The Place That Should Be Famous: The Lost Colony at Roanoke

Mysterious disappearances have always gripped public imagination, from the Bermuda Triangle to the vanished crew of the Marie Celeste.

However, many people have never heard of Roanoke Colony, an attempt to set up an English presence in the Virginia Colony (now modern-day North Carolina in the US).

The ‘Lost Colony’ at Roanoke deserves its place in history – it was the brainchild of Sir Walter Raleigh, and is believed to be the place from where tobacco and potatoes were brought to Europe by Sir Francis Drake.

So why is its name unfamiliar to so many people – and what actually happened there?

First Contact with the New World

The Roanoke Colony was established in August 1585, after over a year of exploratory expeditions from England to the east coast of the US.

Raleigh arranged the missions – Queen Elizabeth had granted him the right to colonise the area then known as Virginia, but only on the proviso that he established a permanent English colony there – but he never actually sailed to the region in person.

The timeline of the Roanoke Colony soon gets messy, though. From August 1585, a group of over 100 men were left by Sir Richard Grenville with orders to construct a fort and protect Raleigh’s claim to Virginia.

Fighting with the local indigenous tribes soon followed, and may have been one reason why the colonists were quick to accept Sir Francis Drake’s offer of a lift back to England when he sailed by in 1586.

Grenville arrived at Roanoke soon after, and again left a group of men to maintain an English presence there.

There are no reports of anyone hitching a lift this time but, in 1587, a further detachment of would-be colonists found Roanoke deserted, apart from the gruesome sight of a single skeleton.

Around 115 men, women and children, led by Raleigh’s friend John White, were forced to stay behind by the fleet commander Simon Fernandez, to re-establish an English presence… again.

Further hostilities led White to set sail for England late in the year, but the Spanish Armada in 1588 meant he was unable to return to Roanoke, the colony, and his newborn granddaughter Virginia Dare.

Three Years Later…

Are you still following this? So far we’ve had one deliberate desertion by the colonists, and one grisly discovery of a skeletal guardsman. But it gets even more interesting…

It was August 1590 before White was able to return to the Roanoke Colony and, for the third time, it was found to be empty.

This time there were no reports of escape by sea, and no signs of a struggle – houses had been carefully dismantled, and no warning signs had been carved into nearby trees, as had been agreed in the event of an attack.

So, where were the colonists?

The simple answer is that nobody knows – some historians think the colonists were probably killed by cannibals, but that doesn’t tally with the lack of disturbance seen at the site.

It’s likely that they chose to move for some reason, but again nobody is sure why.

Perhaps they tried to sail back to England, and were shipwrecked along the way; perhaps they moved elsewhere on the east coast of the US and were killed later on; perhaps they joined local indigenous tribes.

This last option is at least supported by some scant evidence, such as European-style stone buildings seen constructed by the local tribes in the following years, but the colonists themselves were never found.

The Lost Colony’s Legacy

The Roanoke Colony, and Sir Walter Raleigh, are commemorated in the region in honour of their roles in the early origins of what is now North Carolina.

Raleigh, the state capital of North Carolina, was named after the knight in 1792 and is the second-largest city in the state.

Meanwhile, on Roanoke Island, the site of the Lost Colony, the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site commemorates the colonists – whatever happened to them in the end.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.