Blog Post Linda Coutant Oct 30, 2023

The Lost Colony — An Outer Banks Mystery

On the North Carolina coast, a 400-year-old unanswered question still piques people’s curiosity. What happened to the group of colonists who vanished while trying to start England’s first settlement in North America?

In 1587, a group of 117 men, women and children leave England on a ship the size of a school bus to try to start their nation’s first permanent village on the North American continent. Two of the women are pregnant. They all survive the 10-week voyage, making a home on Roanoke Island at an abandoned fort. But only one month into their new life, they are struggling. The group asks its leader, John White, to return to England for necessities.

White had welcomed the birth of his granddaughter, Virginia Dare — England’s first child born in the new land — just a few days before the group’s request. White will not see her again.

When he returns three years later, his family and all the other colonists are gone. They become known simply as The Lost Colony of Roanoke.

What happened to them?

“It’s a mystery that may never be solved,” Park Guide Lauren Spier explained on a ranger talk at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site near Manteo, North Carolina.

Fort Raleigh tells the story of England’s first attempts to settle in North America, through three 1580s voyages financed by explorer and statesman Sir Walter Raleigh with Queen Elizabeth’s blessing. The third voyage carried the fated group. The park site includes Waterside Theatre, where the Roanoke Island Historical Association presents “The Lost Colony,” the longest-running outdoor drama in the U.S. A mix of fact and imagination, the play opened in 1937 for the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth.

“We don’t have any way to solve the mystery at this point, but the colonists’ story does set the stage for what happens next — the founding of Jamestown,” Spier said.

In 1607, Capt. John Smith led the establishment of Jamestown near the Chesapeake Bay, a site deemed secure from Spanish ships and safer for ships to navigate than Roanoke Island. It also was removed from the Native American villages the English had clashed with before. Jamestown would become England’s first permanent settlement.

3 English voyages

England’s first voyage to North America was in 1584, when crews of two ships established positive relations on Roanoke Island with Native Americans known as the Algonquins. They traded goods and learned of one another’s culture. Two Algonquin men — Manteo and Wanchese — even traveled to England with the crew for a year to further establish relations in Europe. Upon returning home, they became the two cultures’ translators.

A second voyage to the New World in 1585 didn’t go as well. A group of soldiers, sailors, explorers and other men built a fort to ward off possible threats from the Spanish and searched the lands for precious metals. But rather than learn to farm to sustain themselves, they relied heavily on the Algonquins when they began running out of food. The Native Americans grew frustrated as their own resources dwindled and members died from disease each time the Englishmen appeared. Hearing a rumor that the Algonquin chief planned to cut off their food supply, the Englishmen’s leader killed the chief in a pre-emptive move — forever altering English-Native relations in the area. Most of the Englishmen fled afterward, catching a passing ship of Sir Francis Drake’s.

With the third voyage in 1587, Raleigh planned to create a permanent settlement of men, women and children. White, a scientist-ethnographer who had documented his prior voyage through sketches, was to lead the group to the Chesapeake Bay area and serve as the governor of Virginia, so called in honor of Elizabeth, their “virgin queen.” Among the group were White’s pregnant daughter, Elinor, and her husband, Ananias Dare.

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The group departed in May, but after a stop on Roanoke Island in July to look for the few men believed to have remained from the 1585 expedition, the hired ship captain refused to take White and his group any further. Forced to make their home on Roanoke Island, the group repaired the fort and structures left by the earlier men. Elinor gave birth to Virginia in August 1587, making the infant the first child born of English parents in North America.

Arriving too late in the growing season, the colonists could not produce sufficient crops to feed themselves. They also feared retribution from the Native Americans whose chief had been killed by the earlier explorers.

Three days after the colonists’ arrival, Native Americans killed a colonist, prompting the colonists to attack a Native village and kill one of its members, not realizing it was a friendly village.

Did they die from natural causes? Were they attacked? Could they have left Roanoke Island voluntarily for another location?

By the end of August, the group asked White to return to England for supplies. With Spain and England at war, however, White could not secure a ship to return to Roanoke Island for three years.

When he returned in 1590, he found an empty village. The colonists’ homes appeared to have been dismantled and removed. The only clue to the group’s whereabouts: the letters CROATOAN carved into a post and CRO carved into a tree. White tried to reach Croatoan Island, now called Hatteras Island, but a hurricane forced his ship to return to England.

Subsequent attempts were made to find the colonists, including efforts by the Jamestown settlers 20 years later, but all proved unsuccessful.

Clues underground

Archaeologists have studied the Fort Raleigh area since 1895. Since the site became part of the National Park System in 1941, the National Park Service and its research partners have conducted a series of digs that have revealed European and Native American artifacts, as well as evidence of a metallurgy workshop from the exploratory voyages.

artifacts at Fort Raleigh

A display of artifacts found at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. 

camera icon ©Linda Coutant/NPCA

Today, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site’s visitor center presents three possible theories that historians and archaeologists have considered regarding The Lost Colony: Did they die from natural causes, whether by hurricane, disease or starvation? Were they attacked, either by Native Americans or Spanish explorers? Or could they have left Roanoke Island voluntarily for another location, such as the Chesapeake area or points south?

Spier said the Park Service and its research partners believe evidence points to the latter. No bodies were found at the settlement, according to John White’s reports after his 1590 return. Later accounts by Capt. John Smith indicated Native Americans in the Chesapeake area recalled seeing Europeans before he arrived there in the early 1600s.

“The colonists likely split up and went different places,” Spier said. “If people in the group did die, they would have been buried before the remaining members left Roanoke Island.”

To visitors exploring Fort Raleigh, she poses these questions: What would have happened if the men in the 1585 voyage had learned to sustain themselves through farming? What if they had remained allies with the Native Americans?

“We will never get the answer,” she said. But if events had turned out differently, she added, “What happened could have changed how our country was founded.”

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About the author

  • Linda Coutant Staff Writer

    As staff writer on the Communications team, Linda Coutant manages the Park Advocate blog and coordinates the monthly Park Notes e-newsletter distributed to NPCA’s members and supporters.