The Unsolved Mystery of Roanoke Island: How America’s First English Colony Disappeared Without a Trace

Written By Wise Healthy n Wealthy

Off the east coast of North Carolina lies a tiny island home to one of the most enduring mysteries in American history.

The story begins in the late 16th Century. Sir Walter Raleigh of England decided to establish the first permanent English colony in America on an 18-square-mile island between the mainland and modern-day Outer Banks. Its name?

Roanoke Island.

Source: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Things Didn’t Go to Plan

Establishing the colony proved more difficult than anticipated.

A combination of challenging conditions, scarce supplies, and strained relationships with the native Roanoke people meant the first attempt in 1585 failed. The colonists all-but abandoned the island in 1586.

However, the Brits, this time led by artist and explorer John White, who’d been present on the first expedition, returned in 1587 for a second try. Alas, similar issues plagued the settlers.

Before long, White was forced to leave behind his wife, child, and newborn grandchild on Roanoke while he returned to England seeking fresh resources and manpower.

Little did he know that would be the last time he’d ever see them…

Source: National Maritime Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

White’s Delayed Return Journey

Poor John White left the island on August 27 and made it to England on November 5, 1587. It was bad timing.

The Anglo-Spanish war was hotting up.

With reports of the Spanish Armada being mobilized for an attack on the country, Queen Elizabeth had forbidden any functioning ship from leaving. She knew she’d need every single one in the battle to come.

Unfortunately, this (alongside other factors, including an aborted attempt following an attack from French pirates) meant White was unable to return to Roanoke Island until 1590.

Source: Design by William Ludwell Sheppard, Engraving by William James Linton, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mystery Unfolds

When White finally got back to the island, it wasn’t to the happy family reunion he may have anticipated.

The colony had been completely abandoned. The entire group of 100+ people, including his own family, had disappeared.

There were no signs of life. Nor was there any indication of struggle.

A palisade had been constructed to fortify the site in his absence. Inside, everything had been removed and/or looted, including three trunks containing White’s belongings. Entire houses had been dismantled, too.

The only clue left behind were two inscriptions.

The letters “CRO” and the word “CROATOAN” had been carved into a tree and a post, respectively.

White thought he knew what had happened. The colonists must have relocated to the neighbouring Croatoan Island (present-day Hatteras Island). Unfortunately, he’d never find out if he was right…

Their Fate Remains a Mystery

White planned to explore Croatoan the day after encountering the abandoned colony. However, it wasn’t to be.

His ship’s anchor cable snapped, forcing them to delay the search mission and commit to returning the following year. Alas, that plan also fell through. White ended up with no choice but to go back to England in October 1590.  

He died three years later.

To this day, the fate of the Lost Roanoke Colony remains unknown. However, the disappearance has led to various theories, including assimilation into Native American tribes, violent conflict, or migration to a different location.




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