The mystery of the disappearance of the English colonists on Roanoke Island provokes many questions even in the 21st century, and the history of the Roanoke colony is a subject for the investigation event today. The reason is that there is no single opinion regarding the causes and aspects of the first English settlers’ disappearance, and certain theories have been developed to explain what could happen to the colonists (De Keersmaeker et al, p. 4). The purpose of this paper is to examine the aspects of the situation with reference to primary and secondary sources and explain researchers’ views regarding the mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. Although there are many hypotheses regarding the English colonists’ disappearance, it is possible to consider the theory of the settlers’ integration into Powhattans’ and Croatoans’ tribes as one of the most convincing versions.
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Theoretical Argument on the Historical Events Leading to the Colonists’ Disappearance
The examination of the controversial historical situation should be started from presenting the timeline of the related events through the perspective of the theoretical arguments existing on the topic. The story of colonizing Roanoke Island started in 1584, when Sir Walter Raleigh, assigned by Queen Elizabeth I to occupy American lands, sent the first expeditions to explore the East coast. Thus, Philip Amadas en Arthur Barlowe and Sir Richard Grenville led the first two expeditions to the island. The first colony that was named Virginia and included about 100 people was organized in 1585 under the rule of Ralph Lane. However, Lane could not develop positive relations with the natives, and the wars among tribes were typical for that territory. Thus, “the land was scantily populated with small, independent villages under chiefs who were continuously at war with one another” (Foss, p. 140). In 1586, Lane killed “Wingina, a local chieftain who was preparing an attack on the colony,” and the tension between the colonists and natives increased (De Keersmaeker et al. 6; Galeano, pp. 152-153). As a result, Lane came to the decision to leave the island.
Raleigh attempted to organize the colony in some other place, but circumstances made the leaders of the expedition form the second colony on Roanoke Island in 1587. Thus, 115 colonists established the colony headed by John White, and they were oriented toward improving the relationships with the tribes. However, one of the colonists was killed by the representatives of the Roanokans, and this fact accentuated the pressure in the relationships between the settlers and Indians. After that event, the supply fleet headed by Simon Fernandez arrived to the island, and John White went back to England with the fleet (Foss, pp. 167-168). The purpose of leaving the colony was the necessity to report to Raleigh and ask for some aid: “the colonists, apprehensive for their support in England, had decided to send someone back to guard their interests” (Foss, p. 167). The problem was that the developed war with Spain and the risk of the Spanish Armada’s attacks led to the situation when the colony was not supported by England for nearly three years (De Keersmaeker et al, p. 6). There were no opportunities to send English ships with supplies to the colony.
A new expedition to Roanoke Island was organized only in 1590 in order to return White to the colony, but no supply was provided. In August of 1590, the ships arrived at the island, but there were no colonists there. Although “the old settlement was a melancholy sight,” White did not find the evidence of the fight on the island, and it seemed that the houses were left not in a hurry (Foss, p. 171). The only signs that were found by White and his people were the carved words “CRO” and “Croatoan” on palisades. White assumed that the colonists could go to Croatoan Island or any other location with fertile lands to survive without supplies (Foss, pp. 171-172). Still, White and his people left Roanoke Island without searching for the colonists.
English Settlers’ Relationships with Tribes and Violence
In order to be able to analyze and evaluate possible theories on the disappearance of the colonists at Roanoke Island, it is necessary to focus on the description of the tribes with which the colonists interacted. The understanding of the relationships between the English settlers and Indian tribes with a focus on possible violence and misunderstanding can be helpful in explaining the development of the settlement after John White’s departure. The Roanoke tribe was against the settlers, and conflicts between them occurred. The killing of George Howe in July of 1587 indicated only the beginning of violent relations between the settlers and natives (De Keersmaeker et al, p. 6). The settlers tried to occupy more fertile lands and resources of the island, and the Roanokans aggressively protected their territories from the invasion.
On the contrary, the Croatoans, who inhabited Croatoan Island, were friendly, and they promised to assist the colonists in conflicts. Thus, the Croatoans were “Native folks who gave them [settlers] food, who called themselves Chowanoke” (Wood, p. 178). Therefore, the Croatoans were provided with badges to help the colonists to identify them among other natives. White and Manteo, his friend among the Croatoans, also organized an attack against the Roanokans, but it was no successful because of the attempt to attack friendly Croatoans instead of enemies (De Keersmaeker et al, p. 6). It is important to note that the colonists’ relationships with the Croatoans could explain the mystery of the settlers’ further disappearance.
Historians’ Hypotheses to Explain the Lost Colony’s Mystery
The historians who explored the English settlers’ secret developed several hypotheses to explain the causes and circumstances around the situation. One of the key hypotheses is that, after John White’s leaving, the colonists of Roanoke Island integrated into the Powhattan tribe representing the Chesepian Indians. Initially, the colonists and natives lived friendly together, but then there was a conflict, and the leader of the tribe killed the colonists (De Keersmaeker et al, pp. 7-8). Furthermore, according to historians, the colonists could be divided into two groups: one group was killed by the Powhattans, and the other group “is believed … to have remained with the Croatoans” (Hirschman et al, p. 5). According to Quinn, “we are forced to accept as a fact that they became Indian themselves” (qtd. in Hirschman et al, p. 5). Some colonists were killed by the Powhattans, as also stated by Parramore: “Chief Powhatan, warned by his priests of danger from unnamed people east of his confederacy, had both the Chesapeakes and Roanoke colonists massacred in April 1607” (p. 67). This theory is supported by the majority of historians, and it is closely related to the hypothesis of settlers’ integration.
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Thus, the other opinion on the colonists’ secret is that they did not disappear but integrated into different Indian tribes. The reason for the development of this hypothesis is the evidence provided by the colonists of Jamestown. They reported that some Indian tribes had buildings similar to English ones, others had similar clothes (Quinn, pp. 12-18). The stories about the natives speaking English were also spread along with the fact that some Indians had pale skin and grey eyes (De Keersmaeker et al, pp. 8-9). According to De Keersmaeker et al., the example of the tribe with the integrated colonists of Roanoke Island is the Lumbee tribe (the Croatoans) (p. 8). The evidence to support the hypothesis includes family names, traditions, grey eyes, and the knowledge of spoken English. These facts support the theory that the first settlers successfully integrated into the Croatoan tribe.
One more theory is associated with finding the “Dare Stone”. Thus, the first stone was found in 1937, and it had the text on both sides and the initials “EWD” associated with Eleanor White Dare, who was the daughter of John White. Later, 47 other stones were found, but all the stones, except the first one, were declared to be non-authentic. The text on the first stone described the life of the colonists after White’s departure. There were conflicts with the natives, and only 24 colonists could survive (De Keersmaeker et al, pp. 9-10). The author of the text on the stone asked to give it to John White. The story about Dare Stones indirectly supports the hypotheses about the integration of the settlers and Indians and the later death of the colonists because of some factors.
In addition to the stated theories, there are also other hypotheses that can be discussed as having rather little evidence in support. According to one of the less popular theories, the cause of the colonists’ disappearance was the flooding and other natural phenomena, including hurricanes and storms (De Keersmaeker et al, p. 11). Additionally, there is an idea that the settlers disappeared after the attacks of the Spaniards, who conquered with the Englishmen for the lands in Florida (De Keersmaeker et al, pp. 9-10). Some historians assume that this theory is rather realistic because of the prolonged competition between Spain and Britain for colonies in America that also caused the impossibility to reach the first colony for about three years.
In spite of the fact that there are several specific hypotheses regarding the English colonists’ disappearance on Roanoke Island, it is possible to view the theory of their integration into two Indian tribes as one of the most persuasive and realistic versions. Thus, this hypothesis is actively supported by historians today because of the presence of some particular evidence to explain it. On the one hand, there are some arguments and proofs regarding the possible killing of the colonists by the representatives of the Powhattans after the Englishmen’s integration into the tribe. On the other hand, there is also evidence that the settlers could join the friendly Croatoan tribe, they could successfully integrate, and continue living on the territory as Indians. This version is supported by the followers of John White’s conclusions after he returned back to the island and could not find the settlers. Both these versions are discussed by historians as rather credible. This aspect also influenced the fact that these theories have been combined by some researchers in one popular hypothesis that can explain the mystery of the Lost Colony.
- De Keersmaeker, Koen, et al. The Lost Colony of Roanoke: A Brief Introduction, 2015. Web.
- Foss, Michael. Undreamed Shores: England’s Wasted Empire in America. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.
- Galeano, Eduardo. The Memory of Fire Trilogy: Genesis, Faces and Masks, and Century of the Wind. Open Road Media, 2014.
- Hirschman, Elizabeth C., et al. “DNA Evidence of a Croatian and Sephardic Jewish Settlement on the North Carolina Coast Dating from the Mid to Late 1500s.” International Social Science Review, vol. 95, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1-40.
- Parramore, Thomas C. “The” Lost Colony” Found: A Documentary Perspective.” The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 78, no. 1, 2001, pp. 67-83.
- Quinn, David B. The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590. 2 vols. Hakluyt Society, 1955.
- Wood, Karenne. “The Roanoke Colony.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 77, no. 1/2, 2012, pp. 178-179.