In the late 1500’s, England was enmeshed in a multifaceted “undeclared” war with Spain, including a series of furious land grabs in the Americas. Sir Walter Raleigh, on the auspices of Queen Elizabeth I, was granted charter to create the Roanoke colony on Roanoke island in Chesapeake Bay. John White – a friend of Raleigh – was tasked with establishing this colony to serve as a claim to this section of the eastern seaboard, and also offer a strategic locality for privateer missions against the Spanish. In July, 1587, White departed the colony, leaving a group of 115 men, women, and children – including the first English person born on North American soil, Virginia Dare – to carve out an existence at Roanoke. Because colonies often fail due to famine, pestilence or human malfeasance, the people were instructed to carve the sign of the Maltese cross on a tree if they met a violent end or were forced away.
Unable to return to the island for three years due to complications arising from the Anglo-Spanish War, John White finally made his way back to Roanoke in August of 1590. What he found stimulated a historical conundrum that is shrouded in legend and rumor to this very day. Gone was every single person. There was no Maltese cross carved into a tree and no sign of a conflict or overt violence. The houses and structures had all been taken down, suggesting that the evacuation was not hurried. The only cryptic clue to their disappearance was the word CROATON crudely carved into a tree.
Several – perhaps not mutually exclusive – theories have arisen attempting to explain this mystery. Interaction with local Native American tribes – both violent and benign – has been suggested, ranging from absorption into local tribes or outright slaughter. There has been much interest in Chief Powhaton, whom, according to several sources, massacred the colony. Genetic testing of local Native Americans from the area (Lost Colony DNA Project) has been attempted in order to elucidate possible admixture. Results have been inconclusive. Other, less tenable, theories cite dubious journals and maps that allegedly document the colony moving to other locales or dying from various natural causes – ie. drought conditions – or that the Spanish killed them; but this is unlikely because the Spanish were actively looking for the colony well after White returned.
Less exciting, but perhaps most parsimonious, is that the colony relocated to Roanoke island (now known as Hatteras Island). This is an island that they were familiar with and had colonized before. The colonists could have perished in transit or suffered any one of the fates recounted above. Additionally, after John White returned to Roanoke and found the colony missing, his party was unable to investigate the island due to a massive storm approaching.
Whatever the case may be, the saga of the lost colony of Roanoke is an endearing and mysterious tail that offers much room for speculation and wonder regarding this fabled time in the European colonization of the Americas.