The fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of America's most famous unsolved mysteries. What began as a strategic venture ended with a string of tragic events. By the late 16th century, the race for the New World was on, and Sir Walter Raleigh was charged with establishing an English foothold in the Americas. This would allow England to scout out resources (i.e. gold), claim some territory, convert some pagans and establish a base camp for raids on Spanish ships.
In 1584, Raleigh financed a scouting expedition in order to find the perfect spot for his new venture. Captains Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlow returned with glowing reports of a "most pleasant and fertile" land, inhabited by a "loving and faithful" people, and it was decided that Roanoke Island's protected shores would be the perfect place to start England's first colony in the New World. With the Queen's blessing (and financial support), a boatload of soldiers was promptly sent off to the shores of North America.
The 108 men dropped off on Roanoke settled on the north side of the island and built a defensible fort. Artist John White diligently recorded the local people, flora, and fauna of Roanoke. Scientist Thomas Hariot busied himself with the metals and minerals of the island. Initially the colonists traded beads and trinkets to the Indians for food and supplies. As winter set in, food became scarce and tensions grew between the ill-prepared colonists and the Roanoke Islanders. By spring, there was open conflict between the parties. At war with the Native Americans, and tired of waiting for overdue supply ships, when the colonists saw Sir Francis Drake's fleet passing by, they hopped on board and headed back to England. The tardy supply ships showed up just days later, and a group of 15 men were left to "hold down the fort" until a new group of settlers could be recruited.
For his second attempt at colonization, Sir Walter Raleigh decided to mix it up and add women and children to the group. He offered each settler a plot of land in the "cittie of Raleigh" that they were sent to establish. These brave new colonists (two of them pregnant!) arrived at Roanoke in July of 1587. They had planned to make a quick stop to resupply the 15 soldiers and then move inland. Upon their arrival, they found little evidence of the soldiers, and it was feared to be too late in the season to safely venture further. The colonists were left on Roanoke to settle in the abandoned ruins of their predecessors. Shortly after the colonists arrived, they celebrated the birth of the first English child in the New World, baby Virginia Dare.
Relations with the Native Americans were still troubled and grew worse after a series of miscommunications and ill-fated actions by the colonists. John White, now governor of the fledgling colony, left for England on what was to be a quick supply run. The colonists were instructed to leave a note if they moved on or ran into trouble. Due to a series of unfortunate events, White was unable to return for three years. Upon his belated homecoming, he found his family and community missing and the colony in ruins. The letters "CRO" were carved into a tree near the water, and "CROATOAN" was carved into the gate post. In what must have been a most frustrating situation, White was forced to leave with his ship without searching for the colony. White would make several more attempts to find his family and friends, but the fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains a mystery to this day. Theories abound on the fate of the settlers: drought-induced starvation, Spanish attack, lost at sea trying to return home or the possibility that the colonists moved inland and set up camp with the friendly Indians on Croatoan. We may never know what happened to the Lost Colony, but finding where the settlement was on Roanoke Island would be a great place to start unravelling this 400-year-old mystery.
Fort Raleigh Site Timeline
Having trouble keeping all of this straight? So did we! Here is a timeline to help:
- 1584 — Sir Walter Raleigh's men Captains Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe first land on Roanoke Island and find it suitable for settlement.
- 1585 — 108 soldiers come to Roanoke to establish first colony.
- 1586 — Colonists and Native Americans at 'war,' and colony abandoned.
- 1587 — Second group of 117 colonists come to Roanoke.
- August 18, 1587 — Birth of Virginia Dare, first English baby born in the New World.
- 1587 — John White returns to England.
- 1588 — White's ship taken to hold off Phillip II of Spain's armada.
- 1590 — White finally returns to Roanoke to find the colony gone.
- 1602 — Raleigh makes another attempt to locate the colony.
- 1862-1867 — Freedmen's Colony on Roanoke Island. Originally a Union Army base, it became a community for African Americans during the Civil War.
- 1921 — The Story of the Lost Colony movie made on site.
- 1936 — Palisade reconstruction built.
- 1937 — Lost Colony outdoor theater begins.
- 1941 — Fort Raleigh designated National Historic Site.
- 1940s — Professional archaeology begins at Roanoke.
- 1950s — Replica fort built.
- 1991 — Science Center found in excavation led by Sir Ivor Noel Hume.
- 1998 — Excavations at Croatoan (50 miles from Roanoke) intriguingly unearth some English artifacts.
- 2004 — First Colony Foundation formed.
- 2008 — Time Team America investigates the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
The Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacan, Roanoke, and Jamestown by Seth Mallios
The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to Jamestown by Ivor Noel Hume
Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee G Miller
The Roanoke Voyages 1585-1590 by David B. Quinn