sign of the others. The settlement was overgrown with vines and melons, but the houses were still in decent shape. One of White's assistants was killed by Indians shortly after arriving.

The Carolina Algonquian tribes that inhabited the areas included the Secotan and the Croatoan. Previous colony leaders had established good relations with these two tribes -- so, White set out to find Chief Manteo.

Virginia Dare baptism ~

An 1880 lithograph of the Virginia Dare Baptism, First child born in North America
An 1880 lithograph of the Virginia Dare Baptism, First child born in North America | Source

John White returns to England ~

White found the Croatoan tribe and their chief, Manteo, that had been on friendly terms with the colonists, and re-established good relations with them. When he asked if they knew anything about the fifteen men who had been at the colony, he was told that the tribe at Dasamonquepeuc had killed all the men plus George Howe, White's assistant.

The tribe at Dasamonquepeuc were a small group of survivors of the tribe that Grenville had attacked two years previously. White took a group of armed men, attacked and killed the natives he found there. White later found out that the ones he killed were part of the Croatoan tribe that he was on friendly terms with. White did not know that the Dasamonquepeuc tribe had deserted their town and a small group of Croatoans had gone there to scavenge for any useful items left behind. With the help of Manteo, it was explained to White and the tribe what had happened and White made his apologies.

White's daughter, Eleanor, gave birth to a daughter, Virginia White Dare, on August 18, 1587. Virginia was the first European child born in America. She was baptized at Roanoke Colony.

Less than two weeks after the birth of his granddaughter, Governor White returned to England to obtain much needed supplies for the colony. When he left, he had no idea that, due to weather and the war with Spain, it would be three years before he returned to Roanoke. He also did not know he would never see his daughter and granddaughter again -- or that Roanoke Colony would become such a hauntingly famous legend of mystery.

Secoton Chief by John White ~

Watercolor by John White, 1585
Watercolor by John White, 1585 | Source

Lost In Time ~

In the earliest days of English settlements in North America, it was not unusual that colonists were lost, killed, captured, or sometimes just disappeared. However, to have a whole colony of 120 people disappear all at once, with no trace, is quite unusual and still remains a mystery since 1590. That is what happened to Roanoke, the Lost Colony. Roanoke is still lost in time, but not in memory.

So, what could have happened to so many men, women, and children who were never seen again by their families and search parties? There was no sign of a massacre, no dead bodies to be found, no letters or journals, nothing -- there were no leads or traces as to where those people had gone. The only possible clue was the word "Croatoan" carved on a tree in the settlement.

When Jamestown was settled in May of 1607, one of Captain John Smith's instructions was to find out what happened to the people of Roanoke Colony. The only possible clue was what Powhatan told Smith, that the settlers were all killed by Powhatan and his warriors because they were living with the Chesapeake tribe.

Powhatan had over thirty tribes under his control. The Chesapeake refused to come under the leadership of Powhatan. This angered Powhatan, plus a prophecy by a spiritual leader had indicated that the Chesapeake would rise up and destroy Powhatan and all his tribes. To prevent that from happening, Powhatan attacked and killed off the Chesapeake and all the settlers living with them.

Trail of Stones ~

Many believed that Eleanor Dare, Governor John White's daughter, was the one to carve CROATOAN on the tree. Also claimed to be the work of Eleanor were stones carved with messages to John White. These stones were apparently found throughout northern Georgia and the Carolinas. The first stone found told of the death of Eleanor's husband, Ananias, and their baby daughter, Virginia. The message indicated they had been killed by Indians in 1591.

Forty-eight stones in all were claimed to be carved by Eleanor and gave information on the fate of the lost Colonists. These stones were found by various people and made exciting news from 1937 to 1941. Were the stones found at this time? Or were they found at a much earlier time and held on to? Were they authentic and actually carved by Eleanor Dare? Or was it all a hoax to add to the mystery and myths of the legends that sprang up since the disappearances?

One stone, dated 1592, claimed the colonists found a home in Nacoochee Valley in Georgia and lived there in peace. Yet another dated 1598 claimed Eleanor married a King of a tribe and by him had a daughter named Agnes. The death of Eleanor in 1599 was indicated on the last stone. Who had carved that stone?

Many Speculations ~

Speculations abound as to what happened to the people of Roanoke Colony. One speculation, which seems quite feasible, is that the survivors of the colony eventually integrated with a native tribe. The Croatoan tribe, who had always been on friendly terms with the Europeans since the first meeting, lived south of Roanoke Island, and the settlers may have gone there. Yet, it seems likely that if they had, then White and other search parties would have found the colonists.

A very likely possibility is that the colonists were captured by the Spanish Armada and taken to Puerto Rico, where the Spanish base for pirating and warfare was located. Prior to the time that Ralph Lane and the first group of colonists had settled at Roanoke Colony, the English ships anchored in Puerto Rico at the Island of St. Johns on May 12, 1585. They built a fort for the purpose of ship repairs and nail forging then seized two Spanish frigates. Before leaving St. Johns Island, Lane raided a Spanish fort and took with him a large supply of salt. So, it is possible that in retaliation of incidents like that leading up to the war between England and Spain, the Spanish raided Roanoke Colony and took all the colonists and whatever supplies were there.

Since the sixteenth century, there has been a significant loss of land on the north end of the island as the sea reclaimed it. Some experts believe the remnants of the colony may be underwater, others disagree.

There are many who would like the Lost Colony of Roanoke to stay a mystery and allow the lore and legends to remain on the pages of history.

Based on the speculations and findings (trail of stones) mentioned in this article, what do you think happened to the Roanoke colonists?

See results

In search of the lost colony of Roanoke ~

Note from author ~

08/11/2012 - There is fascinating new evidence about Roanoke Colony. Please check out the article by Patty Inglish at the link provided above. "Lost Roanoke Colony Found - Maps, Artifacts and DNA Evidence".

Thank you for reading my article. Your opinions are important to me and let me know your interests. This helps me to offer more of your favorite subjects to read about. Your time and interest are very much appreciated. I hope to hear from you in the comments section below.

I write on several different subjects, all evergreen articles. You can read more about me and see more articles I wrote by clicking on my name by the small picture of me at the top right of this page.

Blessings and may you always walk in peace and harmony, softly upon Mother Earth.

Phyllis Doyle Burns - Lantern Carrier, Spiritual Mentor
~ ~ ~ ~

© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns


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    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Mary, thank you so much for your very kind praise. The story of the Lost Colony really intrigues me and all the different theories are possible. Many scholars still believe what Powhatan told John Smith.

      Thanks again, Mary, for your visit, comment and votes - much appreciated as always.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      4 years ago from New York

      I'd never heard of the Lost Colony, perhaps because I'm from the North. There was a lot going on there at that time it seems. A lot of unnecessary bloodshed, but that seemed to be the norm in settling this country.

      This was very interesting and educational Phyllis. Always a good read.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hub revised by author, November 1, 2013. I found an image of yet another stone supposedly carved by a Charles R. in 1591, member of the colony. So, Virginia Dare died in either 1590 as a stone accredited to Eleanor Dare stated, or in 1591 according to Charles R.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Glimmer, it must be great to actually be in the same area the folks of the lost colony once lived and walked. Thank you very much for the visit and comment.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      6 years ago

      This has always been one of my favorite stories in history, probably because we went to the outer banks every summer and went to see the "Lost Colony". I will always wonder what happened to those first settlers. Well done hub!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Heidi, how nice of you to stop by, read and comment. It is a very fascinating story, one I have followed over the years. I keep hoping the experts will solve the mystery -- then again, I rather like it to stay a mystery. Thanks again, I appreciate your comment.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Dolores, thank you so much for reading and commenting, I really appreciate it. It sure is a total ghost story. So many people at once just gone to who knows where. Thank you for the votes.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      6 years ago from Chicago Area

      From school days I remember reading about the mysterious Roanoke colony. So last winter when the History Channel American Unearthed series did an episode on it, I had to watch. Truly fascinating stuff. Your hub really brought the story to life!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      As a child, I was fascinated with the story of the Lost Colony. And I would guess that this would be a haunted place. The mystery, gone unsolved, for so many years is a total ghost story. (Voted up and shared)

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      You are most welcome, Martin. Thank you for the visit and comment.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this interesting piece of history.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Rose. Thank you for the visit and comment. I agree, this is a fascinating piece of American history. It is very intriguing as to where all those people had gone to. I honestly do not think the researchers/archaeologists will ever dig up that beautiful golf course to find something that may not even be there. I believe, though, that they have sensor machines that can detect things deep underground without disturbing the landscape. It will be very interesting to learn more about this age-old mystery. Thanks for the vote, Rose.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Sheila. Thank you for the visit and comment. The stones are very interesting -- yet, I tend to agree with the experts who studied the stones, that just the first one found is authentic. There are still ongoing studies to find the colony.

    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 

      6 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      This is a fascinating piece of American History and a haunting mystery indeed! It makes you wonder how an entire colony of 120 settlers can vanish without a trace. Very eerie! This was a very insightful and interesting article. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very interesting information. I've read a lot about the lost colony, but both the part about the stones and the theory about the people being captured by the Spanish are new to me. That adds even more intrigue to the story.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Eddy, thank you so much for your visit and comment. I wrote this article a few yeas ago -- actually it was two articles that I combined into one. I had it deleted from another site so I could put it here. It took me quite awhile to get it organized the way I wanted, and a long time to find all the images and video to go with it. I am so glad you enjoyed reading it Thank you for the votes, it is much appreciated. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Rock_nj, thank you so much for your visit and comment. I really appreciate it. Best wishes to you.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Pat. It must have been wonderful to grow up in an area that abounds with early American history. You must be very familiar with a lot of historical places there. There have been so many speculations and thought provoking theories as to the whereabouts of the colony. I feel that if the colonists had gone to merge with any Indian tribes that this would have been known before too much time had passed. I think that the story Powhatan told John Smith holds more credence than any of the theories. Thank you so much for the visit, comments and votes, Pat -- I so appreciate this. Have a wonderful weekend. Angels and hugs are coming your way, my friend.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      So very interesting Phyllis and your obvious hard work certainly paid off here.

      Voting up and wishing you a great day .


    • Rock_nj profile image

      John Coviello 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Interesting piece of early American colonial history that I didn't know much about. Nicely done!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      6 years ago from sunny Florida

      Having grown up in Virginia I knew of the Lost Colony. I even went to camp in Jamestown and visited there many times as an adult so John Smith's involvement is also something I knew.

      However it has been many years since I lived in that home sweet home state . I did not know of much that you told in this very detailed and informative and, I might add, thought-provoking article. I do wonder. Perhaps we may never know but we do have some possible scenarios to consider.

      Thanks for sharing this. Voted up++++ and shared ps Angels are on the way


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