The enduring mystery of Roanoke, England's lost colony

Chris Leadbeater
The Roanoke colony was short-lived - Dennis K Johnson

You really have to want to go to Roanoke to make your way there. It is not exactly a place that you find yourself tripping blithely through on your way to somewhere else.

True, there are plenty of sights which might detain you en route, especially if you are driving along the fragile coastline of North Carolina. The black-and-white-striped lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, to the south, perhaps, or the sand dunes of Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903, to the north. But once you turn off Highway 12 on the Atlantic's edge, and take Route 64 across the soupy tides of Roanoke Sound, you enter an outpost that is an end-game of itself - especially if you head for the top of the island, where the road runs out and the choppy waters of Croatan Sound slap the shore.

This marshy nugget of not-entirely-dry-ground would have looked even more like a final destination 433 years ago - when it was supposed to feel like a bright beginning to something new and wholly different. For it was here that the first attempt was made to imprint an English boot into the fresh soil of the New World - and where one of the most enduring mysteries of Britain's colonial era quickly wrapped itself in ocean mists.

Roanoke was a very early chapter in the epic narrative that was the Old World battle to take possession of the Americas. It was inscribed into the pages of history less than a century after Christopher Columbus first sighted land in the Caribbean (in 1492), barely seven decades after the Spanish navigator Juan Ponce de León became the first European to set foot on the mainland of what would become the USA (probably somewhere near what is now St Augustine, on the east coast of Florida, in 1513), and only 22 years before the foundation of Jamestown - the colonial acorn, in what is now Virginia, which would survive, rising from its tentative initial footsteps in 1607 to be the first permanent settlement of migrants from the British Isles on American ground.

Placed against the backdrop of these significant achievements, the Roanoke colony was a failure. Indeed, by any measure, it was a failure. It was first established in 1585, as the government of Elizabeth I looked to catch up with the expansionist policies of Spain - which had been laying claim to vast chunks of the unmapped lands to the west almost from the moment Columbus returned with his planet-realigning news. But where seeds planted all along the Atlantic edge of the Americas, from Boston and New York to Rio and Buenos Aires, would take root and grow tall, Roanoke spluttered in the salt-soil of North Carolina, and died an unnoticed death that is still not understood.

Cape Hatteras Credit: William Britten/wbritten

For all this, it reached a small milestone, of sorts, a couple of weeks ago. Or, at least, its "founder" did. October 29 marked the 400th anniversary of the ignominious death of Sir Walter Raleigh - executed for treason in 1618.

His final moments present him as a man of wisdom and even wit (he is recorded as saying to his executioner "Let us dispatch! At this hour, my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear" - before adding, upon seeing the axe: "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries"). But his record as an explorer was patchy, with any residual gleam probably owing much to his good fortune to live in the same era as the considerably more successful Sir Francis Drake. He is known to have sailed to South America, charting territory in the Orinoco basin, in what is now Venezuela and Guyana. But despite its growing significance beyond the horizon as the 16th century progressed, he never visited North America. Nor did he ever see Roanoke - even though it was his ambition that helped to forge its infamy on a dark, lonely inlet.

Sir Walter Raleigh Credit: 2006 Getty Images/Stock Montage

Its painful birth began on March 25 1584, when Raleigh was granted a royal charter by Elizabeth I, permitting him to colonise any "remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince [ie France or Spain] or inhabited by Christian People". The idea was to mimic Spain in swelling the crown's coffers with shiny things from the apparently gold-loaded bedrock of the New World - but Raleigh was to be the main financial beneficiary of the agreement. The tax rate on the charter was 20 per cent of any gold and silver he mined in his "discoveries".

Raleigh took action almost immediately - even if he himself did not leave port. On April 27 he dispatched two sea captains - Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe - west to North America, with a brief to see what they could find. They landed at Roanoke on July 4, encountered Native Americans from the Secotan and Croatan tribes - before promptly heading back to London with two members of the latter community on board.

The Croatans' appearance in England, and their talk of the geography of the area, was enough to convince Raleigh to fund a second expedition - and the experienced sailor Sir Richard Grenville set off from Plymouth at the head of a fleet of five ships on April 9 1585. The vessels would be separated by storms during the voyage, but Grenville's, the Tiger, arrived at the Outer Banks on June 26. Despite disagreements with the Secotans which led to the village of Aquascogoc being sacked and burned, Grenville decided to establish a colony at the north end of Roanoke - and on August 17, 108 men, led by the explorer Ralph Lane, disembarked and began building a fort. Grenville set off for home, promising to return with supplies and reinforcements by April 1586.

The site is close to the Wright Brothers National Memorial Credit: Copyright 2016/Moelyn Photos

The April would come and go without sign of Grenville, while relations with the local population, soured by the destruction of Aquascogoc, deteriorated into violence. When Sir Francis Drake, sailing in the Caribbean, halted at the colony in the June, he offered passage east to any colonist who wished to return to England. They accepted. When Grenville finally returned to Roanoke a month later, he found it abandoned. He left 15 men on the island to protect the settlement, then returned to European waters.

Raleigh was undeterred. In 1587, he dispatched a second group of colonists, 115 in all - this time under the gaze of his friend John White, who had been part of the 1585 expedition. The plan was to put down roots somewhere further north, on Chesapeake Bay - but the decision to pause at Roanoke en route changed the travellers' destinies.

When they landed on July 22, there was no sign of the 15 men left by Grenville a year before - save for an unidentified skeleton. Heated discussions on whether to move on or rewarm the existing pot saw the group opt to remain on the island - and White set about trying to smooth the fractious relationship with the indigenous tribes. He did not succeed. Within days, one of the colonists was killed while hunting for crabs. White agreed to return to England to ask for help. When he left, the colony already had a new member. On August 18, his daughter Eleanor (who was married to fellow colonist Ananias Dare) had given birth to a girl, Virginia, the first "American" of English stock.

"The christening of Virginia Dare" Credit: 2003 Getty Images/Hulton Archive

The Roanoke settlers would scan the horizon for White's return, but they would not see him again. He did not depart until late in 1587 - by which point winter in the Atlantic made for a perilous, slow crossing. And by the time he reached England, the long-tense political situation with Spain had deteriorated to the point of war. By May 1588, the Spanish Armada was inching north from La Coruna. English ships were desperately commandeered - and White lost his to the defence effort. Amid the ensuing military crisis, he would not find a vessel capable of crossing the ocean for another two years - until, the spring of 1590, when Raleigh funded another odyssey westward. You do not need to be an expert in the Tudor era to grasp the grief White must have felt on arrival. He finally placed foot on Roanoke, on August 18 - his granddaughter's third birthday - to find that Virginia, Eleanor, and every other resident of the colony, had disappeared.

Not just disappeared, but vanished almost without trace. All of them - men, women and children - were gone. But there were no bodies, no graves, and no signs of a struggle. The only clue to their whereabouts was one full word - "CROATOAN" -  carved into a fencepost, and the letters "C-R-O" scratched into an adjacent tree. There was, though, crucially, no cross. White had told the settlers that, if they were forced to leave, they should cut a Maltese cross into a suitable trunk. He found no such symbol. Indeed, every house had been dismantled - suggesting that the colonists had left of their own accord, and at their own pace. To where? White took the message to mean they had gone to Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island, 50 miles to the south). But there was no chance to check. The expedition - a privateering (state-sanctioned piracy) jaunt - was due to sail to Plymouth, and the weather was worsening. White would not lay eyes on his daughter, or his granddaughter, again. Nor would any other European.

John White's return Credit: Stock Montage

So what happened to the Roanoke settlers? There were half-hearted investigations in the 1590s - but by 1603, Elizabeth I was dead, and Raleigh had fallen out with her successor James I. A charge of treason on July 19 1603 would (initially) curb his business and seafaring activities. It would not be until Jamestown was established - some 150 miles to the north of the "Lost Colony" - that theories would start to emerge.

The most gruesome is that they were murdered - not on the island, but elsewhere, and later. John Smith, the leader of the Jamestown colony, is reported to have questioned the Powhatan tribe who lived around the fledgling settlement, and discussed the matter with their chief, Wahunsenacawh. He reputedly admitted to ordering their massacre after discovering them living with the Chesepian tribe, who inhabited the area around what is now the Virginia city of Norfolk (Wahunsenacawh had apparently been told by priests that he would be overthrown by people from the area). This version of events was reported at the court of James I, and caused outrage. But no remains were found, and there is ongoing disagreement as to whether Wahunsenacawh's "claim" refers to the 115 Roanoke settlers or the 15 men left on the island by Richard Grenville in 1586 - or is simply propaganda of the era, pinning the unexplained on the "savages" in the trees.

An Elizabethan Garden has been built on the site Credit: © 2011 John Greim/John Greim

There are other ideas. One is that Spanish forces destroyed the settlement and hid the evidence, as they had done with the French colony of Charlesfort (in what is now South Carolina) in 1563 - although this is unlikely, as the Spanish were still searching for Roanoke as late as 1600. Another is the story of semi-survival in the "Dare Stones" discovered in 1937, which supposedly contain the testimony of Elizabeth White-Dare, beginning with the sorrowful revelation that "Ananias Dare And Virginia Went Hence Unto Heaven 1591". The stones - 48 in total - are widely deemed to be fraudulent.

The Lost Colony theatre Credit: Dennis K Johnson/Dennis K. Johnson

A more solid suggestion is that, with all connections to home seemingly severed, the colonists, fearful of Spanish attacks on their vulnerable location, sought refuge with an indigenous group. Writing in her exhaustive 2000 book Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, US historian Lee Miller argues that some of them found it with the Chowanoc, on the Chowan River (on what is now roughly the state line between North Carolina and Virginia) - but that they were then attacked and captured by a fiercer tribe, the Mandoag, who put some of them to labour on copper forges in the interior.

Lee even suggests that the Jamestown settlers may have come close to finding them, picturing a scene in the early 1610s where "men have come looking for them, Englishmen, stumbling through the trees from faraway Jamestown. Steam rising up from the fires of the melting copper reflects a sudden spark of hope in eyes dulled from drudgery. If only they can speak to the search party. But the Mandoag won't allow it."

The truth? Who knows. The reality in 2018 is that few people have slipped away from existence quite as succinctly as the Roanoke colonists. Visit the site which now salutes them and you will find little more than the reconstructed "Fort Raleigh" (nps.gov/fora; free), a theatre which explores the tale in musical form (thelostcolony.org; from US$20/£15), and the Elizabethan Gardens - a memorial created by the Garden Club of North Carolina (elizabethangardens.org; US$9/£7). Wander down to the latter, deep in the treeline, and you are almost on the beach; nearly on the spot where the 115 would have stood, watching forlornly as John White's ship inched towards the horizon. You could be forgiven for listening to the wind rasping in the branches, and hearing ghosts.

How to do it

America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) sells a 10-night "North Carolina Discovery" road trip which spends two days in the Outer Banks. From £927 per person, including flights, accommodation and hire car.

More on North Carolina at visitnc.com.