In 1587, the English, led by John White and financed by Sir Walter Raleigh, made their second attempt at setting up a colony on Roanoke Island, which now lies just off the coast of North Carolina in the USA. The colonists disappeared, however, during the Anglo-Spanish War, three years after the last shipment of supplies from England. The settlement is known as “The Lost Colony,” and the fate of the colonists is still unknown.
It all looked so promising in the beginning. The settlers landed on 22 July 1587 and soon established themselves. John White’s daughter Eleanor Dare was pregnant and on 18th August she gave birth to a daughter, Virginia, the first English child born in the Americas. The colonists established friendly relations with one of the local native tribes, the Croatans, who were able to describe to them the politics and geography of the area, but the other indigenous peoples, the Secotans, who had fought against the settlers of the first Roanoake Colony, remained hostile and refused to meet with them. Shortly thereafter, colonist George Howe was killed by natives while searching alone for crabs in Albemarle Sound. Fearing for their lives, the colonists persuaded Governor White to return to England to explain the colony’s desperate situation and ask for help. White duly sailed for England in late 1587, leaving behind about 115 colonists. Unfortunately, the war with Spain and a lack of funds meant that White was only able to return to Roanoke Island three years later. White landed on 18 August 1590, his grand-daughter’s third birthday, but found the settlement deserted. His men could not find any trace of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children he had left behind, nor was there any sign of a struggle or battle. The cabins had been taken down, the livestock had vanished and of the people the only traces were two graves and a message: the word “Croatoan” carved into a post of the fort and three letters “Cro” carved into a nearby tree.
White took this to mean that the colonists had gone to live on nearby Croatoan (now called Hatteras) Island with the friendly Croatans but circumstances prevented him from ever investigating this theory. No one ever found out what happened to the settlers and the end of the 1587 colony is unrecorded, leading to it being referred to as the “Lost Colony”. There are multiple hypotheses as to the fate of the colonists, the principal one being that they dispersed and were absorbed by either the local Croatans on Hatteras Island or another native tribe. An investigation of this hypothesis is ongoing in the form of the Lost Colony DNA Project in Houston, Texas, but its findings remain inconclusive. Another theory is that the Croatans turned on the settlers and wiped them out but no bodies were found at the time and no archaeological evidence has been found since then to support this claim. Other possibilities that have been put forward are that the colonists simply gave up waiting, tried to return to England on their own, and perished in the attempt and even that the colony might have been attacked and its members eaten by cannibals (which might explain the lack of bodies but seems somewhat implausible given the complete lack of any evidence of cannibalism being prevalent in the area). Most intriguingly, from 1937 to 1941 a series of stones telling of the travels of the colonists and their ultimate deaths were discovered that claimed to have been written by Eleanor Dare. Most historians believe that the so-called Dare Stones are a fraud, but there are some today that still believe the stones are genuine.
But none of this really explains the significance of the carving of the word “Croatoan” on that post or the fact that the same word has accompanied inexplicable disappearances in North America in the last few centuries, often in places far away from Roanoke Island. A few days before his death, and following a disappearance that remains unexplained to this day, Edgar Allan Poe was brought to his death bed in a state of delirium whispering the word “Croatoan”. The same word was found in other places at other times: scribbled in the journal of Amelia Earhart after her disappearance in 1937, carved into the post of the last bed that the celebrated horror author Ambrose Bierce slept in before he vanished in Mexico in 1913, scratched on the wall of the cell that the notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart inhabited before he was released from prison in 1888 never to be seen again, and, most disturbingly of all, written on the last page of the logbook of the ship ‘Carroll A. Deering’ when it ran aground with no one aboard on Cape Hatteras in 1921 (not that far from what was once known as Croatoan Island).
What the secret of Croatoan is and in particular what its connection is to those born in the Americas that causes their disappearance even far from home remains a mystery to this day. It would be remiss of me, however, not to mention one more theory, that of the natives who once lived on Roanoke Island all those years ago. The Croatans themselves believed that the island had a spirit and, if angered, this spirit had the power to change those who offended it into the form of animals, trees and rocks. So perhaps this is the explanation, that none of the people affected really disappeared but were simply transformed.