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Clues to the Fate of the Lost Colony

The English settlement of what is now part of N.C.—Roanoke Island—presents the usual tales of Indian hospitality returned by colonial greed.

The English settlement of what is now part of North Carolina—Roanoke Island—presents the usual tales of Indian hospitality returned by colonial greed and ending in tragedy for one side or the other in the short run, but Indians in the long run. The English had their faults, but timidity was not one.

The third English expedition to Roanoke Island also left a mystery that tickled the imaginations of schoolchildren and puzzled historians.

The first reconnoiter of the island, by Arthur Barlowe on behalf of Sir Walter Raleigh, produced the opinion that the Natives on Roanoke were “gentle, loving and faithful, void of all guile and treason.” Encouraged by Barlowe’s scouting report, Raleigh sent an all-male contingent of over 100 Englishmen to make a permanent settlement in 1585.

The settlement went well until the governor, Sir Ralph Lane, became dissatisfied with the amount of food provided by local Indians, probably Secotans. Instead of being grateful for what was offered freely, the English attacked the Indian village to loot foodstuffs. Their success proved to be temporary when the Indians returned with reinforcements. Chased back to the colony with their tails between their legs, the English found they had stirred up such opposition as to make colonization impossible.

When Sir Francis Drake visited Roanoke Island in the summer of 1586 on his way back from the West Indies, the terrorized colonists begged passage with Drake and abandoned the colony before its first birthday. Supply ships arrived shortly after Drake rescued the colonists, but they found an empty fort. The commander left 15 men to hold the island until more colonists could be recruited.

The Indians, determined to evict the English ingrates, soon attacked and the men retreated by boat and disappeared from the pages of history. The new colonists showed up a little more than a year after this debacle and found only the charred remains of the buildings from the first colony. Having more courage than good sense, the English rebuilt. This time they had brought women and children.

Governor John White, who had been part of the first colonization attempt as an artist, returned to England to gather more supplies, intending a quick round trip. White was delayed by the war between England and Spain, which made the Atlantic a temporary free fire zone.

White was finally able to make his way back in 1590.

Between 1587 and 1590, more than 100 English colonists, including Virginia Dare, White’s granddaughter and the first English child born in the so-called New World, disappeared, leaving only a couple of cryptic carvings, “Croatoan” and “Cro.”

In addition to the hostilities that sunk the second English expedition, the colonists of the third had stepped into the middle of an existing rivalry between two tribes with immediate access to Roanoke Island, the Secotan and the Chowanoke. Could they have been caught in the crossfire? Could both tribes have united against them and wiped out the entire colony? Could the Spanish have sent soldiers to attack the colony as part of the war with England? Could they have been wiped out by an epidemic of some American disease? If so, where were the remains?

“Croatoan” was the name of another Indian tribe and was thought to be the name of the island now known as Hatteras. Were they attacked by the Croatoan? Did they go to live with the Croatoan? Did they decamp for Croatoan Island?

This year, The New York Times reported an archaeological dig identified as “Site X,” somewhere on the North Carolina mainland. Site X has yielded ceramics of a type known not to have been imported since early in the 17th Century. As yet, the diggers have not found remains of houses and the artifact field is not judged dense enough to account for the entire Lost Colony.

RELATED: Evidence of ‘Wonderful Brotherhood’ Between Croatan Tribe and Lost Colonists

Other digs, on Hatteras Island, yielded concentrations of artifacts consisting of both European and Native American goods. The archaeologists are of two schools of thought to explain the evidence. One is that the colonists were assimilated by friendly tribes and took some of their stuff with them. The other is that the European pieces prove nothing because the Indians would scavenge anything the Europeans abandoned that had any use.

Recent advances in technology, such as ground-penetrating radar used in the newer digs, have added to the store of evidence bearing on the fate of the Lost Colony, but the evidence is still too sketchy to call the mystery solved.

Though unsuccessful, the Roanoke expeditions were not entirely a vain enterprise. Thomas Hariot, who would have been termed the “science officer” of the second expedition if Roanoke were a Star Trek episode, learned the Algonquian language. He wrote of the Indians “if means of good government be used…they may in short time be brought to civility and the embracing of true religion.” For an Englishman, this was a high compliment.


Thomas Hariot wrote of the Indians “if means of good government be used… they may in short time be brought to civility and the embracing of true religion.” For an Englishman, this was a high compliment. This portrait, often claimed to be of Hariot 1602) hangs in Oriel College, Oxford.

As important as learning the language, Hariot noticed and reported how highly the Indians valued copper. Twenty years later, when the English settlement at Jamestown was encountering the inevitable starvation, the colonists were able to trade copper they had brought for the purpose for food rather than attempt to take Indian food by force. Even these English barbarians, it seems, were able to learn from their mistakes.

The English as a nation were able to learn from their mistakes and keep coming, but whether the third Roanoke colony learned enough from the mistakes of the second to survive among the Natives remains a mystery to everyone but the Indians of the time. It’s too bad nobody thought to ask them.