map

Portion of map including Roanoke Island, drawn by John White during his initial visit in 1585

There are lots of stories in history of people disappearing with a trace. There are even tales of groups of people, ships, and airplanes vanishing and never being found. I am fascinated by things like “ghost ships.”  A ghost or phantom ship has no living crew aboard. I have read about the fictional Flying Dutchman and a real ghost ship found adrift with its crew missing or dead, like the Mary Celeste.

But there are few cases of entire lost cities,. I have read about lost cities in South American jungles suddenly and inexplicably being abandoned with no sign of where the inhabitants went. But what about one closer to Paradelle? That is the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke  .

The story begins in 1584 when Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of the area of North America. For the purposes of history’s timeline, let’s look back at that time. The year before, The Queen’s Company of actors was formed in London. In 1584, playwright Christopher Marlowe received his a bachelor’s degree. The year after the Virginia colony of Roanoke Island was established by Sir Walter Raleigh, the twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born  to Anne and William Shakespeare.

That royal charter specified that Raleigh needed to establish a colony in North America, or lose his right to colonization. They were hoping to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories … to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy” and establish a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain

Raleigh dispatched an exploratory expedition that arrived on Roanoke Island on July 4. They established relations with the local natives, the Secotans and Croatoans. Two Croatoans returned with the crew and based on the information given, Raleigh organized a second expedition, to be led by Sir Richard Grenville.

After a rather questionable start on the island, Grenville still decided to leave 108 men to establish a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island and promised to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies.

April 1586 passed and there was no sign of Grenville’s relief fleet. In June, after the colonists stupidly avenged a minor theft by the natives by destroying their village, there was an attack on the fort by the local Native Americans. The colonists were able to repel the natives, and soon after the attack, Sir Francis Drake on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean, stopped at the colony and offered to take the colonists back to England.

Several colonists took the offer and returned along with a cargo of new world new things: tobacco, maize, and potatoes. Grenville arrived shortly after Drake’s departure. He found the colony abandoned with no explanation.

Grenville returned to England, leaving behind a small detachment of fifteen men both to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh’s claim to Roanoke Island.

In 1587, Raleigh sent a new group of 115 colonists to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay led by John White who was appointed governor of the colony. They were ordered to stop at Roanoke to pick up the small contingent left there by Grenville the previous year. But when they arrived on July 22, 1587, they found nothing except a skeleton that may have been the remains of one of the English garrison.

The master pilot of the fleet refused to let the colonists return to the ships, insisting that they establish the new colony on Roanoke rather than the Chesapeake Bay destination. The new colonists re-established relations with the Croatoan and other local tribes – except for those with whom the earlier colonists had with.

The colonists persuaded their Governor White to return to England to ask for help. Left behind were about 115 colonists. This had been the first group of colonists that consisted of men and women. White left behind his newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, who is the first English child born in the Americas.

 

White was unable to find a ship to return to the colony because England was at war with Spain, and every seaworthy ship was claimed to fight the Spanish Armada.

White didn’t return to Roanoke Island for nearly three years. When he returned in 1590, he found the settlement deserted, and all the buildings taken down.

Where did they go? The only clues were the letters CRO carved into a tree, and the word CROATOAN carved into a stockade post.

There were no signs of sickness or violence. White had instructed them that if anything happened to them, they should carve a Maltese cross on a tree nearby, indicating that their disappearance had been forced. There was no cross.

The crew interpreted the message left to mean they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island). That made sense because they had already lived there and had a strong relationship with the natives.

Hatteras or  Croatoan Island is a barrier island located off the North Carolina coast. It is part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

White was unable to conduct a thorough search due to a massive storm that caused his crew to refuse to go any further. The next day, they left without looking further for the colonists.

There are several theories about why the Roanoke Colony became the Lost Colony. One theory is the colonists were slaughtered by Chief Powhatan. But no bodies were found and no archaeological evidence has been found to support this claim, though the massacre described by Powhatan might have been of the 15 people left behind by the first Roanoke expedition.

Another theory is that the colonists migrated with the Indians toward the interior of North Carolina.

One that seems to have good evidence is that the colony’s remaining survivors sought shelter with the Chowanoke tribe to survive. That tribe was attacked by another tribe that has been identified as the “Mandoag” (an Algonquian word that was generically used to identify an enemy nations) or the Tuscarora (Iroquois-speaking) or the Eno, also known as the Wainoke. Evidence for this theory points to the “Zuniga Map” drawn about 1607 by the Jamestown settler Francis Nelson. The map says “four men clothed that came from roonock” were living in an Iroquois site. A history written by another Jamestown colonist reported that the Indian settlements of Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen had two-story houses with stone walls that were designed by Roanoke settlers.

The Hatteras Indians spent a good amount of time living on “Ronoak-Island” and told stories that their ancestors were white people. The Hatteras were found to have gray eyes which does not occur with other Native Americans.

Another possibility is that the colonists tried to return to England on their own using  a pinnace and several small ships they were left for coastal exploration. They were ill-prepared for an ocean crossing and perished.

Less likely theories include that the Spanish destroyed the colony. Earlier the Spanish had destroyed French colonies at Fort Charles (South Carolina) and Fort Caroline (Florida) but the Spanish recorded that they were looking for the location of England’s failed colony as late as 1600, ten years after the colony was reported to be missing.

In the late 1930s, a series of stones were “discovered” that claimed to have been written by Eleanor Dare, mother of Virginia Dare, telling about where the colonists traveled and their end. But most historians believe that they are a fraud.

Unfortunately, there is not much archaeological evidence due to shoreline erosion on the island.  A fort was found on the north shore and the settlement was assumed to be nearby. The northern shore, between 1851 and 1970, lost 928 feet because of erosion. Assuming erosion to have been similar in the time leading up to and following the brief life of the settlement,  the site of any dwellings is under water.

But we don’t know for sure.

Earlier I read  A Brave Vessel which inspired me to write one of my daily poems about the anniversary of the landing of the settlers who would found the Jamestown settlement. The age of exploration is one of my favorite periods of history.

Today, Hatteras Island is known for sport fishing, surfing, windsurfing and kiteboarding, and is known as “the blue marlin capital of the world.”

Have we given up on the Roanoke mystery? No, the Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project was founded in 2007 to try to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony using historical records, migration patterns, oral histories and DNA testing. As of 2016, they have not yet been able to positively identify any descendants of the colony.



The finding of Raleigh’s lost colony (1907)

Finding the Lost Colony of Roanoke

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