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Lost Colonies

July 2019

There were at least 20 European settlements in North America before the famous landing on Plymouth Rock in 1620.

1.    VINLAND, ca. 1000    1
2.    CAPARRA, 1508    1
3.    SAN MIGUEL DE GUADALUPE, 1526    1
4.    STADACONA (Quebec), 1535    2
5.    Hochelaga (Montreal), 1535    2
6.    CHARLESBOURG-ROYAL, 1541    2
7.    PENSACOLA, 1559    2
8.    CHARLESFORT, 1562    3
9.    FORT CAROLINE, 1564    3
10.    ST. AUGUSTINE, 1565    3
11.    SANTA ELENA, 1566    3
12.    SPANISH VIRGINIA, 1570-72    4
13.    ROANOKE, 1585-7    4
14.    SABLE ISLAND, 1598    4
15.    TADOUSSAC, 1599    4
16.    ACADIA (SAINT CROIX ISLAND), 1604    5
17.    PORT ROYAL (NOVA SCOTIA), 1605-7    5
18.    JAMESTOWN, 1607    5
19.    POPHAM (MAINE), 1607    5
20.    QUEBEC, 1608    6
21.    SANTA FE, 1608    6

The 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 1607 revived interest in early North American beginnings, but few people know about these “lost settlements.” In the century after Columbus arrived in 1492, European countries watched enviously as Spain grew rich from the treasure fleets of gold and silver, and schemed about establishing their own colonies in the New World. But France was preoccupied with brutal civil wars, and England had not yet established itself as a maritime power. That would soon change.  

1. VINLAND (Newfoundland), ca. 1000

Recreated Norse long house, L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson, PhD.
A recreated Norse long house at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland,  and Labrador, Canada. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson, PhD.

The first European settlers in North America were probably Vikings. While the location of the Vinland settlement mentioned in Norse accounts remains in great dispute among historians, archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad discovered and excavated a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland during the 1960s and 1970s. Carbon dating indicates that it was occupied around 1000 CE.

2. CAPARRA (Puerto Rico), 1508

The foundation of Ponce de Leon's house was excavated at Caparra.
The foundation of Ponce de Leon's house was excavated at Caparra.

The earliest European settlement in territory under U.S.  jurisdiction was at Caparra in Puerto Rico. Built by the island’s first governor, Ponce de Leon (who later discovered Florida while reportedly looking for the fountain of youth), the settlement was moved in 1521 to a new town they named San Juan. The Caparra archaeological site in what is now Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1994 and includes the foundations of Ponce de Leon’s home.

3. SAN MIGUEL DE GUADALUPE (South Carolina), 1526

A native king and queen join in a procession to welcome Vasquez.
John Carter Brown Library.

In the summer of 1526 King Charles I of Spain ordered Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón to explore the Carolina area. He founded a settlement called San Miguel de Guadalupe at the mouth of what is now the Pee Dee River at Winyah Bay in South Carolina. The colony was abandoned a few months later, after Ayllón and many others died in a fever epidemic. The Dutch engraver Arnoldus Montanus published an engraving of the king and queen of the local native Americans wh met with Vasquez de Ayllon at San Miguel de Guadalupe. are described; dressed mostly in pearls and not much else, they were accompanied by their subjects.

4. STADACONA (Quebec), 1535

French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River in 1535 looking for riches and a new route to Asia. In September he decided to spend the winter at the mouth of the Saint-Charles River near Stadacona, a village or “kanata” in the Iroquoian language (origin of the name Canada.)  There, in what is now in the heart of Québec City, some 500 Native Americans hunted, fished, and cultivated corn, squash, and beans. The French were ill-equipped to survive the bitter cold, however, and scurvy and starvation wiped out many of them. The survivors returned to France the following spring.

5. HOCHELAGA (Montreal), 1535

Hochelaga was a St. Lawrence Iroquoian 16th century fortified village on or near Mount Royal in present-day Montréal, Québec, Canada. Jacques Cartier arrived by boat on October 2, 1535; he visited the village on the following day. He was greeted well by the Iroquoians, and named the mountain he saw nearby Mount Royal.[2] Several names in and around Montréal and the Hochelaga Archipelago can be traced back to him.

6. CHARLESBOURG-ROYAL (Quebec), 1541

Cartier returned six years later with five ships to found a new colony, which he named Charlesbourg-Royal, a few miles west of the earlier Stadacona site. The settlers planted crops and built two forts, but again the winter was hard. Scurvy and hostile Indians took their toll. In June 1543 the colonists returned home, ending France’s earliest efforts at settling North America. 

7. PENSACOLA (Florida), 1559

The first Spanish attempt to colonize North America was a serious affair. A fleet of 13 ships led by Tristán de Luna y Arellano brought 1,500 soldiers and settlers to what is now Pensacola Bay on August 15, 1559, and established a settlement named Puerta de Santa María. Most of the colonists’ food supplies were still aboard the ships a month later when a hurricane wrecked the fleet on September 19. Without food, stranded on dry beaches where crops couldn’t grow, the expedition sent groups north to search for food. Traces of 16th-century Spanish armor were recently discovered in northwest Georgia, presumably at what was once an encampment of some of de Luna’s men. The last of the survivors were evacuated in 1561 and the colony abandoned.

8. CHARLESFORT (South Carolina), 1562

French explorer Jean Ribault led a 150-man expedition that mapped and claimed much of what is now the coast of the Southeast U.S. Ribault built a settlement of French Huguenots named Charlesfort on what is now Parris Island, near Beaufort, South Carolina. He sailed back to France to announce his triumphs, promising the 27 men left behind that he would return in six months with supplies and more settlers. But religious civil war in France forced Ribault to flee to England, where he was imprisoned as a spy. The settlers at Charlesfort had not planted crops and were starving to death after a fire destroyed their supplies. With help from Orista Indians, the men built a ship and tried to return to France the following spring. They were said to have eaten leather shoes and jackets to survive and eventually were so starved they held a lottery and ate the loser. They were finally rescued by an English ship. Several years later, the Spanish resettled Charlesfort and renamed it Santa Elena. 

9. FORT CAROLINE (Florida), 1564

years later, Jean Ribault sent an expedition led by René Goulaine de Laudonnière that established Fort Caroline on Florida’s east coast, north of what is now Jacksonville. Intended as a haven for Huguenot Protestants, Fort Caroline was seen by the Spanish as a town of heretics from which treasure ships returning to Spain could be attacked. The Spanish king dispatched Admiral Pedro Menéndez to deal with the threat. He established St. Augustine as a base of operations in September, 1565, and marched north with 500 soldiers to attack the weakly guarded colony. He caught the French by surprise and murdered all the men from the settlement he could catch. The women and children were sent into slavery.

10. ST. AUGUSTINE (Florida), 1565

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

St. Augustine is the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States. Menéndez named the settlement San Agustín because he first sighted the land on August 28, 1565, the feast day of Augustine of Hippo. A child born there one year later was the first child of European ancestry born in what is now the continental U.S. African-Americans were recorded in the Spanish colony at least 13 years before the conventional wisdom says the first blacks arrived in America at Jamestown in 1619. St. Augustine was attacked and burned by English privateer Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and later by English forces in 1668, 1702, and 1740.  

11. SANTA ELENA, 1566

Established on the site of the former French settlement of Charlesfort, Santa Elena was the first capital of Spanish Florida from 1566 until 1587, with several hundred inhabitants. The Spanish never acknowledged that the French were at the site four years before, but in 1982 archaeologist Stanley South found sherds of French pottery as well as Spanish majolica and redware at the site of Fort San Felipe, which guarded the town of Santa Elena. Visitors can see the National Historic Landmark on the Parris Island Marine Corps facility and visit a museum with exhibits featuring the Charlesfort and Santa Elena settlements.


In 1570, the Spanish established an outlying settlement on the Chesapeake Bay called Ajacàn, probably on the York River. This settlement, led by the Jesuit Juan Baptista de Segura, served both as a place of refuge for Spanish ships traveling to and from the New World and as a mission to convert the native peoples. After Indians attacked Ajacàn, the Spanish decided to abandon it.

13. ROANOKE, 1585-7

Sir Walter Raleigh and others tried to organize and establish the first English settlement in what is now North Carolina, but many settlers chose to return to England. The final group of colonists disappeared after three years without resupply from England during the Anglo-Spanish War, leading to the continuing mystery known as “The Lost Colony.”

14. SABLE ISLAND, 1598

Surrounded by miles of treacherous sand bars, remote Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia was a poor choice for a colony. Only a few of the settlers in 1598 survived. Photo courtesy of Friends of Sable Island.
Surrounded by miles of treacherous sand bars, Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia was a poor choice for a colony. Only a few of the settlers in 1598 survived. Photo courtesy of Friends of Sable Island.

The French Marquis de la Roche tried to settle Sable Island, a desolate, 20-mile long island about a hundred miles off the coast of Nova Scotia.  It was an odd place to try to start a colony, with no harbor, poor soil, and inhospitable climate. The assortment of colonists, mostly French ex-convicts, built a storehouse and dwellings, but only 11 out of some 50 survived.

15. TADOUSSAC, 1599

The French established a trading post at Tadoussac on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River near the mouth of the Saguenay in 1599, but only 5 of 16 men survived the first winter. The oldest surviving French settlement in the Americas, Tadoussac today has a population approaching 900. Visitors can see the oldest wooden church in Canada and the U.S., and the reconstructed original trading post.


French nobleman Pierre Du Gua de Monts established a settlement on a 6.5-acre island at the mouth of the river that forms part of the International Boundary separating Maine from New Brunswick. Marooned on the tiny island with little food, no fresh water, and scant wood for fires, half the colonists died in the first year. Recent excavations produced forensic evidence that the deaths were largely due to scurvy. The following spring, Samuel de Champlain moved the settlement across the Bay of Fundy to Port-Royal.


Port Royal was reconstructed in 19__. Photo by Edwin S. Grosvenor.
Port Royal was reconstructed in 19__. Photo by Edwin S. Grosvenor.

Founded by French explorers Pierre Dugua and Samuel de Champlain, Port Royal is located on the eastern shore of the Bay of Fundy, near the town of Annapolis Royal in what is now Nova Scotia. The original settlement was burned in 1613 by an English invasion force from Virginia led by sea captain Samuel Argall. Rebuilt by the French, Port Royal served as a safe harbor and staging point for attacks on the New England colonies. In 1690, Port Royal was destroyed by an English force under the command of William Phips.

18. JAMESTOWN, 1607

After the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Treaty of London of 1604 concluded the 19-year Anglo-Spanish War and allowed the English to begin efforts to mount their own colonies in the New World. Jamestown, commonly regarded as the first permanent English settlement in what is now the U.S., was founded by the London Company (later to become the Virginia Company), which had been set up to finance and manage the new colonies. Despite the strong leadership of John Smith and others, the Colony’s survival was threatened by a poor water supply, crop failures, frequent Indian attacks, and the lack of profitable exports. Its fortunes improved in 1612 when colonist John Rolfe introduced a strain of tobacco that could be successfully grown and exported. Rolfe later married Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indians. Jamestown was the capital of the Colony of Virginia for 83 years, from 1616 until 1699, when the seat of government was relocated to Williamsburg.  Jamestown ceased to exist as a settlement and today is a National Historic Site and ongoing archaeological dig managed by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Jamestown’s only fulltime residents are lead archeologist William Kelso and his wife.
19. POPHAM (MAINE), 1607
The Popham (or Sagadahoc) Colony was a short-lived English colonial settlement founded in 1607 and located in the present-day town of Phippsburg, Maine, near the mouth of the Kennebec River. Founded by the Virginia Company a few months after its more successful rival, Jamestown, the Popham Colony was the first English colony in the region that would eventually become known as New England. It was abandoned after only one year even though the loss of life at Popham was far lower than at Jamestown. The first ship built by the English in the New World was completed at Popham Colony and sailed back to England. The little pinnace crossed the Atlantic again in 1609 as part of Sir Christopher Newport’s rescue mission to resupply Jamestown. The exact site of the Popham Colony was lost until its rediscovery in 1994. The site can now be visited in Maine’s Popham Beach State Park.
20. QUEBEC, 1608
When Samuel de Champlain returned to French Canada in 1608 the village of Stadacona no longer existed, but he founded the permanent town of Québec nearby. Learning from mistakes of earlier settlements, Champlain emphasized better management. [need more on Quebec] 
21. SANTA FE, 1608
Generally considered the oldest capital in the United States and the third-oldest surviving town after St. Augustine and Jamestown, Santa Fe was formally founded in 1608 and made a capital in 1610. However, settlers who did not leave a record were probably in the area long before that. The explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado had first claimed the “Kingdom of New Mexico” for the Spanish Crown in 1540 when he traveled to the Grand Canyon and reached the Great Plains beyond. Don Juan de Oñate was appointed first Governor of the province in 1598 and established his capital near the San Juan Pueblo, 25 miles north of modern Santa Fe. New Mexico’s third governor, Don Pedro de Peralta, founded the city and gave it its full name, “La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís”, or “The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.”