The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants

Jennifer Conerly - August 19, 2017

One of American history’s enduring mysteries is The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Established in 1585 as an English attempt to create a permanent settlement in North America, Roanoke was found abandoned by 1590. There have been many theories to explain what happened to the missing colonists, but there hasn’t been any success in determining the fate of the 116 people who seemingly disappeared without a trace.

In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I gave Sir Walter Raleigh a royal charter to colonize North America to establish a base from which England could raid Spanish treasure fleets coming their south and central American colonies. Raleigh sent the first expedition to explore the eastern coast of North America. It landed on Roanoke Island and established good relations with the Croatians, the Native Americans living on the island. The expedition brought two Croatoans back to England with them, and the natives explained how to live on the island.

Armed with this new information, Raleigh organized a second expedition, which was a disaster. There were tensions between this group and the Native Americans, and there was much fighting between them because the Indians were angry that the English were exploiting the land and resources. Many of this expedition returned to England. Only a small group of fifteen men remained behind to protect the fort and Raleigh’s claim to Roanoke Island.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
Sir Walter Raleigh. Wikipedia Commons

In 1587, Raleigh sent a third and final expedition, making his friend John White leader and governor of the colony. This third voyage was different in that it included women and children, which indicated that they meant to settle the island. When White and his group arrived, all they found of the previous small group of fifteen was one skeleton. John White re-established good relations with the Croatoan, but some Native Americans that the previous travelers had struggled with refused to meet with him.

John White returned to England in late 1587 and planned to return with more supplies. The Spanish Armada’s assault on England in 1588 delayed his return. The ensuing war between Spain and England made it difficult for White to go back to Roanoke; he couldn’t gather supplies and book passage back to the colony for three years. He finally returned on August 18, 1590, his granddaughter’s third birthday. Roanoke was completely deserted; there was no one there and no sign of a struggle, a battle, or any foul play.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
John White’s sketch of the Roanoke area c. 1585. Wikipedia Commons

The only clues left that gave any hint to the fate of the colonists of Roanoke was the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence post and the letters “CRO” carved into a tree. All of the buildings had been disassembled, so the people had not been forced to leave in a hurry. The colonists were instructed to carve a Maltese cross in a tree if they were compelled to leave against their will. There was no Maltese cross found at the site. White assumed, with all of these clues, that the colonists had moved to the nearby Croatoan Island, but bad weather prevented him and his men from going to look for them. His men wouldn’t go with him to look for the missing colonists, and they left the next day.

Since the colonists disappeared in 1590, there have been investigations into what happened at Roanoke. In 1602, Sir Walter Raleigh decided to find out what happened himself. He hired his own ship and paid his sailors’ wages so that they would focus on the mission. They reached Virginia, but a severe storm forced them to go back to England before they were able to reach Roanoke Island. When he arrived back in England, Raleigh was arrested for treason before he could organize any more missions back to Roanoke.

In 1603, another fact-finding mission to Roanoke led by Bartholomew Gilbert ended in disaster. A storm blew the expedition off-course, and the team that went ashore was attacked and killed by Native Americans. The remaining crew returned to England without having found any information on the colonists of Roanoke. It seemed as if there would never be a definitive answer to the mystery of the disappearances.

Over the years, there have been many theories and hypotheses put forth to help try to explain this long-standing mystery. They range from the potentially true to the just outlandish. Some incorporate spiritual beliefs while others use strictly scientific and historical data to solve the mystery. While many explanations have been put forth, these are the most common theories that have been discussed that could help us figure out what happened to the people of Roanoke.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
Zuniga Map. Wikipedia Commons

1. The Colonists were Absorbed into Local Indian Populations or Captured as Slaves

The most popular theory is that the colonists left Roanoke and that they sought shelter with other Indian tribes. There were many documented sightings of Europeans and their influence in the years following the disappearance of the settlers, and the theory goes that these Europeans could have been the missing settlers or their descendants. The Zuniga map, drawn by a Jamestown settler named Francis Nelson in 1607, documents four men that came from Roanoke living among the Iroquois tribe. In the early 1600s to the middle 1700s, European colonists claimed to have met gray-eyed Indians who claimed to have been descended from white settlers.

In 1696, French Huguenots left records of meeting blond-haired, blue-eyed Indians soon after their arrival along the Tar River. In 1709, John Lawson, in his book A New Voyage to Carolina, records Croatoans living on Croatoan Island who claimed that they used to live on Roanoke Island and they claimed to have white ancestors. William Strachey also claimed to have seen Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen Indians living in two-story stone houses that the English showed them how to build.

The main theory is that the settlers of Roanoke moved to Croatoan Island and joined with the Native Americans living there. Croatoan Island is located just south of Roanoke Island and was the home of the Croatoan Indians. The settlers had good relations with them, so we can assume that the settlers were absorbed into the tribe. This theory has never been substantiated, but with the clues left at Roanoke, plus the good relations that were standing between the settlers and the Indians at the time of their disappearance, it is all we have to go on.

There is another theory that the colonists joined with the Croatians and they relocated inland along the Alligator River, slightly inland from Roanoke Island. An archaeological site of settlements, including burial grounds, has been discovered there. The coffins at the burial grounds have Christian markings on them, but there was no previous record of any settlement or the gravesite in this location. There is no definitive evidence that this site belonged to the missing Roanoke settlers, though.

While the prevailing theory is that the people of Roanoke merged with local Indian populations, it is just as possible that it wasn’t that happy an ending. Considering that the people were never heard from again, it is just as likely that they encountered hostile Native American tribes. They could have been taken as slaves. William Strachey, the secretary of Jamestown, VA, claimed in 1612, that he saw Europeans (four men, two boys, and one girl) living with the Eno tribe as slaves and that they were forced to beat copper. There is no evidence that these Europeans were descendants of the Roanoke settlers.

With the development of technology, solving the mystery of what happened at Roanoke is more possible now than ever before with DNA testing. We can now test the Native American peoples who claim to be descended from the Roanoke settlers to see if it is in fact true. In 2007, the Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project was founded by Roberta Estes, using her private DNA testing company to see if the missing colonists did, in fact, merge with local Native American populations, using historical records, migration patterns, and oral histories. The project offers DNA tests to people who think they might be descended from the people of Roanoke, using Y-chromosomes, autosomal DNA, and mitochondrial DNA to make the determination. So far, DNA testing of Native Americans has not been able to identify any Roanoke descendants.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
The discovery of the word “Croatoan” carved onto a stockade board. Wikipedia Commons

2. “Croatoan”

The word “Croatoan” was found carved into a fence post at the abandoned colony, and its presence at the site is one of the most confusing mysteries of Roanoke. Why was it found there? The word “Croatoan” is also connected with other mysterious happenings over the centuries, each one more puzzling than the last. Right before he died, Edgar Allen Poe disappeared for a short time.

When he was seen again, he was delirious. In this final state of delirium before his death, allegedly one of the last words he said was “Croatoan.” Poe’s official cause of death is unknown, and his medical records and death certificate are lost, so we will never know what happened to him the night that he died.

The word has also appeared at several other famous disappearances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1888, the stagecoach robber Black Bart carved the word into the wall of his cell before he was released from prison. He was never seen or heard from again. It was found in Amelia Earhart’s journal after she disappeared in 1937.

The last bed that horror writer Ambrose Bierce slept in before he disappeared in Mexico in 1913 had the word “Croatoan” carved into one of the posts. In 1921, “Croatoan” was written on the last page of the logbook of the ship Carroll A. Deering when it crashed on Cape Hatteras, near Croatoan Island. The ship was missing its entire crew.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
The Coronation of Powhatan, John Gadsby Chapman, 1835. Wikipedia Commons

3. The Colonists Were Murdered

In 1607, Captain John Smith tried to uncover what happened at Roanoke. He claimed that Chief Powhatan told him that he killed the people of the colony to retaliate against them for living with another tribe that refused to ally with him. Allegedly, Powhatan showed Smith items he took from Roanoke to support his story, including a musket barrel and a brass mortar and pestle. By 1609, this story reached England, and King James and the Royal Council blamed Powhatan for the missing colonists.

William Strachey seemed to back up the story, confirming the slaughter with his investigation in his work The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia. Powhatan claimed that he ordered the killings because there was a prophecy that he would be conquered and overthrown by people from that area. Contemporary historians and anthropologists dispute this story because there were never any bodies or archaeological evidence found to support the claim, but it has persisted for more than four hundred years.

Recently, author and researcher Brandon Fullam has reexamined Smith and Strachey’s sources and has suggested that the Powhatan massacre could have been the 15 settlers left behind from the second expedition, still leaving the mystery of Roanoke unsolved.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
Philip II of Spain. Wikipedia Commons

Another possible theory is that the Spanish murdered the settlers. England and Spain were in the middle of a war when people of Roanoke disappeared. When the Spanish Armada attacked England in 1588, White was in England trying to organize supplies and find a way back to the colony. All of the country’s available ships were commandeered to fight the Spanish, and the war with Spain delayed White’s return to the colony with supplies for another three years.

At the time that the settlers disappeared, there were Spanish troops present in Florida. One of the issues that Spain and England went to war over was the colonization of the Americas. There is a theory that Spanish troops secretly traveled north and eliminated the English colony. The Spanish were known for being offensive against other European powers who tried to settle in the Americas. They attacked forts located in South Carolina and Florida throughout the sixteenth century. However, a Spanish attack on Roanoke colony is doubtful. No bodies were ever found, and the Spanish were still looking for Roanoke in 1600, ten years after its colonists went missing. Also, the settlement’s fortifications were dismantled when White returned in 1590, indicating an evacuation, not a violent attack.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
The first known depiction of cannibalism in the New World. Engraving by Johann Froschauer for an edition of Amerigo Vespucci’s Mundus Novus, published in Augsburg in 1505, which was an account of Vespucci’s third voyage to the New World, particularly detailing his journeys to the eastern coast of Brazil. Wikipedia Commons

4. Cannibalism

There are two theories about cannibalism: either the people of Roanoke were the victims of cannibals, or they had to resort to it to stay alive. Other Native American tribes were hostile to outsiders, and they weren’t on good terms with the settlers or the Croatians. One of these groups could have been cannibals. There were never any bodies found at the settlement, but that doesn’t mean anything. The bones could have been used for healing remedies by grinding them into a powder.

The people of Roanoke could have been picked off gradually, or cannibals could have kidnaped them and disposed of them that way. The fact that no bodies were found sounds like a time-consuming endeavor, but White was gone for three years. If cannibals attacked the settlers, they had more than enough time to dispose of all of the bodies. There is no definitive evidence that any Native American tribes in the area were cannibals, so this is a less likely theory than the people of Roanoke becoming cannibals themselves.

In 1609, in the settlement of Jonestown, Virginia, the colony had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. It is possible that the people of Roanoke had to as well. The settlers could have been hungry enough to see cannibalism as a viable option. During the investigations into the disappearance of the settlers, local tribes mentioned that there were internal conflicts in Roanoke before everyone disappeared. The people could have resorted to cannibalism because they were hungry and killed themselves off. An outlandish theory, but an interesting one nonetheless.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
Plague treatment. Wellcome Library, London. Wikipedia Commons

5. Disease

Disease is another theory that has much historical basis to support it. The Roanoke colonists could have encountered a New World disease that they had no immunity to fight. The theory goes that the colonists could have caught a good, old-fashioned plague that presented with symptoms of delirium, paranoia, or madness. Considering the reports from Native American tribes in the area of internal warfare in the Roanoke settlement before everyone disappeared, this seems like a viable theory.

The healthy could have wanted to get rid of those who were sick because they were afraid of getting sick themselves. This easily could have escalated into a violent situation. Once the disease hit, the healthy population could have sectioned off into smaller groups and left the colony, leaving the sick to die.

That certainly could explain the multiple sightings of Europeans in local Indian populations in later years after the colony disappeared. The only problem with this particular theory would be, what happened to the bodies of the sick?

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
A circle of witches dance around a central figure. Wellcome Library, London. Wikipedia Commons

6. Witchcraft

There are two theories involving witchcraft: the Croatoan either executed the colonists as witches, or the colonists were the victims of witches who live in the North Carolina woods. The Croatians believed in witches and witchcraft. Their definition of witches was people who used black magic to commit evil acts in everyday life.

While there is no evidence that the Croatoan executed witches, or that the Croatoan accused the people of Roanoke of witchcraft, they were known for condemning dangerous outsiders. They easily could have blamed the people of Roanoke for spreading diseases to which the Croatoan had no immunity.

The Croatians and other Native American tribes tell legends of witches who live in the North Carolina woods who used black magic to hurt other people. There is a story that the people of Roanoke became the victims of these witches when they left the island, and that is why they were never heard from again.

7. Supernatural/Religious Explanations

There have been many supernatural and religious explanations that incorporate Native American belief systems. There is no scientific basis for these theories, but they are still taken very seriously by the Native American populations as explanations on what happened to the missing settlers of Roanoke. They mainly revolve around Native American spirits that help explain away not only the behavior of the colonists before they disappeared, but also why the colonists disappeared without a trace.

Native Americans believe in a wild spirit in the form of a beast called a wendigo. When people resort to eating human flesh, as in the case of cannibalism, their bodies are taken over by a wendigo. If the people of Roanoke resorted to cannibalism, then according to this belief, they are still alive, roaming the woods of North Carolina, in the form of wendigos.

The Croatoan belief system includes a spirit on the island that had the power to absorb humans into the landscape. If the spirit was offended or angered, it would turn people into trees, animals, stones, or any other part of the land. If the colonists were exploiting resources or abusing the land, it could have angered the spirit. This means that the people of Roanoke didn’t disappear at all; they were just absorbed into the land.

The Croatoan also believe in the Reptilian Devil of the Woods, an evil spirit that could attach itself to people. This spirit made people violent, greedy, and paranoid. The Croatoan believed that the reptilian spirit had possessed the settlers once they started to turn on each other after White left for England to retrieve more supplies.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke: 8 Theories About the Mysterious Island and Its Inhabitants
The front of the first Dare Stone.

8. Dare Stones

From 1937 to 1940, a series of stones were discovered that supposedly tell the story of what happened to the Roanoke colonists. They are called the Dare stones because they were mostly apparently written by John White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare. Most historians consider the Dare stones a hoax, although many historians believe the first stone is authentic. In 1937, a tourist found an inscribed stone and brought it to Emory University to be examined for authenticity. Dr. Haywood Pearce, a professor of American history, didn’t claim that the stone was authentic, but it didn’t contradict what was known at the time.

The inscription was consistent with the phrasing of the time, and the colonists would have had tools to carve such a message. The inscriptions on the stone stated that Eleanor’s husband and daughter were dead and asked whoever found the stone to tell her father.

The inscription read:

Ananias Dare &

Virginia Went Hence

Unto Heaven 1591

Anye Englishman Shew

John White Govr Via

The other side of the stone reported that only seven of the Roanoke colonists were left alive, and Native Americans murdered the rest. It was signed EWD (Eleanor White Dare).

In 1940, 47 more stones had been found, dating until 1599. A stone dated from 1592 claims that the survivors of Roanoke are safe, living with a tribe in the Nacoochee Valley in Georgia. One dated from 1598 claims that Eleanor Dare had married the local chief. Another stone claimed that she had given birth to the chief’s daughter and the tribe was angry about it, and Eleanor requested that her father bring the girl back to England with him. A stone dated from 1599 stated that Eleanor Dare had died and that she had a daughter named Agnes that survived her.

After their discovery, the stones were examined by the Smithsonian Institute and a historian from Harvard University, who declared that the stones had some degree of authenticity, but by 1941, the stones had been exposed as forgeries. In 2015, a History Channel documentary detailed the study of the stones by archaeologists who found that the first stone was authentic, but the others were hoaxes, concluding that they were created with a drill.


Sources For Further Reading:

Virginia Places – The English in North America Before Jamestown

The Lost Colony – Roanoke Voyages

National Geographic Channel – The Fate of The Famed Lost Colony of Roanoke

The New York Times – Roanoke’s ‘Lost Colony’ Was Never Lost, New Book Says

National Archive – Did God Really Help the English Defeat the Spanish Armada?

Biography – Why Edgar Allan Poe’s Death Remains a Mystery

Ranker – 17 Theories Behind “Croatoan” and the Roanoke Colony Disappearance

Smithsonian Magazine – The Poetic Tale of Literary Outlaw Black Bart

National Parks – The Legend of The Ghost Ship: Carroll A. Deering

LA Times – Stranger Than Fiction: Mystery: The case of Ambrose Bierce

The Washington Post – Powhatan and His People: The 15,000 American Indians Shoved Aside by Jamestown’s Settlers

Greensboro – Could A Mysterious Stone Found Near Roanoke’s ‘Lost Colony’ Be Real?

ArtNet News – Archaeologists May Have Finally Solved the Mystery of the Disappearance of Roanoke’s Lost Colony