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The Lost Colony Research Group

Genealogy ~ DNA ~ Archaeology


Special Edition  March 2012


 ~The Lost Colonists~


After searching for 425 years, one would think the announcement of the discovery of location of the Lost Colonists after they left Roanoke Island sometime between 1587 and 1590 would merit fireworks and "we interrupt this broadcast" type of news coverage. If the discovery were simply one big, showy item, like Eleanor White Dare's inscribed ring, perhaps it would merit that type of coverage.  


But this, like so many advances in history and science is not a matter of the one big find, the smoking gun, or musket, or cannon, but the result of cumulative evidence and subsequent analysis.  


Let's start with a bit of history. 

We all know the story of the "Lost Colonists" themselves, how they were left on Roanoke Island in 1587 awaiting the return of John White with supplies. He was hoping to return by April of 1588, but alas, the Spanish Armada rudely interfered with his plans. He was unable to return until the summer of 1590, ironically on the third birthday of his grandchild, Virginia Dare, August 18th. What he found was the fort on Roanoke, strengthened, but deserted, with the houses "taken down" and a message left by the colonists for him. 

The message was "Croatoan" and "Cro", carved into a tree and a gate post. Another unspoken message was given too, by what was omitted. White had agreed with the colonists that if they were in distress or under duress, they were to carve a cross - and there were no crosses found. White, in his own words, was “greatly joyed that I had safely found a certain token of their safe being at Croatoan which is the place where Manteo was born”, “the island our friends.” White was not able to visit Hatteras Island to search for the colonists, as a hurricane bore down on the Englishmen, literally blowing them back to England.


And with that, we fade to black. The colonists too have faded into history, their fate, whatever it was, known only to them and the Native people with or among whom they lived and died.


There is a great deal of controversy about the motives of Sir Walter Raleigh, colonization and piracy versus rescuing the colonists. As with any good story, there is also a hint of conspiracy and perhaps a villain or two. However, for our purposes, it suffices to say that several expeditions over time failed to find or confirm the fate of the colonists, at least officially, although some scholars suggest that the colonists were found and intentionally remained to collect sassafras and other medicinal herbs that sold for a great deal of profit in Europe. In all, there were nine reported "rescue missions," eight of which were English and one that was Spanish. There is evidence to suggest several scenarios for what happened to the colonists. We will look at these in future articles. We know that the outcome is that the colonists were never rescued, lived their lives and died on what would one day become American soil.


John Lawson, in 1701, recorded that Hatteras Indians had grey eyes and reported that their ancestors were white and could "talk in a book." It's important here to note that adult Indians in 1701 would have been born before 1680 and they did not say their parents or grandparents, with whom they would have been personally familiar, but their ancestors, further distant, whom they would not have known personally. Certainly, this correlates with the last communication from the colonists themselves, that they were going to Croatoan. But is it true? Did they live with the Indians on Croatoan? Did they intermarry with them? It certainly looks to be true from the physical evidence seen by Lawson? Did all or part of them move elsewhere?


The Powhatan Indians told the men who arrived at Jamestown in 1607 a different story. They said that the colonists had come to live among an Indian tribe in the Chesapeake, had lived among them for 20 years, which would track back to about 1587, and had been "miserably slaughtered" by the Powhatan just prior to the arrival of the Jamestown settlers. Was this true or were the Jamestown settlers told this to instill fear? If this is true, did all of the colonists move to the Chesapeake, or just a portion of them? There were rumors of survivors of the massacre, living in slavery among various tribes, but these rumors could never be substantiated, nor refuted. And then, in the woods, in 1609, within 50 miles of Jamestown, crosses were found carved into trees, but interpreted to be signs of "new Christians," Indians having been converted to Christianity.


The location of the colonists’ village, if one existed, in the Chesapeake has never been found.


However, Hatteras Island is another matter entirely. Hatteras has the benefit of being the only location that the colonists told us, themselves, that they were going. They

knew that anyone returning would find the fort, and find their message, and the one place they would look assuredly, was Croatoan, their name for Hatteras Island. So even if the colonists didn't all stay on Hatteras, surely they would always have assured that a trail could always be found from Hatteras to wherever it was they might have relocated, if they did. Therefore, Hatteras is the hub around which the fate and location of the colonists revolves.


Hatteras Island also provides another benefit. It is the only island, moving South from Roanoke Island where one could both sustain life and could mount a watch for arriving ships. At that time, just above present day Buxton, an opening existed. By placing a sentinel on high land at Buxton, on the northeast end of the island, one could watch both the sea and the sound for arriving ships, be they English or the dreaded Spanish.


John White drew a map of Hatteras Island, shown below, with current locations overlaid





The likely place to begin the search for the colonists, indeed, was at Buxton on Hatteras Island.  


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