NOTES FROM A TIME SIFTER: The Roanoke Mystery

Images from the Trustees of the British Museum, All Rights Reserved

Images from the Trustees of the British Museum, All Rights Reserved

Archaeologists love to solve mysteries, and one of the most interesting American mysteries is the disappearance of the men, women and children who vanished from the Roanoke Island colony between 1587 and 1590. They were the third group of England’s first attempts to establish a presence in North America.  We know what happened to the first group of 107 men that landed on Roanoke Island in 1585. They were all soldiers and adventurers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh who had a charter from Queen Elizabeth to explore and draw maps while the ships returned to England for supplies. Within a year the explorers had angered their Native American neighbors, so when Sir Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke on his way back to England after his attack on Spanish St. Augustine, they eagerly took the opportunity to sail home. When Raleigh’s supply ships returned to the settlement, they found it deserted and sailed back to England, but left 15 men behind to protect Raleigh’s claim. In 1587, Raleigh sent a third group, not soldiers this time, but 115 men, women and children who arrived to find only a skeleton (probably the remains of one of the 15 men). In spite of these frightful circumstances, the colonists agreed to stay and promised to leave a coded instruction if they left the settlement before the ships returned with reinforcements. Part of the message was to be a Maltese cross, a code meaning that they had been attacked. The ships were delayed in England by a war with Spain, and did not return to the colony until 1590 when they found the colony abandoned and houses were taken down. Only the cryptic messages, “Croatoan” carved on one of the wooden posts of the palisade surrounding the tiny settlement, and “CRO” scratched on a tree, remained (Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1590).  There was no Maltese cross, but the word “Croatoan” was the name of the Native American Indians on an island 50 miles south. However, a search could not be conducted at that time because of bad weather, and the ships returned to England without any information about the settlers.

Interest in the mysterious disappearance has continued for more than 400 years.  Stories of gray or blue-eyed Indians with yellow hair spread, but no definitive evidence was ever found. Now, archaeologists believe they have an answer. New evidence shows that the colonists did have a relationship with the Native American settlement on the island of the Croatoan (Hatteras Island) as well as with another Indian settlement about 50 miles northwest of Roanoke Island at Albemarle Sound near what today is Edenton, North Carolina. These conclusions were reached because of new technology now available to archaeologists (New York Times, Aug. 11, 2015, and National Geographic, Aug. 7, 2015.

The first new evidence comes from a map of the entire area drawn by John White, an artist and cartographer of Raleigh’s 1585 and 1586 expeditions.  It shows the Virginia and Carolina coasts as well as Indian villages of the area. John White had put patches over two areas on the map.  The patches could not be removed without damaging the map so no one knew what the patches covered.  But in 2012, archaeologists applied X-ray spectroscopy to the patch covering the Albemarle site that revealed a sketch of a fort underneath. This was also the site of an Indian village, and a fort would indicate the presence of the English in this area as early as 1586, White’s second trip to North America.  Tree ring analysis indicates that a severe drought hit the Roanoke area between 1587 and 1589. An English fort at the inland site would have been a logical destination for starving Roanoke colonists.  At the very least, it shows that the colonists knew that the site had been explored by the English as a likely place to plant a settlement. Excavations have not revealed a fort, but using LIDAR, radar that can “see” under the foliage, archaeologists found English artifacts such as ceramics at Roanoke colony that match the ceramics at Albemarle. The ceramics, called Border ware, were made in England at pottery industries on the Surry/Hampshire border during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Border ware found at Roanoke and Albemarle was specific to the time of the Roanoke settlement.  No Border ware has been found at the Croatoan Indian village on Hatteras, but other English artifacts are there such as a16th century signet ring and gun hardware (Phelps, Croatan Archaeological Site Collection).  These indicate close interactions between the settlers and the Indians at both sites. The presence of women and children could have softened the relationship between the settlers and the Indians who had initially been friendly to the first group of male explorers in 1585 and were again friendly at the first landing of explorers at what eventually became Jamestown (Archer Diary, 1607, National Archives CO 1/1).

DNA studies of Croatoan descendants are ongoing in the search for clues (Associated Press, 6/11/2007) and archaeologists will certainly be excitedly digging for more answers.

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