The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
Hey Imgur, got a history mystery for you today. It's about the strange disappearance of the Roanoke Island colony, the first English colony to settle in North America. In the 1580’s it vanished without a trace, leaving behind nothing but a single word scrawled on a wooden beam.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
In the 16th century, Spain was rapidly becoming an unchecked powerhouse in Europe. Spain’s gold and mineral imports from South America greatly enriched the Spanish Empire. Along with this, the Spanish were conquering swathes of new land seemingly without opposition. These reasons, amongst religious, industrial and even ethical concerns, compelled England to also set its sights westwards.

People from all walks of life left England in droves to assess the potential of North America and to privateer against the trade routes of Spain.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
Sir Walter Raleigh was a key figure during this time and a favoured courtier of Elizabeth I. Raleigh was given a royal patent to explore Virginia and lead the way for potential future settlements by the Kingdom of England.

In 1585, Raleigh sent a fleet of 5 ships to land England’s first colony in North America. These ships were under the command Raleigh’s far-removed cousin, Richard Grenville, and the explorer, Ralph Lane.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
The ships landed on Roanoke island in modern day North Carolina and over 100 settlers disembarked. From reports of Grenville and Raleigh, relations with the local natives, the Croatans and Secotans, grew violent very quickly. The settlers even burned down a Secotan village over a stolen silver cup.

Grenville ordered Lane and the settlers to the north of the island and left 15 of his men to help protect the colony from future altercations. Grenville then left the settlement mostly starved of food to privateer in South America. Upon leaving, he promised Lane he would return within a year with more men.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
In 1587, Grenville enlisted the artist John White, a member of the original Roanoke expedition, to lead a new colonial voyage on his behalf. This new journey was to Chesapeake Bay near Maryland. Grenville ordered White to stop by Roanoke on the way to pick up the detachment of soldiers he had left there.

However, when the ships reached the island, it was empty. Barring a single eerie skeleton, the settlement was completely abandoned.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
90 men, 17 women and 11 children then got off the ships at Roanoke, led by John White. For some unexplained reason, they were then refused their continued voyage to Chesapeake Bay. The captain of the ships that brought them, Simon Fernandez of Portugal, left them there, refusing them permission to re-board. Fernandez’s motives are still not wholly understood to this day, but they could have potentially been politically motivated.

The only recourse to the new settlers was to try and rebuild the abandoned Roanoke colony. John White’s daughter was born a short time after this as Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
Again, things became dire for the colony very quickly. Relations with nearby native tribes were apparently strained to non-existence. The altercations came to a head with the unprovoked murder of one of the English settlers.

The settlement decided to send John White back to England with a goal to gather defensive support for the colony. Growing strife between England and Spain meant it was not until 1590 that White was actually able to return.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
White came ashore Roanoke once more with a landing party and made his intention clear that he was English and a friend to the settlers… but there was no reply. The colonists had once more disappeared.

There was no sign of battle or struggle. No dead bodies, no skeletons. The houses and buildings had been taken apart in an orderly fashion and removed. White had instructed the islanders beforehand to carve a maltese cross for him, should they be in danger or forced to leave. This cross was also never found.

The only tangible things left behind were two carved inscriptions. First was a palisade of wood placed after White’s departure. On the palisade was a single word, ‘CROATOAN’. Second were the letters C-R-O scratched onto the surface of a tree near the shore.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
So what happened? Where did the settlers go? Were they killed by the natives? Did they starve? Did they move away from the island freely? Were they 'disappeared' in some 16th century political agenda?

Let’s find out what happened after this.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
Starting off with White himself. The former artist assumed immediately that the colonists had moved to join with the (mostly friendly) natives, the Croatans, on Croatoan island. Their original settlement was supposed to be 80km inland anyway, so White surmised they had simply up and left Roanoke for greener pastures. Unfortunately for White, brewing violent storms refused his passage to continue searching and he was forced back to England never to see his family again.

After White’s failed attempt, subsequent voyages attempted to re-contact the settlement, but no confirmed sightings on Croatoan were ever made. The Spanish did however once note the peculiarity of Croatans waving to them and playing European-style instruments as they sailed by. In 1998, archeological evidence was found on Croatoan island which supports White’s theory that the fledgling-colony moved there. A signet ring bearing the crest of a man who was from Roanoke’s settlement was found.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
Captain Bartholomew Gilbert specifically led a voyage to Chesapeake Bay in 1603 to search for the remnants of the settlement. The reasoning here is that John White had apparently noted that the settlers had been talking of relocating from Roanoke. Their potential destination might have been where they were originally supposed to go, Chesapeake Bay.

Gilbert and four of his men disembarked but were ambushed and killed by natives. There was no apparent provocation for this and the rest of the crew on the ship were inexplicably able to leave Chesapeake without issue.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
4 years after Gilbert’s ill-fated voyage, Jamestown was set up in Virginia, becoming the first successful English colony in North America. The searches for the Roanoke colony started up again. John Smith writes that in his dealings with Pocahontas’ father, Powhatan, that the Chieftain admitted to killing the Roanoke survivors near Chesapeake Bay. This chieftain said that the English group had merged with a local Chesepian tribe and had refused to join with his own.

Powhatan showed off musket barrels and personal iron accessories that formerly belonged to the English. The motive was that Powhatan had received a vision of the future, where his own tribe was killed by the English settlers. The secretary of the Jamestown colony documented a similar story himself, creating the most widely accepted version of events.

Also supporting Smith’s report is evidence of Elizabethan pottery close to a known Algonquian village, 50 miles from Roanoke. The position and dating of the pottery could belong to nobody else but Roanoke settlers, suggesting some of them spent at least some time with a tribe there.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
So why are we still confused?

First off, it's entirely possible that Powhatan was speaking of the original disappearance of the first Roanoke colony, before White had even arrived with his second group; remember that two sets of people disappeared from the island. The original settlers could have also wandered inland, seeking food during a time of scarcity. The 15 men left behind by Grenville would have certainly been carrying muskets with them as protection.

Secondly, Powhatan could have been displaying spoils taken from Bartholomew Gilbert’s men, who had died only a few years earlier in a similar place to where this attack happened.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
Further disputing Powhatan’s version of events is that there there are sporadic mentions of interactions with so-called “white indians”, long after John Smith’s report. The common assertion is that these are the children of the Roanoke settlers, who had married within tribes and adopted themselves into Native American cultures. These unknown people were described as grey eyed and familiar with English and Christianity.

When the French first settled in North Carolina they said that they had very bizarre and unexpected interactions with blond haired, blue eyed Tuscaroran natives. Even much later, in the 1880’s, it was discovered that a lot of the native families in North Carolina shared an uncanny resemblance of surnames with the Roanoke settlers. Their language included many words that were eerily similar to ones found in 16th Century English and they asserted that their lineage went all the way back to the colony.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
Let’s cover two other potential theories for a bit of fun, these ones more... political. Be aware that these aren’t supported with empirical evidence and can mostly be filed under the heading of "16th century conspiracy theories".

Firstly. the Spanish might have abducted the settlers to prevent the English gaining a foothold in North America. Indeed Captain Simon Fernandez did have some known loyalties to Spain when he abandoned the English on Roanoke. This is fairly disputed, though, because there are known expeditions by the Spanish to seek out the English colony even after John Smith’s reports.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
Alternatively, Walter Raleigh’s original goal to colonise North America might have been doomed to fail by those seeking to discredit him in England. Soon after Elizabeth I's death, Raleigh quickly found himself in the Tower of London for treason against James I. The evidence against him was peculiarly scarce and the verdict strangely predetermined during the trial.

The quick judgement and imprisonment of Raleigh suggests a motivation to remove him from the ear of the King by forces unknown. It is perhaps possible that the failure of the Roanoke colony was engineered by Raleigh’s political opponents to attack his overall credibility in court.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Roanoke Island Colony
But that's just another mystery we may never know the answer to.

Thanks for reading.