The Mystery of the Disappearance of the Roanoke Colony

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Century. European powers invested exploring the Western Hemisphere since it would help them acquire massive wealth. However, England was reluctant to venture into the New World and by the time the English founded their first settlement, the Spanish and the Portuguese had occupied most of the Americas. Sir Walter Raleigh backed and founded the first settlement at Roanoke Island in 1585. However, the colony- 115 men, women, and children- mysteriously disappeared in 1590. This paper will explore the mystery of the colony including the possible causes for the disappearance.

Exploration of the New World

For most of the 16th century, England was divided by religious strife. This factor made it impossible for the Crown to commit funds to the exploration of the New World. However, under the Queen Elizabeth the English could now focus on colonizing the Americas. The Queen gave Sir Walter Raleigh the mandate to establish colonies in North America. Although he could not lead the expeditions, he was focused on the coast of what is now North Carolina due to its strategic location. The coast protruded into the route that Spanish fleets used to transport gold and silver from Central and South America (Green 16). This interest influenced the decision to send a reconnaissance expedition in 1584. Reports by the expedition party were positive. Roanoke island was filled with crops and wild animals. In addition, the native inhabitants were welcoming. A subsequent military expedition confirmed the initial reports but also raised some concerns. The island's shallow coastal waters could not hold warships hence eradicating the notion of a military camp. Thomas Harriot, a member of the expedition, made navigational charts of the island and even learnt the local language (Lawler).

The Second Colony and its Challenges

In the winter of 1586-7, Sir Raleigh commissioned a civilian colonial expedition to Roanoke Island and in essence the larger colony of Virginia. Most people in this second colony were of artisan and middle-class backgrounds. The motivation for their emigration was the prospect of economic opportunity in the New World. The arrival of the second colony's ships was, however, ill-fated. The Roanoke settlement was empty and Indians in the mainland were hostile. The colony also lost most of its food supply after an accident during the ships' landing. The leadership, however, took steps to repair and build cottages. Due to the unfortunate circumstances, Governor White, the colony's leader, had to return to England to appeal for additional supplies. Before he went to England he inducted native leader Manteo as the Lord of Roanoke. This move marked the beginning of the integrative of native Indians into Western religious and political structures.

The Abandonment of Roanoke Island

Governor White was held up in England for further than he intended due to war with Spain. He returned to Roanoke Island in 1590 and found that the settlement was abandoned. The only clues the colonists left were "the word 'Croatoan' carved on a prominent post and 'Cro' etched into a tree" (Lawler). Croatoan was the name of the friendly tribe that occupied the area. However, there was no distress sign or an indication of where the settlers could have gone. A search party formed by the governor intended to the tribe's center near Cape Hatteras. However, stormy weather prevented the intended search and Governor White and his men were forced to return home.

Possible Causes for the Disappearance

Historians and archaeologists have sought to find what happened to the 115 inhabitants of Roanoke Island. The efforts have been unsuccessful, however, only generating many theories but no concrete evidence. For social and demographic tragedies, there are usually four general possibilities: "war, famine, pestilence, and death." This is especially applicable in the traditional context where the factors were commonplace unlike the case in the modern world. Another possibility is that all the factors interacted hence the demise of the first English settlement in the New World. From the first day the colony was formed there were fears of armed conflict with either the Spanish or the local inhabitants. However, the Spanish never found the Roanoke colony. The fear of a potential invasion could have forced the colony to move further west into the mainland. The local threat is also an important consideration. While the native Indians were hospitable at first, the situation changed with the between 1585 and 1587. When the second colony of civilians arrived, Governor White noticed increased hostility from the locals. An Englishman who went fishing soon after the arrival of the second colony was shot dead with arrows and his body mutilated. This threat could also have forced the colony to leave Roanoke Island.

Food Shortages and Disease

Food shortage was a serious concern in Roanoke Island. The military expedition faced a serious episode in 1586. After supplies were destroyed during the landing of the second colony's ships, another food shortage was inevitable. Governor White was aware of this and he had to return to England for more supplies in 1857. The colony had nothing to trade with the native tribes for their winter reserves. Disease was also a real problem for European settlers in the New World. Infectious diseases new to the settlers could also have affected the population. In the Jamestown colony, which was established later, the Plague continuously weakened the colony. Another consideration is the effect of the lack of strong social organization in the colony. Such an arrangement would have supported the colony and helped it survive any calamities. Therefore, it is probable that once the colony encountered a series of problems, it disintegrated into smaller groups with each independently fighting for its survival.

Speculations on Survival and Erosion

If all the causes discussed were left unchecked, then the colony could possibly have died out. However, if this were the case, there would be human remains or burial sites near the settlement. White and his men saw no evidence of such during their exploration of the area surrounding the Roanoke settlement. This fact raises the possibility that the colony realized impending danger and evacuated the island. Jamestown colonists heard stories about Roanoke survivors leaving among Indian tribes in the interior. While these stories were never confirmed, they suggest that the colony broke up due to an issue such as food shortage. The independent groups moved inland and were assimilated by the local tribes. According to Lawler, two independent teams of archaeologists have found remains that some of the colonists may have survived, split up and made home with Native Americans (N.p.). This conclusion is based on European objects found on Hatteras Island which is 50 miles southeast of Roanoke Island and a site on the mainland. The objects include broken English bowls, a slate tablet, and a sword hilt. However, the finds are not a definitive proof of the survival of the Roanoke settlers due to the numerous limitations of dating methods (Horn 304).

Some geologists have theorized that it is hard to find evidence of the settlement vanished due to shifting currents and rising sea waters. Roanoke Island could have lost a few hundred meters of land to the sea as a result. There is still hope for some because the Jamestown colony was also thought to have eroded away before it was discovered by archaeologists in the 1990s. Many artifacts have been gathered from the Jamestown site which gives hope to enthusiasts who hope to find the lost colony someday. Today's sea levels, however, are rising faster than they did a few centuries ago. The northern end of Roanoke Island is wearing away at an alarming rate. Experts are genuinely worried that coastal erosion could sweep away all traces of the lost colony (Lawler). Historians and archaeologists are therefore limited by time in their quest to find the lost colony. For something that has been this elusive for centuries it is possible that the colony will remain lost forever. The world might never know what happened to the 115 men, women, and children in a period of just three years. The lost colony is an enduring mystery that paints a picture England's first civilian contact with the New World.

Works Cited

Green, Paul. The Lost Colony: A Symphonic Drama of American History. UNC Press Books, 2014.

Horn, James. A kingdom strange: The brief and tragic history of the lost colony of Roanoke. Basic Books, 2010.

Lawler, Andrew. “Archaeologists start a new hunt for the fabled Lost Colony of the New World.” 6 Jun 2018. Web. 26 Nov 2018.

Lawler, Andrew. “We finally have clues to how the lost Roanoke Colony Vanished.” 7 Aug 2015. Web. 26 Nov 2018.

November 13, 2023


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