Storytime with KBC: The Lost Colony of Roanoke
October’s over. I’m crashing hard from my candy high, my clocks are cranked back for no particular reason, and the gray skies have settled over the Pacific Northwest for the duration. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m just not in the mood for the usual story this month. I know, you’ve come to rely on me to expose the true history of the world—the stuff they won’t/can’t/dare not teach you in school—but I just don’t have it in me this time. Tell you what; how about instead I tell you about the truth behind one of this countries supposed “Mysteries of History”? The actual truth. The mundane, vanilla, no monsters involved truth. Sounds boring? Well, yeah, kinda. But frankly, I think the real story’s way more interesting than the mystery on this one.
Go ahead, Google “Mysteries of History.” I guarantee you’ll end up no more than one click away from a story about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. If you’re reading my articles, you’re probably the type of person that’s heard of it before. It’s actually kind of hard to avoid these days. Any TV show with an ounce of the supernatural in its premise is gonna dive into the Roanoke well at some point. It’s just too juicy to pass up!
In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh sent an expedition off to establish a British colony in the New World. They settled off the North Carolina coast in a place called Roanoke Island, and immediately set about pissing off the native population something awful. In retrospect, arson and beheadings probably weren’t the best way to introduce themselves to the new neighbors. The blowback was about what you’d expect, and what was left of the expedition hitched a ride back to England with a happened-to-be-in-the-neighborhood Sir Francis Drake. The Roanoke Colony was abandoned for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.
The thing is, Raleigh didn’t know about this yet. By the time his first expedition was hurrying back across the Pond with their tails between their legs, he’d already sent another expedition to join them. The second group of fifteen men arrived at Roanoke a couple weeks later to find an empty settlement and presumably whatever the opposite of a welcoming party is. They were never heard from again. Roanoke 2: The Roanokening was not to be.
Raleigh was undeterred. See, he’d made a little deal with Queen Elizabeth to go halvsies on whatever treasure his people found over there, so he was pretty invested in the colony succeeding. In 1587 he sent a third group of settlers to Roanoke, because he was bad at pattern recognition. Led by John White, one of the survivors from Season One of Roanoke, the third expedition was bigger and better prepared than the ones that came before it. This time, Raleigh introduced a new variable into the mix: women and children. Maybe that would be the key to preventing merciless slaughter at the hands of the native population.
Nope. Turns out it wasn’t, and the Roanoke colonists frequently fought with the natives. Outnumbered and desperate, White took a small crew and sailed back to England to ask Raleigh for reinforcements. But when he returned, the colony was abandoned. The only thing left behind was a single, strange word carved into a nearby tree.
Oooh! Spooky, right? What did it mean? Where were the colonists? Did they leave? Were they captured or killed by the natives? Nobody knows! They were never seen again, and it would be another twenty years before the first permanent British colony was established in America at Jamestown in Virginia.
It’s a nice little campfire story, and I’m sure it moves a lot of trinkets at the Six Flags over Roanoke gift shop. Problem is, it glosses over some pretty damn important information.
Let’s start with White’s roadtrip to England and back. Most re-tellings of the story gloss over the length of his absence. White got back to England just in time for the Anglo-Spanish War. With the Spanish Armada patrolling the seas, it would be three years before it was safe to head back to Roanoke. A lot can happen to a struggling colony in three years, especially when it’s already fending off attacks from some (justifiably) angry natives.
Once he got back to Roanoke and found it deserted, you’ve gotta figure he looked around a little bit, right? His wife and his daughter have gone missing. It’s not like he’s just gonna hop a ship back to England! Well, yeah, that’s kind of what happened. Just not by choice. White was ready and rarin’ to go search the neighboring islands for the colonists when a big-ass hurricane came blowing in. The ship took some damage and lost its anchor. Its captain, not eager to lose his livelihood to the storm, turned tail and headed back to Blighty. White tried to raise support for another voyage, but he never made it back to the New World.
“Okay,” I hear you thinking (I’ve got a machine that does that), “White was gone a long time and didn’t get to search for them, but that still doesn’t explain where the colonists went? Or that word carved in the tree! Did I shower today or yesterday? Was that my phone? Nope, just a phantom buzz. Ooh, is there any cheesecake left?” Gah! Focus, dammit! I’m turning this thing off. Now where were we? Ah, yes. CROATOAN. Such a strange and mysterious word. Nice and creepy with all its hard consonants and round O sounds. What could it possibly mean?!
Those of you who actually live in North Carolina might know this one already. It’s an island. Well, was an island. These days Croatoan Island is called Hatteras Island, and it’s covered in fancy resorts and rich-people houses. Back then though it was home to the Croatan, a native tribe who had been friendly with the English settlers. Probably because they hadn’t been beheaded or set on fire by them yet. So why would the Roanoke colonists have carved the name of a neighboring island on a tree? Well, because that was the plan all along.
Sure, John White bringing back help from England was Plan A, but the colonists had a Plan B ready to go. If things got too bad on Roanoke, they’d pack up and head over to Croatoan Island to get help from the Croatan people. And so White would know what happened to them, they’d leave a note. Carved in a tree. So much for the mystery, huh?
So what actually happened to the Lost Colony? If you want to get super-technical, we don’t know for 100% sure, but connect the dots, man! There are contemporary reports of light-skinned, gray-eyed natives living on Croatoan Island. English artifacts have been found in the Croatan territory. All signs point to “moved in with the Croatan.” Look, if you’re faced with the Mystery of the Missing Pie, and you find a trail of crumbs that leads you to me, passed out in a recliner with blackberries smeared all over my face, the fate of the pie is no longer a mystery. This is no different. The Roanoke colonists, under attack by the natives, left their settlement and got help from the people on a neighboring island. They joined their society. They had children together. They lived happily ever after. Well…as happily as any Native American population ended up, anyway.
So there you go. The Lost Colony of Roanoke wasn’t so lost after all. You’re welcome. Kentucky Blue Clay, Professional Buzzkiller at your service. Sorry, folks, but stuff like this just ruffles my grumblies. World history is chock full of genuine weirdness. It’s all over the place. There’s no reason to manufacture more out of easily explainable events!
Don’t worry, I’m sure by next month I’ll have purged the Season Affective Disorder from my system and be back to my normal self. All amped up on holiday cheer and turkey leftovers and spinning yarns about…I don’t know…hallucinogenic reindeer urine. You know, something in the spirit of the holiday!