Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Mystery Behind the Founding of Modern America

by Jenny Barden

The disappearance of the 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke has become embedded in the folklore surrounding the birth of modern America. As an Englishwoman I can attest to the story being less well known in the UK than in the States, but most people are aware that, before the Pilgrim Fathers and before Jamestown, Sir Walter Raleigh tried to found a colony that failed in that it did not survive. The many layers of mystery surrounding its demise are not so familiar, and the uncertainty of its fate has been the subject of enduring fascination.

Roanoke sunset

When, in August 1587, Governor John White left the Island of Roanoke in the region then known as Virginia, and bade farewell to the first English colony with a chance of permanence, comprising at least 113 men, women and children, he expected to return within a year at most and bring relief in the form of extra supplies. But a succession of mishaps and interventions, including piracy and the threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada, meant that White did not return until the summer of 1590.

White must have been anxious to be reunited with his daughter, Eleanor, and his baby granddaughter, Virginia Dare, born only days before his departure -- the first child of English parents born in America. But tragedy blighted the relief effort before the landing boats got as far as the shallow waters behind the dunes of the Outer Banks. The expedition arrived in the midst of a storm, and in trying to pass through a dangerous inlet one of the boats overturned and seven men drowned. The search continued in failing spirits and under pressure of time in the teeth of a developing tempest.

Oregon Inlet - similar to the passage where White's men drowned

Late the following day, White and his party reached Roanoke Island and made for the light of a fire in the woods which gave them heart, believing it might be a signal left by the colonists. In his account of the expedition White wrote: 'We let fall our Grapnel neere the shore, & sounded with a trumpet a Call, & afterwardes many familiar English tunes of Songs, and called to them friendly; but we had no answere.'

Imagine the desperate hope with which White must have called for his family in the gathering darkness, having seen what he thought was a signal, only to be confronted with an eerie silence. The next day they landed and found dead trees smouldering where they had seen the light the previous night, but no sign of people beyond the 'print of the Salvages feet of 2 or 3 sorts troaden that night' in the sand. On the approach to the place where the colonists had established their 'citie of Ralegh', White saw the letters 'CRO' carved into a conspicuous tree. Then, on a post near the entrance to a defensive wall of tree trunks, he found the word 'CROATOAN'.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, thought to be close to the location of the 'Citie of Ralegh'

The signs have become iconic in that they represent the last messages of the Colonists to be received by Europeans, but their meaning remains an enigma. White was in no doubt that the signs showed that at least the Colonists had not left Roanoke in distress because they had agreed a code with White by which, if they were forced to abandon the settlement, then they would carve a cross thus ✠ next to the name of their destination. If there was no cross then they had not moved under duress. 

But if they were not under threat, why had the settlers built a defensive wall, and why move to Croatoan, a smaller less fertile island? There was no other clue as to where White's 'Planters' had gone, no sign of them or their boats. White found the houses in ruins, and equipment and artillery left in disarray and overgrown with weeds. Chests, plainly once buried, had been dug up and their contents spoiled. Many of White's own books, maps and paintings had been destroyed. The message suggested that the Planters had re-located to Croatoan, one of the barrier islands occupied by the friendly Croatan tribe of Algonquian Indians, but White had no time to search there; deteriorating weather forced the expedition to leave.

Where had the Colonists gone? If they had moved to Croatoan then surely they would have kept a lookout for ships and signaled with smoke or in some other way in response to the gun blasts from White's ship with which the expedition announced its arrival, and it is doubtful that Croatoan could have supported over a hundred more mouths to feed in addition to the native Croatans who who were themselves short of food when the settlers first arrived.  

The reconstruction 'Elizabeth' at Roanoke Island, similar to the 'Lion' that brought the Lost Colonists from England

The uncertainty is compounded by the fact that, according to White's account, the settlers were 'prepared to remove from Roanoke 50 miles into the maine'. Some historians have taken this to mean that they planned to make for Chesapeake Bay which was their original destination before the expedition Pilot, Simon Ferdinando (often called 'Fernandez'), made the Colonists disembark at Roanoke.

Others have speculated that the settlers intended to move to a new site near the confluence of the rivers now known as the Roanoke and the Chowan. This theory was given added impetus last year when a patch over White's Virginea Pars map of the region was discovered to mask a fort like symbol. Did this mark the secret destination of the Colonists, one that they dared not reveal publicly for fear of making the new city a target for Spanish attack?

Excavations in this area are now planned, and are continuing near modern day Buxton on Hatteras Island at a site presumed to be the principal Algonquian settlement on Croatoan. They may never yield definitive proof as to what happened to the Colonists. The patch on White's map could simply mark a fort that was once proposed but never established. It indicates a place close to the main settlement of the Choanoke tribe who were originally welcoming of the English, though relations deteriorated between them and the garrison initially stationed on Roanoke under the command of Ralph Lane, to the point at which Lane took the son of the Choanoke chief prisoner and may never have released him.

Chowan swamp

Perhaps the Colonists did head north for Chesapeake; they had boats with which to navigate through waterways and swamp. They also had a pinnace that could potentially even have got back to England since it had already made one Atlantic crossing. The messages carved into the trees could have been confusing because they were incomplete. Possibly the settlers were attacked before they had a chance to add any warning. They may have meant to retreat to Croatoan and then head somewhere else -- somewhere that could not be identified because it had not yet been named.

The tantalising morsels of information that filtered back to England over subsequent decades suggested that some of the Colonists survived, at least for a while. John Smith (the adventurer famously saved by Pocahontas) sent back reports of 'certaine men clothed' who had established a community hidden in the forest to the southwest of Chesapeake Bay at a place called Ocanahonan. Later he was told by chief Powhatan that a settlement of white people had survived in that region for almost twenty years which had been destroyed by his warriors in the Spring of 1607.

If true, most of the inhabitants would have been slain just as the first Jamestown settlers arrived, possibly because Powhatan feared being overwhelmed by the invaders. This would be consistent with the observation of Captain Newport, who commanded the ship carrying the Jamestown colonists, that there was a large swathe of land to the south of Chesapeake Bay which appeared to have been cleared for farming, though he came across no Europeans or settlement, only hostile natives, and smoke rising from a distance in the forest.

Subsequent reports emerged of pale-skinned people living with tribes far inland, of white captives who worked at copper-smelting in villages along the Chowan River, and of grey-eyed, brown-haired people living on the island of Croatoan. None were ever verified.

Roanoke Island - woodland and marshflats

The fate of the Lost Colony is the larger mystery but within it there are many others, such as the mystery of the disappearance of the earlier second garrison left on Roanoke by Sir Richard Grenville* and the strange behaviour of Simon Ferdinando whose actions almost wrecked both Lane's expedition and White's. Was he incompetent or unlucky, or possibly a secret agent for Spain with a brief to sabotage the expedition? Or was Ferdinando under covert orders from Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, to locate the colony further south than Raleigh intended?...

One of the joys of writing my second novel, The Lost Duchess, has been to take these questions and weave a story around possible answers. The challenge has been to arrive at a solution that not only makes for an engrossing read but hangs together in relation to what is known. I hope I have succeeded.

The mystery will live on.


* The loss of Grenville's men without trace beyond 'the bones of one of those fifteene, which the Savages had slaine long before' is a subject I cover in more detail here: http://readingthepast.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/when-eden-became-hell-vision-and-plight.html

** Quotations from the original accounts of the 1587 and 1590 expeditions are as reproduced in The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of the First Settlements in North America 1584-1590 edited by DB Quinn and AM Quinn

*** Other sources: Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton and Roanoke the Abandoned Colony by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

**** All images copyright of Jenny Barden


Jenny Barden’s second novel, The Lost Duchess, is an epic Elizabethan adventure-love story set against the backdrop of Raleigh’s ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke. It will be released tomorrow (7 November) and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK
More about Jenny and her writing can be found on her website:

A giveaway of The Lost Duchess will be held on this site beginning 11 November 2013.


  1. I am looking forward to reading this novel and reviewing it. The photographs here are excellent and this article fascinating, Jenny.

    1. Thank you, Carol. I'm delighted that you've found the article interesting. Exploring the subject of the Lost Colony is like gazing into a diamond - new facets keep appearing! Much looking forward to your review

  2. This mystery has long fascinated me. Your post is well done. I look forward to your book!

  3. Many thanks, Lauren. I hope you get to read 'The Lost Duchess' and enjoy exploring the mystery a little further! Like you, I've found the subject fascinating


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