Skip to main content

Roanoke’s Lost Colony Found?

May 2024
10min read

New ideas—and archaeological evidence—may provide answers to colonial North America’s longest-running mystery

croatoan roanoke island
After traveling to England in 1587 for supplies, John White returned to the Roanoke colony three years later. They found no trace of the settlers save for the word "Croatoan" carved into a post. 

One hot august day in 1590, the heavily armed privateer Hopewell dropped anchor off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. John White had returned to resupply the 118 men, women, and children whom he had left on Roanoke Island three long years earlier.

Sweating and cursing the humidity, White and his men left their ship and rowed toward the island. Crewmen sounded familiar tunes on trumpets to alert the colonists, but not a single human figure was seen. Only the endless beating of waves along the shore and wind gusting through the tall pines met their calls.

The landing party made its way through the woods to the settlement at the island’s northern end. Bracing himself for the worst, White entered the clearing where he had parted from the colonists, including his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and baby granddaughter, Virginia.

He found the settlement deserted, weeds and vines sprouting where houses had once stood. The houses themselves had been carefully dismantled and removed. Gone, too, were the fort’s small cannon; buried chests were found, containing some of the colonists’ possessions (including White’s). All the evidence suggested a planned and orderly withdrawal.

Cut into the bark of a tree, White discovered the letters CRO. On a post at the entrance to the stockade, someone had carved “in fayre” capitals the word “CROATOAN,” which gave him reason to believe that the colonists had left for the island of that name 50 miles to the south, inhabited by friendly Indians. White pleaded with the Hopewell ’s captain, Abraham Cocke, to sail for Croatoan the next day.

For an update on the latest, see "Archaeologists at Roanoke Unearth New Clues" in this issue

Overnight, a great storm blew up and snapped their anchor cables, nearly driving the Hopewell onto the reefs lining the Outer Banks. With his anchors gone, provisions dwindling, and a tempest that showed no signs of abating, Cocke decided to head out to winter in the West Indies, then return in the spring. But continuing gales forced the ship far into the ocean, persuading him to set a course for the Azores and then back to England. The bitterly disappointed White knew that it was highly probable that he would never see his family, friends, and fellow venturers again.

The story of the Lost Colony has fascinated people across four centuries and remains one of the enduring mysteries of early America, memorialized in pageants and works of history and fiction. Did the colonists move to Croatoan Island and live with the Indians, as White believed, or did they settle elsewhere? Where did they go, and what happened to them? A new interpretation of the evidence suggests that the prevailing explanation may be wrong.

More than 30 years ago, the eminent British historian David Beers Quinn advanced the most widely accepted modern theory, arguing that the majority of colonists moved north to the Chesapeake Bay, leaving a small party on Roanoke to await White’s return. In the spring of 1588, this small contingent packed up, carved their messages, and moved to Croatoan Island. Meanwhile, the main group went to live with the Chesapeake Indians, either at Chesepiooc or the principal town of Skicoak, intermarrying and raising families in ignorance of the fate of the Roanoke Island party and of White’s eventual return.

Quinn assumes that Croatoan lacked the resources to support the whole colony. The majority, he argued, favored a move to the southern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where they had originally planned to settle and where they believed the Chesapeake would welcome them into their community.

He drew primarily on at least second-hand reports from the Jamestown colonists who settled Virginia two decades later. William Strachey, who arrived in 1610, soon wrote an account of the already Lost Colony in which he stated that the “men women, and Children of the first plantation at Roanoak” lived with the Indians for 20 years but were then exterminated by the Powhatan, a powerful people who were expanding their rule over Tidewater Virginia. Strachey noted that Indian priests had warned their paramount chief, Powhatan, against a nation that would arise from the Chesapeake Bay and destroy his empire. This “divelish Oracle,” wrote Strachey, persuaded Powhatan to destroy the objects of the prophecy, namely the Chesapeake and the descendents of the Lost Colony who lived near the entrance to the bay. Strachey believed that the slaughter occurred about the time that three English ships entered the Chesapeake Bay to found Jamestown.

Yet there are serious flaws in Quinn’s argument. If the main group of Roanoke colonists knew all along that their ultimate destination lay northward on the Chesapeake Bay, then why didn’t they specify a rendezvous with White before he sailed home, instead of arranging for him to return to Roanoke Island? Furthermore, they must have known that the way north was difficult, Currituck Sound being described by a contemporary as “very shallow and most dangerous.” Sailing along the coast would have been equally hazardous, given the uncertain weather and prevailing offshore currents. Without large boats, it would have taken several journeys to transport the entire group.

Most important, nothing in Strachey’s writings or those of any other Jamestown settler connects the lost colonists to the Chesapeake. In fact, Strachey explicitly states that the colonists were killed “far from him [Powhatan], and in the Territory of those Weroances [chiefs] which did in no sort depend on him, or acknowledge him.” Whomever the lost colonists went to live with after they left Roanoke Island, it was not the Chesapeake.

By the early 1580s, Spain’s overseas holdings stretched from the Americas to the East Indies—the first empire in history on which the sun truly never set. The growing threat of Spain to England’s security and commercial interests sparked a suddenly intense English interest in North America. The “planting of two or three strong forts upon some good havens,” wrote Richard Hakluyt the younger, one of the period’s foremost promoters of colonization, would provide privateer bases against Spanish treasure fleets, weaken Spanish power, and enrich England. Forward-looking English writers agreed that, besides undermining Spain’s influence in the Americas, English colonies would promote commerce, prosperity, and well-being at home.

In 1583 Queen Elizabeth I’s new favorite, Walter Ralegh, became England’s chief sponsor of colonizing ventures. From Durham House, his palatial London residence on the River Thames, he organized the expeditions that would colonize Roanoke. He carefully studied accounts of French and Spanish explorations of the east coast of North America, particularly the journals of early French Huguenot explorers who had heard from Indians along the Florida coast that fabulous mines lay to the north about 60 leagues (200 miles) “in the mountains of Appalesse [the Appalachians].” Ralegh may also have heard about the Spaniard Juan Pardo’s discoveries in the Carolinas, where his men allegedly had found a fertile land rich with gold, silver, and crystal mines.

In 1584 Ralegh sent two ships on a reconnaissance mission that discovered the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island. The following year he dispatched a full-scale expedition that resulted in the establishment of a 108-strong garrison settlement on Roanoke under the command of Ralph Lane, a seasoned veteran of the Irish wars.

Lane saw at once that the shallows between the Outer Banks and the mainland made Roanoke unsuitable as a privateering base. Nor did he believe that the general plans to raise a variety of natural commodities—timber, flax, hemp, dye stuffs, fruits, sugarcane, and wines—could make the colony profitable. But during the winter and spring of 1585–86 he received news that set everybody’s imagination on fire.

The Moratuc, an Indian people who lived along the lower reaches of the Roanoke River, told him of “strange things” at its headwaters, 30 to 40 days away, which, wrote Lane, “springeth out of a maine rocke . . . and further . . . this huge rocke standeth nere unto a Sea.” Could the rumors refer to a passage by water that flowed through the western mountains to the Pacific?

Just as tantalizing, the powerful Chowanoc who lived nearby along the Chowan River told him of “a marveilous and most strange Minerall” that they called “Wassador,” which he described as “very soft, and pale”—possibly copper or gold. Mines lay in a distant province of “Chaunis Temoatan,” more than 20 days inland. Lane learned that another people, the Mangoak, “beautifie their houses with great plates” of it.

In the spring of 1586, Lane led an expedition up the Roanoke River but failed to make contact with the Mangoak. Running low on supplies, he returned to Roanoke Island. Not long after, hostilities broke out with the Secotan, on whom the English had depended for food. With little hope of maintaining his settlement beyond the summer, Lane reluctantly agreed to return to England with a fleet commanded by Sir Francis Drake, which had arrived off the coast in early June 1586.

In London Lane reported enthusiastically to Ralegh that the Roanoke River promised “great things.” He recommended that England establish a new colony 100 miles north of Roanoke Island on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, whose many rivers would prove excellent harbors for deep-draft seafaring ships. Moreover, Menatonon, the chief of the Chowanoc, had told him that an Indian king to the north had so many pearls that “it was a wonder to see.” From a settlement on the Chesapeake Bay, Lane argued, the English could trade for pearls, search for Chaunis Temoatan, and explore a passage to the Pacific. Ralegh agreed. The next colony, he decided, would be located on the Chesapeake Bay and be led by John White.

Civilians rather than soldiers made up White’s colony, which would be largely self-sufficient. Ninety-one men, 18 women, and nine children joined White’s party (somewhat short of the 150 he had in mind), together with two Indians, Manteo and Towaye. They were a young group; the majority of men were in their 20s and early to mid-30s, most of the women in their late teens and 20s. All the children were boys, aged between three and 12 years.

White set off from Plymouth in May 1587, arriving at the Outer Banks two months later. He had planned to pick up 15 men left on Roanoke Island the year before and then sail for the Chesapeake Bay, but matters went disastrously wrong. He discovered only one bleached skeleton near the fort that Lane had built. Then the master pilot, Simon Fernandes, head of the squadron’s mariners, refused to carry the settlers any farther; his crew was set on departing as quickly as possible, to prey on Spanish shipping in the Caribbean.

Once put ashore, the colonists found themselves in a precarious position. Not only were their provisions dwindling, but the neighboring Secotan had turned hostile. Moreover, in their present exposed position they could expect little quarter if the Spanish, who had got word of their arrival, found them. They therefore agreed that White should return to England with Fernandes and raise fresh supplies while they moved inland to find friendly Indians who would sustain them until help arrived. A small contingent would await White at the settlement and then guide him to the main group inland.

The colonists needed safe haven. But where? The only surviving clue—aside from the letters carved into the trees—lies in White’s enigmatic phrase that the settlers intended to move “50. miles further up into the maine.” The “maine,” or mainland, signified the interior. “Their [the colonists’] meaning,” a contemporary clarified, was “to remove 50 miles into the countrey.”

Moving westward made good sense. Freshwater, a “great store of fishe,” and the friendly Chowanoc lay inland. Sailing along the broad, swift waters of Albemarle Sound, the colonists would have encountered few sandbanks or shoals. After about 50 miles, they would have reached the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers, possibly the place later described by the English as “Ohonahorn,” near the promontory where the Chowanoc settlements of Tandaquomuc or Metackwem were located.

For the next couple of years, they remained at the head of Albemarle Sound, searching for news of the mines of Chaunis Temoatan and waiting for White to return. But as the disappointing months passed, they began drifting away from the settlement to join the Indians, either marrying into the Chowanoc or moving farther inland to join the powerful Tuscarora near the rapids of the Roanoke River.

It was along the Chowan and Roanoke rivers that a catastrophe overwhelmed this already part-Indian culture nearly two decades later. In the spring of 1607, 400 elite Powhatan warriors journeyed along well-known trading paths to Chowanoc and Tuscarora country and slaughtered the Europeans, their children, and Indian sponsors. The settlement at Jamestown had seriously threatened Chief Powhatan’s influence over the peoples of his expanding sovereignty. He could not risk the newcomers joining forces with the Roanoke colonists and their Indian allies on his southern border.

Some of the colonists survived, however. News of the slaughter reached Jamestown in the bitterly cold winter of 1607–8. Captain John Smith, one of the settlers’ leaders, had been captured by Powhatan’s kinsman Opechancanough just before Christmas and learned from the chief that “certaine men cloathed at a place called Ocanahonan.” Later, Powhatan himself confirmed what Opechancanough had said, telling Smith of other clothed men to be found “within a day and a halfe of Mangoge, two dayes of Chawwonock, [and] 6. from Roanoke.” Smith wrote that the great chief further mentioned “a countrie called Anone, where they have abundance of Brasse, and houses walled as ours.”

Smith summarized what he had learned in a sketch map sent back to London in the summer of 1608, which included reports from an expedition that set off from the south bank of the James River in January 1608 to look for a “place called Panawicke, beyond Roanoke,” where local Indians reported many “apparelled” men lived. The group traveled a good way to the south, possibly as far as the Neuse River, and had some success in establishing where a few of the colonists might be found. Smith wondered whether future expeditions might fare better in locating survivors.

More information came to light when a Powhatan named Machumps traveled to England in 1608 under Chief Powhatan’s orders to learn more about the English. Machumps told William Strachey that at “Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen . . . the People have howses built with stone walls, and one story above another, so taught them by the English who escaped the slaughter at Roanoak.” The news caused a sensation in London. Leaders of the Virginia Company, which had sponsored Jamestown, immediately began organizing further expeditions to locate the Roanokers. It could be extremely beneficial to find survivors of the Lost Colony, some of whom, after all, might have lived in America for more than two decades; such intimate knowledge of the region could help uncover the wondrous treasures dreamed of by Ralegh and Lane, riches that could incalculably benefit the company, its backers, and the nation.

Nathaniel Powell and Anas Todkill, dispatched early in 1609 to probe inland from the Chowan River, “found crosses and letters, the characters and assured testimonies of Christians, newly cut in the barks of trees” within 50 miles of Jamestown, but no sign of the colonists themselves. Thereafter the trail went cold. A long and bitter war with the Powhatan and the discovery of a strain of tobacco that promised handsome returns in London dimmed any long-term interest in the lost colonists. Planters found a more certain route to wealth in profits from the smoky weed than continuing to search in the interior for elusive gold mines. Roanoke Island and the high drama of England’s first American colony were soon forgotten.

The colonists recruited by John White never reached the Chesapeake Bay; they never established a great city in Ralegh’s name or discovered gold mines in the distant province of Chaunis Temoatan. Riches did not lie in the mountains to the west, and there was no convenient route that would take the English to the Pacific and beyond to the riches of Cathay.

In the years that followed White’s return to England, the colonists must have waited patiently for him to come back, unaware of his tireless efforts to reach them or of his last voyage to Roanoke in 1590. When he failed to return with supplies and reinforcements the lost colonists turned to local peoples for help and lived peacefully with them for nearly 20 years.

How many survived the brutal Powhatan attack is unknown. Seven (four men and three Anglo-Indian children) were said to have been protected by a powerful chief, Eyanoco, an “enemy to Powhaton,” who lived deep in the mountains at a place called Ritanoe. But others also escaped and settled down with Tuscarora peoples at Panawicke, Ocanahonan, and Pakerakanick, in the North Carolina interior. They or their descendents gradually melted into the fabric of Indian society, making homes and raising families, preserving their memories in folktales about the English and their first arrival.

Sections from this story were adapted from A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by James Horn with the permission of Basic Books.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.