It’s been an object of fascination in film, literature and art for centuries: what really became of the first colonists that settled in Roanoke in the 1580’s? It is incredibly rare for events that transpired nearly 425 years ago to hold such a grip on public interest, but the persistent mystery of what happened to the citizens of the Roanoke Colony continually breeds new theories.
For those that need a quick history brush-up, let’s step back a few years. In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of North America, with the hopes of capitalizing on the riches of the so-called New World.
After a string of bad luck, the first attempt to set up the Roanoke Colony failed, and it was abandoned in 1586. A small detachment of men was left behind to guard England’s interests until a second attempt could be made. Undeterred, Raleigh sent a new expedition of 150 colonists–led by John White–in 1587. Expecting the help of the garrison members to set up the new colony, they were surprised to find only a single skeleton remained.
Moving forward, White was able to establish relations with the Croatoan Indian tribe, but other tribes in the area were too hostile toward the English intrusion for positive associations to form; when settler George Howe was killed while out on his own, colonists began to fear for their lives.
They begged White to return to England and have the Queen send assistance and supplies back to the Roanoke Colony. White sailed back, leaving behind his newly born granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.
Upon White’s arrival in England, war with the Spanish Armada prevented him from returning to Roanoke with more supplies. After three years of delays and misfortune, John White was finally able to gain passage on a privateer vessel, and arrived back at the Roanoke Colony on August 18, 1590, the third birthday of his granddaughter Virginia. But White’s homecoming was sadly reminiscent of his 1587 arrival. Fresh off the vessel, White was met with the whisper of a ghost town.
What he did see was an overgrown landscape and dismantled buildings. It didn’t appear that the colonists had left in a hurry; the only clues left behind were the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence post, and “CRO” carved into a nearby tree. (Upon his earlier departure, White had requested that the colonists etch these telltale carvings if they had to leave before his return.) He had instructed them to carve a Maltese cross into the tree if they were departing under duress.