Roanoke, North Carolina: The Lost Colony

Watercolor by Englishman John White of the natives of the Roanoke Peoples

The mystery surrounding Roanoke, North Carolina, continues to baffle those who visit and study the site.

North Carolina’s outerbanks has always been known as hazardous and wildly beautiful. Today, Roanoke, located near Manteo, is a tourist destination featuring an assortment of attractions. Even so, the legend and mystery of what happened in that seemingly quiet town still draws visitors to explore the legend of the lost colony.

Spanish Colonization of Cape Fear, N.C.

Prior to the English exploration, the Spanish had attempted to settle the area of Cape Fear, in 1528. The Spanish were in search of gold and riches, an easier route to the Pacific, and more land. They had already settled St. Augustine and numerous lands in the west. However, the Cape Fear region proved to be nothing more than a place of disease and dispair for the Spanish. Anyone who did not die or starve abandoned the place, leaving it open for others to explore and settle.

With the Spanish and French journeying to the Americas, English concern rose and the prospect for colonies in the New World became a focus. Not only was it a focus due to building the British territory, but also due to the fact that the English and Spanish were not on the best of terms. The English were concerned that Spain may gain too much power over territories and waterways, and realized if they wanted to maintain or have control, they needed to look into establishing permanent settlements in the Americas.

English Settle Roanoke Colony

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh received a charter from Queen Elizabeth I to explore and settle the New World. Even though he would not be the one to make the trip to establish settlements, he (along with the help of the Queen) had opened the way for England to claim new territory. After two failed attempts, the 1587 landing on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, seemed promising, but in two years it would become abandoned, with no clues as to what had happened. More than 400 years later, several theories continue to look for an answer to the mystery.

After only a few months of settling the area, colonists found themselves in a love/hate relationship with the natives and suffering from a lack of supplies. The new land was nothing like England, and the only people who could teach the settlers how to live off the land were the natives. On the other hand, Spain was still sailing throughout the coast and the colony was still being landed on by pirates.

With all the problems in the colony and the birth of a baby girl, the appointed Governor, John White, knew the settlers needed supplies from England. Even so, he did not want to leave his new family or the colonists. Indian affairs seemed to be alright, there did not seem to be too much of a threat from the Spanish, and with the plan to simply pick up supplies and return to the colony within three months time, White set sail.

Unfortunately, while in England, Spain waged a war against the English. All ships were being used for the war, and what was suppose to be a three month journey for White, turned into three years of waiting. With no communication between Roanoke and himself, White had no idea what was happening in the colony, but was not prepared for the finding on his return trip.

The Lost Colony

In 1590, White stepped onto the shore of Roanoke to find no signs of colonists or a settlement. The only sign of a settlement were parts of the fort that had once surrounded the colonists. The only clue given to White and the men with him was the word “CROTOAN” carved into a post and the letters “CRO” on a tree. Hopeful, he believed that the settlers had sought shelter with the natives. However, storms and other hindrances kept the men from seeking answers, and the first successful British colony would not be until Jamestown, in 1607.

Theories Surrounding the Lost Colony

So, what did happen to the Lost Colony? There are many theories as to what happened, and all seem plausible. The theories include:

  • The colonists took refuge with the Native Americans during an attack by the Spanish, or due to the need for supplies and survival. Thus becoming “the Hatteras Indians.”
  • The colonists were murdered by the Indians, the Spanish, or pirates.
  • The colonists starved, and those who did not, went to Virginia or to live with the Natives.
  • The colony moved to a better location. Most believe the colony moved to settlements in or around Virginia, or in search of other colonists in that area.
  • The colonists attempted to build a ship and sail from the colony after Indian affairs worsened, but were unsuccessful and drowned.
  • The Indians attacked and captured the colonists.
  • The Spanish attacked the colony during the War, knowing their defenses were weak, and destroyed the settlement.
  • The Powhatan captured the colonists, and adopted the first born girl of the colonies, Virginia Dare, as their own (speculation that she is the famed Pocahontas have been made).

All of these theories, with the exception of the last, are extremely plausible. However, the problem is, there was no one at the colony to confirm or deny the theories. As an outsider, John White, would have had every reason to believe that the Croatans or other Indian tribes (with the love/hate relationship between the colonists and the Natives) had attacked, killed, or even captured the settlers. Any survivors may have tried to make their way to Virginia, or they very well may have tried to settle somewhere else. In all likelihood, with the carvings in the fort and a tree, it would seem that someone was leaving a warning message.

Even so, it could also be said that, since the Spanish were at war with England, that they could have attacked the colony during White’s absence, causing the colonists to attempt to seek help from the Croatans, and perhaps hide among them. This seems like a seemingly accurate assumption, because it was reported that Spanish weapons were found on Roanoke Island. Seeing as how the Spanish were still roaming and pirating the eastern coast, at war with the English, and competing to establish new territory, it is a very good possibility that knowing the weakness of the colony, they attacked. This would have sent the colonists fleeing, seeking help, as well as a new area to settle.

In conclusion, unless undeniable evidence or some writings from primary sources which witnessed what happened turn up, no one will ever know. Roanoke will forever remain a mystery.


  1. Powell, William S. North Carolina Through Four Centuries. The University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill and London. 1989.