Illustration depicting Captain John White returning to Roanoke Island and discovering the word 'CROATOAN' carved into a tree at the fort palisade.

The Mysterious Lost Colony of Roanoke Island Vanished, Leaving Behind a Strange Message

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The early English settlers of Roanoke Island in the New World established homes and lives alongside indigenous populations, but then they vanished completely, leaving behind a coded message for other colonists. If there were survivors of the mysterious events of their disappearance, where did they go? What was the fate of the vanished English colony on Roanoke Island?

In 1584, the English attempted to set up a colony in the New World on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. The following year, the colony was abandoned due to the harsh weather, lack of supplies and poor relations with the indigenous people. Three years later, a second attempt at colonization was undertaken. As the struggles to survive and thrive continued, one of the settlers, Captain John White, was forced to return to England to obtain supplies.

The village of Secoton in Roanoke, painted by settler and artist Governor John White c.1585

The village of Secoton in Roanoke, painted by settler and artist Governor John White c.1585  Public Domain

In 1587, White’s daughter gave birth to Virginia Dare, who was said to be the first English child born in the New World.

Leaving behind friends and family, against his will White sailed to England, only to remain there three years, as the Queen had disallowed all shipping due to Spanish Armada attacks on England.

When he finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, the English colony had vanished, and it is said that White found only the words ‘CRO’ and ‘CROATOAN’ carved on two trees.

'CRO' written on a tree, part of the Lost Colony performance at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

"CRO" written on a tree, part of the Lost Colony performance at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Wikimedia Commons

When White saw these words, he inferred that the settlers had sought the help of the Croatan Indians on the nearby Hatteras Island. It had previously been decided by the settlers that should they move due to disaster or attack, a Maltese Cross image would be left behind. No such symbol was found by White.

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The Croatans had been friendly towards the settlers, as the English were able to establish good relations with them when they founded their colony in 1587. Thus, it was reasonable to speculate that the colonists had gone to Hatteras Island during White’s absence. Dogged by terrible weather and a dangerously reluctant sailing crew, White was unable investigate the matter further. He went back to England instead, leaving behind the mysterious disappearance of the colony, his daughter and granddaughter, and never returned to the New World. Consequently, no one is certain of the fate that befell the English settlers of Roanoke Island.

One of the theories regarding the disappearance of the English settlers of Roanoke Island is that they managed to integrate themselves with the Croatan people. For instance, it has been claimed that subsequent English historians mentioned a tribe of North Carolina Indians who spoke English fluently, practiced Christianity, and called themselves Croatan Indians. Additionally, there were between 20 and 30 English surnames from the Roanoke settlers were found in the Croatan tribe, suggesting that integration between the two peoples had happened.

Dancing Secotan Indians in North Carolina. Watercolour painted by explorer and artist John White in 1585.

Dancing Secotan Indians in North Carolina. Watercolour painted by explorer and artist John White in 1585. Public Domain

More recently, the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research has initiated the ‘Lost Colony DNA Project’ to investigate whether the Roanoke settlers did assimilate themselves with the Croatans.

Archaeological excavations on the remains of an Indian village at Cape Creek and Pamlico Sound near Cape Hatteras recovered not only artifacts produced by the Indians, but also European trade goods. While this demonstrates that the Croatans were likely to have had contact with the Roanoke settlers, it is not enough to say that the two peoples were assimilated.     

The Croatans themselves were believed to have become extinct by the early 17 th century. Their direct descendants, the Lumbee (who still exist today), began appearing some 50 years after the disappearance of the Roanoke settlers. One of the prominent characteristics of the Lumbee people, as pointed out by observers, is their European features. By 1650, the Lumbee had migrated and settled in Robeson County.

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Although the intermarriage between the Croatans and English settlers is the most popular explanation for the origins of the Lumbee, it is not accepted by all. For instance, some subscribe to the ‘Cherokee Theory’, in which some of the Cherokees marching home after fighting the Tuscarora (in the early 18 th century) with Colonel John Barnwell decided to remain in Robeson County and intermarried with local residents. Amongst the Lumbee, it has been reported that their oral tradition contains four different migration theories.

Comments

really strange this story!

Interesting

It's very hard to enjoy your articles with the terrible pop ups for sharing and other articles. Please give us the option to close them so that we can actually read the article we want!

ancient-origins's picture

Hi Lian. The only popups we have are the cookies (which is legally required) and the popup for our newsletter. However, they should appear only once. If they appear more than once it means that you either are behind a proxy or you have cookies disabled.

 

 

He's right --- that vertical string of social media thingees covers a portion of the text along the lefthand side of the browser window. It's slightly overlapping this form as I type my comment.

Steve Byrd's picture

I remember watching a documentary about this a couple of years ago. The explanation of them intermarrying with the friendly Indians and leaving the aera makes more sense than any of the other explanations. I understand that there is no real concrete proof of that but they probably would have left the aera of the unfriendly Indians.

In South Carolina, along the coast there are people with bronze skin and blue eyes. Some of the locals call them Brass Ankles. Never understood why.
Just thought I'd throw it out there.

A good explanation of what happened to the lost colonists is in White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. A damn good read!

Pretty sure "Cracked Magazine" solved this mystery, as well as a few more..

"..you might remember the lost colony of Roanoke, where the people mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind only one cryptic clue: the word "Croatan" carved into the town post. As we've covered before, this is only a mystery if you are the worst detective ever. Croatan was the name of a nearby island populated by friendly Native Americans. In the years after the people of Roanoke "disappeared," genetically impossible Native Americans with gray eyes and an "astounding" familiarity with distinctly European customs began to pop up in the tribes that moved between Croatan and Roanoke islands."

http://s3.crackedcdn.com/phpimages/article/0/5/0/129050.jpg?v=1

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