A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

So what did happen to the settlers at Roanoke?

November 17, 2009

Dear Straight Dope:

Here's a question I've always had, though my dad and teachers told me that no one could ever know what truly occurred. Whatever happened to those guys at Roanoke? Are there any prevailing theories? Aliens? Bad sushi? This has been bugging me since I was eight years old. How does an entire colony just vanish into thin air?

SDStaff Bricker replies:

Blame the Spanish Armada.

It’s true that barring the invention of the time machine, we’ll likely never know definitively what happened to the 115 English colonists left behind at Roanoke, site of the first attempt to establish a permanent English settlement in the colony of Virginia. But there are theories aplenty, and the disappearance was not nearly as unlikely as many of the popular accounts might suggest.

For those familiar with present-day Virginia, the name Roanoke is familiar as a mid-sized city in the southwest part of the state, and this often causes confusion when discussing the lost colony of Roanoke. The settlement that vanished was somewhere else: Roanoke Island, an isle in the Outer Banks area of what is now North Carolina but was at the time all part of the vast swath of land claimed by the English as “Virginia.” Sir Walter Raleigh had been given exclusive permission in 1584 by Queen Elizabeth I to colonize Virginia, but the royal charter gave him only ten years to do it. His colonization efforts were in large part self-financed – he was reluctant to dilute his profits by accepting financing from partners – and so the number of trips and the supplies he could afford to bring to bear was somewhat limited. Cue the ominous music, part one.

The group of colonists that vanished were actually part of the third landing force on the island. After the first preliminary scouting trip, Raleigh appointed his cousin Sir Richard Grenville admiral of a seven-ship, 600-man convoy to deliver colonists to Roanoke Island. This group arrived in 1585 and built the basics of a colony: stout homes and an earthen fort at the northern tip of the isle. Grenville left behind 107 men, led by one Ralph Lane, who unfortunately was not well versed in diversity training or cultural sensitivity. Lane’s tendency was to take food and other necessary supplies from the natives by force if negotiations did not work, and this did not endear him to his new neighbors; his attempts at diplomatic relations ended with his soldiers killing a local chief, Wingina. Earlier contacts with the natives had been peaceful, but Lane’s approach led to overt and constant hostility between the settlers and the natives, and since the settlers had been depending on continued food trades, this meant that they started to get a little hungry.

Sir Francis Drake made landfall at Roanoke at just the right time. He had been busy pilfering Spanish gold and was headed home to England, and he was prevailed upon to give the starving and embattled colonists a lift. They abandoned the colony and returned to England, not knowing that Grenville was again en route to Virginia. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville left a small garrison force of 15 soldiers and headed back to England himself. Those 15 were never seen again, and it doesn’t require us to invoke either aliens or bad sushi to explain their demise: Grenville had unwittingly dropped them into a firestorm of ire and discontent from the natives.

Despite negative reports from the second colony, Raleigh pressed on. He recruited more than 100 new colonists, with an artist named John White as their prospective governor, and in 1587 the group returned to Roanoke yet again. They had actually planned to locate farther north, in the present-day Norfolk area, but for reasons unclear to us, their Portuguese guide refused to take them any further than Roanoke. The group resettled at the site of the original colony, welcoming new arrival Virginia Dare to their number just weeks after their arrival. Virginia was the newborn daughter of Elinor Dare (née White), making her the granddaughter of the colony’s governor and the first English child born in the Americas.

Unfortunately, relations with the surrounding natives did not improve, and the colonists were shortly demanding more weapons, more tools, and above all more people. White agreed to make the trip back to England and return immediately with more help. He left behind 87 men, 17 women, and 11 children, including his daughter and granddaughter, none of whom he would ever see again.

White’s intentions were good, but he had no way of knowing that the Spanish, irked at their losses to what amounted to piracy by the English, had assembled a huge fleet of ships in an effort to sail through the English Channel and embark upon an invasion of England and depose Queen Elizabeth. In response, every English ship was pressed into service to defend against the threat, and for three years White could not find a ship to return him to Roanoke. Finally, in 1591, White hired passage on a single ship and was able to return to the colony. It was deserted.

He found a high fence of logs, but the houses themselves had apparently been taken down. A few small cannon remained, but the bulk of the tools and supplies were gone as well. White found the word “Croatoan” carved on one fence post. This word referred to either to a nearby island or the native people that lived there. He tried to convince the ship captain to take him to Croatoan, but a series of storms prevented that journey, and finally, the ship returned to England with the island still unexamined.

Placed in its historical context, the disappearance doesn’t come off as all that mysterious. The most likely explanations are that the colonists were overwhelmed by a native attack and killed, or that they decided to attempt to relocate on their own. The carved word gives credence to the latter theory, although modern researchers have found no evidence that they ended up on that island, the modern-day Hatteras. It’s also possible they found a way to get to the Tidewater/Norfolk/Chesapeake area that they had intended to settle; there is some evidence in favor of this claim. Powhatan, the local native chief in the Chesapeake area, claimed that the Roanoke colonists had been there but he had killed them to discourage other English settlement attempts.

We’ll very likely never know with any degree of certainty. But this wasn’t a case of vanishing in broad daylight – this was 115 colonists in an unforgiving environment, the site of previous colonization failures, surrounded by hostile natives and ill-equipped to make a stand. That something happened to them is really not surprising at all.

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