Few events in Outer Banks history are as famous as the disappearance of the first colony to attempt to settle on the sandbar in the 16th century. Although hundreds of years have passed since 117 men, women and children made the journey from the coast of England to the shores of Roanoke Island, the story of “The Lost Colony” still intrigues historians, archaeologists and visitors to the Outer Banks to this day.
In the summer of 1587—more than three decades before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts and the Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony—a group of settlers recruited by Sir Walter Raleigh landed on the northern tip of Roanoke Island in the present-day town of Manteo, North Carolina. Among the settlers were John White and his pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare; her husband, Ananias Dare; and a man named Manteo, a Native American chief who had become an ally to the English during a previous visit to Britain.
The settlers unloaded their belongings onto the island and repaired a fort that had been previously erected on the island during a settlement scouting mission a few years earlier. On August 18, 1587, Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter, who was named Virginia Dare. Virginia Dare would go down in history as the first English child to be born on American soil. Less than two weeks after the birth of his granddaughter, John White set sail for England with the promise of a quick return with additional supplies for the brand-new settlement in the New World. Little did White know that this would be the last time he ever saw his daughter, son-in-law and their new baby girl.
John White journeyed back to Britain, only to find himself faced with the imminent invasion of the Spanish Armada, and as a result he was forced to stay in England for nearly three years. When White finally made his way back to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and arrived at Roanoke Island on his granddaughter’s third birthday—August 18, 1590—he found the fort deserted and no signs of the family or other settlers he had left behind. According to historical reports, White described what he found upon his return to Roanoke Island as a settlement that was surrounded “with a high pallisado of great trees, with cortynes and flankers, very fort-like.”
When White searched for clues in his attempts to determine what had happened to the colony that had completely disappeared in the three years since he had last set foot on the island, he noticed a strange word carved into one of the wooden stakes within the fence that enclosed the fort: “CROATOAN.” On a nearby tree he found the letters “CRO” carved, and White came to the conclusion that the settlers had made the carvings to indicate the name of the place they were headed when they left the fort on Roanoke Island in a hurry and potentially under duress. Though White continued to search for his family and the missing colonists, a hurricane hindered his explorations and threatened to damage his ships, forcing him to return to England without ever knowing what had become of them.
For centuries, historians and archaeologists have attempted to determine the fate of the so-called “Lost Colony,” but few have found satisfactory answers, and to this day the mystery remains unsolved. As it turns out, Croatoan—the word carved into one of the fence posts enclosing the settlement—was the Native American name of an island on the Outer Banks to the south of Roanoke Island, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound. This island—today’s Hatteras Island—was the native home of Chief Manteo, and in 2015 archaeologists found various artifacts and “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” to support the theory that some of the settlers from the Lost Colony had indeed moved south to Hatteras Island where they eventually assimilated with members of the Croatoan Tribe of Native Americans who called this spot their home for hundreds of years.
Although no one can say for sure what happened to the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island more than four centuries ago, investigations into the settlers’ disappearance continue today in hopes that one day the mystery of the Lost Colony can finally be solved for certain.