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Lost Colony of Roanoke

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Lost Colony of Roanoke

The lost colony of Roanoke was the first attempt by England to establish a permanent settlement in the New World. However, the colony failed for unknown reasons, and around 115 men, women, and children vanished. There is little evidence of why they disappeared or what happened to the settlement.

The lost colony of Roanoke provides an excellent case study into how historians investigate past events. What do historians think happened?

Summary of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island

While Spain expanded and consolidated its empire in Mexico and other parts of Central and South America during the sixteenth century, other European countries began to contact the New World. Most Northern European nations established forts and trading posts to profit from trading with the Indigenous peoples. The trading posts were permanent settlements, but they were not intended as entry points for a large-scale European migration into North America.

New World: The Continents of the Western Hemisphere, North and South America.

Old World: The Continents known before the expedition of Christopher Columbus in 1492, Africa, Asia, and Europe.

A plate print of Sir Walter Raleigh for his book "History of the World", 1617.

In the 1580s, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and his half-brother Sir Walter Raleigh hoped to establish American outposts that would trade with Native Americans for gold and silver, spread the message of Christianity, and serve as stopping points along sea routes to Asia. The deteriorating relationship between England and Spain in the late 1500s influenced their reasoning.

The relationship between Spain and England began to decay in 1533 when the King of England, Henry VIII, divorced his Spanish Queen Catherine of Aragon because she had not produced a male heir to the throne. Over the following decades, Henry VIII had conflicts with the Catholic Church, eventually leading him to leave the Catholic Church and found the Church of England. These acts appalled the devout Spanish Catholics.

Henry VIII attempted to mend the relationship between Spain and England by arranging the marriage of his daughter Mary to Philip II of Spain. Still, she died in 1558 childless, allowing Elizabeth I (a protestant) to ascend to the throne. Though not always at war, England and Spain were bitter enemies. How did Sir Gilbert and Sir Raleigh use these tensions to their advantage?

They argued to Queen Elizabeth I that New World settlements could serve as bases for attacks on New Spain (Spanish territories in North America), Mexico, and Central America. Moreover, the potential for wealth gained through trade and raiding Spanish colonies and vessels from these outposts appeared to hold enormous promise and the Queen granted the two men a charter to colonize North America.

Gilbert attempted but failed to establish a colony in Newfoundland, dying in the attempt. Raleigh was only briefly more successful. He tried and failed to establish a colony on Roanoke Island in Virginia (after Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen), present-day North Carolina.

Three voyages went to Roanoke

The first in 1584 was led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore the area.

In 1585, Raleigh sponsored a colonization attempt, but this failed due to conflict with Indigenous tribes.

In 1587, another attempt at colonization also failed. Raleigh sent whole families with John White as the colony’s first governor; around 115 colonists, including 17 women and around nine children, lived on Roanoke Island.

White returned to England in 1587 to update Walter Raleigh on the colony and obtain supplies. However, attempting to invade England in 1588, the Spanish Armada delayed the ships' return to the settlement. By the time White finally arrived in 1590, the colonists had vanished without a trace, including his daughter Eleanor Dare and her daughter Virginia- the first English child born in America.

After the failure of the 1585 colonization attempt, Raleigh had decided that the colony should instead be set up in the Chesapeake Bay. However, the ship's pilot, Simon Fernandes, dropped the group off at Roanoke Island, refusing to take them any further.

The failure of Raleigh’s attempt to colonize Virginia ended English efforts at settlement for close to two decades. Three years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, her successor James I would begin to charter Joint-Stock companies that would again try to establish colonies in the New World.

Joint Stock Companies: Forerunners to modern “corporations”. These were companies created during the sixteenth century for pooling resources of a large number of small investors through the sale of stock in the company.

Lost Colony of Roanoke Location

Roanoke Island is located in North Carolina and the Outer Banks. The map shows the island protected by larger barrier islands to the east and surrounded by many Indigenous tribes in 1585, such as the Croatan and Secotan. Both tribes play active roles in the leading theories surrounding the settlement.

Lost Colony of Roanoke Theories

There is little primary evidence of what happened to the colonists at Roanoke. The available sources include:

  • The journals of John White

  • Archaeological digs from nearby Indigenous settlements

  • Stone carvings

  • A report by scientist and participant in the second Roanoke voyage, Thomas Hariot

  • A journal from governor Ralph Lane

These sources are sparse in the information about what happened to the colony between 1587 and 1590, but they offer the only primary evidence of situations, environment, and relationships influencing the settlement.

The lack of evidence makes the disappearance of the settlers of Roanoke a historical mystery. Let’s explore some of the most popular theories based on these primary sources and archaeological evidence.

Lost Colony of Roanoke: Disease Theory

Some historians believe that the colonists were affected by a New World disease that they had not encountered in England. An infection in a small settlement, according to researchers, could quickly cause a crisis as it spread, leading to the abandonment of the settlement. If the disease spread fast enough, many colonists would have perished, and the others would have been forced to find a new place to settle or seek assistance from nearby Indigenous tribes.

Historian Peter Miles, comparing the writings of Thomas Hariot and the report of John Smith, an early leader of Jamestown, concludes that the disease was most likely influenza. Hariot recorded colonists' symptoms, how deadly the disease was, and how it spread.

Lost Colony of Roanoke: Crisis and Displacement Theory

Dovetailing with the disease theory is the crisis and displacement theory that some unknown crisis hit the colony. The best survival method would have been to disperse into smaller groups to sustain nutrition better, find shelter, and seek aid in these circumstances. The crisis could have been from disease, storms, conflicts with Indigenous tribes, or a lack of food.

Lost Colony of Roanoke: Drought and Lack of Food Theory

The colonists' area was in one of the worst droughts in geologic history. This environment would have made it difficult for the settlers to produce enough food to support 115 people. The delay in the return of John White and the supply ship in 1588 would have worsened this issue. Again, this crisis would have caused the settlers to react by either relocating or assimilating into nearby Indigenous tribes.

Assimilation: The process of “becoming similar”/being absorbed into the dominant cultural group.

Lost Colony of Roanoke: Assimilation Theory

Some historians believe that the colonists sought assistance from nearby Indigenous tribes as a crisis hit the colony. The leading approach is that the colonists would have traveled south to Hatteras island, to the Croatoan People, with whom they had a good trading relationship. There is some evidence to suggest this.

Historian Cindy Padget (1997) notes in her study of the local Indigenous peoples and John White's journals that even John White believed the colonists had migrated to a peaceful tribe:

In August 1590, White returned to the colony to find nothing. His people had vanished, the cabins were deserted, and the fields overgrown. The only sign of the Englishmen were the letters 'C R O' carved into a tree trunk, and the word 'CROATOAN' etched in a fence post [...] Surprisingly White did not panic or fear the worst. Upon his departure, he and the colonists agreed ‘that Roanoke Island was not an ideal site for a settlement,’ and so if they were faced with great distress’ they would so designate by carving a Maltese cross on some visible object. White found the letters [...] but no cross. White took this to mean the settlers had gone with an Indian friend of the settlers to Croatoan, an island south of Roanoke.

Historian Karenne Wood notes in her article “The Roanoke Colony” (2012) that later settlers met “gray-eyed, blonde Indians” as well as later archaeological excavations that unearthed a lion-crest gold ring in the Croatoan village site.

Both pieces of evidence suggest that some of the colonists may have joined these local tribes. Some historians, such as Eric Klingelhofer (2021) at Mercer University, believe that the English settlers would have been too numerous to assimilate into one tribe, as they could not support themselves and the settlers.

No single Indian tribe or village could have supported them. They would be even larger than some villages.

Lost Colony of Roanoke: The Annihilation Theory

The final theory is that a local Indigenous tribe wiped out the settlers. What is the evidence to support this?

Supporting evidenceConflicting evidence
  • When the English arrived in 1587, the Secotan and Croatoan tribes had conflicts over land and resources.

  • As the English began to trade and build a relationship with the Hatteras tribe, the Secotan tribe could have seen this as a threat and moved quickly and violently against the English.

  • The group of settlers was not a military expedition: it was families with women and children as well as men, with little military experience.

  • Upon John White’s arrival back to the colony, based on his own accounts, there was no evidence of conflict.

  • There were no bodies or evidence of weaponry- colonial or indigenous.

  • All the structures were intact, meaning the village was not burned or destroyed.

  • Other colonists who settled in the area were not attacked.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke - Key Takeaways

  • Influenced by the relationship between Spain and England and the desire to begin trading with Native Americans in North America, Sir Humphery Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh funded expeditions to North America.

  • Walter Raleigh attempted to colonize Roanoke Island and sent around 115 settlers, including women and children, to settle on the island in what is today North Carolina.

  • These settlers included John White, the settlement's first governor, and his family. His daughter Eleanor Dare gave birth to the first English baby born in North America.

  • John White departed in 1587 to return to England for supplies but was delayed by the Spanish Armada attempting to invade England. Upon returning to the territory in 1590, he found the settlement deserted.

  • Historians still debate the reason for the colony's disappearance. The leading theories are disease, or some crisis, forcing the colonists to abandon their settlement and join friendly Indigenous tribes for survival, such as the Croatoan.

Frequently Asked Questions about Lost Colony of Roanoke

The lost colony of Roanoke was one of the first attempts by the English to establish a permanent settlement in North America in 1587. Funded by Sir Walter Raleigh, its intention was to trade with native Americans for gold and silver and to be used as an outpost to raid Spanish colonies and vessels. It mysteriously vanished.

Something occurred between 1587 and 1590 in the settlement of Roanoke that caused all the settlers to vanish with very little evidence as to why. To this day there are many competing theories on what caused this disappearance. Due to the lack of historical evidence, the reason why they disappeared has yet to be conclusively proven.

The colony of Roanoke was established on an island off the coast of what is now North Carolina, in what is known as the Outer Banks. It is approximately 40 miles north of Hatteras Island. 

To this day there are many competing theories as to what caused this disappearance. The most prominent theory is that disease or famine impacted the colony and forced the settlers to seek assistance from friendly Indigenous tribes, such as the Croatoan. 

The colony of Roanoke was established in the late sixteenth century, during the early time period of English exploration into the New World. The location for the colony was explored in 1585, and the colony itself lasted approximately from 1587 to 1590. This occurred before the use of Joint-Stock companies to fund ventures in the New World. 

Final Lost Colony of Roanoke Quiz


What year was the colony of Roanoke founded?

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Which of the following was NOT the purpose of founding the colony of Roanoke?

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Religious Freedom

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 What is the most prominent theory about what happened to the colonist of Roanoke? 

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The colonists were influenced to leave the colony as it was struck by disease and went to seek assistance from local native Americans. 

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What was a lasting effect of the loss of the Roanoke Colony?

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The loss of the colony and lack of return on investment saw England not attempt to colonize for another twenty years

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What was the cause of the delay of John White’s ship back to Roanoke in 1588?

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The Spanish fleet was attempting to attack and invade England

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Who was the main benefactor of the Colony of Roanoke?

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Sir Walter Raleigh

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At the time of the settlement of Roanoke, which European nation was benefiting the most from colonization of the New World?

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Who attempted to fund a settlement in present-day Newfoundland, but had the settlement fail? 

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Sir Humphery Gilbert

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Who was the first white settler born in North America, the daughter of John White? 

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Virginia Dare

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True or False: Upon his return to Roanoke, John White recorded in his journal that the colony showed no evidence of conflict. 

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