The Lost Colony of Roanoke
Natives People magazine, March/April 2007
Written by Ryan Whirty, History Department
In August 1587, a group of 112 English colonists, including two pregnant women, arrived at Roanoke Island, a spit of land located in what is now known as the Outer Banks of North Carolina, to found the second European colony on the east coast of the Americas (a previous colony in the same area failed). The new colony’s governor, John White, soon headed back to England to procure additional supplies for the settlers. He intended to return as soon as possible, but delayed in England by the country’s war with Spain, it took him three years to again land on the Carolina shores.
On Aug. 18, 1590, White finally arrived at Roanoke. What he found – or rather, what he didn’t find – has since evolved into one of the biggest mysteries in American history, a source of endless research, investigation and speculation that still flourishes today. When White got to Roanoke, all the English settlers were gone and the colony abandoned. The only clues White found were two etchings, including the now famous one on a post near the entry reading “CROATOAN.” In the ensuing decades, numerous exploration parties attempted to locate the missing settlers, but to no avail. They had vanished.
Or did they? While the truth may never be completely known, numerous theories have been offered to explain the colonists’ disappearance. One holds that the English settlers were massacred by hostile Indian tribes in the area. Another posits that they were attacked by Spanish raiders. “Everyone in the world has their own opinion about what happened to them,” notes Phil Evans, co-founder of the First Colony Foundation.
But perhaps the most compelling explanation, and one that is gradually gaining acceptance in the historical and anthropological communities, is that the colonists left their outpost to live with, and eventually assimilate into, local Native American communities, especially the nearby Croatoans. “It’s not unreasonable to think that some of the lost colonists could have been adopted by Native Americans, who often did accept (outsiders),” says Dr. Stanley Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at the University of North Carolina – Pembroke.
When John White returned to Fort Raleigh (another name given the Roanoke Colony, as it was financed by Sir Walter Raleigh) in 1590, he found no evidence that the colonists had been forced out, killed or otherwise placed in any danger. As a result, he believed that the etched word CROATOAN referred to a local Native American region, and that the colonists were now living with the tribe based there. White’s belief was underpinned by the fact that during a previous failed colonization attempt, English settlers were befriended by the welcoming Croatoan Indians and their leader, Manteo, who eventually became the namesake of a town on Roanoke Island. At least one subsequent English explorer of the region, John Lawson, wrote in 1700 of discovering Native Americans who spoke English and read from books. They also described people with striking European features, including, most noticeably, gray eyes.
“Our main hypothesis is that the Lost Colony moved into the mainland with the Croatoans and assimilated,” says Fred Willard, founder of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, an organization that has focused its research on the ancestry of modern Native Americans and their possible connection to the Roanoke colony. “We could be wrong, but I don’t think so.” The center began as the Croatoan Group in 1993 under the leadership of Willard and has used methods as varied as deed research, archaeological digs and satellite imaging. Willard says he believes the Lost Colonists assimilated into the local Native peoples, who were then forced onto the Carolina mainland by encroaching Europeans. He says the center has pinpointed roughly 5,000 living descendants of those displaced people.
Others, however – including the U.S. National Park Service – are more skeptical of the link between the Lost Colonists and modern Native Americans. “There is very little evidence to validate that idea in terms of convincing a lawyer in court,” says Rob Bolling, the historian at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. “It’s probable, but no definite link has been made. I believe that one should never discount too much the oral history that is passed down,” he adds. “But even that changes and fades away as people die.”
THE LUMBEE CONNECTION
There are some people who believe descendants of the colonists now reside in Robeson County, North Carolina. There, the Lumbee people, a tribe with 40,000-plus members, have lived for centuries. Many Lumbee are confident that their ancestors migrated from the Outer Banks to the swampy marshland that is now Robeson Country. One primary advocate of this theory was Adolph Dial, a Lumbee historian whose 1975 book, The Only Land I Know, co-written with David Eliades, details the history of his people, including one assertion Dial was sure of. “While proof of Lumbee descent from the Lost Colony, in the form of birth records and other documents, is most unlikely to be found,” he wrote, “the circumstantial evidence, when joined with logic, unquestionably supports the Lumbee tradition that there was a real and lasting connection with the Raleigh Settlement.”
Proponents of the Lost Colony-Lumbee connection point to how Anglicized the tribe became. The Lumbee people have long spoken English and followed Protestant religious traditions. Nor did they undergo the forced migrations that other Native American tribes suffered through, because of their mixed-race status and because the tribe enacted early agreements with various governmental bodies to avoid displacement and the grossest forms of injustice. Today, the Lumbee people are one of the most prosperous and educated tribes in the United States, thanks largely to UNC-Pembroke, a university originally founded in 1887 as a school for the Lumbee.
It’s at UNCP’s Native American Resource Center that much of the academic research into the history of the Lumbee people has taken place. One of the foremost scholars on Lumbee tradition is Knick, the center’s director. He says there is plenty of evidence that could suggest that the Lost Colony and the Lumbee are connected. Many modern Lumbee surnames match up with surnames found among the Roanoke settlers, he says, and contemporary Lumbee oral history is filled with tales that assert a similar connection. On the other hand, he adds, many of the shared surnames are fairly common in English culture, and there are many others ways the Lumbee could have come into contact with English customs and traditions. As a result, he says, “being an anthropologist and a scientist, I’d like to have some more tangible evidence. I tend to think there is some connection to the Lost Colony, but I don’t think it’s the only explanation.”
Some, like the First Colony Foundation’s Evans, discount the Lumbee idea almost out of hand. “I have never thought the evidence was very strong for the Lumbee theory,” he says. “Maybe it was possible, but more likely contact would have been with a closer tribe like the Algonquin or Tuscarora.”
He’s not the only one who has doubts. Knick says that while many modern Lumbee believe they are descendants of the Lost Colony, perhaps just as many believe they aren’t. In fact, today’s Lumbee tribe seems to downplay the Lost Colony theory, because Anglicization is a double-edged sword. While it has brought education, relative prosperity and freedom from oppression, it has caused many observers – both Native and non-Native – to conclude that the Lumbee are too mixed to be considered Indians.
The biggest negative effect of their assimilation has been the federal government’s refusal to recognize the Lumbee as an official Native American tribe, a position that precludes the Lumbee from receiving most governmental assistance. “The tribe is involved in a tough political fight,” says longtime Lumbee leader Bruce Barton. Frankly, we haven’t been much involved in the public debate about the Lost Colony angle.” Barton says he personally has “mixed feelings” about the Lost Colony speculation, adding that “there are people who have tried to use it against us.” In the end, Barton likes to view the possible connection to the Lost Colony as, fittingly enough, a great mystery. “I don’t know if we do [descend from the colonists] or not,” he says, “but it’s worth speculating.”
Yet another theory, recently proposed by anthropologist Lee Miller, suggests the colony’s success was actually sabotaged by enemies of Sir Walter Raleigh, and that the colonists moved inland where the males were killed and the women and children were enslaved and eventually assimilated (see jhu.edu/*jhumag.1101web/Roanoke.html).
When it comes to the fate of those 112 English colonists, it can be argued that all anyone has is basically speculation. And that’s why the Lost Colony remains so fascinating. “It makes for a good story,” Knick says. “It’s an unknown. It’s about 100-some-odd souls who disappeared into the mists of time.”
In March, 2007, the British Museum will mount an exhibition entitled “A New World: England’s First View of America” showcasing 70 original, rarely-seen watercolors created by John White during expeditions to North Carolina in the 1580s. The same exhibition will have its inaugural showing in North Carolina at the North Carolina Museum of History, in Raleigh, in October 2007.
Ryan Whirty is a freelance journalist who specializes in history, sports and music.