Today I Discovered: The Lost Colony Of Roanoke

Today I Discovered: The Lost Colony Of Roanoke

If you’ve been following along with our daily Today I Discovered posts, you would know that I am a sucker for disappearances and weird mysteries. The Lost Colony of Roanoke is certainly one of those weird mysteries. In 1587, John White left the North American Roanoke colony for England. When he returned, three years later – the 115 colonists he left behind had vanished.

We still don’t know exactly what happened to them.

in 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh was tasked by the current Queen of England – Elizabeth I – to establish a permanent colony in North America. As the English have been known to do, they were hungry to find new riches and wonder in the New World.

There were two attempts to establish a colony at Roanoke Island.

The first began when Raleigh dispatched an expeditionary force to explore North America’s east coast. Eventually, the force landed on Roanoke Island on July 4 (a region that is in present-day North Carolina). The expeditionary force returned to England, and to Raleigh, with two members of the native Croatan population, which gave Raleigh enough insight on the region to send a second expeditionary force.

This second force, led by Sir Richard Grenville, established a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island. However, during their explorations of the region, they blamed natives for the theft of a silver cup. For some reason, they decided this was grounds to sack and burn the entire native village down. Shortly after, Grenville decided to return to England and promised to return the following April, with a relief fleet of new colonists and necessary supplies.

Yet, April came and went and Grenville did not return. Shortly after, the colonists at Roanoke Island were attacked by the natives because – well, they burnt their entire village down. Fair’s fair. With the bad blood escalating in the region, the colonists wanted to get out and when Sir Francis Drake stopped by late in 1586 with a ship, most of the colonists decided to get on the intercontinental-Uber and get out of there.

Of course, after everyone had left, Grenville’s relief fleet arrived to find the colony abandoned. He turned his boat around, but decided to leave a small force of around 15 men there.

It would have been so much easier if they all had WhatsApp.

Sadly, for the English, the first attempt to establish a colony had failed.

Then in 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh dispatched a new group to the region, to be led by John White.

115 people, under White’s guidance, were ordered to stop by Roanoke and pick up the men that Grenville had left behind in the year prior. When they arrived – on July 22 – all they found was a single skeleton.

But it gets weirder.

White tried to make amends with the local native populations, but owing to the fact that previous expeditionary forces had sacked and burnt a village to the ground, some of the chiefs refused to deal with him. Fair’s fair.

With the situation getting desperate, White decided to return to England and get help. He left in late 1587, leaving the 115 colonists behind, including his wife, daughter and granddaughter – the first English child born in the Americas.

His aim was to return to the colony in only a few months time, but owing to the fact there was an all-encompassing naval war occurring between the English and the Spanish, every single English ship was being used to fuel the war effort.

He couldn’t get back for three years.

When he finally returned, the settlement was completely deserted. A word was carved into a fence post.


A nearby tree was also graffitied with three letters.


White, prior to leaving, had told the colonists that they were to write the name of their intended location should they need to leave Roanoke. Over the years, many have speculated that these carvings intended to tell White that the colony fled south to Croatoan Island. However, no conclusive evidence exists that the colonists did indeed head south.

The colonists did not seem to depart in any hurry though. The site had been dismantled, as if they had time to consider, deconstruct and move on. They may have been spooked by a particularly virulent disease, the looming threat of the Spanish Armada or disgruntled natives attacking their village. Whatever it was, the Roanoke colony disappeared – and for 470-plus years, we have not been able to work out why.

Some long standing theories include the idea that the colonists dispersed and ended up integrating with one of the many native populations that surrounded them, the Spanish finding and destroying the colony and, I am sure, at one point someone has thrown up the idea that they were abducted by aliens. Archaeologists continue to search for clues all along America’s east coast, but no definitive explanations have been thrown up.

Whatever their fate may have been, the Lost Colony of Roanoke continues to confound historians and enthrall the general public. It has found its way into pop culture and is even the basis of the latest American Horror Story season – Roanoke.

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of facts for Lifehacker readers – the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it’s just mind-blowing. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!

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