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What Happened to the Lost Colony at Roanoke?

Roanoke Mystery: Evidence and Theories of the Lost Colony

Gravestones commemorate the Lost Colony
Gravestones commemorate the Lost Colony at Roanoke, North Carolina. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

So, what happened to the Roanoke colonists? Ultimately, no one knows for sure. When it comes to the lost colony, historians are long on theories but short on hard evidence. Gov. John White, the first person to discover the colonists' disappearance, reported everything he saw in a letter. There were no bones, like those that had been left behind from the 1585 colony. The houses had been "taken downe," not destroyed or burned [source: Encyclopedia Virginia]. The "CROATOAN" carving didn't indicate distress with a Maltese cross. Everything pointed to the settlers simply having picked up and left.

According to White's letter, the colonists were prepared to move "50 miles to the maine." This could mean that they moved to the mainland, into the forests of North Carolina [source: Keiger].

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Another explanation is that the Roanoke settlers fell victim to the Spanish, whose settlement was just down the coast in Florida. It's certain that the Spanish in the West Indies were aware of the English colonists' presence. One Roanoke settler named Darby Glande left the 1587 expedition once it set ashore in Puerto Rico to take on supplies. He later reported that he told Spanish officials the location of the Roanoke settlement [source: Keiger].

In the opinion of Johns Hopkins University anthropologist Lee Miller, the colonists were deliberately left at Roanoke by Sir Francis Walsingham, secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth I, in hopes that the colony would not survive, to bring down Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite of the queen. Raleigh, who had funded the expeditions to Roanoke, had received a patent to all the land in the New World he could settle, but he had wanted the last group to settle in the Chesapeake Bay area instead. The colonists inadvertently wandered into a violent shift in the balance of power among inland tribes. Indians with whom the colonists were friendly lost their hold over the area, and Native Americans hostile to the settlers took control. If the Roanoke colonists made the trip inland when this happened, the men would've likely been killed and the women and children captured as slaves. The colonists would have then been traded along a route that spanned the U.S. coast from present-day Georgia to Virginia [source: Keiger].

It's also conceivable that the colonists met a less violent fate and went to Croatoan Island which was 50 miles south of the settlement . The Jamestown colonists sent out several search parties to find members of the lost colony and made a habit of questioning any Native Americans with whom the Jamestown members made contact. Some of these natives told tales of white settlements further down the coast, with two-story, thatched-roof houses, a style unique to the English. Others told of nearby tribes who could read English and dressed similarly to Europeans. Perhaps the most dramatic report from Jamestown was the sighting of a boy dressed as a native. He had blond hair and was fair-skinned.

These reports corroborate the most widely held theory of what became of the Roanoke colonists: They assimilated into some friendly Native American tribe. Over the course of generations, intermarriage between the natives and the English would produce a third, distinct group. This group may be the Lumbee tribe.

The Lumbee tribe is native to North Carolina, yet no certain lineage can be pinned down. The tribe's oral history links them to the Roanoke settlers, and this tradition is supported by some of their surnames and the tribe's ability to read and write English. Family names of some of the Roanoke colonists, like Dial, Hyatt and Taylor, were shared by Lumbee tribe members as early as 1719. The settlers who met them were astonished to find Native Americans that had gray eyes and spoke English. Even within the Lumbee tribe, the veracity of the group's link to the Roanoke colonists is in dispute. The Lumbee Connection, as it's come to be called, is intriguing.

Recent excavations in Bertie County, North Carolina continue to pick away at the mystery. There, at a location called Site X (as in "X marks the spot"), archaeologists have found dozens of English-style artifacts dating to the 1500s. The site, which is situated near the mouth of Salmon Creek, was notably near a major Native American community named Mettaquem. New finds from excavations included lead seals from bales of cloth, firearms components, and tenterhooks meant for stretching animal hides. At an adjacent site (aptly named "Site Y") searchers discovered eight different types of ceramics [source: Emery].

It's possible that a severe drought and subsequent inability to grow crops drove the colony from its original location to Sites X and Y. Historians believe that Sites X and Y might've been a fallback community of sorts, featuring small numbers of the English settlers – not the entire colony. This fragmented group may have been quickly integrated into the local native tribes, diluting their English blood and erasing a record of what happened to the original colony.

For now, the research continues. In 2019, historians and archaeologists alike were buoyed by the N.C. Coastal Land Trust, which bought the lands around Site X and Y to save them from being turned into a housing development. That land is now under state control and will be turned into a natural preserve, one where researchers can continue their work without fear that their sites will be bulldozed and converted into housing [source: Lawler].

So, the painstaking excavations will continue for the foreseeable future. Perhaps one day soon, they'll unearth the clues that finally bring closure to the mystery of Roanoke's long-lost colony.

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Sources

  • Blu, Karen I. "The Lumbee Problem." University of Nebraska Press. 2001. http://books.google.com/books?id=lLbAgZBy3_8C&pg=PA40&lpg=PA40&dq=roanoke+colony+theory&source=web&ots=oHCMc1t2hH&sig=I0-thq1OQaOqY-xkCU_dIXQLIKg&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=9&ct=result#PPA39,M1 (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Buckley, Bob. "North Carolina Conservation Group Works to Preserve Ancient Tree." Dec. 3, 2019. My Fox 8. https://myfox8.com/buckley-report/north-carolina-conservation-group-works-to-preserve-ancient-tree/ (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Coastal Land Trust. "Coastal Land Trust Saves 'Site X.'" https://coastallandtrust.org/sitex/ (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Encyclopedia Virginia. "John White Transcription." June 16, 2015. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/John_White_Returns_to_Roanoke_an_excerpt_from_The_fift_voyage_of_Master_John_White_into_the_West_Indies_and_parts_of_America_called_Virginia_in_the_yeere_1590_1600 (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • First Colony Foundation. "Bertie County Excavation." Feb. 4, 2020. https://www.firstcolonyfoundation.org/news/bertie-county-excavation/ (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Jones, Justin. "What Happened to Roanoke's 'Lost Colonists'? The Daily Beast. April 14, 2017. https://www.thedailybeast.com/what-happened-to-roanokes-lost-colonists (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Keiger, Dale. "Rethinking Roanoke." Johns Hopkins Magazine. November 2001. http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag/1101web/roanoke.html (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Kozak, Catherine. "Old account may yield new clues to Lost Colony; Spanish pilot spoke of marshy location." The Virginian-Pilot. February 3, 2005. http://www.lost-colony.com/oldaccount.html (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Lane, Ralph. "The colony at Roanoke." National Center for Public Policy Research. 1586. http://www.nationalcenter.org/ColonyofRoanoke.html (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Ruegsegger, Bob. "Archaeologists Getting Closer to Figuring out What Happened to 'Lost Colony,' Expert Says." Daily Press. Feb. 19, 2019. https://www.dailypress.com/news/gloucester/dp-nws-lost-colony-discussion-0219-story.html (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Stradling, Richard. "A Site Thought to be Linked to the Lost Colony is Now Part of a New State Nature Preserve." The News & Observer. Jan. 4, 2019. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article223879475.html (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Watson, Jerilyn. "The continuing mystery of America's 'lost colony.'" Voice of America. January 15, 2006. https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/a-23-2006-01-15-voa3-83129402/125989.html (Feb. 19, 2020)
  • Whirty, Ryan. "The lost colony of Roanoke." Native Peoples Magazine. March/April 2007. https://www.foxnews.com/story/submerged-cannon-may-be-clue-to-lost-roanoke-colony (Feb. 19, 2020)
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