Exploration Mysteries: The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Albert Einstein said that the important thing is not to stop questioning. But where do the questions end? Will they ever end? 

The strange disappearance of the Roanoke Colony in the late 16th century, one of America’s greatest mysteries, has confronted prickly questions for centuries. Inevitably, fact and fiction become blurred, and the Lost Colony has slowly receded into legend. But in the last few years, renewed interest in what happened to these unfortunate souls has brought us close(ish) to solving the mystery. 

Roanoke Island was first spotted in 1584 by Captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlow. They sought an ideal location for a settlement and this seemed to fit the bill. The two explorers returned to England with optimistic reports. They also brought with them England’s first Native American visitors, a Croatoan chief named Manteo and Wanchese, the last-known leader of the Roanoke tribe.

Both shared their language with the captains and enlightened them about the land and its resources, and even possible alliances with neighboring tribes. Their presence in England helped popularize these expensive New World journeys. The explorers returned to Roanoke Island in 1585 with another expedition. That was the year that trouble began.

Settlers twice tried to establish a Roanoke colony. The first attempt was more of a military and scientific reconnaissance. Then an expedition commanded by Sir Richard Grenville set out with five ships and 600 settlers, including John White.

Enter John White

White was the voyage’s artist and mapmaker, as well as Roanoke’s future governor. After several misfortunes, the expedition finally arrived in the New World, low on food. Grenville decided to return to England for supplies, leaving Ralph Lane, a temperamental man, in charge as governor. During this time, Lane launched two expeditions up the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers, the areas around the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle. He and his men established contact with native peoples along the way.

As they waited for Grenville’s return, the colonists relied on the Secotan tribe for food. It wasn’t long before morale declined and tensions flared. The colonists went treasure hunting for copper, gold, and silver, which they suspected the natives had in abundance.

The colonists’ frustration and resentment toward the natives, as well as the lack of food, led to a conflict that took the life of the Secotan leader, Wingina. The hostile repercussions and unsustainable conditions prompted Lane and his men to abandon Roanoke. They returned to England in 1586. But Sir Walter Raleigh still insisted on establishing a colony. 

Sir Walter Raleigh. Photo: Morphart Creations/Shutterstock


In the autumn of 1587, approximately 118 men, women, and children arrived at Roanoke Island with Governor John White. They too arrived low on supplies. The colonists pleaded for White to return to England for more. White left his daughter, Eleanor White Dare, her husband Ananias Dare, and their daughter Virginia (the first English baby born in America) back in Roanoke before sailing back to England. The colonists told him that they intended to move 90km inland, away from the lingering resentments and hostilities from the Secotans.

War had broken out with Spain, and White couldn’t return to the New World for three years. When he finally did in 1590, he found the settlement abandoned with no clues, except the enigmatic messages, “CRO” and “CROATOAN” carved into a tree and palisade, respectively. And thus, the big debate began. 

The rumor mill

In 1625, English historian Samuel Purches wrote that the prominent chief Powhatan boasted to explorer John Smith about the colonists’ deaths. However, this exchange is not mentioned in any other explorer’s writings, including Smith’s.

The colonial secretary William Strachey claimed that several settlers were killed, and the survivors sought refuge with a welcoming tribe. But no evidence suggests that a massacre took place. Around 1608, natives reported that a small group of the Roanoke colonists were alive and held hostage in Iroquois territory in eastern North Carolina. No one pursued or confirmed these claims further.

Plausible theories

The leading theory is that the colonists went to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island). In his writings, White interpreted the carved messages as the colonists’ new location. His attempts to get to Croatoan Island were unsuccessful because of a storm. They had to sail out to sea. After the storm had passed, the ship’s crew did not want to go back. A heartsick White ended up sailing back to England. He never returned to Roanoke and believed that his family was dead.

The main scholar who supports this theory is Scott Dawson, co-founder of the Croatoan Archaeological Society. He and his excavation team found a slate writing tablet, 16th-century gun hardware, parts of swords, a rapier hilt, pottery shards, and even a floral clothing clasp belonging to a woman. He believes that the colonists lived with the relatively friendly Croatoans, eventually intermixing.

Other exploration mysteries: What really happened to the skiers at Dyatlov Pass? New evidence may have finally solved it. And how did a Chinese archaeologist vanish without a trace in an area he knew so well?

Accounts from years afterward describe some indigenous people with blue or grey eyes and sometimes blonde hair. Dawson also points out that the Croatoans were at war with the Secotans at the time. The Croatoans helped the English a few years earlier in their own skirmishes with the Secotans.  

The second most popular theory is that the colonists relocated to the Salmon Creek/Albemarle area. In 2011, the First Colony Foundation, together with the British Museum, made a discovery on John White’s 1585 La Virginea Pars map. The map includes a hidden fort symbol near the confluence of Salmon Creek and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. In 2012, the foundation investigated the location of the fort. Researchers found English pottery and weapons, but no trading goods like copper or beads. This was called Site X. 

John White’s map. Photo: British Museum


Site Y, less than two kilometers north, was discovered in 2015 by archeologist Nick Luccketti near a former Weapemeoc Village called Mettaquem. They found English pottery shards and even some Spanish olive jars. To them, this suggested food storage by an extended family or small family units. The lack of English pipes indicated that the artifacts might not belong to the residents of Jamestown, the first successful colony after Roanoke. 

Did they assimilate? Die from strife or disease?

Historian Thomas Parramore of Meredith College supports the idea that several colonists went to live with the Weapemeoc. They and the English were friendly, and their land had good soil for crops. However, he believed that the colonists perished in conflicts among the Weapemeoc, Secotans, and Chowanokes. 

What about disease? Most encounters between Old and New World peoples usually ended catastrophically for the natives. They often succumbed to European diseases like smallpox and influenza. But some historians do not rule out the possibility that the colonists also perished from a New World disease.

However, there are several holes in this theory. No remains, no graves, no traces of personal belongings, and no evidence of a major contagion among the region’s tribes have ever turned up. The likelihood of a New World sickness was low, as the Americas did not have as many dangerous germs as Europe. The disappearance of all their belongings strongly suggests that movement took place. 

The natural disaster theory is less well known but bears some merit. The colonists reportedly arrived during the worst drought in eight centuries. It lasted from 1587 to 1589.

Scientists examined a series of trees near the Virginia-North Carolina border. The tree rings revealed that a severe drought did occur at the time of the colony’s establishment. Another drought took place around the time of Jamestown’s founding.

Nothing could have prepared the colonists for such conditions. It seems likely that they were desperate to leave and find a better situation. But researcher Dennis Blanton has argued that while a drought contributed to the colonists’ end, it was not the sole cause of their disappearance. 

One of the Dare Stones. Photo: Brenau University


The Dare stones: Hoax or Clue?

Probably the most controversial evidence has been the Dare Stones. During the Great Depression, a tourist named Louis E. Hammond delivered a 9.5kg stone to Emory University that he supposedly found in the Chowan River. It bore a chiseled message on it, describing “misarie and warre”.

The stone mentions illness and murder by the natives. It is signed EWD, as in Eleanor White Dare. However, the use of initials is too modern a practice, according to linguists. Scientists almost discredited the find but they have held off because of the stone’s significant weathering.

Some scholars believe that this stone and the 47 more that turned up shortly after are genuine. A man named Bill Eberhardt brought these other stones forward, creating a frenzy. Had the mystery been solved at least?

The 47 stones turned out to be forgeries. The first stone itself remains in academic limbo, neither accepted nor rejected. It is in the care of Brenau University.

Supernatural theories

You can’t have a mystery without something spooky. The disappearance of the colonists has been linked to evil spirits, witches, and monsters. The Croatoans believed that a reptilian devil lurked in the woods of North Carolina, looking to possess people. It made people jealous, paranoid, and violent. The indigenous people also believed in witches and black magic. 

Sally Southall Cotten wrote a poem in 1901 that spoke of what supposedly befell Virginia Dare. Cotten surmised that a tribe adopted the girl and she was later engaged to a desirable chieftain. Unfortunately, a jealous witch turned her into a white doe to stop their marriage. Poor Virginia has roamed the woods ever since.

And, of course, aliens must make an appearance. Some believe that the colonists were abducted and taken to another dimension. Or is it another planet?

While it is certain that the colonists packed up and left Roanoke Island, no evidence suggests what happened after their mini-migration to the interior. It remains unclear whether they stuck together, if families went their separate ways, if they chose to live with the indigenous people, or if they were just massacred. The biggest questions of all remain.