There Was No Happy Thanksgiving for the Lost Colonists of Roanoke Island

At Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, archeologists dig for evidence of the lost Roanoke Colony and its inhabitants. NPS photo.

At Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, the Park Service is partnering with the First Colony Foundation to shed light on a mystery that still fascinates us after more than four centuries: What happened to the lost Roanoke Colony? Archeologists working at the settlement site haven’t answered that question yet, but artifacts they’ve dug up tell us interesting things about life on Roanoke Island in the late 1580s.

The first English attempt to create a permanent settlement in the New World came to grief when Sir Walter Raleigh’s little colony on Roanoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks vanished with scarcely a trace sometime between 1587 and 1590. What happened to those unfortunate men, women, and children struggling for a toehold in a vast wilderness far from home remains one of history’s most intriguing mysteries. Were the Roanoke colonists killed by Indians? Did cold and disease do them in? Did they starve to death? Did they lose hope of being rescued, wander off into the woods, and succumb to the many grave perils that lurked there?

Investigators haven’t had much to go on. When relief ships from England finally arrived in 1590, three years after the colonists were last seen, they found only an abandoned village and a few strange carvings on trees. Apparently left for searchers to find, they read “CROATOAN” and “CRO.” Exactly what that meant has never been determined. Indeed, the carvings themselves disappeared centuries ago, and we can’t even be sure where they once stood. Organic material tends to rot quickly in Roanoke Island’s acidic soil, and shoreline erosion has probably erased parts of the original settlement. When Europeans resettled the area many years later, little evidence of the settlement’s existence remained.

The site of the failed colony is of great historic significance, and has been treated accordingly. Research has been conducted repeatedly at the site since the first excavation took place in 1895 (see the archeology timeline at this site). Small survey and excavation projects were completed in the 1930s and 1940s. Then, during 1950-1951, the remains of an earthwork fort that the original colonists had built in 1585 were excavated and a partial reconstruction (sans palisade) was built under the supervision of National Park Service archeologist J. C. Harrington. As the Park Service describes it:

The [earthworks are] considered an above-ground remnant of England’s first New World settlement. Restored in the early 1950s, area residents referred to the earthworks as “Fort Raleigh” by the late 1800s. During its restoration, artifacts dated to the late 16th century were discovered. Some of these items are on display in the park’s visitor center.

The earthworks were restored using pioneering methods of historical archeology that are common in the profession today. The earth comprising the fort had settled to just above the ground level by the time of its restoration. However, archeologists studied the stratification of soil to determine the original depth and angles of its ditch, as well as its interior dimensions. Enough information was learned to restore the feature to a more original configuration. Sod was then placed over the sandy soil to preserve the structure.
The earthworks, which were originally capped by a wooden palisade, are the only major structure from the original settlement whose location has been established with reasonable precision.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site was established on April 5, 1941 under National Park Service administration. Today the park is managed together with Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Wright Brothers National Memorial. Fort Raleigh has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966.

When the park was created in 1941, it was stipulated that the Roanoke Island Historical Association (RIHA) would be permitted to maintain a theater on park property and use it to stage theatrical performances. Nearly 70 years later, RIHA continues to produce "The Lost Colony" drama/musical many times each summer season at the open-air Wayside Theater. Performed every year since 1937 (except the World War II years), The Lost Colony is billed as America’s first and longest-running outdoor drama.

The mysteries of the Roanoke Colony continue to drive scientific research. For more than a century, archeologists and historians have probed the earth and pored over historical records, looking for artifacts and information about the ill-fated settlement. Though we may quite possibly never know what happened to the colony’s last residents, we have already accumulated a significant amount of information about the settlement and the circumstances of life there.

Researchers have made rapid progress in recent years, largely thanks to improved technology (such as ground-penetrating radar, radar tomography, and underwater archeology) coupled with a productive partnership between the National Park Service Southeast Archaeological Center and the First Colony Foundation (FCF). Established in 2004 for the purpose of investigating the Elizabethan-era colonies on Roanoke, FCF conducts digs on Roanoke Island under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding. The organization employs experts from several disciplines and is co-directed by Dr Eric Klingelhofer, Professor of History at Mercer University, and Nicholas Luccketti, President of the James River Institute for Archaeology.

In 2006, FCF conducted an excavation in an area lying to the northeast of the 1950 earthwork fort reconstruction. A ground penetrating radar survey conducted by the Park Service’s Southeast Archaeological Center had identified underground rectangular features (rare in nature) and erosion had previously exposed some artifacts dating to about the Roanoke Colony timeframe (a temporal grouping that’s called the Colington Series in this region). The dig didn’t locate settlement remains, but turned up lots of evidence that the site was “a focus of Elizabethan activity.”

In 2008 and 2009, the digging, which has now nearly doubled the area of the 16th-century land surface exposed for study, concentrated in a sandy, wooded area about 200 yards northwest of the earthwork. The Elizabethan-era ground surface in that area has been buried under two to five feet of windblown or water-deposited sand for at least 200 years. In May 2008 a survey employing ground-penetrating radar and radar tomography revealed sub-surface structures well worth investigating.

This site has been very productive. Among the approximately 200 Colington Series artifacts found were nails, part of an iron knife, a copper pendant necklace, one copper rolled tubular bead (aiglet), Indian and European potsherds dating to the late 1500s, and an Indian red clay tobacco pipe similar to one depicted in a 1590 engraving. (Some of the artifacts found do not date all the way back to the original settlement. For example, the diggers found a "Carolina blue" glass bead of the type found earlier at the earthwork fort site and now on display in the visitor center.)

A tantalizing discovery was made toward the end of this year’s recently-concluded dig. While digging into the subsoil at the edge of the excavation, workers found a one-foot wide “linear trench feature with soil stains consistent with palisaded enclosures found at other early colonial sites.” Could this be part of the original Fort Raleigh palisade? Unfortunately, further investigation of this promising find will have to wait until next year’s dig.

Postscript: One of the most interesting finds of the 2008 dig at Fort Raleigh was a necklace whose pendants consisted of 14 one-inch square European-made copper plates. (Copper was prized by the Algonquin chiefs, who wore it as a status symbol.) The necklace, which has apparently not been dated precisely, was exhibited at the Fort Raleigh visitor center during the 2009 summer season and can now be seen on display at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

Comments

Thanks so much for this fascinating article, Bob! I have long been intrigued with the fate of the Roanoke colonists--a great "history mystery." The best book I've read on the subject and one that offers the most plausible explanation is "Roanoke : Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony" by Lee G. Miller. This book reads like a political suspense novel and murder mystery all in one--with the added bonus of being a true story. I highly recommend it.

Thanks for the tip, CivilWarBuff. I'll look forward to some good fireside reading.

The story of the Roaonke Island colonists has always been one of the black holes of American history and the first true American Mystery. It is great to read where they are making some headway in finding the answer as to what happened to Virginia Dare and the rest. Thanks for the update.

-- Dan

They went to Ohanoak. Cheasapeake, Hampton Roads. William Strachey.