illustration of Roanoke settlers meeting Native Americans article

Illustration by Greg Copeland


What Happened to This Colony?

For more than 400 years, experts have been trying to solve the famous case of a lost colony.

As You Read, Think About: What problems did the Roanoke colonists face?

It was a hot August night in 1590. John White and his crew had spent weeks sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from England. Finally, they spotted the rugged shore of Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. White was anxious to see the family and friends he had left behind three years earlier. He especially missed his daughter and baby granddaughter.

But when White reached the island, no one was there. The wooden houses had been taken apart, and the island was overgrown with weeds. One of the few clues was a single word carved into a wooden post: CROATOAN. White knew that was an island about 50 miles south, where the Croatoans, a friendly Native American tribe, lived. Had the missing colonists moved there?

White never found out. Raging storms kept him from searching. He was forced to return to England. To this day, no one knows what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke.

It was a hot August night in 1590. John White and his crew had spent weeks sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from England. Finally, they spotted the rugged shore of Roanoke Island. It was off the coast of what is now North Carolina. White was anxious to see the family and friends he had left behind three years earlier. He especially missed his daughter and baby granddaughter.

But when White reached the island, no one was there. The wooden houses had been taken apart. The island was overgrown with weeds. One of the few clues was a single word carved into a wooden post: CROATOAN. White knew that was an island about 50 miles south. It was where a friendly Native American tribe called the Croatoans lived. Had the missing colonists moved there?

White never found out. Raging storms kept him from searching. He was forced to return to England. To this day, no one knows what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke.

A Rough Start

White and about 115 other men, women, and children arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587. They planned to set up the first permanent English settlement in what they called the New World.

It wasn’t the first time White had visited Roanoke. He had been part of a crew that explored the island and the surrounding area two years earlier. Members of that expedition had killed the leader of a local Native American tribe. So when White returned to establish the Roanoke colony, the Native people were not welcoming. They attacked the colonists, killing one of them.

White’s group faced many hardships as well. The land wasn’t suitable for growing crops, and the colonists were quickly running out of food. White worried they wouldn’t survive.

Just a month into their new life, he sailed back to England for supplies. White’s return trip to America was delayed by a war between England and Spain. He never saw the colonists again.

White and about 115 other men, women, and children arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587. They planned to set up the first permanent English settlement in what they called the New World.

It wasn’t the first time White had visited Roanoke. He had been part of a crew that explored the island and the surrounding area two years earlier. Members of that expedition had killed the leader of a local Native American tribe. So when White returned to establish the Roanoke colony, the Native people were not welcoming. They attacked the colonists. They killed one of them.

White’s group faced many hardships as well. The land wasn’t suitable for growing crops. The colonists were quickly running out of food. White worried they wouldn’t survive.

Just a month into their new life, he sailed back to England for supplies. White’s trip back to America was delayed by a war between England and Spain. He never saw the colonists again.

Digging for Clues

More than 400 years later, historians are still trying to crack the case. Did the colonists move away? Were they attacked by enemies? No bones or graves belonging to the colonists were discovered on Roanoke. But clues were found nearby. 

Researchers have dug up artifacts, including a sword handle and stone writing tablet, on the island of Croatoan (now called Hatteras). Also, experts have excavated pieces of old English pottery from an area 50 miles west of Roanoke, known as Site X.

Archaeologist Eric Klingelhofer says these clues suggest that the colonists split up and moved to different areas. But others say the items could have belonged to Native Americans who traded with European colonists. The search for answers continues.

“We’ll keep digging until we solve this mystery, one of the greatest in American history,” Klingelhofer says.

More than 400 years later, historians are still trying to crack the case. Did the colonists move away? Were they attacked by enemies? No bones or graves belonging to the colonists were discovered on Roanoke. But clues were found nearby.

Researchers have dug up artifacts. These include a sword handle and stone writing tablet on the island of Croatoan. (It’s now called Hatteras.) Experts have also excavated pieces of old English pottery from an area 50 miles west of Roanoke. The area is known as Site X.

Archaeologist Eric Klingelhofer says these clues suggest that the colonists split up and moved to different areas. But others say the items could have belonged to Native Americans who traded with European colonists. The search for answers continues.

“We’ll keep digging until we solve this mystery, one of the greatest in American history,” Klingelhofer says.

1. Describe what John White found when he returned to Roanoke.

2. Why weren’t the colonists welcomed by the Native people of Roanoke?

3. What do you think happened to the settlers of Roanoke? Support your response with text evidence.

1. Describe what John White found when he returned to Roanoke.

2. Why weren’t the colonists welcomed by the Native people of Roanoke?

3. What do you think happened to the settlers of Roanoke? Support your response with text evidence.

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