“Croatoan.” The final message of the Roanoke Colony who disappeared without a trace in 1590. Their supplies remained untouched and the houses remained filled with their belongings. White clothes let out to dry in the sun were covered with dirt and peppered with holes. Utensils laid unused but rusting in the kitchens. This was the scene that Roanoke Governor John White discovered upon his return after staying in England for three years. It was as if life within Roanoke Island had just stopped and the 115 colonists were forced to leave abruptly.
Where did these English settlers disappear to? But more importantly, what force had caused them to flee?
According to History, the Roanoke Colony, nicknamed the Lost Colony, was the second settlement in Roanoke and the New World. A previous group of colonists was sent to the island by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585. Raleigh’s people faced famine and attacks from neighboring Native American tribes who disliked the settlement because they used the land’s resources in excess. The first settlers were forced to leave only a year after having arrived.
Raleigh dispatched 115 more colonists under the authority of White in 1587. They hoped one year off the land would appease the natives and the new settlers would be more secure.
Learning from the previous colony’s mistakes, White relied on supplies from England rather than Indian lands. However, England was currently at war with Spain, so supplies infrequently arrived in small batches.
When the colony’s reserve was becoming too little to sustain off of, White sailed to England in order to retrieve the necessary materials. White’s trip back to Roanoke Island was delayed by almost three years due to the war with Spain.
In 1590, when White returned to Roanoke Island, he found it deserted. The colonists’ leftover belongings were the only proof that anyone had ever lived in the settlement. Everyone had completely vanished.
According to National Geographic, White and the men who returned with him from his supply trip searched the island and found two startling carvings that left them with more questions than answers. Onto a palisade was scratched the word “Croatoan,” and on a tree, someone had etched “Cro.” The person must have intended to also write Croatoan, but was in such a frantic hurry that they were unable to finish.
Coincidentally, there was another island, not fifty miles from the settlement called Croatoan Island. This island, now known as Hatteras Island, was home to an Indian tribe called the Croatoans. Thinking that this may have been the location of where his people had fled, White lead a team and searched the island yet found no sign of the settlers.
Other possibilities for the disappearance of the Lost Colony include being captured and killed by Spaniards from the South, or that the colonists took a boat back to England after supplies had run out, but they had gotten lost at sea.
Both of these circumstances seemed unlikely considering that an entire colony consisting of 115 people of varying ages would not all set sail for England in order to retrieve supplies. Furthermore, the lack of evidence of attack at the camp contradicts the belief that the Spaniards had attacked the settlers.
From these theories, the idea that the colonists had disbanded and joined the Croatans is the most logical explanation. Due to the fact that the people of Roanoke were under the threat of their neighboring Native American tribes and had lacked sufficient supplies for two years, it is perfectly logical that, in order to survive, they would have to discover new resources.
Perhaps a handful of the colonists decided to head to Croatoan Island, where the more peaceful Croatoan tribe existed, and had left “Croatoan” for White to discover. Although White is unable to find his people on Hatteras Island, he is also unable to find the Croatoans, which could imply that the colonists joined the tribe and traveled elsewhere.
Whether it be Native Americans, Spaniards, or lack of supplies that lead to the Lost Colony’s demise, before the colonists had disappeared, someone felt that it was important to carve “Croatoan” twice. Perhaps that word was the key to the disappearance and the location of the new settlement of the Second Colony of Roanoke. For now, it remains as the Lost Colony’s final statement from beyond the grave.