The lost colony of Roanoke – is one of America’s greatest mysteries solved?

The first colony of settlers mysteriously vanished in the late 1850’s


The Roanoke Island colony governor, John White, travelled back to England for desperately needed supplies. On his return, he found a completely deserted settlement.

All that remained of the 100-odd colonists was a set of bones and a carving that read “CROATOAN” a local Native American tribe.

It took another 100 years for Europeans to settle in the area.

Until recently, what happened to the settlement has been – depending on where you stand – a scientific mystery, a ghost story, zombie apocalypse or a tourist attraction (including boat rides).


Two small pieces of blue-and-brown pottery, believed to be from an apothecary or medicine jar used in the 16th century, have been uncovered during a dig at the Roanoke Island site.

Was there an El Nino Style Disaster?

The worst drought in 800 years – a mega-drought – took place in the three years after the colonists arrived at Roanoke. The absolute worst season occurred in 1587, right after White left for England, probably caused by a terrible El Nino.

It may have been the worst possible time to start a colony. Even the well-established Indians would have suffered—and the colonists needed to trade with them for food.

A Spanish colony on what is today known as Parris Island, in South Carolina, was also abandoned due to drought in 1587.


Did the colonists assimilate into native tribes?

Croatoan, the word on the carving found by John White, was the name of an Indian group who lived on Roanoke.

Last year, a sword hilt and bowls were discovered in the area — leading researchers to suggest that the vanished colonists had assimilated into the nearby native tribes.

There are Facebook groups dedicated to looking for the DNA of the lost settlers in modern-day Americans, possibly descended from the marriage of remaining settlers to Indians.



John White’s discovery of the word CROATOAN was, for centuries, all the evidence we had of the colony’s fate.

Better, cheaper technology in the last 20 years is responsible for the recent breakthroughs.

While what happened to the lost colony is still a puzzle, the pieces of the Roanoke Lost Colony mystery are being slowly filled in.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.