The Mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke

The mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke colonists has puzzled historians for centuries. The lost colony seemingly vanished, with little evidence hinting toward their whereabouts.

Aug 21, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor

lost colony of roanoke mystery


England wanted to establish a settlement in the New World in the hopes of finding precious metals and gems, converting Native peoples, and competing with Spain. After two initial visits to Roanoke Island, colonists were brought over to the New World on ships to establish a permanent agricultural settlement. John White, responsible for governing the colony, left shortly after their arrival to return to England to get more supplies. After his return trip to Roanoke was delayed for almost three years, he sailed across the Atlantic only to find the colonists had vanished. With little evidence of where the colonists could’ve gone, the lost colony of Roanoke has remained one of the biggest mysteries that historians are still trying to unravel to this day.


Scouting Roanoke Island

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Engraved map of North Carolina by John White and Theodore de Bry, 1590, from the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, via the Library of Congress


Spain was the leading empire in exploration in the 16th century. Upon Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of North America on behalf of Spain, more conquistadors were encouraged to set sail and discover new lands in Central and South America. Spain became a wealthy nation after discovering precious metals and stealing treasures from the Aztecs and Incas. To become a competing force, England took interest in exploring the New World in hopes of finding gold, silver, and copper, just as the Spanish had done throughout the 16th century. Other interests leading them to explore North America included converting Native peoples to Protestantism. Religion also played a key role in England’s interests to explore because they wanted to challenge Spain’s Catholic influences.


In an attempt to establish a presence in the Atlantic by setting up a colony off the Atlantic coast, the English would be able to take part in privateering and gain control of valuable trading routes. Sir Walter Raleigh was favored by Queen Elizabeth I due to their alleged love affair, and he was granted permission to go on a reconnaissance expedition to North America. The first expedition aimed to scout out potential settlement areas along the Atlantic coast. Upon discovering the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in initial expeditions, it was decided that this was a prime location for permanent settlement. Various obstacles, including conflicts with Native Americans and hazardous storms, created numerous problems for each expedition and settlement attempt.


First Attempts to Establish the First Permanent English Colony

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Engraving of Sir Walter Raleigh by H. Robinson, 1618, via The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News


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Sir Walter Raleigh went to Queen Elizabeth to propose an expedition to colonize the New World. The expedition’s main goals included exploiting valuable resources and laying English claim to the New World. It would help Raleigh and his men scout the area for a base that could be used to launch raids on Spanish ships. In April 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh set off for his first expedition with two ships, which were commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe. They reached the coast of present-day North Carolina near the Outer Banks in July 1584 and encountered Algonquian tribes while exploring the land. Accounts of their voyage given by Barlowe expressed that the area had plentiful resources and looked promising for future settlement.


Raleigh, Amadas, and Barlowe returned to England, bringing with them two Algonquian peoples named Manteo and Wanchese of the Croatoan and Roanoac tribes. Investors were intrigued by Raleigh’s findings and provided more funding to go on a second expedition to Roanoke Island, which would be the first attempt to establish a permanent English colony in North America. In April 1585, seven vessels under the command of explorer Sir Richard Grenville set sail from Plymouth, England with 600 soldiers and sailors for the second expedition to Roanoke Island. English explorer Ralph Lane also accompanied Grenville on the voyage. The first obstacle the fleet encountered was a great storm in the Atlantic that damaged and destroyed some of their ships. Grenville decided to reroute the vessels to Puerto Rico, where they could be repaired.


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Map of Roanoke Island and surrounding lands, via American Geographical Society


Quarrels between Lane and Grenville began in Puerto Rico because Grenville also took the opportunity to do some privateering during their pitstop, putting them behind schedule. It was important for the colonists to reach Roanoke Island with ample time to prepare for winter. Once the ships approached Roanoke Island, a few of the larger ships were unable to pass through the sounds due to their size. The larger ships were anchored off the Atlantic coast, putting them in harm’s way of bad weather. One of the large ships, the Tiger, was damaged while anchored off the coast due to a violent storm, and most of the ship’s food supplies for the colonists were destroyed. Grenville decided to sail back to England to get more colonists and supplies.


Peaceful to Violent Relations With the Algonquians

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Illustration of fortification built by the soldier colonists during the first Roanoke settlement attempt, via National Park Service


Ralph Lane was left with about 100 men to build temporary homes and a fortification until Grenville returned with more supplies. While Lane and the colonists tried to make do with what they had, they realized they couldn’t survive without assistance from the Algonquians living in the area. For a short period of time, the Roanoke colonists and Algonquians had peaceful relations. However, the colonists’ greed for food ruined this relationship. The Algonquians were also exposed to English diseases, such as smallpox, which increased tensions. The chief of the Secotan, one of the Algonquian tribes in the area, decided that the colonists should be removed from the area.


Wingina devised a plan to cut off the colonists’ food supply, which would cause the colonists to break up into smaller groups to forage for food. This would allow the Secotan tribe to easily overpower the colonists. However, Lane was made aware of Wingina’s plan and had the chief killed in June 1596 before it was enacted. Fearful of Spanish ships and increased tensions between the Secotan tribe after killing their chief, Lane and the colonists were relieved when Sir Francis Drake happened upon Roanoke Island after raiding Spanish ships throughout the West Indies. Drake initially agreed to help Lane find a better area for the colonists to relocate, but a hurricane altered these plans. Lane decided to call off the attempt to resettle, left Roanoke Island with Drake, and sailed back to England.


Third Expedition to Roanoke Island

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Engraving of New World colonists trying to negotiate peaceful relations with Native Americans by Theodor de Bry and Matthäus Merian, 1634, via Virginia Historical Society


A third expedition and second attempt to colonize North America took place in 1587. John White was chosen to be the governor of the new colony. He was sent with 118 colonists; most recruited for this trip were from London and probably agreed to go on the voyage because of their Puritan beliefs, as they wanted to help spread their faith to the Native peoples.


The colonists arrived at Roanoke Island in July 1587. They were originally supposed to settle in the Chesapeake Bay area. However, navigator Simon Fernandes refused to take the colonists up the Atlantic coast to Chesapeake. It’s speculated that he wanted to quickly get back out to sea so he had time to raid Spanish ships for treasure on his way back to England.


The colonists fixed up the houses abandoned by Lane and the previous colonists. In August, White left the colonists to return to England to get more supplies. He made it back to England by November and would’ve been ready to begin his trip back by March 1588. His plans to return to the colony were delayed because the Privy Council prohibited him from leaving due to the Spanish Armada.


The ships that White had planned on taking for his return weren’t up to par for defense in the case that he ran into the Spanish Armada. On March 20, 1590, John White was able to begin his voyage back to Roanoke Island to provide relief to the colonists he left behind. White reached Roanoke Island in August, nearly three years after he left. There were no signs of the colonists, dead or alive. The houses they had repaired were gone, and only two pieces of evidence remained that could’ve pointed to their whereabouts.


The Disappearance of the Roanoke Colony

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Poster entitled “The Lost Colony” depicting the discovery of the word Croatoan left behind by the Roanoke colonists by Samuel Selden and Paul Green, via Library of Congress


When John White returned to Roanoke Island, the colonists had seemingly disappeared. The letters CRO were carved into a tree, and the word Croatoan was carved into a wooden post, a part of the previously built fortification. White attempted to travel to the island of Croatoan, now known as Hatteras Island, located just 50 miles south of Roanoke Island. However, White was unable to reach Croatoan Island due to bad weather and was forced to return to England with no knowledge of what happened to the colonists.


Several possibilities for what could’ve happened to the colonists were investigated. Although the colonists didn’t have peaceful relations with the Algonquian tribes in the area, it’s been ruled out that they were all killed. There were no bodies or bones at the site to indicate that the colonists were killed. Death by disease was also ruled out for the same reason. When Captain John Smith came to present-day Virginia to establish the Jamestown colony in 1607, Chief Powhatan informed him that the Roanoke colonists had been in his land and claimed they were killed to prevent more colonists from coming to the New World. Although this account may be true for some of the colonists, there are other plausible theories historians have considered.


Theories on the Lost Colony of Roanoke


One of the most popular and well-accepted theories on the lost colony of Roanoke is that some of the colonists traveled to Croatoan and settled there around late 1587. The other colonists traveled to the Chesapeake area along with Lynnhaven and Elizabeth rivers with Native American tribes.


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Engraving of John Smith’s adventures and encounters with Native Americans in Virginia by John White, 1624, via The Trustees of the British Museum


Before John White’s departure from Roanoke in 1587 to get more supplies, the colonists told him that they would go 50 miles into the main. This could be interpreted in different ways. Master historian James Horn offers his opinion on what this statement could mean and also finds disconnects in the widely accepted theory of the colonists’ disappearance. Horn suggests that the colonists meant they were going to travel 50 miles into the mainland of the continent.


James Horn also suggests that the colonists left a small group at Roanoke Island to inform White about where the colonists had moved. Another group of colonists may have traveled to the villages of the Tuscarora tribe that occupied the Coastal Plain region of North Carolina. Horn believes the colonists that lived with the Tuscarora tribe may have survived for about ten years until warriors of the Powhatan and Pamunkey tribes traveled down the Roanoke and Chowan rivers to kill the colonists. The colonists may have been killed to discourage the English from bringing more colonists into their land or so future colonists wouldn’t be able to meet up with the Roanoke colonists.


It’s still possible that a small group of colonists traveled to Croatoan Island and survived.  English explorer and naturalist John Lawson gave an account in the early 18th century that he met with a group of Croatoans, some of which had gray eyes. These were unlikely features for Croatoans to have, leading Horn to believe that the individuals with gray eyes could’ve been descendants of the Roanoke colonists who made it to Croatoan. Despite developing theories, there still isn’t enough evidence that’s surfaced to affirm what truly happened to the Roanoke Island colonists.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.