The early history of America is one of colonization, and Europeans crossing to the New World in order to start a new civilization. Being a colonist isn’t just planting a flag and accusing young girls of witchcraft. During the 14th and 15th century it was a frightening occupation riddled with dangers at every turn. Not only was the crossing from Europe to the Americas a treacherous one, but just landing on a strange unpopulated shore must have been an extremely frightening prospect. That’s why many colonies failed before even being established. There are many factors that can lead to a colony’s failure: droughts, famine, attacks by natives, and disease. But to disappear without a single trace is something else entirely.
In March of 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh was granted a charter from Queen Elizabeth that allowed for the colonization of North America. Along with finding new resources to send back to England, Raleigh was also tasked with providing a base of operation for privateers to carry out raids on Spanish ships that were returning to Spain with treasure from the New World. April 27, 1584, Raleigh sent Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe on a mission of exploration. On July 4th Philip and Arthur found Roanoke Island (what is now Dare County, North Carolina). There they encountered two native tribes- the Secotans and the Croatoans. The Croatoans became invaluable when it came to providing information on tribal politics and the geography of the region. Philip and Arthur even returned to England with two Croatoans who assisted in preparations for the next expedition to the island which was to be led by Sir Richard Grenville.
Grenville’s fleet departed Plymouth on April 9th 1585. Unlike Phillip and Arthur, Grenville and his men were a little less diplomatic when it came to establishing relations with the natives. In one incident, Greenville’s men accused a local village of theft. In retaliation, they raided the village and burned it to the ground. After this encounter, Grenville ordered that Ralph Lane and 107 of his men establish a colony on Roanoke Island. With very little in the way of supplies, the colony was established. On August 17, 1585, the fleet departed for England promising to return with more men and supplies. A year passed and Grenville failed to return to the colony with supplies. Sir Francis Drake, returning from the Caribbean, stopped over at the colony. There he learned that bad blood between the colony and the natives had reached its breaking point. A few months prior to Drake’s arrival, the colonists had repealed an attack on the enclave from a local tribe. Drake returned to England with a handful of colonists. However, most remained behind along with a garrison of Drake’s soldiers in order to protect the colony from future attacks.
In 1587, Raleigh sent colonists, under the command of John White, to establish a colony along the Chesapeake Bay. Before he could do so White was ordered to travel to Roanoke Island to check on the colony there. On July 22nd, he arrived to find the colony deserted. A skeleton believed to be a member of Drake’s garrison was the only human remains found. For unknown reasons, Simon Fernandez the commander of White’s fleet, ordered that a new colony be established. In desperate need of reinforcement, White returned to England leaving behind 115 colonists. A year later White attempted to return to the Island but was raided by a Spanish privateer, forcing him to return to England. Because of England’s war with Spain, White was not able to mount another resupply attempt until three years later.
White finally arrived on the island on August 18, 1590, there he found no trace of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children he had left behind. Also listed among the mission was three-year-old Virginia Dare, the first European citizen to be born in the colonies, but now disappeared. Even the buildings that made up the colony had been dismantled and removed, which indicated that the colonist did not leave in a hurry. Before departing for England three years earlier, he informed his men that if they were driven from the colony by force they were to carve a Maltese cross on a tree. White found no cross, however, he did find the word “Croatoan” carved into one of the fence posts while the more ominous “Cro” was carved into a nearby tree. White believed that this meant the colonists had moved to the nearby Croatoan Island, however, bad weather prevented them from investigating further. The next day his men returned to England.
Many people have hypothesized about what happened to the colony both times. Some believe that the colonists simply left the island. It is thought that they dismantled their homes in order to build rafts that would transport them north towards the Chesapeake Bay where they could establish a new colony. Once there, it is thought that they were wiped out by a local tribe. Others believe that, because of lack of food, they abandoned the colony to live amongst the natives. Another theory is that the colonists were whipped out by the Croatoans. The Croatoans then had plenty of time to dismantle the settlement and erase any sign of violence. Others believe the colonists went off to live with the tribe. This theory is said to be supported by evidence of natives with lighter skin who spoke English in that region. Still some believe disease or a harsh winter took down the colony.However, no mass graves were ever found to support this theory. If they did experience a harsh winter, perhaps they ran low on food and resorted to cannibalism, much like the Donner party did some 200 years later. But again, the lack of a mass grave makes this theory difficult to prove.
Then there are those theories which delve more into the supernatural. One belief is that the Roanoke Island Colony was a victim of a mass alien abduction. Although they left clues that they were on their way to Croatoan Island, no sign of the colony was ever found there, or anywhere else. Perhaps the entire settlement exists on some far away wildlife preserve where aliens can watch human civilization progress.