The Mysterious “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island

Yesterday– the 18 August – is a very significant date in the history of America. Two related events happened on this day within the space of three years of each other. The first was the birth of the first American child to English parents.

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh received a charter from Queen Elizabeth to colonise the area of North America known as Virginia. Raleigh never went himself but he sent two expeditions – one in 1584 and another in 1587 – which landed on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. Both expeditions were a failure. The second expedition, however, was a mysterious one.

This expedition was led by John White – an artist and a friend of Raleigh’s – and included his daughter and her husband. The expedition landed on Roanoke Island on July 22 1587. They encountered a number of Native-American tribes, including one known as Croatans. The tribes were – understandably – hostile to the new arrivals, as a previous expedition had sacked and burned down one of the tribe’s villages. White tried to establish relations with the tribes but they refused. Nonetheless, White set about establishing his colony. On August 18, White’s daughter gave birth to a baby girl – Virginia Dare – the first American child born to English colonists. A contemporary account states:

“Elenora, daughter to the governor of the city … was delivered of a daughter in Roanoke”. The child “was christened there the Sunday following, and because this childe was the first Christian borne in Virginia, she was named Virginia”

Around the same time, one of the colonists was attacked and killed by a Native-American. Afraid that the tribe might attack them, the colonists begged White to return to England to get help. He did so, leaving behind the 115 colonists. White had intended to return to Roanoke Island immediately but the Spanish Armada meant that every English vessel was commandeered to fight. He was unable to return to the island until 1590. He landed on Roanoke Island on August 18 1590, on his granddaughter’s third birthday.

When he arrived there, the settlement was deserted. Every single person had disappeared. The only clue was the word “Croatan” carved into the post of the fort. Whether this meant that they had moved to the nearby Croatan Island or that the Native-American tribe had been responsible for their disappearance is unknown. White wanted to conduct a search of Croatan Island but due to a massive storm, he was unable to. He and his crew returned to England the next day.

There is any number of theories as to what happened to the “Lost Colony”, but the most widely-accepted is that the colonists moved to Croatan Island and assimilated with the indigenous population. Others have claimed that they were attacked and taken captive. Contemporary sources report sightings of English captives at Indian settlements, one of whom was a young girl. Could it have been Virginia Dare?


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12 thoughts on “The Mysterious “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island

  1. I like this – a story I had never heard about. Love the name ‘Virginia Dare’! Sorry to be picky but are the dates correct? Did he come back in 1590?
    I wonder if scientists could now trace DNA to see if they were assimilated, probably an impossible task…

  2. Derek – I love the post, something I never knew about, but even more I loved the title. So many blog post titles are so bad and make me skip over the post entirely. Your title caught my attention and I clicked on and read it because I HAD to! Thank you.

  3. i have pondered this mystery many times, one of my favourites! Personally I think most of them died of disease or exposure, they were very badly prepared and left to fend for themselves much longer than they anticipated. Any survivors were probably integrated into the local Indian tribes. I would be interested to hear anyone elses thoughts!

  4. Funny how we can get pictures from Mars, yet still are unable to solve some of our biggest mysteries in history. This one has always fascinated me, along with ‘whatever the heck happened to Amelia Earhart??’
    Stephen King used this story in his screenplay for the miniseries “Storm of the Century” back in ’99. I won’t give a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen/read it, but he does offer a very unique (if somewhat diabolical) explanation of what happened to the Roanoke Colony. Thanks for the post, Derek!

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