Taking into account the unfamiliar territory and the unknown reaction of the native people to English settlement on nearby land it would seem that the Roanoke Island settlement was doomed from the start. So why has this story persisted over the years as one of the most intriguing disappearances of American history?
In 1584 the explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe discovered Roanoke Island and upon their return to England their reports of the island created much interest in settling the untamed land. Initially sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to scout the area it was decided that he should be granted land patents to all the land he could occupy by Queen Elizabeth. Sir Walter Raleigh then sent 100 soldiers and craftsmen to Roanoke to establish the first English settlement in America. However, arriving too late to plant crops and with not near enough supplies the settlement abandoned their land in 1586. To make matters worse the leader of the settlement, Ralph Lane, killed the nearby Indian Chief over a stolen cup.
Undaunted Raleigh sent a second group to settle in 1587. Led by John White the settlement picked up where the other left off. Rebuilding the fort and taming the land it looked like there was nothing to worry about for the 117 new settlers. John White, returning to England for much needed supplies, left his daughter Eleanor Dare and his Granddaughter Virginia born on August 18, 1587 behind to continue to work the land. He did not know this was to be the last time he would see his family. Upon returning to England he was trapped for two years while England defeated the Spanish Armada.
August 18, 1590, his granddaughter’s third birthday, marked John White’s return to Roanoke. What he found was an abandoned island with no sign of life. The fort, additionally fortified, was left with no one to watch over it. Carved into one of the beams was the word “CROATOAN.” White took this to mean that the settlers had moved inland to a tribe of Indians friendly to them. However, no sign of the settlers was ever found. Also before he departed White had instructed the settlers to carve a cross along their path if they were forced to leave. No cross was ever found. Due to a hurricane White was forced to abandon his search and return to England never knowing the fate of his family.
What happened to the settlers? If they were ambushed and massacred by local tribes there should have been some evidence of bodies, none was found. If they had fled inland then the cross should have been visible to guide the way but all that was found was “CROATOAN” carved on a beam and “CRO” carved on a nearby tree. Were they forced to leave by fear or starvation? Many people have surmised that they fled to the friendly tribe and then were assimilated or even that they were living nearby at other settlements. However, no sign of the colonists was ever located. It would seem that the Island swallowed up the first settlers in America never to be seen again. Over four hundred years later no answer is forthcoming to what exactly happened to 117 people in the untamed American wilderness.