The original colony of Roanoke remains one of the most intriguing mysteries in the history of North America.  A number of theories have been presented to explain the disappearance of the Roanoke colony.  Some of these theories include the integration of the colony into Native American tribes, a northern migration, cannibalism, alien abduction, or Native American attack.  The following research paper has been reposted from an academic review that was submitted in May of 2017.

The Colony

The colony of Roanoke is the older brother of the colony established by Sir Walter Raleigh.  There were at least two settlement attempts at Roanoke before it was totally abandoned.  The first was in 1585.  The colony was abandoned sometime between 1588 and 1590.  It was found completely abandoned with no real evidence as to what happened to the inhabitants in 1590.  Today, the area that was known as Roanoke Village is in Dare County, North Carolina situated on the northeast coast of the state.  Dare County is named for the Dare family, prominent in the colony of Roanoke.  The Dare family claimed provenance in the New World with the birth of Virginia Dare - the first English child to be born in the New World.


When considering the nature of colonial times in the America’s, we are often presented with stories of interactions with the natives, and warring with other European nations.  We frequently forget the mystery that shrouds this world that was entirely unknown to the Europeans.  The terrain, climate, inhabitants, wildlife, and the isolation provided by the wilderness all were enough to raise hairs for the new explorer.  Within these mysteries, however, are tales and stories for which we have yet to provide a solid answer.  One of these stories that garners the interest of many is the lost Roanoke Colony.

Before one looks at the potential causes of the disappearance of those in the Roanoke Colony, it’s important to understand a brief history of that colony.  Roanoke was situated within the barrier islands of North Carolina in the late sixteenth century.  This was done to not only guard the colony from pirates, but to also to remain hidden from them.  The barrier islands also provided a wealth of protection from the dangers of the seas.

Roanoke largely resembled many other colonies such as Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts. [1]  Because of this, it’s important for us to examine these similar colonies.  Some of them survived but did so at the cost of their identities.  Others were absorbed later by other surrounding villages or destroyed in battles between other nations or the natives.  Roanoke, however, remains the colony that has no true sense of closure as to what happened to it.

An example of this is the transformation of a town called Dedham, Massachusetts in the 1630s.  Dedham was described to have a flourishing Puritan population for the first years of its existence.  However, an increase in native populations – some of which practiced general Christianity – led to the decline of the Puritan commune.  Conflict arose as a result, but ultimately instead of self-destructing, Dedham transformed into a different kind of community. [2]  While it is unlikely that any native population was practicing Christianity in the vicinity of Roanoke, it is possible that conflict with native tribes and failed integration led to the abandonment of the colony.

Other colonies, such as Jamestown. were brought to the brink of destruction, narrowly escaping the same fate as Roanoke.  The first accounts we have of the Jamestown expedition depict a dangerous place, and while it may not have initially been hostile, such hostilities did blossom there.  Famine swept through Jamestown, and the ill-prepared colonists did not plan for the environment nor the climate that was present in Virginia.  Because of this, many of them perished. [3]  We do know that tensions with the natives arose at Roanoke as well, and while Jamestown survived, this was by an arguably marginal scale.

Besides the potential of being sacked by native tribes or competing countries, the matter of harsh or unforgiving climates remains a widely-accepted explanation.  The North American continent is home to one of the most diverse climates in the world, something for which early European settlers may have been ill prepared. With a fair amount of analysis, we have been able to determine that there may have been not only a dry and cold winter, but a dry summer as well. [4]   uch dry conditions would have made growing crops difficult and could have also shifted wildlife away from the area.  Such decline in the availability of food could have led to a widespread famine that either caused settlers to perish, or for them to flee elsewhere in search of food. [5]

Famine is mentioned in other colonial records along with harsh or abnormal climate, such as Jamestown, Massachusetts, and Plymouth.  Likewise, large quantities of rainfall could account for a decline in food and health as well.  An increase in rain could lead to the destruction of crops, the fleeting of wildlife, and the increase in insect activity.  While evidence tends to point towards a drought in this region during the time of the Roanoke Colony, [6] it is certainly worth considering climate as a major player in the decline and destruction of the colony.

With the risks of high rainfall immediately following such a staggering drought in the 1580s, the risk of flooding on a dangerous scale increased.  As Roanoke was an island, it was considerably more susceptible to heavy rains, tides, and even storm surge.  Such impacts could have caused settlers to flee or be swept away by the currents.  Erosion of the island itself may also be a cause for the decline in Roanoke.  This erosion may have impacted potential farm lands and hunting grounds.  The widespread nature of flooding and erosion may also explain why the barrier islands and the mainland were not deemed suitable for the immediate resettlement by anyone who may have fled Roanoke. [7]

It remains a mystery what truly caused Roanoke’s abandonment, and today we are still searching for these answers.  The most comprehensive account for the events that happened at Roanoke is the narrative provided by Ralph Lane.  However, scholars are quick to point out that while Lane’s account is the most detailed, it’s also the one that suffers from the greatest problems when it comes to organization.  Thus, studying this source creates challenges for understanding the nature of Roanoke. [8]

Lane’s role in Roanoke is described as that of overseeing the colony, putting him in a position of power to provide insight on what happened there.  He was tasked with establishing the colony as a point of reprieve for English mercenaries moving to steal assets from the Spanish in the Caribbean and Florida. [9]  The fact that this was intended to be a post for the smuggling of Spanish goods away from Spain could also lead to a reason for the abandonment of the colony.  A pirate attack from the Spanish either due to being pursued to Roanoke, or perhaps even the leaking of Roanoke’s location and purpose could have spelled the end of the colony at the hands of the Spanish.  This would have also fit in with the “no peace beyond the line” policy that Europe had adopted after the discovery of the New World.

The other account of Roanoke’s activity comes from the governor John White, who described the establishment of the colony and subsequently the report that the colony was missing.  White was not present during Roanoke’s demise, however, and therefore conclusive information in his reports regarding the whereabouts of the inhabitants of the failed lost colony never existed. [10]  However, White’s reports seem to provide additional context and validation to some claims that are made in Robert Lane’s report.  Both seem to describe certain issues in Roanoke regarding native populations [11] and the emphasis on the security of the colony from being sacked by the Spanish.

Both Lane and White were commissioned to establish this colony at the request of Sir Walter Raleigh as the first English colony. [12]  As such, the understanding that the English had of this world was miniscule to none.  Raleigh himself knew little of the dangers that went along with this, hearing only the accounts handed down to him by those from other nations.  Likewise, due to the nature of the New World, any reports that may have reached him may not necessarily be accurate for the location that Raleigh was focused on.

Ultimately, the fate of the inhabitants of the colony is unknown.  White’s return to the colony to restock it led him to discover that it was abandoned and no true evidence to the location of the people was discovered.  Haywood Pearce described a quartz stone that was discovered in the 1930s which may provide some minor thoughts about the fate of Roanoke, but the validity of this find is too ambiguous.  It is also recognized that the stone that was found may have instead been a tombstone originally.  The assumption that is reached by reading the inscription of the stone leads to several potential reasons: famine, sickness, and warfare. [13]  All of these seem reasonable, and any one of these things could destroy a colony that had not yet established itself.

With the stone being taken lightly, and all other evidence [14] with any value being merely text, it makes truly understanding the fate of Roanoke difficult to comprehend.  We can look to analog colonies such as Jamestown for possible scenarios, but these are far from fool proof means of investigation.  Colonies such as Dedham give us thought as to what might happen in the event of assimilating the two ethnicities of people, but this does not explain what might happen if the situation in Dedham were reversed.  One can only use these analogs as plausible scenarios instead of absolute truths.

William Bradford’s description of small pox in Plymouth could have provided some insight as to the chance of sickness befalling Roanoke, but it still does not explain the nature of which the colony was abandoned. [15] Lane’s account leads one to believe that there is a chance the colony could have been sacked by pirates from Spain that followed English pirates from the Caribbean, but this is speculation from a disorganized source.  White’s description of conflict with the native population lends evidence to a war with the native Roanoke tribe, this, much like Bradford’s report, does not account for the nature of the abandonment of the colony.

This mystery that has spanned more than 300 years remains today, although we are making progress in better understanding of what may have caused the desertion of Roanoke.  The climate and terrain of the colony may have been such that it created devastating conditions for the first settlers, and as a result they had to flee to save themselves.  Their paths may have had them cross native populations that could have either welcomed them into their communities or executed them.  It is still too early to determine for sure if what happened in Roanoke was natural or man caused, but the evidence continues to grow.  One thing remains certain, however: the first colonists at Roanoke have never been accounted for, and it remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the New World.


[1]   Albeit at different places in time.
[2]   Lockridge, Kenneth A.  A New England Town: The First Hundred Years. Norton, New York. 1970.
[3]  Partial detail of this account can be found in Rushforth, Brett; Mapp, Paul W. Colonial North America and the Atlantic World: A History in Documents. New York. 2009. Pp87-90.
[4]  Stahle, Davie W. “The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts.” Science. Issue 5363. 1998. pp564-567.
[5]  This is also supported by NCEP/NASA data and documents citing the Megadrought of 1580.  NASA constructed an article only recently claiming the 1934 drought was worse than the 1580 drought. (
[6]  Stahle references drought in the Roanoke and Jamestown regions and flooding in the inter-continental regions at this time.  However, it is worth pointing this out for the sake of emphasizing the impact of climate in the region.
[7]  Dolan and Bosserman explore this potential (and only this potential) in their analysis in Dolan, Robert; Bosserman, Kenton. “Shoreline Erosion and the Lost Colony.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers.1972. pp424-426.
[8]  Described in Donegan, Kathleen. “What Happened in Roanoke: Ralph Lane’s Narrative Incursion.” Early American Literature. Volume 48, Issue 2. June 2013. p285.
[9]  Ibid. p286.
[10]  Described as context in Pearce, Haywood J. “New Light on the Roanoke Colony: A Preliminary Examination of a Stone Found in Chowan County, North Carolina.” The Journal of Southern History. May 1938. pp151-152.
[11]  Ibid.
[12]  Ibid. pp152-154.
[13]  Ibid. pp149-150.
[14]  It is unclear as to whether or not any clues were actually left for the White resupply expedition or if these were fabricated after the fact.
[15]  Rushforth, Brett; Mapp, Paul W. “William Bradford Describes an Outbreak of Small Pox.” Colonial North America and the Atlantic World: A History in Documents. New York. 2009. p30.

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