The first English settlement in the New World, the Roanoke Island colony was founded by explorer Sir Walter Raleigh in August 1585. Sited in what is now Dare’s County, North Carolina, the colony was set up on the orders of Elizabeth I, but after suffering dwindling food supplies and Indian attacks, the community returned to England in 1586. A second attempt to colonise was made in 1587, when 115 settlers led by an Englishman named John White set foot on American soil. Just a few weeks after their arrival, White’s granddaughter became the first baby born in the New World to English parents; the future seemed bright.
Later that year, White returned to England to procure supplies for the colony, but was unable to return to America until August 1590, thanks to war between England and Spain.
When White did finally return to the settlement, on his granddaughter’s birthday of 18 August, he found it completely empty, with no trace of the colonists he had left and no sign of violence. The only clue to their whereabouts –including his own daughter and granddaughter – was the word ‘CROATOAN’ carved into a palisade that had been built around the complex. Assuming this meant that the men and women had moved on to Croatoan Island – now Hatteras Island – some 60 miles away, White initiated a search, but problems with the ship and bad weather forced them off course.
White eventually left for England and the mystery remains as to what happened to his family and friends. One theory, based on tree-ring data from Virginia, is that extreme drought hit the area between 1587 and 1589, contributing to the demise of the colony, although this doesn’t explain where they went. Another theory is that the colonisers were absorbed into an Indian tribe known as the Croatans.
This article first appeared in issue 42 of History Revealed.