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The First American Mystery: The Lost Roanoke Colony

The most enduring American missing person’s case is that of the lost colony of Roanoke. The tale has been told and retold by historians and investigators alike. However, no one is sure what, exactly, happened to the settlers at Roanoke. What is known, however, is that at some point in the late 1580s, an entire colony went missing without a trace.


In 1585, the first English attempt to establish a colony in what would become North Carolina was undertaken. Due to a small number of supplies and an overabundance of natural threats, the endeavor was abandoned shortly after it started.

However, John White, an English explorer, was convinced the area was perfect for a settlement. So, in 1587, White founded another settlement in Roanoke.

The colony was beset with issues from the beginning. The nearby Croatoan tribe of Native Americans had little to do with the colonizers, and the region proved inhospitable to the English.

Their lack of knowledge of the local flora and fauna proved to be a major issue, as well as the rough storms that would blow in from the Atlantic Ocean.

White Leaves for Supplies

Seeing the situation was dire, John White made a plan to return to England to acquire more supplies for the struggling young settlement. However, upon returning to England, he found his country of origin in a rough spot. The Anglo-Spanish War was raging, making the acquisition of supplies and a swift ship back to America a tall order.

After years of struggle and a long, tough journey by ship, White finally returned to the colony in 1590. Upon arriving in the chartered vessel, White and his traveling companions found the colony abandoned.

Investigation revealed that, at one point, the settlement had created a defensive wall of some kind. However, by the time White and company arrived, even the homes had been stripped for their wood and metal. Supply trunks were emptied, and there was little trace of the settlers.


A tree near the settlement had a single word carved into it in all capital letters: CROATOAN. The name could refer to the nearby tribe of Native Americans, or it could refer to the island on which that tribe lived. However, White and his crew had no clue what this entailed for the settlers. Were they killed in an attack by the natives? White found no signs of combat and no bodies.

Scholars surmise the Roanoke colonists may have moved to Croatoan to live with the natives, who had a better mastery of the local flora and fauna, and could harvest food more easily than the English.

It’s possible the settlers left the word Croatoan behind to indicate to England where they could be found. However, White’s ship had issues in the choppy waters near Roanoke, and none aboard knew how to speak the Croatoan tribe’s language. As such, they left Roanoke, and its mystery, behind.


Cameron Norris