White thought that the message meant that the colonists had moved to the nearby Croatoan Island. But before he could make the voyage there, a fierce storm blew in. And his sailors demanded that the ship leave before it was sunk. White traveled back to England and tried to arrange another expedition, but it would be more than a decade before anyone could make a serious attempt to find out what happened. An expedition was finally launched in 1603, but most of the crew was killed by natives before finding anything.
It wasn’t until the settlement of Jamestown was established in 1607 that anyone found a clue as to what might have happened. That year, Captain John Smith, leader of the colony, met the leader of a nearby tribe. The chief claimed that he had personally led an attack on the Roanoke colonists because they had allied themselves with an enemy tribe. It seemed like a reasonable explanation. A group of colonists in a strange land, who had been enemies with the local natives since almost day one, finally met their end in a native attack. But the theory has never satisfied everyone.
First, there was no obvious evidence of an attack at the site. And many have argued that the chief was probably talking about the 15-man garrison left at Roanoke before the colonists arrived, who did appear to be wiped out in an attack. Not to mention that other tribes told different stories about what happened to the colonists. One tribe reported that they saw the colonists fighting among themselves in a miniature civil war. Seemingly abandoned by White, the colonists might have come to blows over the remaining food. The survivors might then have buried the dead and relocated to Croatan.
There’s also the possibility that “Croatoan” didn’t refer to a place, but to a people. It might have been a message that the colonists decided to live with the nearby Croatan tribe. There’s a chance that the colonists made friends with the natives who, seeing that the colony was failing, offered to take them in as guests. And there is some evidence for this. Later visitors to the area reported that there were many words in the native languages that resembled English words. Others reported that the natives lived in two-story wooden houses that looked quite English, and they claimed to have learned to make them from the Roanoke colonists.
But there’s a much darker possibility lying inside this scenario. Slavery was common among tribes in the area. And if the colonists did decide to join the Croatan, then it might not have been as guests, but as slaves. Later European visitors in 1612 reported seeing European slaves living among the natives, where they were forced to beat out copper tools. And of course, as always, there are more outlandish theories as well, ranging from zombie outbreaks to alien abduction. Ultimately, we’ll probably never know what happened to Roanoke, and it will remain one of history’s most tantalizing mysteries.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
Raleigh’s First Roanoke Colony, The Account by Ralph Lane“. Tammy Evans, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2002.
“Roanoke Island“. Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. February 2017.
We Finally Have Clues to How the Lost Roanoke Colony Vanished”. Andrew Lawler, National Geographic. August 2015.