What happened to the lost colony at Roanoke?

The Lost Colony at Roanoke

A portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, circa 1590.
A portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, circa 1590.

There were two expeditions to Roanoke before what would become the lost colony was established in 1587. The first was exploratory, the second (in 1585) consisted of 100 men who lived on the island for 10 months before returning to England. These early expeditions quickly deteriorated any initial warm feelings the Native Americans had toward the English. The settlers routinely kidnapped local tribal leaders and held them for ransom, despite relying on these "savages" for food and supplies [source: Lane].

When the 100 men left the 1585 Roanoke colony, it was due to constant threat of attack and waning food. Had they stayed for two more weeks, the men would've received supplies from England. A ship arrived and, finding the colony deserted, left behind 15 soldiers to maintain an English presence in the New World until another group of colonists could be brought.

This next group would become the lost colony of Roanoke. The 1587 settler population included women and children and looked much more like later successful colonies. Their arrival at Roanoke was an inauspicious one: They found the settlement abandoned and in shambles. The bones of one of the 15 soldiers there before them were the only physical evidence of what had befallen the previous settlers.

Led by Gov. John White (who'd been a member of the 1585 colony), these fresh colonists sought to carve out a life on the North Carolina island. They managed to turn the tide of bad relations with one nearby tribe, Powhatans living on Croatoan Island. The other tribes in the area maintained their distance. This left the colonists dependent on supplies from England, and in August 1587, Gov. White left to gather more provisions. When he returned, he found that the colony -- including his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter (Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America) -- was gone.

The carved word "CROATOAN" was an obvious clue. Perhaps the colonists had moved in search of protection or a steady food supply from the Powhatans. It appeared they hadn't left under duress; there were no Maltese crosses carved anywhere, the agreed-upon signal the colonists would use to indicate that danger had befallen them [source: NC State Library].

A knight of the order of Malta, bearing the cross that Roanoke colonists used to indicate distress.  A knight of the order of Malta, bearing the cross that Roanoke colonists used to indicate distress. 
A knight of the order of Malta, bearing the cross that Roanoke colonists used to indicate distress. 
Hans Buldung Grien/Getty Images

Yet no search of Croatoan Island was ever launched. Subsequent expeditions to locate the lost colony either failed or were undertaken as an excuse for piracy or other commercial endeavors. It wasn't until the Jamestown Colony was established in 1607 that any earnest searches were conducted to discover the fate of the lost Roanoke colonists.

Not only were the colonists themselves lost, the colony was as well. Poor record keeping among White and others as well as years of abandonment have kept the exact whereabouts of the 1587 colony a mystery. Numerous digs on Roanoke failed to produce any evidence of the lost colony. Remnants of the 1585 settlement have been discovered, but no evidence of the lost colony has been found. One problem is that primary sources tell different tales. From Gov. White's writings, the second settlement should be located near the first on the north end of the island. But a 1589 affidavit of a Spanish sailor puts the settlement near the center of the island where the cannons were stationed.

An old well and a small cannon found near the bay support the Spaniard's deposition. Some historians now believe that the 1587 Roanoke settlement currently lies underwater, victim to centuries of erosion.

For 400 years, Europeans have searched to uncover the truth behind the lost colony. Some interesting clues turned up early on, beginning with the Jamestown settlers.