Roanoke’s Lost Colony Found?

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One hot august day in 1590, the heavily armed privateer Hopewell dropped anchor off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. John White had returned to resupply the 118 men, women, and children whom he had left on Roanoke Island three long years earlier.Sweating and cursing the humidity, White and his men left their ship and rowed toward the island. Crewmen sounded familiar tunes on trumpets to alert the colonists, but not a single human figure was seen. Only the endless beating of waves along the shore and wind gusting through the tall pines met their calls.

The landing party made its way through the woods to the settlement at the island’s northern end. Bracing himself for the worst, White entered the clearing where he had parted from the colonists, including his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and baby granddaughter, Virginia.

He found the settlement deserted, weeds and vines sprouting where houses had once stood. The houses themselves had been carefully dismantled and removed. Gone, too, were the fort’s small cannon; buried chests were found, containing some of the colonists’ possessions (including White’s). All the evidence suggested a planned and orderly withdrawal.

Cut into the bark of a tree, White discovered the letters CRO. On a post at the entrance to the stockade, someone had carved “in fayre” capitals the word “CROATOAN,” which gave him reason to believe that the colonists had left for the island of that name 50 miles to the south, inhabited by friendly Indians. White pleaded with the Hopewell ’s captain, Abraham Cocke, to sail for Croatoan the next day.

Overnight, a great storm blew up and snapped their anchor cables, nearly driving the Hopewell onto the reefs lining the Outer Banks. With his anchors gone, provisions dwindling, and a tempest that showed no signs of abating, Cocke decided to head out to winter in the West Indies, then return in the spring. But continuing gales forced the ship far into the ocean, persuading him to set a course for the Azores and then back to England. The bitterly disappointed White knew that it was highly probable that he would never see his family, friends, and fellow venturers again.

The story of the Lost Colony has fascinated people across four centuries and remains one of the enduring mysteries of early America, memorialized in pageants and works of history and fiction. Did the colonists move to Croatoan Island and live with the Indians, as White believed, or did they settle elsewhere? Where did they go, and what happened to them? A new interpretation of the evidence suggests that the prevailing explanation may be wrong.

More than 30 years ago, the eminent British historian David Beers Quinn advanced the most widely accepted modern theory, arguing that the majority of colonists moved north to the Chesapeake Bay, leaving a small party on Roanoke to await White’s return. In the spring of 1588, this small contingent packed up, carved their messages, and moved to Croatoan Island. Meanwhile, the main group went to live with the Chesapeake Indians, either at Chesepiooc or the principal town of Skicoak, intermarrying and raising families in ignorance of the fate of the Roanoke Island party and of White’s eventual return.

Quinn assumes that Croatoan lacked the resources to support the whole colony. The majority, he argued, favored a move to the southern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where they had originally planned to settle and where they believed the Chesapeake would welcome them into their community.

He drew primarily on at least second-hand reports from the Jamestown colonists who settled Virginia two decades later. William Strachey, who arrived in 1610, soon wrote an account of the already Lost Colony in which he stated that the “men women, and Children of the first plantation at Roanoak” lived with the Indians for 20 years but were then exterminated by the Powhatan, a powerful people who were expanding their rule over Tidewater Virginia. Strachey noted that Indian priests had warned their paramount chief, Powhatan, against a nation that would arise from the Chesapeake Bay and destroy his empire. This “divelish Oracle,” wrote Strachey, persuaded Powhatan to destroy the objects of the prophecy, namely the Chesapeake and the descendents of the Lost Colony who lived near the entrance to the bay. Strachey believed that the slaughter occurred about the time that three English ships entered the Chesapeake Bay to found Jamestown.

Yet there are serious flaws in Quinn’s argument. If the main group of Roanoke colonists knew all along that their ultimate destination lay northward on the Chesapeake Bay, then why didn’t they specify a rendezvous with White before he sailed home, instead of arranging for him to return to Roanoke Island? Furthermore, they must have known that the way north was difficult, Currituck Sound being described by a contemporary as “very shallow and most dangerous.” Sailing along the coast would have been equally hazardous, given the uncertain weather and prevailing offshore currents. Without large boats, it would have taken several journeys to transport the entire group.

Most important, nothing in Strachey’s writings or those of any other Jamestown settler connects the lost colonists to the Chesapeake. In fact, Strachey explicitly states that the colonists were killed “far from him [Powhatan], and in the Territory of those Weroances [chiefs] which did in no sort depend on him, or acknowledge him.” Whomever the lost colonists went to live with after they left Roanoke Island, it was not the Chesapeake.