August 18 marks the anniversary of one of the greatest enduring mysteries of US colonial history: the Lost Colony of Roanoke. While the bizarre incident is often dubbed "America's oldest unsolved mystery," we now have a pretty good idea of what occurred (it just took 400 or so years to get a clear idea).
In 1587, colonizers from England, sent by Walter 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. On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was born at Roanoke Island, becoming the first English child born in a New World English colony.
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 arrived at Roanoke Island on August 18, 1590 – what should have been Virginia’s third birthday – 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.
Over four centuries on, it’s clear that much of the so-called “mystery” is a bunch of sensationalism and urban legend.
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.
An earlier version of this story was published in September 2021.