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Tracking The Lost Roanoke Colony

By James Donahue

Ever since the 119 settlers at the settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, mysteriously disappeared without a trace sometime between 1887 and 1890, historical researchers have been looking for clues as to what happened to them.

To this day the "lost colony" has remained one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Sixteenth Century period in North America.

Jamestown was an early effort by the British to establish a permanent settlement in the New World. It was financed and organized by Sir Walter Raleigh. The expedition of colonists was led by Ralph Lane and Richard Grenville. John White, a friend of Raleigh, was appointed governor of the colony.

Actually, the colony in question was the result of a third expedition sent by Raleigh to the Eastern coast of North America. The first in 1584 was basically an exploratory force designed to map the area and establish relations with the Secotan and Croatan natives living in the area. The second expedition, led by Sir Richard Grenville in 1585, became the first attempt to establish a colony. Grenville left Ralph Lane and 107 men on the north end of Roanoke Island before sailing back to England for fresh supplies. Lane built a fort on the site and ordered the exploration of the area. When Sir Francis Drake’s fleet anchored there on the way back to England, the men were involved in skirmishes with the natives. Most of them accepted Drake’s offer to provide passage back to England.

The third and fatal effort occurred in 1587 when Raleigh sent White and 150 colonists to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay. They were ordered to land first at Roanoke to join forces with Grenville’s men. But when they arrived they found Lane’s fort and the small colony deserted. Then the commander of the fleet of vessels that brought them, Simon Fernandez, refused to let the colonists back on the ships. Thus White had no choice but to attempt to establish the colony on the island instead of the intended site on Chesapeake Bay.

Trouble with the Croatans developed and after one of the colonists, George Howe was killed by an Indian, the people feared for their lives. They asked Governor White to return to England to seek help. He left in late 1587 and because of bad weather and a confrontation with pirates at sea and an ongoing war with Spain, was unable to return for another two years.

White landed on Roanoke Island on August 18, 1590, and found the settlement deserted. All of the houses and fortifications had been dismantled. There was no trace left of the 90 men, 17 women and 11 children that White left behind in 1587. The only clue was the word "Croatoan" carved on a post of the fort, and "Cro" found carved in the side of a nearby tree.

Before he left, White had instructed the people that if anything happened to them, before they left the colony they were to carve a Maltese cross on a tree. This would have been a signal that the disappearance had been forced. Since there was no cross, White believed the people had moved to Croatoan Island, the old name for Hattaras Island. For some reason he never tried to find them.

Raleigh sent an expedition in 1602 that included an effort to locate the lost settlers, but it got involved in privateering on the high seas and never landed on the mainland. After that, Raleigh was arrested on a charge of treason by King James I. Thus the time for tracking the lost colonists passed without anybody conducting a real search.

Since then the theories of what happened have been varied. Because it was never given a formal name, the place has simply been referred to as the "Lost Colony." Many have theorized that the people lived among and eventually became "absorbed" by either the Croatans or Algonquian tribes in that area.

Historian Lee Miller, in her book Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, offered various theories that involved either seeking shelter with the local tribes or being caught up in tribal wars.

William Strachey, of the Jamestown Colony, wrote in 1612 that two-story houses with stone walls were observed at the Indian settlements of Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen. The natives claimed to have learned how to build them from the Roanoke settlers. Strachey also wrote that four English men, two boys and one woman had been seen at the Eno settlement known as Ritanoc. Some writers have since speculated that the captive woman was Virginia Dare.

Then there were the stories passed down among the various tribes of having white ancestors.

Other theories were that the people either perished for lack of food, were massacred by the Indians,

The colonists had been left with several small ships to use in exploring the coast or for moving the colony to the mainland if it was necessary. One theory suggests that the people gave up waiting and attempted to sail the small vessels back to England, only to perish at sea.

A new finding by researchers for the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the National Park Service shows that the growth rings on ancient trees found in the area show that an extreme drought occurred there from 1587 to 1589. This suggests a crop failure that may have played a major role in the disappearance of the colony. The settlers were either forced to move on or they starved.

"If the English had tried to find a worse time to launch their settlements in the New World, they could not have done so," said Dennis Blanton, director of the Willliam and Mary Center.