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Oct. 20, 2020

Ep. 6: The Lost Colony of Roanoke

For episode 6, Carrie took a journey back through American history to investigate the enigma of the lost colony of Roanoke: the first substantial colony sent from England to populate what would become America, and one of the first great unexplained...

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For episode 6, Carrie took a journey back through American history to investigate the enigma of the lost colony of Roanoke: the first substantial colony sent from England to populate what would become America, and one of the first great unexplained mysteries of the New World.

Why did the colony at Roanoke disappear, and where did they go? Were they wiped out by nearby tribes or illness? Or, did they assimilate into a Native American community, with descendants still present in our country today?

Why did the colony at Roanoke disappear, and where did they go? Were they wiped out by nearby tribes or illness? Or, did they assimilate into a Native American community, with descendants still present in our country today?

Carrie and Sean offer their best theories and marvel at how it seemed no one could really be bothered to check on the colony for years, if not decades.
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As you may know- and since we’re getting married, I kinda hope you do- I have a particular interest in Colonial-era America. I remember learning about the Revolutionary War back in the 4th grade and being fascinated by the idea of having to build a country, and the fact that our country itself is comparatively young to the other so-called great countries of the world...and in that time, emerged as a leading global power and ___ of freedom- present times, I guess, excluded. The times before we really settled into this country fascinated me even further; the stories of those people who came to America searching for something more on basically a wing and a prayer. Sometimes, these communities delved into chaos, as with the Salem Witch Trials- one of my most favorite topics that we will DEFINITELY deep dive into in the future. But sometimes, these communities became nothing at all. Just a legend discussed over Revolutionary-era campfires while George Washington polished his wooden teeth in his tent.
I know, I know, his teeth weren’t actually wood, but I digress. 
In school, stories of the colonization of America usually started with the Pilgrims coming over on the Mayflower, calling dibs on Plymouth Rock, and hanging out with the Native Americans on Thanksgiving eating turkey and corn. While the first two certainly happened, and the last is questionable, we never heard much about anyone who came before from other countries to North America. And, of course, the stories of those who did from England usually involved a lot more kum-bay-ya-ing over cranberry sauce than the bitter truth of smallpox blankets and genocide. The perception of myself as a kid and probably most kids and maybe even adults now is that America started as a “thing” in the early 1600s, but in truth there were colonies that tried to populate the land before that. Today, I’ll be going over the most infamous one, the one that merited only a passing mention in my elementary school history studies but I find to be the most interesting settlement this side of Salem Village - Roanoke. 

Now to our listeners, you’ve probably heard of Roanoke. Sean, what do you know about it?


That’s the real gist of it. Some of us may know it from mostly horror-focused pop culture references as diverse as Stephen King, the TV show Supernatural, and most famously the site of the 6th season of American Horror Story, which depicts television paranormal investigators encountering ghost colonists at Roanoke. Horror has been drawn to this story for the same reasons I have...it’s terrifying, it’s fascinating, it’s endlessly mysterious. So, let’s get into it.

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time where much of the world was unknown. Thousands of miles of land, uncharted and unexplored. Now of course, I cannot stress enough, there were NATIVE peoples on these lands that had the right to own and occupy, but as far as I know they were an unknown quantity to the world at large and didn’t exist in detail on any map. The story of Roanoke starts back a ways in 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazzano - he of the New York bridge - explored the Outer Banks of what is now South Carolina mistakenly thinking he may have found a shortcut to Ming China, and that what is now the Pamlico Sound was really the Pacific Ocean. He let King Francis I of France and King Henry VIII know, but I assume Francis was like “meh” and Henry was like “where’s Anne I want to chop someone’s head off” because both of them didn’t pursue it. Eventually Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, granted a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh for a patent on all lands south of Newfoundland, despite a lot of it being claimed by Spain already. Awkward. The charter stated he had to establish a colony by 1591 or lose his right to colonization, so the clock was ticking. Making things even more difficult, Raleigh was ALSO forbidden by Liz to leave her side - being one of her favourites - so he had to accomplish this while also never leaving England. Nevertheless he arranged an expedition, which departed England in April 1584. On July 4th, for the first time popping up in American history, the two ships on the expedition spotted land at what’s now called Cape Fear. Awesome foreshadowing, there. They made landfall on the 13th, established friendly relations with the Secotan tribe in the area, and peaced out back to England with the news. Elizabeth was like, wow, sweet, so in 1585 she knighted Raligh and proclaimed the land granted to him as Virginia. In case there is someone out there who doesn’t know, the name Virginia almost certainly comes from Elizabeth’s title as the Virgin Queen. So yeah, America’s oldest state is named for an old British lady’s intact hymen. 

The first colony established in the area was the Lane colony, which I’ll try to sum up quickly since it’s not quite as fascinating as the lost Roanoke. Several ships attempted the trip and only a couple ended up making landfall, now with much less provisions. Many of the colonists on the expedition had been hoping to find gold or silver, but when they found jack shit, they decided the mission was a waste of time. Hostilities and food shortages abounded until many of the colonists finally evacuated with Sir Francis Drake, bringing with them the new crops of tobacco, corn, and potatoes. Thanks for the cancer, Lane colony! The rest were eventually attacked by mainland tribes leaving thirteen survivors, who fled the area but were never seen again. 

On that note, it’s time to dig into the Lost Colony! Undeterred by the desertion of the Lane colony, Raleigh sent John White as governor and 115 other people to create a new colony in the area. They landed at Croatoan Island - remember that name - on July 22, 1587, and settled in on Roanoke Island a few days later. Despite some initial tensions with the Croatan tribe, the colonists decided to stay, though they planned to relocate fifty miles up the Albemarle Sound. They proclaimed their new settlement Roanoke. 

John White’s daughter Eleanor even gave birth to the first English child born in North America, the aptly named Virginia Dare. White was then persuaded to return to England to beg for help and supplies, which he did in August 1587. White FINALLY made it back to England that November, but all he encountered was bad news: Queen Elizabeth was prohibiting any ship leaving England to bolster their fleet for an upcoming attack by the Spanish Armada. White was finally able to leave in April of 1588 but the supply ships were attacked in May by French pirates, looting the ships and forcing their return to England. Because of continuing naval battles with Spain, White wasn’t able to obtain permission to make another attempt to bring resupply ships to Roanoke until 1590, YEARS after he was expected back. Remember, even throwing any kind of digital international communication out the window, there was no way for a hella slow LETTER to even make it over to Roanoke since, presumably, the mail ship and supply ship would be one and the same. White had no way to tell the colonists waiting for him, including his daughter and her husband, that he would be back as soon as he could. They remained in the dark, alone, and desperate.

White finally landed back on Croatoan Island on August 12 1590 and spotted plumes of smoke rising from Roanoke Island a few days later. For a few more days they attempted and abandoned crossings of the treacherous Pamlico Sound, eventually spending the night of August 17 in their boats with a plan to row ashore in the morning. That evening they sang English songs in hopes the colonists on Roanoke would hear them coming, which is just so fucking sad knowing what’s about to come. On the 18th - Virginia Dare’s 3rd birthday - the landing party made it onto land. They found fresh tracks in the sand but could not find anyone nearby. In the area they also spotted the letters CRO carved into a tree. On approaching the colony site White saw that a palisade, basically a wooden defensive wall or fence, had been constructed around the site since he had departed in 1587. Near the entrance to the palisade the word CROATOAN was carved into one of the fence posts. White at this point, realizing that they did not see or hear signs of life anywhere on site, figured that the CRO and CROATOAN inscriptions meant the colonists had relocated to nearby Croatoan Island, as before his departure 3 years before the colonists agreed to leave a “secret token” indicating their destination if they were forced to move or a cross pattee to signal distress- a cross pattee being one of those emblematic Christian crosses with narrower arms toward the center and flared-out ends. He assumed since the words left carved likely signaled a nearby island and no cross was found, they were okay and on Croatoan. 

Upon further search houses were found dismantled with all lighter objects and furniture taken away, as well as several large trunks that had been buried. The colonists’ remaining boats were also missing. White and his crew figured they would leave for Croatoan the following day, but since God apparently hated this entire enterprise, one of the anchor cables snapped leaving him with only one anchorable boat. That boat set off for England while the other told White they would winter in the Caribbean and return in spring of 1591. This TOO ended up being scuttled when the ship was blown off course to the Portuguese Azores and was again forced to change course for England, finally arriving back home in October 1590. At this time, no one had yet gone to Croatoan to find the missing colonists. 

Sir Walter Raliegh handled this whole thing pretty dickishly. He eventually made his first transatlantic voyage in 1595, claiming he was searching for the lost colonists--but later admitted this was a lie to cover up that he was searching for the mythical El Dorado. On his way back he sailed right past the Outer Banks, claiming that weather prevented him from landing. Didn’t seem like he tried too hard, though. Eventually, no doubt due to the fact that the price of sassafras was skyrocketing and he wanted to cash in on the untouched crop in Virginia, he funded a mission back to the Outer Banks in 1602 to quote unquote “resume the search”. However, the ship’s manifest made it clear that Raleigh really just intended to harvest sassafras far south of Croatoan and had no intention of searching. In 1603 Raleigh was arrested for treason against King James which pretty much put the kibosh on his Virginia charter monopoly.

There was one final expedition in 1603 to find the colonists, now many years after they had been lost. Bartholomew Gilbert intended to land in Chesapeake Bay, but bad weather again forced his ship to land somewhere else nearby. The entire landing team was killed by a group of Native Americans, and any remaining crew returned to England empty-handed. When he was captured by the Powhatan tribe, our boy John Smith of Pocahontas fame learned of a couple of different places near the Jamestown settlement that were reportedly inhabited by men of European dress and featured walled houses, a European style of architecture. He sent a letter and map with this info back to England- the map has since been lost, of course- and two search parties Smith dispatched to the areas he’d learned about failed to return any sign of the Roanoke colonists. By 1609 England believed that Chief Powhatan had ordered the massacre of the colonists, but the source of this allegation is unknown. A few years later, English writer William Strachey arrived in Jamestown and soon wrote his book The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia, where he described the rumored European territories in a fashion similar to John Smith and his map. He also included additional details about a “slaughter at Roanoak”. Strachey suggested in his book that the lost colonists lived for around 20 years with a tribe beyond Powhatan territory, only to be attacked by Chief Powhatan shortly before Jamestown was established. A handful of colonists supposedly survived and fled upriver to live under the protection of another chieftain named Eyanoco. 

Over the next decades we don’t have much in the way of new stories, until John Lawson made his way to what is now North Carolina in the early 1700s. Lawson was the first historian to investigate the region since White left for the final time in 1590, and observed that the Hatteras tribe in the area had been influenced by English culture. Some Hattaras even reported that some of their ancestors had been white, with some of the present-day tribesfolk having light grey eyes- supporting this claim. Lawson’s theory was that the lost colonists of Roanoke had assimilated into this particular community after losing contact with England for several years, lacking food, protection, and knowledge of resources.

So, until modern day and archaeological investigations, that’s where the trail runs cold. What do you think so far, Sean?


There are a number of theories, dependent on contemporary evidence and more modern archaeological evidence. The complication with the latter is that any finds such as jewelry, pottery, etc. could have easily been left by other colonies or been the result of trading with the local Native American tribes, which all the colonies frequently did. The most promising find would likely be female remains that had been buried in Christian fashion, since the Lane colony only included men, that could be dated prior to 1650. Few human remains of any kind, however, have been discovered in the area. There’s also the issue of erosion. In just the span of time between 1851 and 1970, the northern shore of Roanoke Island lost 928 feet of its shoreline. Following the trend backward, it seems clear that large portions of any settlements that were there are likely now underwater, along with any artifacts or remains that could help point the way...well, anywhere. 

So. What happened? Where did they go? It’s one of the greatest mysteries surrounding early America. Historian Adrian Masters calls it the “Area 51 of colonial history”, and it kind of is- maybe or maybe not negating the alien part. 

The first main theory is that relating to John Lawson’s assertion- that the colonists eventually assimilated into one or more nearby Native American tribes once they felt that they had no hope of hearing back from England, and their situation was dire. After all, according to a 1998 study, 1587 was the SINGLE worst growing season in the entire 800-year period spanning 1185-1984. That is VERY specific, and VERY bad luck. With the worst growing season in centuries and little knowledge of how else to fend for themselves, it seems likely after a time that the colonists would appeal to those around them for help and survival. Many historians today believe this to be the most likely scenario if the colonists did indeed survive past 1587. The present-day Roanoke Hatteras tribe even identifies as descendents of both the Croatoan people and the lost Roanoke colonists by way of the Hatteras. Other tribes that have been put forth as possible destinations for the colonists if they fled include the Lumbee, Catawba, and Coree. 

Conversely, if the colonists lost hope of communicating with England or that John White would return, they could have tried to sail back to the motherland with the ship they had left. If this is the case, the ship could have easily been lost at sea. This ship, a smaller pinnace, wouldn’t have been large enough to carry all of the Roanoke colonists and even less when taking food and supplies into consideration. Even if they managed to build a second ship, other colonists would have had to remain behind, so the question still remains of what happened to them. 

So, what if the colonists didn’t leave Virginia, but also didn’t survive? They could’ve been killed by a nearby tribe, such as the Powhatans, as William Strachey suggested. They could also even have been attacked by Spanish forces, who had been searching for the rumored English Virginia base since before John White and co even arrived. It seems though that the Spanish were still trying to find the colony as late as 1600, so they likely weren’t the ones to slaughter them. There are some lesser theories, like that Walter Raleigh actually knew where the colonists ended up and his sassafras expedition was just picking up what they had harvested in an area called Beechland along the Alligator River, which is a fun name. In this theory the colony was not truly abandoned until Raleigh died in 1618, with knowledge of their location dying with them. At this point, the colonists began to assimilate with the Croatoan people- so, it really just ends up in the same place that our first theory does. 

Two more recent findings add more fun speculation to the mix. The first of these are called the Dare Stones, and involve an interesting story all on their own. 

The Dare Stones were first reported in 1937 by Louis E. Hammond, who had claimed to have found them near the Chowan River near the state line of what is now Virginia and North Carolina. These stones are inscribed with messages supposedly written by members of the Lost Colony, and their “discovery” set off a media circus at the time. There are a total of 48 stones, nearly all of which contain inscriptions from Lost Colonist Eleanor Dare to her father John White. Through the 48 stones we see a narrative spanning the time from 1591 to 1603, which claims that the Colonists migrated at that time from Roanoke to near what is now present-day Atlanta, Georgia. 

In 1937, Louis Hammond dragged a 21-pound stone into Emory University, asking for help interpreting the markings on it. The idea of a guy lugging what’s basically a boulder into a university building must’ve been pretty amusing then and is hilarious now, but they did offer to help. Hammond told those at Emory that he found the stone a few months earlier by the Chowan River, had thrown it in his trunk, forgot about it, then remembered it once passing the university and figured the smarties could help out. A group of professors traveled with Hammond to where he said he’d found the stone, and while he couldn’t point out the exact location, the professors were convinced after this trip that he was legit at least when it came to his story. 

The initial stone that he brought in was inscribed on two sides. Do you want to hear the whole thing?

It read roughly the following in modern-day English:

Ananias Dare &
Virginia went
to Heaven, 1591

Any Englishman show [this rock to]
John White, Governor of Virginia
Father, soon after you
go for England, we came
here. Only misery and war [for]
two years. Above half dead these two
years, more from sickness, being twenty-four.
[A] Savage with [a] message of [a] ship came to us. [Within a] small
space of time, they [became] frightened of revenge [and] ran
all away. We believe it [was] not you. Soon after,
the savages said spirits [were] angry. Suddenly
[they] murdered all save seven. My child [and]
Ananias, too, [were] slain with much misery.
Buried all near four miles east [of] this river,
upon [a] small hill. Names [were] written all there
on [a] rock. Put this there also. [If a] Savage
shows this to you, we
promised you [would] give [them] great
plenty presents.

What do you think the EWD stands for at the bottom? Well, most thought that it represented Eleanor White Dare, John White’s daughter and mother of Virginia. Basically, this stone claims that Virginia Dare and Eleanor’s husband Ananias were killed in a massacre by a nearby tribe that also took the lives of all but 7 of the colonists. The colonists then relocated, and Eleanor left this inscribed stone somewhere hoping for her father to find it and know their fate. 

Now, I mentioned that there were 48 stones at the top, right? Well, the thing is, the original Dare Stone is the only one whose validity remains inconclusive--scientists couldn’t find any reason to think it was a fake, but take it with a large grain of salt. To try and discover corroborating evidence in the guise of another stone, a reward of $500 was offered to the local community. Several different people came forward with similar stones after this point in areas around Georgia and South Carolina, eventually totalling 48. These other stones were eventually declared fraudulent by an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1941, due to a combination of factors like suspicions about those who had found them, some words in these stones not thought to be in existence yet in 1590, and eventually a blackmail plot by one of the finders, Bill Eberhardt, threatening to reveal the stones were forgeries. So the others were written off- but what about the original? Multiple studies, including in 1983 and 2016, were inconclusive. As it stands now, the original Dare Stone is the only piece of unproven, un-disproven archaeological evidence about what happened to the Roanoke colony before 1591. 

One other minor finding lends further mystery to the story.
On Hatteras Island in Dare County, North Carolina, a Southern live oak tree stands that bears the carving “CORA” in its bark. This tree has been the subject of local legends for years, including that of a witch named “Cora” that was included in a 1989 book by Charles H. Whedbee. However, in 2006 Scott Dawson proposed that the CORA tree might represent another message left by the colonists, like the CROATOAN and CRO inscriptions John White found at Roanoke. Dawson felt that CORA may be a reference to the Coree tribe, and may indicate that the Roanoke colonists eventually integrated with the tribe once their situation got dire. A 2009 study on the tree proved inconclusive due to extensive damage to the tree, preventing tree-ring dating and further understanding of the CORA inscription itself. 

So Sean - what do you think happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke? 


That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on iTunes...we’ll be forever grateful.

See you next Tuesday! 


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