Unsolved Historical Mysteries: Roanoke Colony

In 1587, England made an attempt to colonize America by establishing a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. Three years later, the settlement was found abandoned and the fate of its 117 colonists remained a mystery to date. 

Roanoke Colony was established by explorer and cartographer John White, under the instructions of English statesman Sir Walter Raleigh. The colony endured problems with the lack of supply, causing White to return to England with the goal of bringing additional resources and workforce to the island.

White intended to return to the colony in 1588 but events of the Anglo-Spanish War delayed his journey until 1590. Once he reached Roanoke Island again, White discovered that there was not a single colonist present including his wife, child, and grandchild. The settlement looked like it was abandoned a while ago with buildings in a state of collapse.

The only clue that White managed to discover was the letters “CRO” carved on a tree and the word “CROATOAN” carved on a fort’s post. Under the previous agreement with the colonists, they would carve a message in the tree in case of moving elsewhere while also carving an image of a Maltese Cross in case they were taken with the use of force. Considering that there was a nearby island called Croatoan, White held hope that colonists, including his family, were there.

White and his fleet planned a search of adjacent islands but severe weather forced them to give up and return to England. He never returned to America and there were no further searches for the missing colonists.

Various theories have been proposed to explain the abandonment of Roanoke Colony. The most popular one is that colonists indeed moved to another island, where they joined Native Americans in attempts to overcome the difficulties they had encountered in their original settlement. The less optimistic theories include that the colonists were massacred by hostile Native Americans or died due to a disease or famine.

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