The Roanoke Colony was founded in the summer of 1585. Bad relations with the locals induced many of its members to return to England a year later with Sir Francis Drake, who had stopped by the colony on his way back to England after a successful raiding expedition in the Caribbean. A relief fleet, arriving shortly after Drake’s departure, found the colony essentially abandoned and left a detachment of 15 men to maintain English presence and to preserve the claim to the island. In July of 1587 a second expedition of 115 colonists arrived, finding the detachment had been obliterated. They found only a single skeleton that might have been the remains of one of the detachment. Might.
The colonists were ready to head back to the ships at that point, but the ship’s master Pilot would not allow it and insisted that they establish a new colony on Roanoke.
The leader of this second expedition, and governor of the colony, was John White who was accompanied (among others) by his daughter Eleanor White Dare and her husband and her husband Ananais Dare. Nothing has been said of the difficulties Eleanor had crossing the Atlantic in the creaky sailing ships of the day while in the advanced stages of pregnancy but she gave birth to the first English child born in the New World on August 18, 1587 (the first “On This Day” event).
White established relations with some of the nearby tribes, including the Croatan, but the ones who had fought the previous settlers would not deal with him. One of the settlers was killed by a native while searching for crabs.
The colonists were in sufficient difficulty that they persuaded Governor White to return to England and ask for further supplies and assistance. He agreed to do so, setting out in the winter of 1587 despite the difficulty and danger of winter sailing, leaving behind his daughter and her family, including the infant granddaughter, Virginia Dare. Before leaving, White instructed the colonists that if anything happened to them, they were to carve a Maltese cross into on a tree nearby.
White’s first attempt to return to Roanoke in 1588 was thwarted when the captains of the two ships attempted to engage Spanish ships and seize their cargo and so increase their profits from the voyage. Tables were turned when the Spanish ships proved victorious and seized the English cargo. With nothing left to deliver, White returned to England.
Because of the ongoing war with Spain, three more years passed before White was able to try again, gaining passage on a privateering (private vessels carrying “letters of marque and reprisal from their government authorizing them to attack and capture shipping of a belligerent nation, basically legalized piracy) expedition led by John Watts and Walter Raleigh. They returned to the site of the colony on August 18, 1590, what would be the third birthday of Watts’ granddaughter Virginia Dare. They found the colony deserted. There was no sign of any struggle or battle. The buildings were neatly dismantled, indicating that wherever the colonies went, they departed in no great hurry. The only clue was the word “Croatan” carved into one tree and the letters “CRO” in another. No Maltese Cross to indicate something bad happening to the colonists was found. White took this to mean that the colonists had moved to Croatan Island (today known as Hatteras) but a storm was brewing and his men refused to search further and so, the next day, they left.
It was not until 12 years later that anyone returned to Roanoke to investigate what happened. In 1602 Raleigh led his own expedition, guaranteeing his sailors pay so they would not be distracted by privateering. However, first on arrival he spent time looking for items that he could sell in England and still make a profit from the trip. By the time they could turn attention to the fate of the missing colonists, the weather had turned bad and they were forced to return. Shortly after these events, Raleigh was arrested for treason which put an end to any further efforts on his part.
A final expedition went to the site in 1603 led by Bartholomew Gilbert. However, once again bad weather intervened. They only landed “near there” and, an encounter with natives in which Gilbert was killed led to the expedition being abandoned and returning empty-handed.
On the other side of the war with Spain that caused such delays in relief, the Spanish came across the abandoned colony in 1590 but thought it merely an outpost of the main settlement and they, too, left without providing any answers to what had happened.
After Jamestown was established in 1607, John Smith asked the local Powatan tribe. According to his account Chief Powatan claimed to have personally led the slaughter of the colonists because they were living with the Chesepean’s, a tribe with which the Powatan’s were at odds. William Strachey, in pursuing his own inquiries of Powatan, received much the same information and this was the conventional view of the fate of the colonists for many years. However, some scholars believe Powatan’s account actually refer to the detail of 15 left by the first expedition, not those of the second, larger expedition.
And there things have mostly lain. People love a mystery and so much has been made of the “mystery” of the Roanoke colony’s disappearance. However, my own view is that it is almost certainly the most straightforward one. The locals had already developed friendly relations with the Croatan people while having hostile relations with others. When the relief they were waiting for was so long delayed, they simply abandoned the colony–either all at once or a few at a time–and went to live among the Croatan and had thoroughly integrated with them. After Jamestown, Plymouth would be the next successful English Colony in North America and it would be nearly a century before colonists returned to the Carolinas long after any surviving Roanoke colonists would be dead and buried (or whatever the Croatan did with their dead).
That’s the simple answer. But, of course, people don’t like the “simple” answer and so they cling to the mystery: The mystery of the lost colony. But perhaps, somewhere, among the descendants of that native tribe, a great-great-great-however-many-greats-grandchild of Virginia Dare, the first English child born on this continent, still lives.
That is mystery enough for me, I think.