History Files


Colonial Americas

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

by Mick Baker, 31 July 2018

The year was 1587 when a total of a hundred and seventeen men, women and children landed on Roanoke Island, at the entrance to Albermarle Sound on North Carolina's eastern shore.

To the north of the island, on the mainland, were largely friendly Algonquian-speaking tribes, including the Secotan, Dasamonquepeuc, Roanoke, and Pasquenoke.

Within three years they seem to have vanished without trace.


[1] The Secotan were one of eight groups of American Indians which were dominant in the Carolina Sound region, between 1584 and 1590, with whom the English colonists had varying degrees of contact.

[2] Despite the deception, Chief Manteo was later granted the title of baron, the Lord of Roanoke and Dasamongueponke - the first peer created by the English in North America.


Sir Walter Raleigh's cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, attempts to found a colony on Roanoke Island when he lands more than a hundred men there. Grenville departs, promising to return the following Easter.


By June the colonists have become impatient waiting for Grenville's return, and they take ship with Sir Francis Drake, who by chance has called at Roanoke. Grenville arrives two weeks later with a further fifteen colonists. Leaving these fifteen on Roanoke, as a sort of 'advance party', Grenville again departs for England for reinforcements.


On 26 April Governor John White leaves Portsmouth with three ships, bound for the New World. He arrives at Roanoke on 22 July, accompanied by one hundred and seventeen new colonists, including his pregnant daughter Elinor and her husband, Ananias Dare. Their baby - Virginia - is born on 18 August, the first English child to be born on American soil.

The plan is to collect the fifteen original colonists from the previous year, and then make their way to Chesapeake, to the north, the intended site for the new colony. All that White's party find of the fifteen colonists are the bones of one man. The settlement has been partially destroyed, and what buildings remain are overgrown, perhaps indicating some sort of conflict with native Indians, before a hurried withdrawal. Any thoughts of a swift removal to Chesapeake are dashed by the refusal of the colonists' Portuguese pilot - their nautical leader - to continue the journey. Taking one ship, he returns home.

It is too late in the year to start planting and the colonists have to rely on the generosity of the native Indians. However, the local natives, disgusted and appalled by the behaviour of the previous settlers (presumably the fifteen-strong 'advance party') have moved inland. White quickly makes contact with friendly natives led by Chief Manteo, who explains that the lost fifteen had been killed by hostile Secotan, [1] Aquascogoc, and Dasamongueponke warriors, choosing a time and place of attack 'of great advantage to the savages'.

On 8 August 1587, White leads a dawn attack on the Dasamongueponkes which goes disastrously wrong. White and his soldiers enter the Dasamongueponke village in the morning 'so early that it was yet dark'. They savagely attack a group of hitherto friendly Indians (probably Croatoan or Roanoke), killing one and wounding many, including the weroance, Menatonon. 'We were deceaved', White later claims in his journal, 'for the savages were our friendes'. Henceforth relations with the local tribes would steadily deteriorate. [2]

Governor White leaves one ship with the colonists, instructing them to ferry groups of settlers to Chesapeake. He tells them to maintain a group of twenty-five on Roanoke and to leave a message providing details of where they have gone, should they all leave.

He tells them to leave a cross next to their message, should there be danger. Governor White takes the third ship and returns to England for supplies, promising to return as soon as possible.

Roanoke Colony
The Roanoke Colony, located on the large island to the lower centre-left of the illustration, was founded in 1586, but by the following year it had failed


After a good many delays, Sir Walter Raleigh manages to get Governor White aboard the Hopewell for a return to Roanoke in March. White arrives at Roanoke in August, only to discover that the colonists are not there.

There are no signs of violence, and there are no dead bodies.

On a tree at the entrance to the palisade is carved the word 'CROATOAN' - the name of an island some eighty kilometres to the south.

Another tree has the first three letters, presumably of the same word 'CRO'. There is no sign of a cross which, together with the lack of any signs of fighting, suggests to White that their withdrawal had been peaceable. Governor White, no doubt anxious about his daughter's whereabouts, wants to sail to Croatoan Island immediately, but the weather turns against them and the Hopewell slips her moorings and begins to drift. Due to these hazards, the short trip to Croatoan is never made and by 24 October, Governor White is back in Plymouth.

None of the one hundred and seventeen men, women, and children who are left on Roanoke in 1587 are ever seen again.


What became of them?

Three possible explanations have been proposed to explain the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists.

  • The first is that they could have been murdered by Spaniards.

    Florida was the northernmost Spanish possession at the time. The Spanish governor, Pedro Menendez Marques, had heard rumours of an English fort being built. Marques had seen the town of St Augustine sacked by Sir Francis Drake, but as long as the English had no base in the Americas, there would be some respite from their constant depredations during the summer months.

    A full-blown colony would mean that English fleets could winter nearby; something the Spanish wished to avoid at all costs. Marques could not have known that Drake merely stopped off at Roanoke to remove the stranded Grenville would-be colonists. Nor did he know of the second group of colonists left on Roanoke in 1587. Marques was determined to discover what the English were up to.

    In 1588, Vicente Gonzalez was sent northwards to scout the area. He searched the Chesapeake Bay area but failed to find any trace of the settlers, and on his return he chanced upon Roanoke Island where he found a landing place and some barrels, but no fort and no settlers, which meant that the colonists had already left, presumably having left their 'CROATOAN' inscription, although why didn't Gonzalez find that? If he did, why did he not call in at Croatoan to investigate? After all, he would pass by that island.

    On his return, Gonzalez discovered that Marques had learned independently of the Roanoke colony and had received instructions from the king of Spain to destroy it at his earliest opportunity. The destruction of Roanoke never happened as the Spanish were too preoccupied with fending off English buccaneers who were a constant threat to Spanish treasure ships from the Caribbean. In light of this, it seems unlikely that the Spanish were responsible. If they were, it seems odd that such an event went unrecorded in Spanish historical accounts.
  • The second option is that they could have been killed by Indians.

    Governor John White had memories of the time of his first landing in 1585, of the warm welcome and hospitality shown by the natives. It is true to say that without the help of the Indians the colonists would not have survived that first winter. The Indians helped them to plant corn, gave them seeds, and showed them the best way to catch fish. Because a silver cup went missing from one of the boats, the settlers responded by burning a village and destroying a cornfield, thereby repaying the Indians' kindness with hostility.

    The then governor, Ralph Lane, on hearing a rumour that local chief Wingina was planning an attack, made a pre-emptive strike on the Indian village, killing the chief and all his counsellors. Perhaps the 'Lost Colony' was destroyed as vengeance for these injustices?

    However, before abandoning the Roanoke settlement, the colonists did not mark a cross on either of the two inscriptions to indicate danger, leaving only the enigmatic 'CROATOAN'. Did this mean that they moved peaceably to that island? Did any of the settlers make it to Chesapeake, missing Gonzalez's search party?

    There is simply no evidence that the colony fell victim to native retribution.
  • The final option is that they could have been assimilated.

    The most likely scenario is that the settlers probably did move many of their number to Chesapeake Bay according to their original plan, with possibly the last twenty-five making a trip to Croatoan owing to some unknown circumstance.

    This must have happened in 1589, the year after Gonzalez had made his fruitless search of Chesapeake Bay, and the year before White's return to Roanoke. This would account for there being no settlers on either date, yet the inscription - 'CROATOAN' - would still indicate their last movement.

    During the intervening years between 1587 and 1607 the settlers had simply become assimilated within the various tribal groups who had taken them in, adopting their customs, dress, and culture. They simply melted into the background. Ironically, the northern group who, it is hypothesised, merged with the Chesapeakes, almost certainly shared the fate of that unfortunate tribe when the settlement of Skicoac was destroyed by Powhatan's warriors.

    This would seem to be an entirely plausible reconstruction if alien abduction and falling foul to Susquehannock cannibals is implausible.

    A month later, in May 1607, Jamestown was founded.



Text copyright © Mick Baker, extrapolated from The Lost Colony (Great Mysteries of the Past, Readers Digest, 1992). An original feature for the History Files.