After three years, White returned to the colony. What he found chilled him to the bone. The Roanoke colony was gone, the buildings neatly taken down, no signs of anyone alive or dead. The only hint being two carvings. On a large tree they found “CRO” and a fence post bearing the craving “CROATOAN”. For his part in the investigation, White sought out the last people who would have seen the settlers: The Croatoan people. However, you may have guessed this pattern, the weather made sailing to Cape Hatteras, the center of the Croatoan land, impossible. White decided to return to England quickly. It could have been grief, fear or simply White believing he needed reinforcements, we cannot say for sure. I assume White feared the worst. When left the colony things had been in a state of decline, supplies where dwindling rapidly and illness was setting in. White may well have been overwhelmed by guilt for the res of his life.
Although prospects seemed grim with no substantial evidence to suggest a formal reason for their vanishing, Walter Raleigh cultivated the idea that the settlers where alive but had relocated. This claim was not only to maintain hope among the confused public, it would also serve Raleigh in a political sense. If the settlers where ‘alive’ the English Claim to Virginia was secure. The first true search party was not sent until 1595, but this noble cause to find the lost settlers was a forefront for Raleigh’s latest obsession with finding El Dorado. Worse still, it appeared Raleigh really was more interested in his own financial gain. His second campaign in 1602 coincided with the increase in the price of Sassafras, a scented wood that the area was known for, the search party found no trace of the settlers buy coincidentally returned to England with Ships full of valuable Sassafras.
The following year Bartholomew Gilbert was charged with leading a sincere effort to find the 115 lost men and women. Gilbert’s effort would have him landing in a smaller lesser known point after their attempt to land at Chesapeake Bay was scuppered by…Well…Bad weather. Unfortunately, this would cost them their lives, Gilbert and his landing party where slaughtered on the beach by Natives. Those who survived on the ship wasted no time in returning to England, empty handed but with a story to tell about the ‘Savages’ who cut down their fellow English men. This provided the nation with a sense of outrage and suspicion aimed squarely at the natives. The history between the English and the Roanoke settlers had been turbulent, with recorded incidence of fights between natives and colonists during John White’s own occupation. George Howe was killed by a hostile tribe near the islands coast. He had been scavenging for crabs when he was killed by a hail of arrows. White would call upon his Croatoan allies to serve as peacemakers on his behalf, getting them to speak to the other tribe. However, when no reply was given, White gathered a group of men to mount an assault on the camp that belonged to those who killed Howe. Upon arrival they discovered that the group had abandoned the camp, having expected White to seek vengeance. Unfortunately, a band of Croatoan looters where killed in a case of mistaken identity. A conflict was teased but allegedly defused by Manteo, a native that White had been on good terms with. Shortly their after Manteo was baptised and was stylised by the English as ‘Lord of Roanoke and Desumongueponke’. The theory that the natives played a role in the settler’s fate was further compounded in 1607 when Jamestown was founded. John Smith reported that the Powhatan tribe confessed to killing the colonists. However, this is a questionable account, Smith is historically inconsistent in most of his journals, famously embellishing or creating misleading stories- He of course is responsible for the misinformation around Pocahontas. Modern analysis suggests it was massacre was not carried out on the colonists, it was more likely another tribe of natives in the same area. However, no archaeological evidence exists of any form of massacre. Alas the story of “savage Indians” murdering the Roanoke settlers became popular in Europe, supplementing prejudices, and distrust.
Other theories have more evidence, such as the idea of the colonists relocating. The cravings on the tree and post along with the houses being neatly dismantled, l made the original assumption that they had migrated to Croatoan (Hatteras) island, which was 50 miles south. During archaeological digs in 1998 items were found in Hatteras Island that where dated to the late 16th century. The items consisted of coins, a gun and ring bearing a coat of arms belonging toa settler. However, it should also be considered that these items could have been goods traded with natives for food or other goods. On the more conspiratorial side of things, a forgotten map plays a key role. The British museum held a map John White himself had drawn (La Virginea Pars) of the area, depicting the colonies location and the key features around it. It was forgotten until 2012, when the ‘First Colonies Foundation’ requested the British museum carry out a closer analysis. It was discovered that two patches where added to the original ink map to make finalised corrections. Under these patches, drawn in invisible ink a symbol was found, thought to depict a plan for a fort. It is believed that this may have been a secret base for settlers to hide in case of emergencies. The reason for the cover up is not nefarious as it was tactile, keeping the knowledge away from any foreign powers. However, the lack if archaeological evidence suggests the fort was never built. Although some objects where discovered in 2015, including pottery and metal tools. Leaving some archaeologists to believe that this may have been a camp for a few of the colonists.
The last plausible theory is that of assimilation into native tribes. It is possible that at their most desperate point, they threw themselves on the mercy of a neighboring tribe just to survive. But of course, the idea of civilised English folk ‘going native’ was unfathomable to the people of Elizabethan England. In his very short-lived search White even resorted to flagging down a Spanish ship for information, they alleged that they had seen natives playing European instruments. A tenuous link, if it is even to be believed but it planted the seeds for the theory. Many tribes have been cited as having taken in members of the colony, from the Iroquois, Eno and Algonquian. Decades later as English colonies really began to establish themselves in America, stories of natives with gray eyes, Light hair and other more European features began to spread. Certainly, this is an exciting theory, nowadays we finally have the scientific knowledge to commit to chasing this possible link. The Secret will be in DNA. “LostcolonYDNA” was established in 2007 in order to find male descendants of the colonists, with the hopes that direct Y chromosome DNA can be found and tested against remains found in the areas- possibly extending this testing to find any evidence of families they may have had with natives This however is an incredibly tricky process, in both finding the bones from the period without violating ethical codes and moreover, finding the living DNA carriers. Other evidence that points toward assimilation is the discovery of European tools and goods on the tribal sites- However this also has been taken by some as simply natives making use of things that the colonists left at their own settlement.
We still cannot conclusively say what happened to the colonists, it is one of histories enduring mysteries. Something that looms over us, full of promise yet feels out of reach. The enduring efforts demonstrate just how much the Roanoke colony has gripped the historical community and public. Whether the colonists perished, moved or where assimilated remains a mystery.