Imagine hearing tales of a new world overseas, a world that would bring your family riches beyond measure and your country power and resources others didn’t have. Members of your family are selected to go off to this new world and explore all that it has to offer. Everyone is ecstatic at the prospect, and you send them off with hope that they’ll come back with stories to tell and strategic materials in arms to send off to the government. Instead, you receive word back that your family’s entire colony has been wiped out and the only evidence left to investigate their disappearance is a single word: “croatoan”.
As creepy as this tale sounds, this actually happened to an English colony. In 1585, the Roanoke Colony, more loosely referred to as the Lost Colony, was established on Roanoke Island, which is now Dare County, North Carolina. It was an attempt by the Queen of England to establish a settlement in North America. No one actually knows what happened to the English colonists, only that they disappeared during the Anglo-Spanish war, three years after they received their last shipment of supplies from England. The colony was founded by Sir Walter Raleigh, after England’s attempt to establish a colony on the Chesapeake Bay failed and all that remained of their establishment was a skeleton. The master pilot at the time, Simon Fernandez, refused to let the colonists return to England and insisted they establish the new colony in Roanoke.
In 1587, the colonist of Roanoke were going through a crisis and convinced their governor, Governor White, to return to England and explain their situation to the king. White planned to leave behind 115 colonists, including his granddaughter Virginia Dare, who was the first English child born in America. Plans for return were thwarted once the English were suddenly under attack from the Spanish Armada, and again were stopped in 1588 when their ship was looted by the Spanish. With nothing to give back to the colonists, White returned to England.
The war continued with Spain, and White wasn’t able to make it back to his colony for another three years. He was finally able to make it back to the Roanoke Colony in 1890, but when he got there he found the settlement deserted. The only clue was the word “Croatoan” carved into a post fence which surrounded the village. All buildings had been dismantled, showing that their departure hadn’t been hasty. Before White had left the colony, he instructed them if anything was to go wrong they were to carve a Maltese cross on the tree nearby to show their leave was forced. There was no cross so, White concluded that they meant they moved to Croatoan Island, but was unable to conduct a search.
As stated earlier, no one is actually certain how or where the colonists went, but there are many theories on their disappearance. Dr. David Beers Quinn postulated that colonists moved north to integrate with Chesepians that Chief Powaton claimed to have killed, as per Governor White’s report. On the other hand, Lee Miller theorized that the members of the Lost Colony sought shelter with the Chowanoke who were later attacked by another tribe. John Lawson wrote in his 1709 book A New Voyage to Carolina that the Croatoans living on Hatteras Islands used to live on Roanoke Island and claimed to have European ancestors. During that time period, European colonists reported their encounters with grey eyed Indians who claimed descent from the colonists. As Jamestown was the only remaining nearby settlement, and they had no record of being attacked, there is a high probability that the grey-eyed Indians were the descendants of the Lost Colony.
The case is far from settled, as other tribes claim descent from the Roanoke Colonists, but there isn’t enough evidence to back up any real claims. The Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project was founded in 2007 by a group led by Roberta Estes, who owns a private DNA testing company. As of 2016, they still hadn’t managed to positively identify any descendants of the colony, but further results are pending and will be shared in the near future.