No-one knows what happened to the early settlers in America who seemed to vanish into thin air…


The year was 1587. And 117 men, women and children from England had just arrived on the coast of what is now North Carolina.

They set up home at a place called Roanoke, building a small village of wooden cottages and a fence around it as protection from the Native American tribes that lived nearby.

It wasn’t the first time the English had tried to settle in America. Two previous attempts in the early 1580s had failed. The colonists had failed to find enough to eat, had fought with the Native Americans and returned home to England.

The attempt in 1587 was due to fail, too.

Early settlers in America


First, they’d arrived in July. Which was far too late to plant crops. And they hadn’t brought enough provisions to last through the winter.

Two months after arriving, a small group of the colonists led by a man named John White set off back home to England. They’d stock up and return directly to Roanoke.

John White and his crew arrived in London that November.

But what he hadn’t banked on was the Spanish Armada.

England was now at war with Spain. And there was no way he could get all the supplies needed and sail safely back across the Irish Sea and into the Atlantic.

Three years passed before John was able to return to Roanoke.

He landed with his crew in August 1590. And he found the colony utterly deserted.

The wooden cottages that has been built three years earlier had been taken down. Nothing remained of them except the fence that had surrounded them.

There was no trace of the 90 men, 17 women or 11 children.

But clearly, they hadn’t left in a hurry. There was no sign of attack from the native Americans.

John was at a loss as to what to think.

Before he’d left, he had agreed with the colonists that if they’d had to move on while John had been away, if they’d had to leave the area under threat or due to a lack of food, they’d carve Maltese crosses into the trees as a sign.

There were none to be seen.

In fact, John White found something altogether different carved into the trunk of a tree near the abandoned settlement.

The word CROATOAN. And on another tree, CRO.

John knew there was a nearby tribe called the Croatoan, and that they lived on an island also called Croatoan.

Had the colonists gone to live there?

John White would never know. A storm was brewing, and with no shelter on Roanoke, he and his crew had no choice but to leave for home again.

It’d been 12 years before the English would return and set up home in Jamestown, 250 miles away from Roanoke.

For four hundred years, the mystery of the lost colony has endured. Just what happened to the settlers of 1587?

Many believed they’d been wiped out by a hurricane or by disease. But John White had found no human remains. And the fence surrounding the settlement had been left intact.

Some reckoned they’d run out of food, that they’d dismantled their wooden cottages to build rafts or boats to sail up the coast in search of fertile land.

But if so, who had carved Cro and Croatoan into the trees? And why?

Had they been killed by Native American Indians? Certainly, some local tribes had been angry with the colonists for taking their land. They’d killed before.

But why had they dismantled the cottages? And why carve Croatoan into the tree? Was it a sign of their victory over the colonists?

Indeed, years later, there were sightings of European people at various Indian settlements up the east coast. Were these the 1587 lost colony?

Others, struggling for conclusive evidence, have suggested the settlers were abducted by aliens.

Perhaps the most likely theory is that the English settlers had run out of food and out of hope and that they’d turned to the Croatoan tribe for help.

Could they have left Roanoke for Croatoan Island and lived happily with the Croatoan tribe, carving the word Croatoan into the tree as a sign of their intentions?

Had another tribe been born out of this union between natives and colonists?

And was that tribe the Lumbee? More than a hundred years later, in 1730, European explorers encountered the Lumbee tribe for the first time.

They were fairer than other natives. With lighter coloured eyes.

And intermingled into their language were words that seemed oddly like Elizabethan words. They addressed each other as ‘cuz’. Cuz to an Elizabethan meant ‘kinsman’.

Another example was their word ‘jubious’ to mean strange, which was rather like the Elizabethan sense of ‘dubious’.

Then, there were their names. How else were these natives called things like Taylor, Hyatt and Dial if they weren’t descended from the Roanoke settlers?

Currently, the Lumbee tribe is participating in the Lumbee Tribe Regional DNA Project to establish for once and for all where they came from. And if there were English settlers among their descendents.

If the Lumbee connection turns out to be true, then maybe the Roanoke colonists weren’t lost after all.


Virginia Dare

US stamp commemorating the birth of Virgina Dare in 1587. (Photo: iStockphoto)

US stamp commemorating the birth of Virgina Dare in 1587. (Photo: iStockphoto)

On 18 August 1587, the first English child was born in America, at the Roanoke settlement. Her name was Virginia Dare. Popular legend has it that she was turned into a white deer by a Native American witchdoctor. But her real fate remains a mystery. Like that of her parents and the other settlers.