Exploration and Settlement

Lost Colony

What was the Lost Colony?

It was the second English colony established in America: Set up in 1587 on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, by 1590 it had disappeared without a trace. Theories surround the disappearance, though it is not known for sure what happened.

Roanoke Island had also been the site of the first English colony, set up in 1585 by about 100 men who were sent there by Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618). Raleigh had perceived the island to be a good spot for English warships (that were then fighting the Spanish) to be repaired and loaded with new supplies. But the plan was not a success: The land wasn’t fertile enough to support both the colonists and the Indians living nearby, and ships could not get close enough to the island since the surrounding sea proved too shallow. The colonists returned to England the following year. Meantime, Raleigh had dispatched another group of colonists from England. They arrived at Roanoke days after the original settlers left. Seeing that the site had been abandoned, all but 15 of the colonists opted to return to England.

In spring 1587 Raleigh sent yet another group of colonists to America, but these ships were headed for areas near Chesapeake Bay, farther north (in present-day Virginia). Reaching the Outer Banks in July, the ships’ commander refused to take the colonists to their destination and instead left them at Roanoke Island. The colonists’ leader, John White, who had also been among the first settlers at Roanoke, returned to England for supplies in August 1587. However, the ongoing war between England and Spain prevented him from returning to the colony until three years later. Arriving back at Roanoke in August 1590, expecting to be met by family members and the 100 or so settlers (including some women and children). Instead he discovered that the colony was abandoned.

The only clue that White found was the word Croatoan, which had been engraved on a tree. The Croatoan, or Hatteras, were friendly Indians who lived on an island south of Roanoke Island. White set out to see if the colonists had joined the Hatteras Indians, but weather prevented the search and his expedition returned to England instead.

Two theories explain what might have become of the lost colonists: Since the shore of Chesapeake Bay was their original destination, the colonists might have moved there but, encountering resistance, perished at the hands of the Indians. Other evidence suggests that the colonists became integrated with several Indian tribes living in North Carolina. Either way, they were never seen again by Europeans.

A native American greets the Pilgrims, who in 1620 voyaged to America seeking religious freedom and self-government. (Original painting by Henry Sargent.)

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