A map of the Roanoke area, by John White
Sometime between 1587 and 1590 the population of the first English colony in the Americas vanished, almost without trace, leaving behind little but the cryptic message ‘CROATOAN’ carved onto a timber post. Four hundred years on, what has been called ‘America’s oldest mystery’ remains an enigma, but the latest technology finally promises answers.
The first settlement in America In the late 1500s
Elizabethan England was greedy for a piece of the New World. The vast flow of treasure from her New World empire was making Spain, England’s arch enemy, rich and powerful, and the English were desperate to establish a strategic toehold in the new lands, together with the possibility of discovering lucrative new sources of mineral, agricultural and human wealth. In 1584 the queen’s favourite, Sir Walter Raleigh, was awarded a licence to establish a colony. He promptly dispatched an expedition to the newly claimed territory of Virginia. The good relations with the natives that were established and the favourable reports brought back induced him to dispatch a colonising party, and in 1585 the first English colony in America was established on Roanoke Island (now in North Carolina).
Raleigh’s first colony, under the captaincy of Ralph Lane, did not fare well. They struggled to find enough food and soon fell out with neighbouring tribes. They waited impatiently for the return of their supply/relief fleet, and when Sir Francis Drake called in at the colony on his return from raiding the Spanish Caribbean in April 1586, they decided not to wait any longer and gratefully accepted his offer of a lift home. In fact they missed by only a short while the actual resupply fleet, under Sir Richard Grenville. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville decided to return to England but left a force of 15 men to maintain England’s – and Raleigh’s – claim to the area.
The White colony
In 1587 a second group of colonists assembled by Raleigh stopped off at Roanoke Island to check on Grenville’s men. A landing party came ashore and made a grisly discovery: the only traces of the 15 were the bones of a single man. The one local tribe of Native Americans who were still friendly – the Croatans from nearby Hatteras Island – later explained that the small group had been attacked and the nine survivors had sailed off up the coast in their pinnace (small boat), never to be seen again.
In fact the new colonists did not intend to re-establish the Roanoke colony and had their sights set on the mainland Chesapeake Bay area (where the plan was to establish the ‘Cittie of Raleigh’). But the commander of the ships that had brought them, Simon Fernandez, refused to take them any further, claiming that he would miss his window of favourable weather to make the return trip across the Atlantic (although it is more likely that he wanted more time to spend privateering, which was his true occupation).
The main body of colonists went ashore on 22 July. In all there were 91 men, 17 women and 9 children, under the leadership of John White, a friend of Raleigh’s who had been the official artist on the original colonising expedition and would have been familiar with the area. They set to work rebuilding the colony. On 18 August, White’s daughter gave birth to a girl, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas. But the tense relations with the natives, epitomised by the murder of a settler who was out gathering shellfish, prompted the colonists to elect to send Governor White back to England with Fernandez to petition for more support and supplies. He set sail on 28 August. White was never to see his family again.
White made every effort to get back to America as quickly as possible but was dogged by bad luck. War broke out with Spain and almost all available ships were requisitioned to protect England against the onslaught of the Armada. By the time White made it back to Roanoke, travelling with a small squadron of three ships under Captain Abraham Cooke, it was August 1590. A landing party, including White (who recorded the episode in his journal), went ashore, ‘& sounded with a trumpet a Call, & afterwards many familiar English tunes of Songs, and called to them friendly,’ but no response was forthcoming. At the north end of the island they found the site of the colony. The first sight that greeted White was an odd one. On a tree on a sandy bank were carved the letters ‘CRO’. Further on they came to the remains of the actual settlement. A palisade of wooden timbers had been erected since his departure, but within it, all the houses had been taken down, and the only things left behind were some heavy lumps of lead, iron and iron ore. Carved onto one of the timbers of the palisade was the legend ‘CROATOAN’.
In fact the apparently cryptic code reassured White greatly. As he explains in his own account, he had agreed with the settlers that the most sensible plan was not to stay on the island but to move, preferably ‘50 miles into the maine’ (ie 80 kilometres/50 miles inland on the mainland). They had prearranged that if they were to move they would let White know where they had gone by making just such a carving as ‘a secret token’. If they were in distress, they were to carve over the letters a Maltese (eightpointed) cross – there was no such cross, so White assumed that the settlers were safe and had simply followed his instructions. Exploring further, White and his companions found that several chests buried on his departure were still there, although they had apparently been opened and many of the contents thrown around. This he interpreted as evidence that the colonists had taken whatever they needed and that the Native Americans had come along later and discarded items they did not understand. The boats that had been left with the colony were also absent.
White was confident that the inscriptions on the tree and timber indicated that the colonists had taken refuge with the friendly Native American tribe, the Croatans, on Hatteras Island. This was not exactly what they had agreed to on his departure, but it made perfect sense. The next day he and Captain Cooke agreed that they would make the short voyage to Hatteras Island, but fate and the elements intervened. Two of their cables (the lines attaching the ship to the anchor) broke and they narrowly avoided running aground, only for a hurricane to blow up. The ships were forced to abandon their attempt to reach Hatteras and had to return to England.
Rumours and sightings
Raleigh’s patent to exploit the territory of Virginia lapsed in 1590, which may explain why he temporarily lost interest in organising further trips to America. White eventually had to reconcile himself to the fact that he would never see his family again. He retired to his estate at Killmore in Ireland. But it was generally assumed that the Roanoke colony, aka White’s company, had survived and was still out there. Raleigh himself sponsored expeditions that were partly intended to look for them in 1602 and 1603, but both were sidetracked. Subsequent visitors and settlers in North America made repeated efforts to link up with them, in particular the settlers of the next, and more successful, attempt at a permanent colony, at Jamestown in Virginia. Indeed Lee Miller, author of Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, points out that many of the Jamestown colonists shared surnames with the ‘Lost Colonists’, and argues that they were probably relatives who were partly motivated by a desire to find their kin.
John Smith, leader of the new colony, heard stories from the Native Americans around Jamestown of other Europeans to the south, but neither he nor Christopher Newport, who was sent out from England in 1607 to help the Jamestowners and also specifically to look for White’s company, were able to successfully investigate these tales. A 1609 expedition from Jamestown was similarly unlucky. Over the next few hundred years several visitors reported encountering or seeing people who looked or spoke English, or at least Native Americans who seemed to have Caucasian characteristics and a familiarity with English and Christianity, but no one was ever able to definitively claim that they had located the Lost Colonists. It seemed that 117 people had vanished, leaving a persistent mystery.