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The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island

Updated on June 24, 2019
Roanoke Island
Roanoke Island | Source

The First Expedition

On March 25, 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh the permission to organize a group to colonize North America. The Queen said Raleigh was to establish a base that would help aid them in raiding Spanish fleets for treasures. These raids were to tell Spain that the English were ready for war. Raleigh funded the expedition under the leadership of Ralph Lane and Richard Grenville. He had seven years to establish a permanent settlement off the East coast or he would loose his colonization rights.

Raleigh Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe led the first expedition on April 27, 1584 and made land on July 4, 1584. Raleigh asked them to explore the Eastern coast and while doing so, they set up a basic settlement on Roanoke Island. The two explorers also made contact with the local tribes in the area, the Secotan and Croatan tribes. The Croatan tribe was small and believed they could have been a smaller branch of the larger Roanoke Natives. The Secotan Native American tribe was larger and had several smaller branch tribes. These people had many encounters with English immigrants.

Barlowe sailed back to England with two Croatan people, Manteo and Wanchese, and to give Raleigh updates on the exploration and details about the geography and local politics. Barlowe’s report was confirmed by the two Croatans he brought with him and with the confirmation, Raleigh organized a second expedition that was to be led by Sir Richard Grenville.

Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh | Source

Second Expedition

Grenville set forth with five primary ships from Plymouth on April 9, 1585. The five ships were: Tiger (Grenville’s Ship), Roebuck, Red Lion, Elizabeth and Dorothy. A severe storm off the waters of Portugal had separated Grenville’s ship, Tiger, from the rest of the fleet. Fortunately the captains of the ships had contingency plans in place if the fleet ever got separated. The fleet was to meet in Puerto Rico to regroup. Tiger arrived first on May 11th in the Baye of Muskito.

Sir Grenville had started to talk with the Spanish and established relations with them all the while engaging in pirating activities against them and their ships. Grenville also had begun to build a fort on their land while waiting for the rest of his fleet to join him. The Elizabeth arrived in Puerto Rico to regroup shortly after the Fort was finished. On June 7 the fort was abandoned and Sir Grenville got tired of waiting for the rest of his fleet and departed with the Elizabeth in toe to the Eastern coast. The location of the Fort has never been found.

On June 26, Tiger sailed though the Ocracoke Inlet and struck a shoal damaging the ship and destroying most of the food supply. They stopped to repair the ship and Tiger and Elizabeth continued on to the Outer Banks. They discovered two of the fleet ships, Dorothy and Roebuck had arrived several weeks previously. Red Lion had dropped off it’s passengers weeks prior and left for Newfoundland to participate in pirating.

Sir Richard Grenville
Sir Richard Grenville | Source


After regrouping, the men traveled and explored the mainland coast and the surrounding native settlements and villages. At one point, the relations with the English settlers and the Native Americans deteriorated as the English accused the Aquascogoc village of stealing a silver cup. In retaliation, the English decided to burn and raid the native village, resulting in negative feelings against the English and other local tribes. These incidences had been reported by an English writer and courier Richard Hakluyt.

With this trouble they now had with the local tribes, and their lack of food due to the ship accident, Grenville still thought it would be a wise decision to leave Ralph Lane and 107 other men to build up the settlements colony on the northern end of Roanoke Island. Grenville had promised the group that he would return with more men and fresh supplies in April 1586. Grenville departed on August 17, 1585 to England to resupply. While on his way to England, Tiger had captured a rich Spanish galleon named, Santa Maria de San Vicente. This was off the Bermuda coast and he ended up taking it with him as a prize back to England.

While Grenville was gone, the group left on the island began to build a small fort. It is believed this fort would have been similar to the one in Guayanilla Bay but remnants of this fort have never been found. The group of men left to build up their settlement continued exploration after the fort was built.

Several months later the relief fleet that was promised to arrive in April never showed. With the lack of relief sources and low food supplies, the men were unable to expand their foothold in the area. An incident around this time with the local Native Americans didn't help any either as there was a retaliation attack on the fort for the former incident with the stolen cup. The men had been able to hold off the attack but knew they wouldn't be able to last much longer without some kind of relief. Shortly after the attack, a man named Sir Francis Drake stopped by the island while heading back home from a raid in the Caribbean. He offered the men transportation back to England and the men accepted and left Roanoke Island. The colonist were able to bring back and introduce tobacco, maize and potatoes to England from the New World.

Shortly after Sir Drake took the men back to England, the relief fleet finally arrived. Grenville was not happy to see the fort and island abandoned so he left a small group of men to hold the fort while he left once again to England with the bulk of his force. He needed to protect Raleigh’s claim to the Roanoke Island.

Native village that was burned to the ground
Native village that was burned to the ground | Source
Settlement of Roanoke painting
Settlement of Roanoke painting | Source

Second Colony Attempt

After hearing about the failed attempt, Raleigh sent a second group of 115 men to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay in 1587. This expedition was led by John White who was an artist and a close friend to Raleigh. John White had previously accompanied an expedition to Roanoke and Raleigh had named him governor of the new 1587 colony. The two men compiled a group of 12 assistants to help aid in building up the settlement and they had orders to stop by Roanoke to gather the small group of men that Grenville had left behind the previous year. The new group of colonist arrived on Roanoke Island in July 1587 and found a mysterious discovery. The only thing left of the group Grenville left was a single skeleton that may have been the remains of one of the English garrison.

Simon Fernandez, the fleet’s master commander, decided to not let the colonist return to the ships after discovering the abandoned fort. John White decided they needed to stay and establish a new colony on Roanoke Island and abandoned the plans for the Chesapeake Bay settlement. In the attempt of re-colonizing Roanoke, John White was able to re-establish good relations with the Croatans and other local Native tribes. Unfortunately, the ones who had previously fought with Lane refused to meet White. Shortly after the refusal one of the colonist was killed by a native at the Albemarle Sound while fishing for crabs alone. His name was George Howe.

After the death of Howe the other colonist convinced White to sail to England to explain what had happened and to ask for help. White left for England leaving behind 115 colonist, men and women, to continue to build and defend the settlement. White’s own granddaughter was one of the colonists left behind. Her name was Virginia Dare and she was the first English child born in North America.

White left for England in late 1587. Traveling the Atlantic ocean at this time of year was risky and dangerous but it needed to be done to get help for the colonist. The relief fleet was denied on the first try due to the captains refusal to sail in the winter weather. After the first failed attempt to send relief, the Spanish Armada and Anglo-Spanish War began, furthering the delay of aid to the colonists of Roanoke Island. Every ship in England had to join in the fight in the war leaving White with no way back to his colony at the time.

Finally John White got a break in the spring of 1588 when he was able to acquire two small ships. He set off for Roanoke but the captains of these ships had other plans. The captains decided to attempt to capture several Spanish ships to increase their own profit and in their attempts they themselves had gotten captured. The Spanish ships seized their cargo and left them go but with nothing to bring back to the colonists the ships returned to England.

John White
John White | Source


Three years later, after the Spanish war was over and it was once again safe to sail the Oceans, John White was finally able to gain passage on a pirating ship that agreed to drop him off at Roanoke Island after pirating and raiding the Spanish in the Caribbean. The men in charge of this pirating expedition were John Watts and Walter Raleigh.

The ship arrived at Roanoke Island on August 18, 1590. It was White’s granddaughters birthday. They found the settlement deserted with no evidence of a struggle or battle having taken place. All the colonist, 90 men, 17 women and 11 children had disappeared. The buildings and houses around the settlement had been dismantled, showing the colonist didn't leave in a hurry but left intentionally and not by force.

White had instructed the colonist to carve a Maltese cross on a tree to indicate if they had been forced to abandon the settlement or if anything had gone wrong, but there was no Maltese cross anywhere. The only thing they found was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a fence post that surrounded the settlement and the letters “CRO” carved into a nearby tree.

John White thought this could have been their way of saying they moved to establish a new colony on the Croatoan island for some unexplained reason. White wanted to go search for the lost colonist but his captain refused to search or go any further as a large storm was beginning to form. The men insisted they leave before the storm hit them and so they left the following day, never knowing what happened to the colony.

Croatoan Carving on a post
Croatoan Carving on a post | Source


After twelve long years, Raleigh finally decided to investigate what had happened to the lost colony. An expedition was launched in 1602 and was led by Samuel Mace to figure out what had happened. This time, Raleigh learned from the past and bought his own ship and hired a personal crew that he guaranteed the sailors wages so they wouldn't be distracted by pirating. Unfortunately, Raleigh himself was persuaded by wealth and had hoped to make money from this trip. This led to Mace’s ship spending time outside of the Outer Banks gathering plants, woods and other fauna such as sassafras to take back and sell in England. Due to this greed by Raleigh, they spent too much time foraging and bad weather forced them to return to England without ever setting foot on Roanoke.

Upon return to England, Walter Raleigh was arrested for treason against the Queen’s successor James I after the Queen had died. Raleigh was then imprisoned in the Tower of London so no further expeditions could be made by him to find the lost colonist.

In 1602 a man named Bartholomew Gilbert led his own expedition to hopefully locate the missing colonist. They had intended to land at Chesapeake Bay but due to bad weather they had to land in an unspecified area nearby. Native Americans had killed the landing team including Gilbert on July 29 and forced the remaining crew to flee back to England.

The Spanish also attempted to locate the colonists of Roanoke but this was for other reasons then to rescue them. They knew of Raleigh’s plan to use the settlement as a base for pirating and hoped to find and destroy it. The remains of the abandoned colony were discovered in 1590 purely by accident but they didn't think it was the main base, only an outlying one. They thought the main base was now in the Chesapeake Bay but due to the war efforts, the Spanish authorities couldn't get enough support back home to back a venture to the area.

Chief Powhatan, the one who confessed to murdering the colonist.
Chief Powhatan, the one who confessed to murdering the colonist. | Source

Possible Confession

In 1607 Jamestown was established and flourished in North America. The English colonists of Jamestown decided to speak to the Chief of the Powhatan tribe to see if they had any information on what happened to the colonists at Roanoke Island. Captain John Smith was the leader of Jamestown and he claimed he spoke to the Chief and had been told that he himself had slaughtered the colonists after they had been found living with the Chesepian tribe. He claimed he had done this just prior to when the settlers for Jamestown arrived. The Chesepian tribe lived in what is now the South Hampton Roads area. They slaughtered the people because the Chesepian, related to the Pamlico tribe, refused to merge with his own. John Smith relayed this to Samuel Purchas, a chronicler for England. This news reached King James by spring of 1609 and the King and the Royal Council were convinced the Lost Colony had been murdered by the Chief Powhatan.

The secretary of Jamestown, William Strachey, reported more details that the colonists had been living peacefully with the natives outside of the Powhatan’s territory for more than twenty years before they were slaughtered. He also states the slaughter could have been provoked by the prophecies told by the Powhatan’s priests that said the people of that area would overthrow him.

For more than 400 years now this has been the most believable expatiation for what happened to the Lost Colony however no bodies have ever been found in that area that matched the English settlers. Another thing is that archaeologist have found no evidence to support this claim. It is thought that the Chief may have been talking about the initial 15 people left behind on the first Roanoke expedition and not the final, Lost Colony. Because of this, it is still unknown what exactly happened to the Lost Colony.


One of the more popular theories is that the colonist integrated with local tribes. Dr David Quinn thinks that the colonists could have used small boats to move north to integrate with the Chesepians among other tribes. Historian Lee Miller also theorized that some of the Lost Colony survivors could have sought shelter with the Chesepians that had been attacked by rival tribes. The rival tribes could have been either Tuscarora or the Eno, also known as the Wainoke. A map known as the Zuniga Map, was drawn up in 1607 by the Jamestown settler, Francis Nelson, also helps give claim to this theory. Some of the Native tribes in the area, the Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen, apparently had learned how to build two-story stone walled houses. This could only have been taught by English colonist thus leading to more credit that the Lost Colony merged and integrated with the native tribes.

The Secretary Strachey also noted that in 1612 he saw four English men, two boys and one girl, at the Eno settlement in Ritanoc. They were under the chiefs protection. He noted also that he had seen other European captives at several various Indian settlements around the same time. Strachey claimed these captives would be forced into labor such as beating copper and that he believed they had escaped the attack on the other colonists and had fled to the Chaonoke river.

Another theory from Fred Willard and Phillip MacMullan is that the Roanoke Colonist along with some of the Croatans relocated in areas along the Alligator River. The area is now known as Beechland and is just lightly inland from Roanoke Island. It’s not that far fetched as Archeologist have found remains of settlements along this area and have even found coffins with Christian markings on them. However, most of their theory and hypothesis is based on oral history and not definitive evidence.

Some think that the Spanish had something to do with the Lost Colony. Some believe the Spanish actually did find the colony and destroyed it early on as the Spanish did in fact destroy a French colony in South Carolina called Fort Charles. They also slaughtered the inhabitants of the Fort Caroline, another French colony close to present day Jacksonville Florida. Most people discredit this theory as the Spanish supposedly were still looking for the Lost Colony as late as 1600.

A series of inscribed stones had been found between 1937 to 1941 that are said to tell the story of the Lost Colony. It is said the writer of these stones was Elanor Dare, the mother of Virginia Dare. The stones claim to tell the story of how the colonists traveled far and of their ultimate deaths. Based on linguistic and chemical evidence, the first stone found could be real but the others are highly likely to be fake.

Hurricane Emily hit the East coast in 1993 and washed up a lot of relics and other artifacts from the past. David Phelps of East Carolina University decided to start digging in the area where past natives and settlers had lived. Later, in 1998 the university organized the Croatoan Project. This was an archaeological investigation that had a team delve into the mysteries surrounding the Lost Colony. On Hatteras Island, an excavation team found what they think is the signet ring made of 10 Karat gold and was made in the 16th century. Along with the ring, they also found gun flints and two copper farthings on the island. This island was about 50 miles from where the Roanoke Colony was set up. Genealogists got on the case quickly and traced back the lion crest on the signet ring that was found. The lion crest was traced back to the Kendall coat of arms, and it is believed the ring belonged to one Master Kendall who was part of the Roanoke Colony between 1585 and 1586.

Later testing on the ring proved it to be brass and not gold but Mark Horton of the University of Bristol said that isn't enough to convince him that this ring didn't date back to the 16th century.

Scientists also took trees from that area and looked at the rings to evaluate the weather and environmental conditions at that time. It was shown that the Roanoke colonists arrived on the island at the worse possible time. The whole southeastern side of North America was in a serious drought. The 3- year drought lasted from 1587 to 1589. It would have been difficult to cultivate the ground for crops and it was speculated that a few Croatans that had been shot in the abandoned village were most likely scavenging for food and supplies. Because of the drought, the theory that they up and left to relocate makes sense that they would need to find more food and resources.

The first Dare stone believed to be genuine.
The first Dare stone believed to be genuine. | Source

My Thoughts

There are many theories and a lot of evidence to support a lot of the theories out there and that is what makes this mystery so difficult. The state of the settlement when John White came back shows that the colonist most likely didn't die in a battle or had been forced to leave. The fact that they broke down the buildings before departing shows they had decided to leave the settlement. It could be possible that they thought John White had abandoned them as he never returned like he promised he would do.

The relationship with the local natives was mostly positive aside from a handful of Natives that still harbored resentment of when their village was burned. I think it’s possible that due to the drought in that time, the colonist discussed with a local tribe that it would be beneficial to combine their groups and resources. I think it’s possible that the colonist may have divided up to have better chances of finding tribes that would take them in. As far as the word CROATOAN written on the fence post, it could very well have been one of the colonist leaving a note of sorts of what native tribe they went to seek help from. The Hatteras Island in North Carolina now was once called Croatoan Island. The only reason John White was unable to explore it back then was due to bad weather. I personally think if he had been able to go explore this other island, he would have found the Lost Colony living with the Natives that also occupied the island.

It will most likely never be solved as to what happened all those years ago to the first English colony that tried to set up a settlement here. All we can really do is speculate and theorize about what happened. Feel free to write a comment on what you think happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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