Archaeologists Investigate America's Oldest Mystery: The "Lost Colony" Of Sir Walter Raleigh

The mystery that isn't a mystery. Image credit: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock

Archaeologists are to investigate the "lost colony" of Sir Walter Raleigh, searching for more clues as to what happened on Roanoke Island over 400 years ago. 

In 1587, colonizers from England – sent by Raleigh and led by John White – landed on Roanoke Island just off the eastern coast of North America, in what is now Dare County, North Carolina. It was the second attempt to set up a permanent colony, the first having failed two years before.

During the first year of the second attempt, it became clear that the English settlers would need more resources and people to make a success of the project. Among the problems was a troubled relationship with nearby indigenous tribes, which saw one of the colonists killed within days of arrival while hunting crabs.

White set sail for England once more to request extra help, leaving his family behind on the island. Disaster struck when the escalating war with Spain meant that he was unable to get himself a ship back with the extra help in tow.

It wasn't until three years later that he was finally able to return to the island. When he got there, he and his crew found that the island was abandoned. They were completely alone, with no indication of what had happened to his family or the rest of the colony, bar one: the word "CROATOAN" and the letters "CRO" carved into trees at the border of the colony.

There were no graves and no bodies to indicate anything had gone wrong.

The First Colony Foundation, a group of archaeologists, has now partnered with the National Park Service to investigate "America's oldest unsolved mystery" further. They will dig for clues at promising locations that were surveyed using ground-penetrating radar, and explore earthen ramparts likely built during the 1585 expedition.

“This dig includes new ground that’s never been tested archaeologically,” Jami Lanier, cultural resource manager, said in a statement. “So, it’s very exciting to see what may be found.”

Though the dig could reveal more artifacts from and information about the colony – previous excavations have found pottery and tools – it's unlikely that they will "solve" the mystery, largely because that mystery was probably solved well over 400 years ago. 

The word "CROATOAN" written on the tree referred to a nearby indigenous group, the Croatans, who still live in Dare County in coastal North Carolina. When White and his crew found the settlement abandoned, their first thought was that they had gone to live with the nearby indigenous people, who were much more adept at living in the area than the colonizers.

In 1701, explorer John Lawson visited the area to find that several of their ancestors were white, suggesting that the early theories were correct – the English settlers had integrated with the local tribe.

It only became a "mystery" later on in the 1830s, thanks to some sensationalist writings. The lost colony legend has resurfaced and has since become an enduring mystery, even being dubbed the "Area 51 of colonial history". 

Theories about the disappearance – which, to reiterate, is already solved – range from the colony attempting to return to England on one of the smaller ships left behind on the island, to being attacked by the Spanish or local indigenous tribes. Both of these rely on ignoring the only evidence left behind at the scene.

The new dig will hopefully unearth some interesting artifacts from the colony, and the public is allowed to go down and watch their work. But don't expect anything revelatory: the colony probably just moved house.

 
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