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Near the end of the 16th century, a man by the name of John White
embarked on a transatlantic voyage.
His destination was the island of Roanoke along the southeastern coast of North America.
On this island, White had established an English colony some three years before
and he was now returning to resume his position as Governor.
After a long and difficult journey, White finally reached the site of the colony
only to find the more than one hundred men, women, and children he'd left behind
had disappeared.
A secret message carved into a tree was one of the only clues left behind at the scene.
Before White had a chance to conduct a more extensive search, the ship returned to England
and in its wake, it left a mystery.
What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?
Before we can tackle the lost colony
we first need to understand the events leading up to its disappearance.
The story begins in 1584 when two ships sailed across the Atlantic to scout for a suitable location
for planting the first permanent English colony in America.
In mid-July, they made landfall on a string of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks.
The English quickly developed friendly relations with the local Native Americans
and were soon invited to their village on Roanoke Island.
After about a month, the scouting expedition returned to their ships
and sailed back to England.
Upon the expeditions return in late September, the man in charge of the enterprise
Walter Raleigh
immediately began preparations to plant a permanent colony somewhere along the Outer Banks.
Raleigh was soon thereafter knighted by Queen Elizabeth I
and the new land was to be named Virginia in honor of the Virgin Queen.
In April of 1585, a fleet of seven ships departed England with a complement of roughly 600 men
and loaded with enough provisions to sustain the colony for about a year.
The fleet reached the Outer Banks at the end of June but was soon faced with a crisis.
Navigating the waters of the Outer Banks can be notoriously treacherous
as indicated by these sinking ships
and when the flagship passed through one of the shallow inlets
it stuck a shoal and was nearly destroyed.
As the flagship carried the bulk of the provisions and most of it was now spoiled by seawater
the scope of the colony had to be dramatically reduced.
About 100 men, far fewer than initially intended, were stationed on Roanoke Island
and, with the native's approval, they began construction of what was to become the Roanoke colony.
The island was primarily chosen for its strategic value.
It provided quick access to the ocean
while still making the colony invisible to Spanish patrols.
You see, Spain had already colonized and laid claim to much of what the English now called Virginia
so they had to be careful not to attract any unwanted attention.
A second wave of supplies and reinforcements was expected to arrive before the winter
but, unbeknownst to the colonists
the resupply mission had been countermanded by the Queen
to deal with more pressing concerns back in England.
As such, once the colonists ran out of food, they had to rely on the generosity of the natives.
However, the natives only had so much to spare
and struggled to meet the increasing demands by the colonists.
This overdependence quickly began to strain their relationship.
Meanwhile, people had begun to notice a disturbing trend.
Every time the English visited a Native American village
many of its inhabitants would inexplicably collapse and die.
The natives believed the English could kill from a distance by shooting invisible bullets
and they were not too far off.
While unknown at the time, the English were carrying deadly pathogens
to which the natives lacked immunity, and thus an epidemic
was unwittingly unleashed upon the indigenous population.
The two leaders back on Roanoke
colonial governor Ralph Lane and Indian chieftain Wingina
eventually grew so suspicious of one another that cohabitation was no longer possible.
Wingina decided to remove his people from the island
and retreated to a larger village on the mainland.
Meanwhile, Lane came to believe that Wingina had formed an alliance with other tribes
and that they were plotting to launch an attack against the colony.
Whether he was paranoid or not, Lane decided to take preemptive action.
On June 1, 1586, Lane and his men made their way to the mainland village
and massacred its people.
One of the Englishmen chased after and decapitated Wingina
and his head was later impaled outside the fort of the colony.
A week later, a large English fleet
commanded by the renowned sea captain Sir Francis Drake
dropped by the Outer Banks on its way back to England.
Given the lack of food and violent clashes with the natives
it was decided to abandon the colony.
The colonists were hastily evacuated off the island, and then, after nine long months
they all returned home.
All, except three, who were not located in time for the evacuation
and so the fleet left them behind.
They were never heard from again.
If the scouting expedition of 1584 had been a resounding success
the colony of 1585 was a categorical failure.
Relations with the Native Americans had completely fallen apart
the severe lack of food had made life miserable
and they had failed to track down rumored sources of gold and copper
which could have made the venture worthwhile.
In spite of all this, at least one man was eager to return.
His name was John White.
White was a painter and artist by trade
and many of the maps and sketches that you've seen so far
were either drawn by him or based on his work.
Somewhat ironically, however, there are no surviving portraits of White himself.
White's participation in these earlier voyages is slightly ambiguous.
He may have been part of the scouting expedition in 1584
but he was definitely part of the voyage in '85.
What is a bit unclear is whether he stayed behind at the colony
or returned to England with the outbound fleet.
For instance, White's name is not included in a surviving list of all the colonists.
But some historians believe this is merely an oversight
and that he was, in fact, part of the colony.
In either case, Sir Walter Raleigh was eventually persuaded by White and others
to attempt a second venture.
Unlike the first colony, which had been more akin to a military outpost
the second would include women and children, including White's pregnant daughter, Elenore Dare.
After a long struggle to secure the necessary funding
a fleet of three ships, commanded by White, who would also serve as Governor of the colony
departed England in late-spring of 1587.
The misfortune of the first colony did not end with its evacuation in 1586.
Only days later, a ship filled with provisions, sent by Sir Walter Raleigh
arrived at the Outer Banks.
The crew spent some time searching for the colonists, but when they found no sign of them
including the three men that had been left behind, they returned home.
The same thing happened two weeks later when an English-bound fleet
loaded with supplies and reinforcements also found the colony deserted.
Unwilling to leave the colony vacant, however, the Captain left 15 crewmen on Roanoke
before the fleet resumed course for England.
John White had been told about the 15 crewmen before he departed
so when his fleet approached the Outer Banks in late July of 1587
he intended to pay them a visit.
But this is where things get confusing.
You see, the second colony was never intended to be established on Roanoke.
After all, the long list of complications encountered by the first colony
made it clear that Roanoke was far from an ideal location.
Instead, the second colony, or the Cittie of Raleigh
as the man in charge had so immodestly named it
was to be planted somewhere along the coast of Chesapeake Bay.
This made a lot more sense.
The water was deeper to allow for larger ships, and not nearly as precarious
as those around the Outer Banks.
There was plenty of open space.
The soil was more fertile, and, all around, it seemed an improvement to Roanoke Island.
But the fleet's Portuguese navigator, Simão Fernandes, had other plans.
Fernandes had also been the navigator of the two previous expeditions
and was a far more experienced sailor than White.
So even though White was officially the Captain
it seems much of the crew respected the authority of Fernandes.
As such, when Fernandes decided to ignore the plan about Chesapeake Bay
and, instead, simply dump the colonists on Roanoke
White did nothing to challenge his decision.
The rest of the crew quickly fell in line, and, soon enough, everyone disembarked for Roanoke.
Upon reaching the abandoned colony
there was no sign of the 15 crewmen they had come to assist.
Instead, they found a pile of bones
that appeared to be the remains of one of them.
White suspected the men had been attacked by vengeful Indians
and any doubts he might have had were soon to be erased.
After only a few days on the island, a colonist by the name of George Howe
was attacked by a group of natives who pelted him with 16 arrows
before caving in his skull with a wooden club.
A brutal yet unmistakable message.
The English were no longer welcome on Roanoke.
Even so, the colonists were not without allies.
You see, when the scouting expedition returned to England in 1584
two Native Americans, named Wanchese and Manteo
were brought along with them.
Wanchese was from Roanoke, while Manteo was from a neighboring village
on the island of Croatoan.
When they were finally brought back to North America in 1585
they had developed vastly different opinions of the English people.
As soon as they made landfall, Wanchese returned to Roanoke
with nothing but resentment for these foreign invaders.
Meanwhile, Manteo was fascinated by everything the English had to offer.
He became their trusted guide and a mediator of sorts to smooth out relations upon first contact.
So, following the death of George Howe, White reached out to the Croatoans
and they confirmed what he'd initially suspected.
A large group of Indian tribes had indeed attacked the 15 crewman station on Roanoke.
This coalition was spearheaded by none other than Wanchese.
At least two of the crewmen had been killed in the attack
while the rest escaped in a small boat, never to be seen again.
Roanoke had become a much more dangerous place to live.
Simão Fernandes remained anchored near the Outer Banks for about a month
before he decided to return to England.
In the meantime, the colonists had grown concerned about the long-term survival of the colony.
If the colony were to be truly self-sufficient, they argued
they would require more people and more food.
As such, they implored Governor White to return to England with Fernandes
so that he could bring back supplies and restock the colony.
White was initially hesitant to leave as he feared he'd be accused of desertion
if he returned to England alone.
Not to mention, he would have to abandon his daughter
who had recently given birth to a daughter of her own, named Virginia
on this remote and precarious island.
But, in time, he was persuaded to go.
And as the fleet departed in late August of 1587
he could not have known he would never see any of them again.
After a long and difficult voyage, John White returned to a country at war.
By orders of the Queen, no ships were to leave England
until the threat of Spanish invasion had passed.
This was bad news for White, and his best efforts notwithstanding
he remained trapped in England for three long years.
It was not until the spring of 1590, with the help of Sir Walter Raleigh
that White finally managed to book passage on a convoy bound for America.
Upon reaching the Outer Banks in mid-August
plumes of smoke appeared to emanate from Roanoke Island.
Two boats were quickly dispatched
and the crew fired the ship's cannons to make their presence known.
The men could see a great fire as they approached the island
but White never clarifies whether it was natural or lit by people.
Once ashore, they made their way to the west end of the island and found a set of footprints.
They appeared to be fresh, but there was no sign of those to whom they belonged.
The search party then headed north and happened upon a tree
where someone had carved the letters C-R-O.
Upon reaching the entrance of the colony, they came across a second inscription.
It was the word CROATOAN, engraved into a wooden post.
The post was but one of many that now formed a defensive barrier around the colony.
The colony itself was deserted and clearly had been for some time
given the overgrowth of grass and weeds.
The houses had been taken down and stripped of valuables.
All they found were bars of iron, a few cannons, as well as five looted chests.
There was no trace of the roughly 115 colonists nor the small boats left in their possession.
As far as anyone could tell, no one had lived here for quite some time.
The story of the Lost Colony is often centered around the two engravings
and without the full context, it's easy to see how an author might imbue these inscriptions
with intrigue and mystery.
In truth, the carvings are some of the more well-understood elements of the entire story.
At least, John White had no doubts about their meaning.
White explains in his notes that before he left in 1587
he and the colonists had come to an agreement.
If they decided to abandon the colony before the Governor's return
they were to leave behind a secret token of their destination.
Furthermore, if this abandonment was forced upon them
they were to include a cross to signify distress.
Because no such cross had been found, White was confident
the colonists had safely relocated to the island of Croatoan.
Thus, White swiftly returned to the ship and convinced the Captain to set course for Croatoan.
But while the crew prepared for departure, the anchor cable snapped.
And without a spare anchor, the Captain felt it was too dangerous to continue.
In the end, White never made it to Croatoan
and it was the last time he ever ventured across the Atlantic.
While an unsatisfying conclusion, it seems relatively safe to assume
the Lost Colony of Roanoke simply relocated to the island of Croatoan.
Case closed?
Well, not quite.
You see, while explaining the meaning of the inscriptions
White revealed another interesting yet puzzling detail.
With a single sentence, White explains that before he left in 1587
the colonists were preparing to move 50 miles into the mainland.
While Croatoan is about 50 miles south of Roanoke
it's also an island, distinctly not part of the mainland.
As such, this lone sentence introduces, if but a modicum of doubt
to White's version of events.
Perhaps, Croatoan was not their intended destination after all.
If so, where could they have gone?
Twenty years after the Roanoke colony was lost, the Anglo-Spanish war had come to an end.
John White faded into obscurity
and Sir Walter Raleigh had been found guilty of treason for conspiring against the crown.
Yeah, I know, it's a whole other thing.
Anyway, renewed interest in America saw the plantation of a third colony in 1607.
The Jamestown colony was established within the borders of a vast confederacy of Native American tribes
ruled by a man the English called Powhatan.
One day, Powhatan captured the future Governor of the colony
John Smith
and told him about a place where men wearing European clothing lived.
Then, after his release in 1608, Smith drew a rough map of Virginia
and this is one of the notations.
Unfortunately, this claim, and others just like it, were never properly investigated.
So we can never know if this was anything more than a rumor.
Another unconfirmed report was that all but a few of the colonists
had been massacred by Powhatan.
The survivors of this slaughter at Roanoke had then supposedly scattered across the region.
The problem is, White did not report any human remains or signs of a battle
when he returned to Roanoke in 1590.
Even so, an acquaintance of John Smith later wrote that Powhatan had confessed to the massacre
after Smith was captured.
Smith himself, however, makes no mentioned of this alleged confession
and he was not exactly known to shy away from embellishment.
*cough* Pocahontas *cough*
Other reports included sightings of Native American children with unusually pale skin and blonde hair
which led many to suspect they could be the descendants of the lost colonists.
What they had no way of knowing at the time, however, was that albinism
is far more prevalent among Native Americans than Europeans.
A more solid lead emerged a full century later when the English explorer John Lawson
made contact with a tribe known as the Hatteras.
The Hatteras occupied the same land as the Croatoans
but the island was now much larger and known as Hatteras Island
after a storm had closed one of the inlets.
The Hatteras explained to Lawson
that some of their ancestors had been white and able to read.
Several members of the tribe also had gray eyes
a unique trait of the Hatteras, according to Lawson.
They also spoke of a local legend about a ghost ship
which they referred to as Sir Walter Raleigh's ship.
Hearing all this, Lawson grew convinced
the Hatteras was, in fact, the descendants of the lost colony.
Much like John White, Lawson believed the colony had been relocated to Croatoan
and, over time, the two peoples had become one.
Okay, so we now have two sources, over a century apart
arguing for the same version of events.
John White says they went to Croatoan because carvings.
John Lawson says they went to Croatoan because gray eyes and ghosts.
Not the most decisive evidence, perhaps, but it does make for a compelling argument.
Following Lawson's encounter with the Hatteras in 1701
nothing of significance would be uncovered for centuries.
That is until the late 1930s when a series of peculiar stones
suddenly brought the mystery back to life.
The stones had been inscribed with messages, supposedly written by Elenore Dare
the daughter of John White.
Unfortunately, they all turned out to be fake.
Well, all except the first stone whose authenticity remains in doubt.
This stone features a message from Dare addressed to White
in which she describes the tragic death of her husband and child.
The composition of the stone makes it well-suited for inscribing a message
but a poor choice for a forger
as they would have had to chemically age the fresh markings
to match the weathered surface.
It would not have been impossible but quite difficult to do so in the 1930s.
On the other hand, the man who supposedly found the stone was never heard from again
and the precise location of its discovery was conveniently kept secret.
The credibility of the writing is equally contested
and there is just no consensus on what to make of it.
Modern archaeological research has also been plagued by uncertainties.
Excavations at Roanoke have mostly confirmed the presence of a 16th-century English colony
but have done little in the way of determining its fate.
Meanwhile, excavations on Hatteras has yielded a mix of Native American and European artifacts
including the hilt of a light sword
but nothing that can be definitively linked to the lost colony.
To make matters worse, much of the evidence may now be underwater
due to centuries of shifting sands and erosion of the islands.
It was partially out of frustration for this lack of progress
that researchers made a remarkable discovery in late 2011.
While inspecting White's map of Virginia, a member of the First Colony Foundation
took note of these patches.
Historically, patches like these have been used to correct minor mistakes
so no one had ever given them a second thought.
This time, someone did and had the patches carefully examined.
Underneath the lower patch, they found precisely what you'd expect.
Minor corrections.
Underneath to upper patch, however, they found this.
This four-pointed star is a typical representation of a fort.
A comparable symbol can be seen on this map from the early 17th century.
The paint used to draw the symbol matches the paint used elsewhere on the map
including the corrections drawn on top of the lower patch
suggesting it was drawn and concealed by White himself.
More puzzling still...
A slightly smaller four-pointed star enclosed by two concentric squares
has been painted with invisible ink on top of the patch.
This symbol can even be faintly discerned with the naked eye
meaning it's been hiding in plain sight all along.
Finally, this fort is situated on the mainland, approximately 50 miles west of Roanoke.
The location of the concealed fort was quickly named Site X
in reference to the expression: "X marks the spot".
While the fort itself has yet to be found, presuming it was ever built
archaeological digs have uncovered a few items of interest.
Fragments of pottery and bits of metal are indicative of an English presence
but much like the findings on Hatteras, an indisputable link to the Lost Colony
has yet to be established.
That being said, the research is still ongoing, and the smoking gun, whatever it may be
will perhaps have been found by the time you're watching this.
Presuming this is the intended location for the Cittie of Raleigh, one has to wonder...
Why was it concealed with a patch?
Tempting as it may be to envision some elaborate conspiracy, there is a very simple explanation.
Remember how, in 1608, John Smith sent this rough map of Virginia back to England?
Well, this is not the original map but an illicit copy.
A copy made in secret by the Spanish ambassador and covertly passed along to the King of Spain.
So England had good reason to worry about sensitive information
such as the location of a fort, being intercepted by enemy spies.
Another example is how the colony on Roanoke was concealed through omission.
We still don't know the precise location or layout of the colony
because it was never indicated on any of the surviving maps.
While it continues to be a source of aggravation among historians and archaeologists
this secrecy did serve a purpose as it prevented Spain from ever finding the colony.
In fact, Spain continued to search for the colony long after it was lost
so it's unlikely they had anything to do with its disappearance.
On the other hand, if the fort was never built
the patch may be precisely what it was always assumed to be.
Nothing more than a correction.
Then again, the near-invisible symbol drawn on top of the patch
strongly imply concealment as opposed to a simple revision.
After going through all the available evidence, this is what I'm thinking.
So John White left Roanoke in 1587.
When he failed to return, the colony was split into two groups.
One decamped for Site X while the other went to live with the friendly Croatoans
to await the Governor's return.
The region is known to have suffered a severe drought just after White left
so the relocation may not only have been motivated by diminishing supplies and hostilities
but also by a lack of water and crop production.
As years turned into decades, the colonists may have started families with
and thus become inseparable from, the indigenous people amongst whom they lived.
Not only would this explain the disappearance but also the CROATOAN inscription
the "50 miles into the main"
as well as the gray eyes of the Hatteras.
While I'm still leaning towards it being fake, I do find it interesting how the Dare Stone
was supposedly discovered just a few miles north of Site X.
After all, if you're a hoaxer and you want to convince 1930s America that this stone is genuine,
why claim you found it so far away from Roanoke?
One should also keep in mind that much of the evidence relies solely
on the words and paintings of one man.
Parts of White's account could easily be a misinterpretation or exaggeration.
So depending on what evidence you regard as credible, other solutions are equally plausible.
For instance, some believe the colony went ahead with the original plan
and relocated somewhere along the coast of Chesapeake Bay.
Others believe they were all lost at sea after a failed attempt to return to England.
But these "solutions" are about as helpful as saying the colony vanished into thin air.
Without a more localized place of interest to search for corroborating evidence
there is virtually no hope of resolution.
So with all that being said, many questions remain.
What happened to the three forsaken colonists and the 13 crewmen?
Why did Simão Fernandes disobey orders and dump the colonists on Roanoke?
Why was one of the two engravings left incomplete?
Why was everyone named Joh-
As for the most important question of them all...
Well, if there is an answer to that question
chances are, it lies buried somewhere at Site X
just waiting to be found.