Monday, August 19, 2013

AUGUST 18 = "The Lost Colony" is Found Deserted

"... We passed toward the place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found the houses taken downe, and the place very strongly enclosed with a high palisado of great trees, with cortynes and flankers very Fort-like, and one of the chiefe trees or postes at the right side of the entrance had the bark taken off, and 5. foote from the ground in fayre Capitall letters was grauen CROATOAN without any crosse or signe of distresse; this done, we entred into the palisado where we found many barres of  Iron, two pigges of  Lead, foure yron fowlers, Iron sacker-shotte, and such like heauie things, throwen hear and there, almost ouergrowen with grasse and weedes."

This was what John White recorded on today's date, August 18 in the year 1590 when he returned to the settlement of Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina in the United States (the spelling in that letter is the original old English). White had been the Governor of the settlement and had returned to England to gather supplies to help the settlement survive.  He had intended to return in three months. But he had been delayed and had in fact been away three years.  When he returned he found not a trace of the 118 settlers whom he had left in 1587 among whom had been his daughter, and his grand daughter, Virginia Dare, who had been the first English girl born in North America.  Not a single person was found, nor any human remains, either then or ever after.  The only clue as to their whereabouts was that word "Croatoan" carved into a tree.  The fate of these colonists remains a mystery down to the present day. Thus was born the legend of "the Lost Colony of Roanoke". It is a story which I can recall having read about in grade school, and I'm betting that most of you can too.

England, Spain,  Sir Walter Raliegh and "the New World"

England was engaged with Spain in a struggle for global supremacy centering on who would grab most of the booty coming in from the New World. The New World was essentially the continents of South and North America.  Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and the West Indies had all of the gold, sugar and spices that came from that part of the world,  making it THE primary cash cow for the Imperial Government of Spain.  Spanish treasure ships laden with all of this great stuff were forever crossing the Atlantic, and England saw a way to cut in on all of this marvelous money the Galleons were hauling in by unleashing Privateers upon these
Spaniards.  "Privateers" being essentially free-lance Pirates with a Royal license from the Queen of England Elizabeth I to take off with the goods.  Sir Walter Raliegh (right) was a man of  influence and a favorite courtier of Her Majesty's. In 1584, Sir Walt was granted a charter for land in North America known as Virginia. This charter said that a colony needed to be set up, lest Sir Walter would lose the right to colonize.  The idea was for a base to be set up from which these Privateers could raid the Spanish treasure fleets. Raliegh never got to North America, although he did make it to a bit of the South American continent. But Sir Walter had enemies at court who wanted to see him fail.

Sir Walter Sends Settlers.....

Between 1584 and 1586 various attempts were made, all financed by good Sir Walter at setting up fortifications along this coastline. In 1587, Sir Walt sent a new and more intrepid band of family types to set up a permanent settlement on Chesapeake Bay. This group was to be lead by John White, a friend of Sir Walt's who had been on these cross the pond jaunts before.  They arrived in
July of 1587 at Roanoke Island. Then, the Captain of the expedition, Simon Fernandez, refused to allow the settlers back on his ships, saying that White's group would have to make due on Roanoke Island (White's 1586 map of the area is at left and can be enlarged by clicking on it), instead of the Chesapeake Bay as had been originally planned. Forced to make the best of it White made friends with the Croatoan Indian tribes and attempted to do the same with various other indigenous groups, but with no success. So he reluctantly agreed to return to England and beg for supplies and reinforcements. But this was the time of the attack by the Spanish Armada. Every ship was taken for combat.  So instead of returning in three months, White couldn't get back until three YEARS had passed.  And upon his return, he found what he described in his letter which begins this posting.

"The Lost Colony" Stays Lost to History

The fact that the settlement had been dismantled left White (below) feeling that it had not been abandoned in haste.  Further,
he had planned with the settlers before he left that they should carve a Maltese cross into one of the trees if they had been attacked by the Indians.  The fact that he did not find this, but instead did find the word "Croatoan" carved in a tree ("CROATOAN without any crosse or sign of distresse..") left him feeling hopeful that his settlers were safe, because "Croatoan" was the name of an island further south wherein lived the Croatan tribe with whom he had made peace. He hoped that they had moved in with this friendly tribe.  But he was never to find out if this had in fact happened.  Bad weather made any further travel impossible.  White was forced to return once again to England.  He tried for three more years to arrange another expedition to Roanoke, but was never successful.  He would die in 1593, never knowing the fate of his daughter or his grand daughter, Virginia.

What Actually (May Have) Happened to "the Lost Colony"?

So what actually became of "the Lost Colony" as it has since come to be known? Well there are any number of theories out there.  The fact that the settlement was found to have been dismantled as opposed to simply abandoned would indeed lead one to suspect as Governor John White did, that they had not been forced to leave in a hurry by something such as an attack by hostile Indian tribes.  On the other hand, the metal forging equipment and the iron shot that had been left ("....we found many barres of  Iron, two pigges of  Lead, foure yron fowlers, Iron sacker-shotte, and such like heauie things, throwen hear and there, almost ouergrowen with grasse and weedes.") was certainly amongst the items that would have been important to the settlers, and would have been taken in an orderly departure instead of being thrown about.  Clearly the settlers had been stranded  with some degree of deliberation. The actions of Capt. Simon Fernandez in refusing to take them to Chesapeake Bay, but forcing them to stay at the less hospitable location of Roanoke Island have never been explained.  It could be as suggested by some that Fernandez was a part of a plot by the enemies of Sir Walter Raliegh at the court of Queen Elizabeth I to force his colonial scheme to fail and thus discredit him. But whatever the motives of Fernandez and others, that still leaves the fate of the settlers themselves a mystery.

 My own best guess is that conditions forced them to leave the settlement of their own volition.  Studies of tree rings from the period suggest that significant drought was in effect during the years of 1588-1590.  So perhaps they did indeed withdraw to Croatoan Island as the carving of that word would seem to suggest, just in order to survive.  And after that they simply intermingled with the Indian tribes. There were for many years after, persistent reports of the presence of blonde haired, blue-eyed members of local tribes. It is something which we are never likely to know for sure.  As for John White he sadly and sorrowfully commended his "planters" and his own guilt-stricken conscience to the mercy of God in his final letter on the subject to Richard Hakluyt, a prominent supporter of the settlement of North America by the English in the1580's and 90's (Below: the christening of White's grand daughter, Virginia Dare) :

Thus may you plainely perceive the success of my fifth and last voyage to Virginia, which was no less unfortunately ended then forwardly begun, and as luckless to many, as sinister to myself. But I would to God it had been as prosperous to all, as noysome to the planters; and as joyful to me, as discomfortable to them. Yet seeing it is not my first crossed voyage, I remain contented. And wanting my wishes, I leave off from prosecuting that whereunto I would to God my wealth were answerable to my will. Thus committing the relief of my discomfortable company the planters in Virginia, to the merciful help of the Almighty, whom I most humbly beseech to help and comfort them, according to his most holy will and their good desire, I take my leave from my house at Newtowne in Kylmore, the 4th of February, 1593.

Your most welwishing friend, John White

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Compiled by David Beers Quinn,1956, paperback, 1990.

 by James Horn, Basic Books, New York, 2010.

by Lee Miller, Arcade Publ. Co., New York, 2000.



  1. A nice article Brian. I performed a concert with the N.C. Symphony on Roanoke Island at the Fort Raleigh site on the 400th anniversary of the FIRST attempt at settling the island. That's right. The first Roanoke Colony was established in 1584 and after a year they returned to England. The Lost Colony was the one established in 1587. My understanding, as a native Tarheel and history buff, is that Croatan was most likely the name of a village, not an island, and may have been located on the mainland. Croatan Forest is definitely on the mainland in eastern N.C. It is possible that the settlers went to a place by this name. Another hypothesis is that they were ambushed and carried away by Spaniards. Another version relates that one of the first things that the Jamestown settlers asked Wahunsunacawh aka Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, was if he had any knowledge of the Roanoke colonists. He reportedly replied that members of the Powhatan Confederation had slaughtered them and that he himself had killed some of them! While the coastal areas and much of the interior of what are now VA. and S.C. were well settled by the mid 1600s it was not until the very end of the 1600s and early 1700s British colonists returned to N.C. and yes there WERE reports of lighter complexioned and lighter haired Indians- I believe in the Cape Hatteras area. A great many of the Lumbee I have met have blue or gray eyes. Some of them claim that they are the descendants of the Lost Colony, but I attribute these features to events which occurred much later.

    1. Thank you very much for your "Tarheels Insider" View of the situation. As I concluded, this is a mystery that is likely to remain a mystery. But your info. is certain to add to the richness of the story. And this Blog is afterall called "historysstory"!!