Roanoke’s ‘lost colony’ was never lost, new book says
By Alan Yuhas
In 1590, John White, the would-be governor of a colony meant to be one of England’s first outposts in North America, discovered that more than 100 settlers weren’t on the small island where he left them.
More than 400 years later, the question of what happened to those settlers, who landed on Roanoke Island, off the coast of modern North Carolina, has grown into a piece of American mythology, inspiring plays, novels, documentaries and a tourism industry in the Outer Banks.
Stories have taken root that the colonists, who left no clear trace aside from the word “Croatoan” carved on a tree, survived somewhere on the mainland, died in conflict with Native Americans or met some other end.
A new book about the Roanoke colonists, “The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island,” published in June and citing 10 years of excavations at nearby Hatteras Island, aims to put the mystery to bed. The book’s author, Scott Dawson, a researcher from Hatteras, argues that the Native people who lived there took in the English settlers and that historical records and artifacts can end the debate.
“Basically, the historical evidence says that’s where they went,” said Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, in England, who worked with Dawson. Horton acknowledged that there was no “smoking gun” but said that with everything in context, “it’s not rocket science.”
Historians and archaeologists not involved in the recent research on Hatteras were more skeptical, saying that the evidence was inconclusive and that they wanted to see peer-reviewed work. They also said the argument was not new. The idea that the Croatoans, as the Native people on Hatteras were called, adopted at least some of the settlers has long been considered plausible.
“Sure, it’s possible — why wouldn’t it be?” said Malinda Maynor Lowery, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “People don’t get lost. They get murdered; they get stolen; they get taken in. They live and die as members of other communities.”
Maynor Lowery presented a similar possibility in her 2018 book on the history of the Lumbee people, the descendants of dozens of tribes in a wide region including eastern North Carolina. Despite violence by the English against Croatoan villagers, she wrote, the settlers probably took refuge with them.
“The Indians of Roanoke, Croatoan, Secotan and other villages had no reason to make enemies of the colonists,” she wrote. “Instead, they probably made them kin.”
The English landed into a complicated fray of conflict and shifting alliances, said Lauren McMillan, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
“They’re all interfighting, and these different groups are trying to use the English against one another,” she said. “The Croatoans perhaps saw the English as a powerful ally and sources of valuable new things.”
Maynor Lowery, who is Lumbee, added that the “lost colony” story is itself based on the incorrect premise “that Native people also disappeared, which we didn’t.”
The story, she said, was like “a monument that has to come down,” adding that “it’s harder to dismantle an origin story than a statue.”
Dawson, a founder of the Croatoan Archaeological Society, a local research group, said he hoped his book would dismantle some of that story.
“I was trying to get the Croatoans’ history back from the depths of mythology,” he said. “They played a huge role in American history, took these people in, and in school you’re taught that no one knows what Croatoan means.”
He also wanted to counter the mystique around the settlers, which has ballooned over the centuries in popular culture. They were made the heroes of 19th-century romances; Confederate sympathizers tied them in with themes of the “lost cause”; and a nationalistic, outdoor musical has drawn more than 4 million people, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, since 1937.
Before those works, the colonists had been historical footnotes, said Charles Ewen, an archaeologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. It is not clear how much their contemporaries even wondered what happened to them, he said, given how common failure, death and disappearances were in European ventures across the Atlantic.
“It’s no big mystery until you start to get a historical type of writing in the 1800s,” he said.
Ewen, who is also working on a book about the colony, said there were so many stories about it in part because there was so little evidence about what happened to the colonists. The settlers could have been killed by Native people or by England’s rival, Spain, or faced famine, a hurricane or shipwreck. They could have moved into the mainland, allying with Native groups there, or moved in with the Croatoan people on Hatteras.
“I’m not saying it’s not true,” Ewen said of the last theory. “I’m just saying I’m very skeptical.”
James Horn, a historian and member of the First Colony Foundation, a research nonprofit, said that most historians over the past 50 years had considered Hatteras a destination for the settlers. But he said it was unlikely that all of the colonists ended up there.
Horn and an archaeologist with the First Colony Foundation, Nicholas M. Luccketti, believe they have evidence that some of the settlers moved about 50 miles inland to a place they call Site X.
Luccketti said the colonists could have split up, with some on Hatteras, others at Site X and another group somewhere else.
Although there have been no excavations at Site X since 2018, Horn said he expected the search for evidence to continue.
“It’s a 400-year-old mystery that revolves around all sorts of mysteries within it,” he said. “It’s too tempting for many people.”