50 Days of Doctor Who 50th
Day 18: Anywhere in Time and Space With the Doctor
Roanoke Island, The Lost Colony of Roanoke, 1587
The Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of the greatest mysteries of the Americas. The Colony was founded by Sir Walter Raleigh, after a failed first attempt that ended with the colonists abandoning the site. Under the direction of John White, 117 men, women, and children set sail for Roanoke Island in hopes of starting a new life. They arrived at the island in 1587, only to find that their destination, a fort built by the previous attempt, had been destroyed by the local Native American population and the soldiers within it killed. It was in Roanoke that the first English child was born on American soil: Virginia Dare, granddaughter of the colony’s governor, John White.
A month after the colonists’ arrival, August 1587, John White returned to England in order to retrieve supplies for the new colony. He left the colonists with instructions that should they be forced to leave the fort, they should leave behind a sign so White could later find them, with a cross carved over their destination should they leave under duress. Upon arrival in England, White found himself trapped by the impending invasion of the Spanish Armada. It was two years until White could find a captain willing to sail him to Roanoke and he returned to the colony on August 18, 1890, his granddaughter’s birthday and three years after he’d left. All he found the settlement deserted, sacked, and “with a high pallisado fo great trees”. The only sign of what had happened was the word “Croatoan” carved into one of the palisades, and the letters CRO carved into a nearby tree.
White believed that the carvings referred to Croatoan Island, today called Hatteras Island, where a tribe of friendly Native Americans lived. But before he could make a search there, a hurricane damaged his ships and he was forced to return to England again. White tried several times to raise funding and resources to return to Roanoke and search for the colonists and his family, but the sponsor, Sir Walter Raleigh, had given up on building a colony and no one else had an interest in the Americas. The 117 colonists were never seen again.
Today, the most popular theory is White’s, that the colonists moved to Croatoan Island. It is where the first Roanoke colony was founded, and some of the colonists of the Lost Colony had been part of that first expedition and would have been familiar with the area. It was also the location of a Native American tribe that was on good terms with the colonists, and a few of them had even visited England. John Lawson wrote in his 1709 book A New Voyage to Carolina that the Croatoan tribe on Hattaras Island claimed to have lived on Roanoke Island and to have had white ancestors
This links to another popular theory, that the colonists integrated with the Native American tribes. The Zuniga Map (fifth image) notes the location where Jamestown settler Francis Nelson claims to have met four men from “roonock”, which is what Roanoake is labeled on his map. William Strachey, a Jamestown secretary, notes in his 1612 book The historie of travaile into Virginia Britannia, that a local Iroquois reportedly had built two-story stone houses as was taught to them by the colonists of Roanoke. He also recorded reported sightings of European captives held by various Native American tribes in the region, such as four men, two boys, and girl that were forced by their captors to beat copper. From the early 17th century to the mid-18th century, there were reported sightings of gray-eyed Native Americans with claims of a white ancestry, and there have been several tribes located in the region that have been theorized as the descendants of the Roanoke colonists.
Of course, with any good mystery, there are several hypotheses floating about:
1. John Smith claimed that Chief Powhatan killed the Roanoke colonists just before the Jamestown settlers arrived because they joined with a local Chesepian tribe, and supposedly produced iron weapons to back his claim. There is no archaeological evidence to back John Smith’s claim.
2. The colonists attempted to return to England on their own, but as they were left with little supplies and boats only meant for local expeditions, they were lost at sea.
3. The Spanish attacked and destroyed the colony. This theory is unlikely, as the Spanish were still looking for the colony in 1600, ten years after John White confirmed the colonists’ disappearance.
4. The colonists relocated to the area now known as Salmon Creek, in the Bertie County community of Merry Hill in North Carolina. This is based off John White’s original map, which has patches supposedly for correcting mistakes. Recent studies of the map have revealed that the patches were hiding what may be a fort on the maps. Unfortunately, the area of where the fort may be is privately owned, and so the theory can be neither proven nor dismissed.
As one of the greatest mysteries in American history, I would love to know what really happened. If I could go anywhere in time and space, I would most certainly ask the doctor to show me what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. Who knows? Maybe it was aliens after all!