The Mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Mystery of the Lost Colony

Archaeological Research Provides New Insights

Mystery of the Lost Colony

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy family, food, and football.  But life for the first English settlers was not always so festive, especially for the members of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island.  

What Do We Know?

On June 22, 1587, John White and 118 English colonists arrived at Hatteras Island.  They quickly decided the area was not suitable for settlement and migrated around the Pamlico Sound to Roanoke Island.1  This group was the third of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions to arrive in North Carolina but the first attempt at settlement.  Day-to-day life for the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children must have been difficult as they attempted to farm the land and interact with the Native inhabitants.2   John White soon needed to return to England for supplies but, due to the Anglo-Spanish War, could not get back for three years.3   

He finally arrived at Roanoke Island in 1590 but found the settlement completely deserted.  Not a single person remained.  The only traces left by the colonists were mysterious words “Cro” and “Croatoan” carved into a tree and gate post.4  What were the settlers trying to communicate?  Did they leave the island?  Did they die from an epidemic?  Research conducted by Dennis Blanton from the College of William and Mary and David Stahle from the University of Arkansas may illuminate the mysterious disappearance of the Lost Colony.

The Mystery of the Lost Colony
John White discovers the word Croatoan carved on the Roanoke fort gate post. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 Is the Truth in the Trees?

According to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Blanton and Stahle looked at the rings of centuries-old cypress tree trunks along the rivers of the Virginia-North Carolina border. Every year, trees grow by adding layers of wood cells.  The width of the tree ring indicates how much the tree has grown in a particular growth season.  The wider the ring, the better the conditions for growth. The research team discovered the tree rings were significantly smaller than average during the years 1587-1589.5  This discovery, along with other environmental data, indicates the settlement of Roanoke Island coincided with the worst drought of the past 800 years!6  

Has the Lost Colony Been Found?

Historians hypothesize that the colonists dispersed, searching for more hospitable environments, perhaps trying to cohabitate with Native American tribes.7  Some scholars believe the colonists traveled 50 miles south to Hatteras Island, then known as Croatoan Island.8  Is that the reason Croatoan was carved into a gate post at the site of the original colony?  Were they trying to tell John White where they had gone?

The mystery was further compounded in 2012 when the British Museum uncovered a tantalizing clue on one of John White’s maps.  Using X-ray spectroscopy, a four-pointed X or star was uncovered underneath a paper patch that had been secured on the map.  The X marked a spot at the western end of Albemarle Sound near the outlet of the Chowan River, which corresponds to an area White mentioned in testimony he gave after returning to the colony.9

Map of the Lost Colony
A paper patch on the map covers an X shape, visible when backlit, that might be a “lozenge”, a symbol that represents a fort. Image from the Trustees of the British Museum.

The James River Institute for Archaeology and the First Colony Foundation, as well as British archaeologists, have been excavating sites near the Albermarle Sound attempting to find traces of the settlers.  While they have discovered artifacts dating back to the 16th century, there isn’t yet enough evidence to say for certain that the colonists ended up there.  It’s possible we will never know exactly what happened to the “Lost Colony” but scholars will persevere.  As Eric Klingelhofer, professor of history at Mercer University, said:

“We need to know more.  This whole story is a blank — a blank page, a blank chapter of history, and I think archaeology is the only way to come up with answers.”10


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

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