Life's Little Mysteries

What happened to the 'vanished' colonists at Roanoke?

When John White returned to the Roanoke colony with supplies from England, he found that all the people had disappeared — and the word "CROATOAN" had been carved nearby.
When John White returned to the Roanoke colony with supplies from England, he found that all the people had disappeared — and the word "CROATOAN" had been carved nearby. (Image credit: Stock Montage via Getty Images)

On Aug. 27, 1587, John White, the governor of Roanoke Island colony, an English settlement in what is now North Carolina, sailed to England in hopes of gathering badly needed supplies and reinforcements to bring back to the struggling colony. 

His return to Roanoke was delayed in 1588 by the Spanish Armada — a huge Spanish fleet that sailed to northern Europe with the intention of invading England — which required the English government to make use of all available ships to combat the threat. When White finally got back to Roanoke Island on Aug. 18, 1590, he found the colony abandoned — the only clues to the colonists' fate being the words CROATOAN carved on a palisade post and CRO carved on a tree. White believed that they had gone to Croatoan Island (now called Hatteras Island), but a storm prevented White from reaching Hatteras and he was forced to turn back to England. He was unable to raise the money to finance another rescue mission and the fate of the colonists has remained a mystery ever since. 

Now that more than 400 years have passed, do historians have any idea what happened to the vanished colonists at Roanoke? 

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When the English settlement of Jamestown was founded in what is now Virginia in 1607, more searches for survivors were undertaken, but none were found. Some English records claim that the chief Powhatan, who led many of the Native Americans who lived in what is now eastern Virginia, confessed that he had many of the colonists killed — although it is uncertain whether these records are true, according to modern day historians. 

Roughly 115 colonists landed at Roanoke, and those who vanished included White's daughter and son-in-law as well as his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, who was the first English colonist born in North America. The fate of the colonists is "the biggest unsolved mystery in American history," William Kelso, emeritus director of archaeology and research at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, told Live Science in an email. 

"Archaeologically, we don't know where they went, we don't even know where they started from. The main settlement has eluded discovery...," Charles Ewen, director of the Phelps Archaeology Laboratory at East Carolina University, told Live Science in an email. Ewen noted that in the past archaeologists believed that the colony was located at what is now the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, but this idea "has been called into question," because some of the artifacts found at Fort Raleigh date to after the colony vanished, indicating that they are likely not associated with the lost colonists. The National Park Service notes on its website that Roanoke Island has suffered extensive erosion over the past 400 years, so remains of the colony may now be underwater. 

Searching for clues

There are many theories as to what happened to the colonists, including being attacked by Native Americans or by the Spanish (who were at war with England at the time), and had a settlement at St. Augustine in what is now Florida, which the English had recently attacked. Another idea posits that the colonists all died of starvation or disease. Or, perhaps the colonists joined a friendly Native American group with whom they intermarried and had children. Yet another idea is that some of the survivors tried, but failed, to return to England by boat. 

Attempts to solve the mystery are likely "going to hinge on multiple lines of archaeological evidence, or perhaps genetic evidence, as well," said Dennis Blanton, an associate professor of anthropology at James Madison University, in an email. Scientists have been analyzing the DNA of descendents of the Native Americans who lived in the area, trying to find evidence of intermarriage with the lost colonists. 

While the colonists’ fate is still unknown, archaeological research over the past two decades has provided some possible clues. On Hatteras Island, a University of Bristol archaeology team working with a local archaeology society has uncovered a number of late 16th-century artifacts that may be from the Roanoke colonists. These include German pottery, a rapier handle and a Nuremberg counter, or coin, identical to ones found at Roanoke Island. These finds suggest that some of the colonists made it to Hatteras Island and raises the question of whether they intermarried into the Native American population on the island, who were known as the Croatoan people, according to a statement released by the archaeologists in 2015.

Additionally, archaeologists with the North Carolina-based First Colony Foundation have been excavating two sites called "site x" and "site y" on the mainland in Bertie County, North Carolina, where 16th-century European ceramics were found, which could be from the lost colonists. A late 16th-century map, which is now in the British Museum in London, has two fort symbols near where the two sites are located, suggesting that the Roanoke colonists may have been aware of these locations and hoped to build forts there in the future. The fort symbols are not visible to the naked eye, but were found using imaging techniques, the First Colony Foundation said in a 2012 statement

Site x is located beside a Native American village, and researchers think that the native people living in that village may have been protecting survivors from the Roanoke colony. "My interpretation is that the settlers were under the protection of the powerful Chowanoacs, who lived along the north bank of the Chowan River," historian James Horn, president and chief officer of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, told Live Science in an email. 

Blanton speculated that after the collapse of the Roanoke colony, the survivors may have split into different groups. "It is not uncommon among struggling colonial groups for competing factions to emerge," Blanton told Live Science, noting that some of the colonists may have joined a Native American group while others may have tried to survive independently. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.