The mystery of what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke has puzzled historians for centuries. The colony was founded by the English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587 in present-day North Carolina in the US. However, the settlement ended when its residents were
thought to have mysteriously vanished in 1590. The colonists who had gone missing left behind only two clues that hinted at what had happened to them: the word ‘Croatoan’ which had been carved into the gatepost of a fort and the word ‘Cro’ which had been etched into a nearby tree. In the 16th century, Croatoan was the actual name of the island known today as ‘Hatteras’. Hence the discovery of the two clues led to a popular theory that the English colonists had left the colony and gone to the island. However, today after four hundred years have elapsed since the event, archaeologists have found that this theory was indeed true.
The fate of the Roanoke Colony
Scott Dawson is an archeologist who is also a native of the Croatoan island with roots going back to the 1600s. He is also the president of the Croatoan Archaeological Society, which is a group dedicated to the historical occurrence. His new book ‘The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island’ theorizes that the so-called ‘Lost Colony’ wasn’t actually lost. But there was not much evidence found by archaeologists which could back up the existing popular narrative about what had happened to the colony at Roanoke until recently.
Local volunteers and archaeologists had begun excavations on the Hatteras Island in 2009. In 2013, they discovered evidence which suggested that their theory was correct. The evidence included copper rings, handles of swords, earrings, writing slates, and glass which dated back to 16th century England. Dawson, though believing in the popular theory, couldn’t believe the kind of articles that were found in the excavation. Professor Mark Horton, who helped Dawson in the excavations believed that the popular theory was the result of a natural dispersion and that he believed that though the colonists may have branched into many groups, the largest group probably did come to Hatteras Island.
The team believes that they have found the ‘survivors camp’ on Hatteras where the colonists are believed to have settled many years before assimilation with the Croatoans. Professor Horton
believes that these Native Americans were friendly to the English and the island was a good place for the English to be with the Croatoans as allies and where they could be easily rescued by passing ships.
The researchers finally discovered the evidence of the colonists having been on the Hatteras Island when they uncovered many layers of dirt in old Native American villages on the island like Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras. According to Dawson, they found evidence of mixed architecture of the houses and also in metallurgy as those who lived on the island had blacksmith shops and were also working on copper and lead long into the 17th century.
Though the team is not sure about how many of the colonists lived on the island, they estimate that at least a few dozen of them had lived in the villages for a few decades after their arrival there and had continued to deal in metals. The team also found parts of guns that were a mix of different types of guns. This was probably because the colonists couldn’t procure new parts as they were stranded on the island.
The earrings and wires which the settlers had were turned into fish hooks, and many other objects were recycled and rebranded to be used for practical purposes. For knowing more about the artifacts, it’s essential to know about the actual incident in the late 1500s when the mystery really began.
The Lost Colony of Roanoke
The English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh tried to establish the first permanent English colony in North America in 1585. When his first attempt failed, Raleigh tried again after two years in Roanoke. For three years, it seemed that he had succeeded. Raleigh had approved a corporate charter to found the ‘Cittie of Raleigh’ on the Roanoke Island in 1587. Around 115 English men, women, and children had agreed to join Raleigh’s colony. Most of the group were middle-class citizens of London. The voyage which they were to undertake was the first to bring English women and children along to the ‘New World’. Though the journey in 1587 went off well, a small group led by the colony governor returned to England to gather more supplies. When they returned in 1590, they found the colony empty and abandoned.
But soon they discovered the word ‘Croatoan’ carved into the fort’s gatepost and the word ‘Cro’ etched into a tree. As the Croatoans were a supposedly friendly tribe who lived on the modern Hatteras Island, it looked natural to assume that the colonists would have gone there. Since they already knew the Croatoans before John White even left the Colony, White wasn’t surprised on seeing the words ‘Croatoan’ and ‘Cro’ carved in the places where he found them according to Dawson. White thus knew exactly where Croatoan was and why the colonists would have gone there. However, despite this very clear clue, it took more than 4 centuries till archaeologists were confident enough to trace the colonists at Roanoke to Hatteras Island.
The Roanoke investigation continues
Before the investigation, Dawson had been frustrated that the Hatteras Island had not been investigated previously to reveal what had happened to the Roanoke Colony. He had seen many artifacts being found when people had built houses or sometimes from erosion which occurred due to storms. He was unhappy that no one was doing anything to find more artifacts. So, he formed the Croatoan Archeological Society and decided to find evidence of the colonists on Hatteras Island. He thought that the colonists didn’t even know that they were lost and had simply shifted while waiting for the remaining group along with supplies for them.
Dawson believes that the story about the colony being ‘lost’ didn’t start until the beginning of ‘The Lost Colony’ play at Waterside Theatre in the 1930s. That was the first time when anyone ever referred to the colony as lost. The play thus created a mystery rather than it being a play about a mystery according to Dawson. Dawson and his team had hoped to further investigate what could have happened to the Roanoke Colony but things were put on hold by the global COVID – 19 pandemic. For the moment, the results of the ongoing study were compiled in Dawson’s book with more research being done in the future.