The very first effort to colonize The New World was attempted by the English in the late sixteenth century, at Roanoke Island. Beginning in the year of 1584 efforts were made to explore the east coast of The New World and find land that would be habitably for future colonists. It was in 1587 that a permanent colony was finally established. However, this accomplishment for the colonists and for England was learned to be one of the greatest American mysteries when the colony was discovered abandoned in 1590. There are theories on what could of happened to the men, women and children who called this land their home but no one knows for sure.
Roanoke Island is an island just off the coast of present day North Carolina. The Albemarle Sound, Croatoan Sound, Roanoke Sound, and the Pamlico Sound are four bodies of water that surround this island. The Atlantic Ocean is less than ten miles away from Roanoke on it’s eastern coast, and direct contact with the ocean is connected by a strip of land called Bodie Island, which is part of the Outer Banks. The western coast of the Island is also less than ten miles from the mainland of North Carolina.
In the late 16th century Queen Elizabeth encouraged exploration and settlement of new lands by issuing charters for exploration, and it was during this time period when the English discovered Roanoke Island. However it was not until March 25, 1584 when the significant history of Roanoke was made with the re-issuing of the charter to Sir Walter Raleigh. It was the responsibility of Raleigh to make the necessary provisions to complete the journeys to the New World and accomplish the goals of the charter. So Raleigh began hiring ship captains and their crews who were worthy seamen and could succumb to the new environment on the ship and on their new homeland. He would recruit possible colonists who had a dream of leaving their homeland in pursuit of a new land and who could also adapt and help build this new colony. He would need to purchase food and other supplies that would last them their voyage over the Atlantic and until they could manage their own crops. And the most difficult was finding those who would invest capital in the missions. Although Raleigh named the land he found Virginia, the queen would not give him the financial assistance that he needed for his mission.
There were a total of four expeditions, under the Raleigh charter. The first and second expeditions took place from 1584 to 1586. The accomplishments of these missions included producing contact and establishing friendly relations with a native tribe called the Croatoan, the fortification of the island, and searching for an appropriate place for a permanent settlement. It is during the second expedition that Raleigh decided to leave behind some of the colonists, while the ships returned to England for supplies. They left a few more than one hundred men to continue the search for a permanent settlement sight, and to keep an English hold on the island. This effort failed due to the lack of supplies, weather conditions, and the strained relations with the Croatoans and other more violent native tribes. These men who were left also did not have the skills of building, cooking, and hunting their own food therefore survival on this new land was a struggle. The situation becomes extremely desperate for the men when they resort to their dogs as a source of food. Some claim they even dug up the newly deceased as a source of food. Luckily for the colonists, a ship came to their rescue and took all but fifteen of the men back to England.
The mystery of Roanoke begins with the third expedition of 1587. John White was named governor of the colonist, which would now include women children. The permanent structure of this mission was due in part by the involvement of entire families. To further insure success, the colonist themselves were the investors. The third expedition comprising of almost one hundred twenty men, women and children ready for colonization, arrived on the island in the spring of 1587. Their intent was to locate the fifteen men who were left behind in the second expedition, and then rebuild their new colony. It was discovered that the colony built by the colonists the year before had been abandoned and there were no clues as to the fate of the fifteen men left behind. The next step was to find a new sight for settlement. Raleigh and John White chose the new settlement to be located in the Chesapeake Bay area to the north on the mainland. The colonists were denied the agreement that Raleigh and White had suggested. This was due to the strained relations between White and the ship captain. Therefore the colonists were forced to settle in the area of the abandoned fortifications for the time being.
While the colonists were redeveloping their homes it was determined that contact with the Croatoans was reestablished. In their communications the fate of the fifteen men left behind in the previous expedition was revealed. The Croatoans explain how an enemy tribe, the Powhatans, attacked the fort and killed some of the men, but how many of the men?s lives were taken was not known. John White, upset with the news of the dead men, decides to launch an attack against the enemy, the Powhatans. Instead of attacking the enemy John White’s men attack their friends, the Croatoans. This was the second time an incident of this nature had happened. It had occurred in the second expedition with Ralph Lane (Governor of the colony left by the second expedition). With this violation of trust, the relations between the Croatoans and the colonists quickly deteriorated. The Croatoans refused to supply the colonists with food, and the supplies brought with them had begun to spoil. With the shortage of supplies and their lack of knowledge on survival, and the winter soon approaching, it was decided by the colonists that someone must return to England with the ships in order to relieve them of their supply shortage. John White was sent for the supplies in the late summer of 1587. He leaves approximately one hundred sixteen men, women, and children on Roanoke Island. John White does not return with the requested supplies until 1590.
This three-year delay was caused by a war between England and Spain. When he does finally arrive back at Roanoke he finds the colony abandoned. There is only a small clue as to where the colonist could be. This clue was the word ?Croatoan?, carved into a tree. This word indicated to White that the colonists moved near or with the Croatoans, but White cannot determine whether his assumption was correct. Before White could make any more progress the captain and his crew, not having much interest in the colonist?s fate decided to return to England.
White returns to England not knowing the fate of the Roanoke Colonists. In late 1590 White tries to convince investors and Sir Walter Raleigh to send yet another expedition. Due to the lack of interest in Roanoke by investors and Raleigh, White was unsuccessful in his attempt. In 1603 due to the failed attempt to colonize, James I, the newly crowned king of England took all possessions from Raleigh and imprisoned him for a decade. When Raleigh was released he was sent on one final expedition to the New World, which was his last failed attempt. King James I took no more of Raleigh?s inadequacies and executed him in 1618.
In 1608 John Smith was the first to gather information about the outcomes of the Roanoke settlement. He questioned the local natives about Roanoke. From this line of questioning he came up with three similar stories. One story was the attack of the settlement and the massacre of all the colonists. In another story the settlement was attacked and the women and children were assimilated only. The final story was that the entire colony was peacefully assimilated into the local native tribes.
It is not until the Jamestown settlement twenty years later that a firm effort was made to find the true fate of the colonists of Roanoke Island. Due to the fact that an investigation was not launched for twenty years, no one knows what became of the colonists. Therefore there are several theories that attempt to explain their disappearance.
No new information or theories were concluded until many years later. These theories include the possibilities of an attack by the Spanish, which themselves were beginning to colonize on the New World. Another was smallpox epidemic that also had killed many of the natives. Starvation due to the horrid winters they faced and lack of experience of cultivating the land. There is also a theory that the colonists abandoned their land to return to England in a small ship and then being lost at sea. Only spurts of interest in the fate of the colonists occurred throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was also major destruction of the fort on Roanoke Island during the American Civil War, so most of the artifacts that could have answered question about the fate of these men, women, and children had been destroyed.
It was not until 1959 that a theory was openly agreed upon by a group of historian and scholars. They theorized that the colony did go to the Croatoan village and may have been assimilated into the tribe. It was possible that they later moved to one of two areas, either the Chesapeake Bay area or the Chowan River area. They also agreed that there was the possibility that the group disbanded. If the colonists did not go to the Croatoan village, it was surmised that the Powhatan attacked them and the women and children were taken captive.
However, the panel did not agree on one solid theory because they lack any physical evidence. These few possibilities may be as close as anyone will get to an answer of the lost colony of Roanoke Island.
Stick, David. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, 1584-1958. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982