What happened to the lost colony at Roanoke?

Roanoke Mystery: Evidence and Theories of the Lost Colony

Archaeologists excavate at Fort Raleigh on Roanoke. Are they looking in the wrong place?
Archaeologists excavate at Fort Raleigh on Roanoke. Are they looking in the wrong place?
Ira Block/National Geographic/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: Neville]. The "CROATOAN" carving didn't indicate distress with a Maltese cross. Everything pointed to the settlers simply having picked up and left.

In White's opinion, they moved "[f]ifty miles into the maine," arguably meaning they moved inland, into the forests of North Carolina [source: Keiger]. This idea has appealed to historians over the years; exactly why the colonists moved inland or what became of them afterward if they did ignites new debate.

It's conceivable that the colonists met a less violent fate. 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.

Cody Jacobs, of the Lumbee tribe, at a powwow in 2002. Cody Jacobs, of the Lumbee tribe, at a powwow in 2002.
Cody Jacobs, of the Lumbee tribe, at a powwow in 2002.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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 grey 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.

But 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 wandered into a violent shift in the balance of power among inland tribes. Natives 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].

All of these theories remain debated. But if the Lumbee Connection is true, then the Roanoke colonists aren't lost -- their genes can be found in people living today in Robeson County, North Carolina.

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