One hundred and seventeen colonists vanish in America’s oldest mystery. Ivor Noel Hume tells the story of the Lost Colony.
Harmony Hunter: You could argue that one of America's oldest stories is a detective story. In 1584, in an effort to compete with Spain for New World gold, English explorers pointed their ships towards America, headed for a small island off the coast of North Carolina. Three years later, in 1587, an entire colony vanished from that island, leaving just one clue to their disappearance.
Those unlucky settlers have come to be known as the Lost Colony. Historian and archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume is one of the foremost researchers of the site today, and this is what he has to say about what happened on Roanoke Island.
Noel Hume: It began in 1584 when two ships were sent over by Sir Walter Raleigh and Captains Amedus and Barlowe. They landed on the Outer Banks, and they met an Indian named Manteo, who they actually took back to England. They went back and they said that this country is really rich for the taking. Now, they didn’t really know what that meant, but they thought perhaps that the Indians were wearing gold in their headdresses and so on.
And so, in 1585, Raleigh financed an expedition to make a settlement, and it was led by Sir Richard Greenville, who was a very forceful, almost privateering sort of guy. He took with him a man called Ralph Lane, who was to be governor of whatever it is they established. They also took a guy called John White, and John White was an artist, and he drew everything that he saw while he was there. Those drawings eventually went back to England and provided really all we know about the physical appearance of the Indians at the time.
But, the English fell out with the various tribes that were around Roanoke Island. When you cut off other guys’ heads and things like that, then the other guys try to starve you out. So after six or eight months, the English had decided they wanted to go home. They had no food, the Indians weren’t helping them, they were in a confrontational relationship with the Indians. So they simply said they’d had enough.
After the English left -- under Lane – Greenville returns to bring supplies. Finds them gone, finds one white guy hanging, and one Indian. And there was nobody else around.
Harmony: So they found the bodies of two hanged men, you’re saying.
Noel: Yes. Who hanged them, we don’t know.
Harmony: Thus ended the first attempt: in failure.
Noel: That was the end of the first attempt, yes. But when Greenville is back there in August, I guess it was July, of ’86, he left a small number of soldiers – some say 13, some say 16 – to hold onto the settlement, keep their foot in the door. Those were attacked by the Indians. Their storehouse was burnt down, they fled to their boats and were never seen again. Such information we have comes actually from Manteo. So much of what he said was a result of gossip.
Anyway, in ’87, Raleigh tries again. 1587. This is the Lost Colony. They come over. This time, it’s under John White, John White the artist.
Harmony: The illustrator from the first voyage.
Noel: Yes. He is a somewhat indecisive leader. Once they’ve arrived, his council suggests it would be a good idea for him to go back and get some more supplies. This seemed a little strange. They’ve only just arrived, and they’re sending the leader – your boss – back. And the boss agreeing to go.
After he has left the colonists, and we don’t know what they were doing while they were there, presumably, but they did rebuild a fort. But it was a different sort of fort to the first one.
After he went back in ’87, England was tied up with the expected Spanish invasion – the Armada of 1588. Everything ground to a halt at that point. Nobody was in the mood to do anything about the Lost Colony people. Of course, they didn’t know they were lost at that point. They just were over there, out of mind.
And, White then endeavored to raise money to go back to reinforce the colony. Nobody was interested. So he finally got a passage aboard a privateer called ‘The Moonlight” which was going down into the Caribbean, to see if he could knock off some Spaniards, or rather, their gold. Finally, very reluctantly, they brought him up to Roanoke Island. There he found them gone. They found nobody.
All that White finds is a carving on a tree, that says “Cro.” Then, when he goes to the fort gate, he finds the word “croatoan” spelled out on the fort gate. White had told them, when he went back to England, if they had got into trouble, they were to write where they had gone, and to put a cross under it to indicate if there was trouble. So when he comes back, he finds “cro” and then he finds the full name written out on the fort gate. But there’s no cross. So, that’s the end of that story as far as we know.
Harmony: And this is the last fact that is known about the Lost Colony: when White came back, 117 men, women, and children had vanished. They left two clues, or maybe just the same clue, twice: the word Croatan.
Croatan was the island where the colonist's old friend Manteo was from, but no one knows if that's where the colonists went, since they were never seen again, and no archaeological evidence of them was found there. Some suspect that the colonists were assimilated into local tribes.
In the centuries since, archaeologists both amateur and professional have explored Roanoke island in search of the remains of the settlement, and they've found some evidence of those first English inhabitants. But on a coastal island of shifting dunes and tides, no trace of a fort has ever been found, and likely never will be.