The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants

National Geographic

One of American history’s enduring mysteries is The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Established in 1585 as an English attempt to create a permanent settlement in North America, Roanoke was found abandoned by 1590. There have been many theories to explain what happened to the missing colonists, but there hasn’t been any success in determining the fate of the 116 people who seemingly disappeared without a trace.

In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I gave Sir Walter Raleigh a royal charter to colonize North America to establish a base from which England could raid Spanish treasure fleets coming their south and central American colonies. Raleigh sent the first expedition to explore the eastern coast of North America. It landed on Roanoke Island and established good relations with the Croatoans, the Native Americans living on the island. The expedition brought two Croatoans back to England with them, and the natives explained how to live on the island.

Armed with this new information, Raleigh organized a second expedition, which was a disaster. There were tensions between this group and the Native Americans, and there was much fighting between them because the Indians were angry that the English were exploiting the land and resources. Many of this expedition returned to England. Only a small group of fifteen men remained behind to protect the fort and Raleigh’s claim to Roanoke Island.

Sir Walter Raleigh. Wikipedia Commons

In 1587, Raleigh sent a third and final expedition, making his friend John White leader and governor of the colony. This third voyage was different in that it included women and children, which indicated that they meant to settle the island. When White and his group arrived, all they found of the previous small group of fifteen was one skeleton. John White re-established good relations with the Croatoan, but some Native Americans that the previous travelers had struggled with refused to meet with him.

John White returned to England in late 1587 and planned to return with more supplies. The Spanish Armada’s assault on England in 1588 delayed his return. The ensuing war between Spain and England made it difficult for White to go back to Roanoke; he couldn’t gather supplies and book passage back to the colony for three years. He finally returned on August 18, 1590, his granddaughter’s third birthday. Roanoke was completely deserted; there was no one there and no sign of a struggle, a battle, or any foul play.

John White’s sketch of the Roanoke area c. 1585. Wikipedia Commons

The only clues left that gave any hint to the fate of the colonists of Roanoke was the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence post and the letters “CRO” carved into a tree. All of the buildings had been disassembled, so the people had not been forced to leave in a hurry. The colonists were instructed to carve a Maltese cross in a tree if they were compelled to leave against their will. There was no Maltese cross found at the site. White assumed, with all of these clues, that the colonists had moved to the nearby Croatoan Island, but bad weather prevented he and his men from going to look for them. His men wouldn’t go with him to look for the missing colonists, and they left the next day.

Since the colonists disappeared in 1590, there have been investigations into what happened at Roanoke. In 1602, Sir Walter Raleigh decided to find out what happened himself. He hired his own ship and paid his sailors’ wages so that they would focus on the mission. They reached Virginia, but a severe storm forced them to go back to England before they were able to reach Roanoke Island. When he arrived back in England, Raleigh was arrested for treason before he could organize any more missions back to Roanoke.

In 1603, another fact-finding mission to Roanoke led by Bartholomew Gilbert ended in disaster. A storm blew the expedition off-course, and the team that went ashore was attacked and killed by Native Americans. The remaining crew returned to England without having found any information on the colonists of Roanoke. It seemed as if there would never be a definitive answer to the mystery of the disappearances.

Over the years, there have been many theories and hypotheses put forth to help try to explain this long-standing mystery. They range from the potentially true to the just outlandish. Some incorporate spiritual beliefs while others use strictly scientific and historical data to solve the mystery. While many explanations have been put forth, these are the most common theories that have been discussed that could help us figure out what happened to the people of Roanoke.

Zuniga Map. Wikipedia Commons

1. The Colonists were Absorbed into Local Indian Populations or Captured as Slaves

The most popular theory is that the colonists left Roanoke and that they sought shelter with other Indian tribes. There were many documented sightings of Europeans and their influence in the years following the disappearance of the settlers, and the theory goes that these Europeans could have been the missing settlers or their descendants. The Zuniga map, drawn by a Jamestown settler named Francis Nelson in 1607, documents four men that came from Roanoke living among the Iroquois tribe. In the early 1600s to the middle 1700s, European colonists claimed to have met gray-eyed Indians who claimed to have been descended from white settlers.

In 1696, French Huguenots left records of meeting blond-haired, blue-eyed Indians soon after their arrival along the Tar River. In 1709, John Lawson, in his book A New Voyage to Carolina, records Croatoans living on Croatoan Island who claimed that they used to live on Roanoke Island and they claimed to have white ancestors. William Strachey also claimed to have seen Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen Indians living in two-story stone houses that the English showed them how to build.

The main theory is that the settlers of Roanoke moved to Croatoan Island and joined with the Native Americans living there. Croatoan Island is located just south of Roanoke Island and was the home of the Croatoan Indians. The settlers had good relations with them, so we can assume that the settlers were absorbed into the tribe. This theory has never been substantiated, but with the clues left at Roanoke, plus the good relations that were standing between the settlers and the Indians at the time of their disappearance, it is all we have to go on.

There is another theory that the colonists joined with the Croatoans and they relocated inland along the Alligator River, slightly inland from Roanoke Island. An archaeological site of settlements, including burial grounds, has been discovered there. The coffins at the burial grounds have Christian markings on them, but there was no previous record of any settlement or the grave site in this location. There is no definitive evidence that this site belonged to the missing Roanoke settlers, though.

While the prevailing theory is that the people of Roanoke merged with local Indian populations, it is just as possible that it wasn’t that happy an ending. Considering that the people were never heard from again, it is just as likely that they encountered hostile Native American tribes. They could have been taken as slaves. William Strachey, the secretary of Jamestown, VA, claimed in 1612, that he saw Europeans (four men, two boys, and one girl) living with the Eno tribe as slaves and that they were forced to beat copper. There is no evidence that these Europeans were descendants of the Roanoke settlers.

With the development of technology, solving the mystery of what happened at Roanoke is more possible now than ever before with DNA testing. We can now test the Native American peoples who claim to be descended from the Roanoke settlers to see if it is in fact true. In 2007, the Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project was founded by Roberta Estes, using her private DNA testing company to see if the missing colonists did, in fact, merge with local Native American populations, using historical records, migration patterns, and oral histories. The project offers DNA tests to people who think they might be descended from the people of Roanoke, using Y-chromosomes, autosomal DNA, and mitochondrial DNA to make the determination. So far, DNA testing of Native Americans has not been able to identify any Roanoke descendants.