The morning of 18 August 1590, a group of sailors from two English privateering ships, the Moonlight and the Hopewell, scrambled up from a sandy beach to enter open woodland. They followed the lead of an elderly man who would have grown increasingly desperate in his shouts: “Eleanor! Ananias! Anybody! Is anyone there?” The sailors had landed on Roanoke Island in modern North Carolina, and their leader was John White, governor of Queen Elizabeth I’s North American dominion, Virginia.


White was trying to find his daughter Eleanor and her husband, Ananias Dare, and indeed any other English settler on the island. Eleanor and Ananias, with his young granddaughter Virginia, were members of the colony he had left there three years earlier.

In 1587 White had returned to England to get badly needed supplies from Sir Walter Ralegh for the colonists who had wintered on Roanoke. His voyage back to America was soon beset by problems. On his first attempt, his vessel was captured by French pirates and he was seriously wounded in the fight. His efforts were also frustrated by a royal order to stop all shipping because of the Armada threat.

Sir Walter Ralegh, c1590. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Even when White did manage to return, in 1590, another disaster took place the day before his search on Roanoke. A captain and several crewmen drowned in rough seas trying to reach Roanoke Island through the dangerous sand bars of the Outer Banks. Nevertheless, the sailors pressed on, rowing around Roanoke to anchor off its north end where the settlers had lived. But no one answered White’s calls. No one was there. White found that a new strong fort had been erected but was now abandoned, containing only discarded, heavy items. All the houses of the settlement had been dismantled and removed. None of the 117 members of this Lost Colony were ever located. It remains the greatest unsolved mystery in the shared histories of England and America.

A new Eden

White’s group of civilians had not been the first colony that Ralegh sent to Roanoke Island. After his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert drowned on a voyage to Newfoundland, Queen Elizabeth transferred the charter for colonising North America to Ralegh, although as the new royal favorite at court, Elizabeth would not permit Ralegh to lead expeditions himself.

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Ralegh turned his attention to the North Carolina coast that juts out into the Gulf Stream route that Spanish galleons took to bring gold and silver from Mexico and Peru. In 1584, a single English vessel arrived on the Carolina shores and was soon guided by native peoples to Roanoke Island. Based on its brief visit, Roanoke was described as a land filled with crops, game and welcoming Indians – a new Eden.

Ralegh promptly sent a military expedition on a one-year colonial venture, exploring the new province he named Virginia in honor of the queen. Commanded by Ralph Lane, a cousin of Elizabeth’s stepmother, Queen Katherine Parr, the soldiers were to determine its potential for profitable commodities and as a base to attack Spanish shipping.

Lane found that the land did have some promise, but it was not a new Eden, and its shallow coastal waters were unsuitable for warships. Ralegh had taken care to provide expert reporting of the venture, which he used to attract investment – and hopefully royal support – for later settlement. He sent John White, an artist known at court, to accompany the fleet that did the initial exploration. White made for him watercolour drawings of the flora, fauna and native peoples of North America that remain our best images from the Age of Exploration.

Ralegh also sent the mathematician-scientist Thomas Harriot to spend the year with Lane on Roanoke, making navigational charts, learning the Algonquian language from Manteo, a noble from the friendly coastal Croatoan tribe, and collecting samples to test their mineral and pharmaceutical value.

Thomas Harriot map of Virginia, c1588. (North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo)

By the spring of 1586, however, Lane’s force, faced with shrinking supplies and increasingly hostile local tribes, were waiting desperately for promised supplies. After sacking Spanish cities in the Caribbean, the famed English sailor Sir Francis Drake’s fleet gathered outside the banks by Roanoke. Before he could assist the colony though, a hurricane damaged the fleet. Lane reluctantly accepted his offer to return to England.

The second colony

This, then, was the state of affairs in the winter of 1586–7 when John White, the artist in the employ of Ralegh, offered to lead a civilian colonial expedition to Virginia. In 1585, White had been in Virginia for only the initial weeks, so he had not experienced the privation and danger that Lane’s men later faced. Most of the group that sailed with him seems to have come from London, of artisan and middle-class backgrounds. Entire families joined the second colony, while others sailed expecting their families to follow. Economic opportunity was probably the main reason for their emigration, though religious freedom may also have been important.

The second colony’s ships arrived on the coast near Roanoke in the summer of 1587. There, a dispute arose between the captain, who commanded at sea, and the governor who took charge on land. White later reported that Ralegh had instructed him to take the settlers north to the deep-water Chesapeake Bay, which Lane had thought a better base for privateers and closer to the mountain sources of copper and perhaps gold and silver. The captain, however, seems not to have felt bound by these orders because he refused to take the passengers any further.

When the group arrived, they found the Roanoke settlement empty, the fort in ruins and the mainland Indians hostile. To compound matters, an accident in landing led to the spoilage of much of the food supplies. After taking steps to repair existing cottages and build additional ones, the colony’s leaders decided that a direct appeal to Ralegh was needed and that only Governor White could make it. Before he left, White witnessed two important events: the birth of his granddaughter Virginia, the first English child born in the New World, and the baptism and induction as Lord of Roanoke of the native leader Manteo. These two events must have been seen by White and all those present as the beginning of a colonial-born population and the integration of Indians into Elizabethan religious and political structures.

Baptism of Virginia Dare, White's granddaughter and the first English child born in the New World. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

John White’s return in 1590 revealed that this overseas England had been a dream. There was no colony, no population, no Christian Indian lordship. White and the sailors saw fresh footprints on the Roanoke beach – evidence that local Indians were hostile or fearful of the English search party. Interpreting the letters ‘CRO’ carved into a tree as the name of Manteo’s friendly Croatoan tribe (White later remembered it also as a full spelling on a gate post), the searchers intended to sail south to the tribe’s centre near Cape Hatteras. Once aboard ship, though, stormy weather forced them farther and farther north until there was no option but to return home. No English ship ever did reach Hatteras, but Spaniards sailing past the Outer Banks saw Natives waving and making music on European-style musical instruments.

Explaining the mystery

What did happen to the Lost Colony, then? Why did it disappear? When considering causes for social and demographic calamities, traditionally there are four general possibilities: war, famine, pestilence, and death. It is probable that all four brought Elizabethan Virginia to an end. We do know that the Spanish never found the colony, but fear of that threat may have caused it to move further west. White thought that a move “50 miles further up into the maine” had been intended. Also, the nearby mainland Indians were clearly hostile in 1587.

Traditionally there are four general possibilities: war, famine, pestilence, and death

Soon after the civilians arrived, the body of an Englishman who went crabbing was found full of arrows and mutilated. This local threat was another reason to leave Roanoke.

We also know that Lane’s soldiers in 1586 faced a serious food shortage and that White in 1587 returned to England because the supplies had been ruined. The civilian colony had no real leverage to convince native tribes to share their winter reserves. Later, famine would cause the ‘starving time’ at Jamestown, when Indians there refused to sell food. North Carolina lacked a single, powerful native polity that might have supported the colony, so it is probable that it broke up into smaller groups, independently intent on survival. At Jamestown, disease – even the Plague itself – would again and again sap the strength of the young colony. Infectious diseases may have had a similar impact at Roanoke.

John White and others are shown on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, 1590, having returned to the English colony in America with relief supplies. White found no trace of the colonists. The picture depicts White pointing to the word Croatoan that he found carved into a tree trunk. The colony, founded in 1587, is often called the Lost Colony.
The picture depicts John White pointing to the word 'Croatoan' that he found carved into a tree trunk. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

All three causes, if unchecked, led to the fourth – death. White’s sailors came across no burials or human remains during the hours they spent on Roanoke, so it is quite possible that the colonists evacuated the island before incurring such a fate. It then seems likely that the survivors split into two or more groups. One would have waited for supply ships among the Croatoan tribe on the Outer Banks. The other would have sailed 50 miles westward to a safer and more productive region. Jamestown colonists did hear second-hand stories about a few survivors from Roanoke living among the tribes in this interior here, but these stories were never confirmed.

Then, in 2012, First Colony Foundation (FCF), a group of historians and archaeologists researching Ralegh’s American colonies, asked the British Museum to examine paper patches on its manuscript map La Virginea Pars, drawn by John White for Sir Walter Ralegh. The museum staff soon discovered beneath one patch the symbol of a Renaissance fort, and upon the patch’s surface they noted the faint image of a fortified town, perhaps drawn in invisible ink. The patch was located at the west end of the Albemarle Sound, about 50 miles from Roanoke Island.

Remote sensing and fieldwork by FCF revealed no such fort in a five-mile-wide area, but its teams did unearth metal objects and Tudor-period domestic pottery in one spot adjacent to a contemporary Algonquian village. Because the pottery would not have been carried by Lane’s soldiers in 1585–6, FCF researchers announced in 2015 that Site X (for unknown) was the probable location of a few members of the Lost Colony for a limited period of time. Excavations will resume in late 2016 to determine more fully the nature of Site X and to find more clues to the four-century-old mystery of the Lost Colony.


Dr Eric Klingelhofer is Emeritus Professor of history and research fellow at Mercer University, Georgia, and vice-president of research at First Colony Foundation.

This article was first published by History Extra in August 2016.