Lost Roanoke Colony: 400-Year-Old Mystery Solved by Archaeologists

Lost Roanoke Colony: 400-Year-Old Mystery Solved by Archaeologists

In 1590, the colony of Roanoke experienced a baffling event as every settler suddenly vanished without a trace. Historians have been puzzled by the mystery of what happened to Roanoke for centuries. However, recent archaeological studies have unearthed thousands of artifacts that may provide answers to this enigma.

Unraveling the Mystery of the Lost Roanoke Colony

Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer, founded the Roanoke colony in present-day North Carolina in 1587. Sadly, the settlement met an abrupt end when all its residents mysteriously vanished in 1590. The only clues left behind were the words “Croatoan” carved into a fort’s gatepost and “Cro” etched into a tree.

At that time, “Croatoan” referred to Hatteras Island, which led to a theory that the English settlers had left Roanoke and migrated to the island. Archaeologist Scott Dawson’s extensive excavation work over several decades has potentially provided evidence to support this theory, bringing us closer to solving the Roanoke mystery.

Investigating the Lost Roanoke Colony

Scott Dawson, a native of the island and an experienced archaeologist, is well-suited to uncovering the fate of the Roanoke colony. He serves as the president of the Croatoan Archaeological Society, a group dedicated to investigating this historical incident. Dawson’s book, “The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island,” proposes that the “Lost Colony” was never truly lost, but rather lacked sufficient archaeological evidence until now.

An iron rapier was discovered during excavations. | Image Source: Mark Horton

Beginning in 2009, local volunteers and professional archaeologists embarked on excavations on Hatteras Island. In 2013, their findings began to provide compelling evidence supporting their theory. Among the discoveries were 16th-century artifacts such as copper rings, sword handles, earrings, writing slates, and glass, all traced back to England.

Dawson expressed his astonishment at the discoveries, saying, “As much as I believed the colony went down [to Hatteras], I never actually thought we were going to find it. I can’t believe we found what we found. It’s kind of surreal.”

Assimilation with the Croatoans

Professor Mark Horton, who assisted Dawson in the excavations, suggests that the Roanoke mystery likely involved a natural dispersion. When colonies become abandoned, conflicts and disagreements arise, prompting some groups to separate and migrate elsewhere. Horton asserts that while one group may have ventured northward towards the Chesapeake and Albemarle regions, a substantial part most likely settled on Hatteras Island.

Over the course of the past 11 years, the team has discovered a vast number of artifacts through their archaeological excavations. | Image Source: Mark Horton

According to the experts, they have potentially discovered the “survivor’s camp” on Hatteras Island where the colonists settled before assimilating with the Croatoans. Horton believes that the Native Americans on Hatteras Island were friendly and offered a safe haven for the stranded settlers, where potential rescue was more feasible.

In 2013, significant progress was made when experts excavated old Native American villages such as Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras. They discovered evidence confirming that the colonists had indeed settled on Hatteras Island. The findings included mixed architectural remains, evidence of metallurgy including blacksmith shops working with copper and lead, and signs of continued activity until the 1600s.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempt to establish the first permanent English colony in North America began in 1585. After his initial failure, Raleigh made a second attempt in Roanoke two years later, seemingly achieving success for three years.

Raleigh approved a corporate charter to establish “the Cittie of Raleigh” on Roanoke Island in 1587. Approximately 115 English men, women, and children agreed to join the venture. Most of them were middle-class Londoners, and this voyage marked the first time English women and children traveled to the New World.

The Lost Colony (Lost Roanoke Colony)
The Lost Colony (Lost Roanoke Colony)

Although the 1587 journey proceeded smoothly, Roanoke Colony Governor John White led a small group back to England to gather supplies. Upon their return in 1590, they found the colony deserted, with only the words “Croatoan” and “Cro” as clues. The Croatoans were a friendly tribe inhabiting present-day Hatteras Island, leading to the natural assumption that the settlers might have relocated there.

Dawson emphasizes that even before John White left the colony, they were already in close contact with the Croatoans. Hence, when White discovered the messages three years later, he knew exactly where the settlers had gone and why they were there.

Despite this clear clue, it took over 400 years for archaeologists to confidently trace the settlers’ migration from Roanoke to Hatteras Island.

The Ongoing Roanoke Investigation

Before Dawson’s investigation, nobody had thoroughly explored Hatteras Island to uncover what happened to the Roanoke colony. Dawson was disheartened by the artifacts he saw emerging from house construction or storm erosion, with no concerted effort to investigate further.

Driven by his passion, Dawson founded the Croatoan Archaeological Society and vowed to find evidence of the colonists on Hatteras Island. He believes that the colonists were unaware of being “lost” and simply relocated while awaiting the return of the troop with new supplies.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted further investigations into the Roanoke colony, but Dawson and his team remain hopeful. The results of their ongoing study are compiled in Dawson’s book, with plans for future research.

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