The Lost Colony of Roanoke: An American Mystery in North Carolina

Fort Raleigh and the Lost Colony of Roanoke

In a way, it’s not surprising that one of the most popular genres of entertainment in the world is true crime. Movies, TV shows, books, and podcasts have made it easy for us to feel like we could be part of the team that solves even the most mind-blowing of mysteries. Plenty of us have identified perpetrators from under warm blankets in between handfuls of popcorn on otherwise lazy Friday nights. Yet there are still mysteries among us that have remained unsolved not for weeks or months but for centuries, and one of those mysteries is connected to one of the earliest English settlements in the United States.

Long before the pilgrims arrived on the shores of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and even before settlers first caught sight of Jamestown, Virginia, 118 colonists set off to make a home out of a land that was known but not understood. Arriving in August 1587, the colonists immediately set to work creating a new home for themselves. By August 1590, almost every trace of them had completely disappeared. What happened to them—whether they relocated, perished due to natural causes, or even died at the hand of another human—has never been determined. That’s why Roanoke Island, North Carolina is a place no true crime fan should miss and a vacation destination that will certainly have you wondering if we will ever solve one of the most perplexing cases in US history.

What Was the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

In the 1500s, with world exploration serving as the focus for so many nations, reports of new lands, people, and shortcuts to the Far East became increasingly more common. In 1524, Giovanni de Verrazzanno announced he had found what he believed was a true shortcut to China: a place now known as North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It took more than 50 years before Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh to both explore and colonize the lands, which led to Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe setting sail on two ships destined for the New World. The expedition first saw Cape Fear on July 4, 1584, and after a brief stay, they returned back to England with reports of “bountiful” lands and friendly native tribes. Less than a year later, a new fleet set sail with 600 men and an intention to establish a permanent colony. It wasn’t quite the success Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh hoped it could be; some of the fleet never arrived at their destination, a fire destroyed supplies and one of the ships, and ultimately plans to establish a permanent settlement were abandoned. In 1587, a third attempt was underway: this time, three ships with 118 men, women, and children set off to make Roanoke their new home.

Fort Raleigh Roanoke Colony. Source: Wikipedia
Fort Raleigh Roanoke Colony. Source: Wikipedia
Like previous missions, the new colonists created opportunities and faced challenges almost immediately after docking. They struggled to build relationships with the Native Americans who had called the land home for much longer than the colonists had known of its existence. Some interactions turned hostile and deadly. In August, Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter named Virginia, who earned a spot in history as the first child to be born in the colony. Not long after, a second child was born to Margery Harvye. Although in some ways the colony was beginning to thrive, food and supply shortages plagued it, and Governor John White returned to England to request more support from the queen. His ship departed in August 1587, and although the voyage back to England with a return to the colony should have required mere months, it took close to three years before he set foot on Roanoke’s shores again—and what he discovered was haunting.

Despite a desperate need to send a resupply ship, that mission was delayed by one Queen Elizabeth deemed even more important: reports the Spanish Armada planned to attack England were undeniable, and the queen ordered all available ships to prepare for battle. Governor While—whose daughter Eleanor and granddaughter Virginia were anxiously awaiting his help—had no choice but to wait for permission to return, which did not come until the summer of 1590. When the resupply mission reached Roanoke, not one member of the colony was present. All that was left were remnants of an attempt to establish a life there and one tree into which the word CROATOAN was carved.

To this day, no one knows what happened to what is now called the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Still, historians have a few ideas about what might have become of the ill-fated expedition.

What Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

There are really two main theories about what could have happened to the colonists: they may have abandoned the settlement in hopes of finding a more habitable place to live, or they may died there.

John White's map related to a possible location where the Lost Colony moved to.
John White’s map from the British Museum showing a possible location of the colonists
There were many reasons why the colonists might have wanted to leave. Although the lands were described as “bountiful” by Sir Walter Raleigh, it’s likely that the colonists found it difficult to grow food there, perhaps leading them to look for more fertile soil further inland. Relations with Native Americans were tense at best; while some tribes accepted their presence, others did not, which could have driven the colonists to seek a different, safer place to live. Some historians suggest that they may have attempted to sail back to England and found themselves lost, never reaching familiar shores again.

Death seemed likely based on the complete absence of life at the settlement. Starvation seemed very possible; in their first year, in addition to planting, they might not have known how the climate would lead to different growing conditions than they were used to in England. Colonists might not have understood they had more time, which could have led to them producing less food than they needed for the winter. Drought might also have been a contributing factor. Disease was also likely; living in a new place exposed them to illnesses for which they had no immunity. Death at the hands of native tribes is also a realistic explanation for their demise; most tribes were unhappy with the colonists’ presence, including the fact the settlers proved to be in competition with them for food.

In the absence of graves, human remains, or accounts of where the settlers might have gone, all that remained was the carving in the tree: the word CROATOAN. Before leaving for England, Governor White had instructed the colonists to relocate to Croatoan Island, an island south of Roanoke which is now modern day Hatteras, North Carolina. While there are additional theories related to artifacts like John White’s map from the British Museum, or the Dare Stones, which some claim to be written by members of the the Lost Colony, nothing has proven to be definitive. Despite numerous efforts over four centuries, the word CROATOAN still serves to both answer the question as to where the settlers went and open the door to a truly unsolved mystery to this day.

Things to Do on Roanoke Island

If you are a true crime fan, it’s time to do a little sleuthing into why Roanoke might make a fantastic vacation destination—and why it’s just as fun for history lovers, families, and weekend trippers as well!

Roanoke Settlement – Fort Raleigh

Fort Raleigh and the Lost Colony of Roanoke
Fort Raleigh and the Lost Colony of Roanoke
It would be hard to imagine a visit to Roanoke without a stop at the settlement itself. Fort Raleigh is a great place to immerse yourself in the history and natural beauty of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. You’ll also want to be sure to check out the earthen mounds, which show the exact spot where historians believe the fort was located. Previous digs have confirmed the colonists lived along the places where the mounds stand today, and they may someday play a role in solving the mystery of what happened to the colonists if answers are to be found.

The Lindsay Warren Visitor Center provides great access to foundational information about the Lost Colony of Roanoke, including a short movie and multiple exhibits that detail what life was like for the colonists. Beyond the visitor center, trails that lead to the North Carolina shoreline provide great access to hiking. It’s also a great place to witness ongoing efforts to uncover the truth about what happened to the Lost Colony. Research, including archaeological digs, periodically begin at Fort Raleigh. Previous digs have produced both Native American artifacts as well as items abandoned by the colonists, and with active work continuing to this day you just might find that your visit coincides with a big discovery!

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Elizabethan Gardens

You will find more than 10 acres of peace and stunning natural beauty right at Fort Raleigh with a visit to the Elizabethan Gardens, which is part of Fort Raleigh. In addition to all of the plants, trees, and flowers that contribute a sense of serenity, there are plenty of nods to the history that inspires the gardens. A bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth I recognizes the monarch who supported and authorized exploration from England, and a statue honoring Virginia Dare remembers the first English child born in what would much later become the United States. It’s a great stop to make when visiting the fort, and it serves as a nice, living tribute to the colonists.

Waterside Theater

The Waterside Theater near the Lost Colony of Roanoke
The Waterside Theater
History comes to life before you at the Waterside Theater, also part of Fort Raleigh, where the seasonal play The Lost Colony takes guests through the triumphs and tribulations of those who disappeared around the time the word Croatoan appeared carved into a tree. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Green, The Lost Colony is the longest running outdoor symphonic drama in the USA and has starred alumni including Andy Griffith, Lynn Redgrave, and Chris Elliott.

As special as the production itself is the location, which features water views directly behind the stage and makes it easy to imagine what it might have been like to be a colonist yourself, stepping off a boat and into a very different world. The Lost Colony is aimed at visitors with shows every evening, although cancellations can happen due to the weather.

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Freedmen’s Colony

Centuries after the Lost Colony went missing, Roanoke Island found its way into the history books again as a place for African Americans to enjoy independence before the Emancipation Proclamation granted it to everyone. Men and women who were once enslaved found a new start as part of the Freedmen’s Colony, where more than 2,000 people found homes and opportunities to learn, live, and worship together. While the community that developed did not result in the kind of self-sufficiency that had been envisioned, it is recognized today for offering safety and hope to people who were finally able to live independently and freely together. As part of Fort Raleigh, a visit can provide an important perspective and needed view of another part of the country’s history.

Roanoke Island Festival Park

Beyond Fort Raleigh, Roanoke Island Festival Park provides a very interactive look into life for the English settlers. From replica ships to interactive exhibits organized by historical interpreters, visitors have the chance to experience what daily life might have been like for the colonists—from chores to entertainment to meals. Meant for visitors of all ages, it’s easy to spend a few hours or even a day exploring, learning, and immersing yourself in a world that was unfolding on the same soil almost 500 years ago.

More Information:

This video has some additional information on what you can expect to see when you visit Roanoke Island Festival Park.


Tips for Visiting the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Prepare for crowds—especially in the summer

Roanoke Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina are popular for many reasons, not the least of which is the chance to experience history. During the most popular parts of the year you will see traffic—both vehicle traffic and pedestrian traffic. Plan for a little extra transit time to ensure you get where you want to go and have enough time to fully enjoy every stop on your itinerary.

Check the local calendars

Roanoke Island has plenty of fun, seasonal events including concerts, festivals, and farmers markets. Get a better taste of local life in the Outer Banks by knowing what might be happening while you are visiting and incorporating a special event into your schedule.

Wake up early

Don’t miss those beautiful Outer Banks sunrises! We made it our mission to wake up a little early every day to watch the sun come up, and from watching from our hotel room to watching from the beach we were glad to leave the Outer Banks with those memories.

Hotels Near the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Roanoke Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina is full of vacation homes, hotels, and bed and breakfast locations that can meet your needs and position you right where you want to be. We used to research hotels in the area that would provide us with good access to Roanoke and other Outer Banks destinations as well as access to the beach for some amazing sunrises. Take a look at some of the properties on to see if there is a hotel that is a great fit for your vacation!

Enjoy Visiting the Lost Colony of Roanoke!

Although we have never really been crime solvers, we found it hard to stand on the same land that welcomed—and somehow lost—118 people without wondering what could have happened to them. Was it sudden? Scary? Sinister? How long did the colonists survive before they went missing without a trace?

These days, a visit to the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island is more likely to entice you with sunshine, beaches, and great food, but that’s what makes it a terrific vacation destination. You’ll certainly leave a little more relaxed and rested, but also more curious about the role the Lost Colony of Roanoke played in United States history. True crime fans rejoice: there are still good mysteries out there that need to be solved, and there’s no reason your vacation to Roanoke won’t lead you to a consideration or two that could connect some of history’s dots!

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The Lost Colony of Roanoke: An American Mystery in North Carolina