THE LOST COLONY OF ROANOKE


“The Carte of All the Coast of Virginia,” engraved by Theodor de Bry based on John White’s own map, published in Thomas Hariot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1588.



In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh sent an expedition to the east coast of North America. The expedition landed on Roanoke Island in what is now the state of North Carolina. Good relations were established with the indigenous inhabitants, the Croatans, two of whom accompanied the expedition back to England to meet Raleigh and to describe their country and its ways. Next year a fleet of ships under the command of Sir Richard Grenville established a settlement on the island. 

Despite the positive start made with intercultural relations through the initial expedition, the colonists and local people soon fell into violence, much as they would in the Southland.  Grenville left for England, leaving a 108 men to establish the colony, promising to come back with reinforcements and desperately needed food by the following April. He did not return and the colonists were forced to defend themselves from indigenous attack. Fortunately, Sir Francis Drake called in at the colony on his return journey from plundering the Spanish in the Caribbean. He took them back to England. Grenville’s relief party finally arrived at Roanoke soon after, only to find an abandoned settlement. He left a small group on the island and sailed back to England.

When the next group of colonists sent by Raleigh arrived at Roanoke they found only a single skeleton. It was one of the men Grenville left there the previous year. Under the command of John White, the new colonists decided to return to England but the master of their ship refused to take them home. White’s group now had to try to re-establish the colony and to mend relations with the local inhabitants. These attempts were a failure. Late in the year of 1857, White sailed to England for help, leaving around 115 men, women and children to await rescue.

White tried to get back to Roanoke but was prevented by the difficulty of obtaining vessels as all sizeable craft had been commandeered to fight the Spanish Armada. When he did manage to find and supply two small boats, the Spanish stole their cargoes and he was forced to return to England. White was not able to get back to Roanoke until August 1590. The colony was deserted. The buildings had been dismantled and there was no evidence of fighting or violence. They found the word ‘Croatoan’ carved into a post and ‘Cro’ cut into a tree. There was no sign of the prearranged signal of distress, a Maltese Cross. White concluded that the colonists had simply moved to a neighbouring island, then known as ‘Croatoan Island.’ A storm prevented him visiting the island immediately. The tempest finally blew itself out but unaccountably, White did not visit the island and instead sailed away. Ever since, the fate of the Roanoke colonists has mystified and intrigued generations of researchers. The many speculations about Roanoke have echoes in the legends of the Southland.

One of the most persistent and likely theories is that at least some of the Roanoke colonists made alliances of convenience with one or more of the local Native American groups. As well as repelling newcomers, many of these groups were in a state of more or less continual warfare. There is evidence of cohabitation including sightings of Europeans living with Native American groups. The most compelling of these stories is that of four English men, two boys and a young woman living and working for a local chief. The story was that the colony had been attacked but they had escaped into the wilderness, eventually to become virtual slaves.

There are also well-documented accounts of Native Americans with English ancestry. As early as 1709, the Croatoans were acknowledging English ancestry:

A farther Confirmation of this we have from the Hatteras Indians, who either then lived on Roanoke-Island, or much frequented it. These tell us, that several of their Ancestors were white People, and could talk in a Book, as we do; the Truth of which is confirmed by gray Eyes being found frequently amongst these Indians, and no others. They value themselves extremely for their Affinity to the English, and are ready to do them all friendly Offices.

There are many other colonial accounts of grey-eyed or blue-eyed Native Americans with fair hair as well as related legendary traditions and linguistic evidence of the integration of Roanoke colonists with Native Americans. But just how this happened continues to excite a variety of theories. One is that the colonists did indeed move from Roanoke but were subsequently massacred. Another is that they escaped on a small ship that White had left behind but were all drowned at sea.

Archaeological surveys of the area have uncovered the usual miscellany of enigmatic artefacts. A map of the colony made by John White in 1585 and known as the ‘Virginia Pars Map’ has revealed some new evidence. Researchers have recently re-examined it and found obscured beneath a paper patch repair, the site of what could be another fort built by the colonists. Investigations into this possibility are proceeding, along with a project to confirm if the Roanoke colonists did merge into the local Native American groups.

This is an early example of the genesis and spread of an ‘urban’ or contemporary legend. The initial concept of a lost white tribe is well established in European culture. The unknown nature of the great south land and events related to it provided the ideal seed bed for the genesis of the fiction that Maslen, or someone else, kicked off in 1834. Subsequent ostensibly accurate details were added as the story moved through the nineteenth century press and from mouth to mouth along the channels of hearsay and speculation. By the time the story reaches modern times, it has also gained apparent credibility simply by being ‘old.’ 

Researchers interested in the lost white colony have assiduously garnered apparently supporting evidence from various places and the well-spun narrative we now have starts to look almost convincing at first glance. But, as with urban legends, despite the insistence of their tellers on their veracity, investigation rarely turns up credible evidence for their existence. The persistence of such stories – despite the evidence against them – tells us a good deal about the human need for a good yarn, one that appears to explain and sometimes vindicate mysteries, fill information voids or perhaps even provide some cultural vindication for colonisation.

SOURCES:

John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina, London, 1709.
Giles Milton Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2000.
The Lost Colony Centre for Science and Research for connections to the extensive popular and academic research interest in Roanoke.

‘The towne of Pomeiock’ by John White (British Museum).

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