The Lost Colony of Roanoke remains one of the great mysteries in American history. What happened to the 116 men, women, and children who left Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina mainland, in the fall of 1587 and disappeared? Where did they go?
As a historian of colonial America, I'd long been fascinated by the story but didn't have any intention of writing about it until a few years ago when I was working on a book about the founding of Jamestown. I'd read the standard accounts of the Lost Colony and much of the published evidence but had no reason to question the established theory, which had held sway for 35 years. According to this theory, the majority of colonists headed north to the Chesapeake Bay, where they had originally intended to settle, leaving a small group behind on Roanoke Island to wait for their leader, John White, to return with reinforcements and fresh supplies. When White failed to make contact with the colonists, so the theory goes, they settled down with local Indians somewhere near present day Norfolk or Portsmouth, Virginia. The small group left behind on Roanoke moved to Croatoan Island where they too settled with local peoples. Then, 20 years later, the larger group was wiped out in an attack instigated by Powhatan warriors, a powerful chiefdom that controlled much of coastal Virginia. So the Lost Colonists were killed about the same time that a new English colony was established at Jamestown in the spring of 1607.
But as I looked at the evidence more closely I found a curious pattern emerging. Rumors picked up by the Jamestown settlers concerning survivors of the slaughter pointed to locations in the interior of North Carolina, not on the southern shore of Chesapeake Bay. A dozen or so Lost Colonists and their children fled into the interior of North Carolina along major rivers; none, apparently, were to be found farther north.
As with the unraveling of any good mystery, one question led to another. When the colonists asked John White to return to England for help in the summer of 1587, why did they not tell him where they planned to go? They had already made the decision to leave Roanoke Island and head "50 miles into the maine [mainland]." The English knew of two Indian communities on the Chesapeake Bay, Chesepiooc and Skicoak, both of which appear on a map of the region drawn by White the year before. Why not direct White to rendezvous with them there? Why go to the trouble of leaving a small garrison on the island if they and White had already decided on their new location on the bay?
Another question: how would they have got to the Chesapeake Bay? They had a small ship (a pinnace), capable of transporting about 40 people at a time. Given that they took their gear and even dismantled houses they had built on the Island, they would have needed to make at least three and possibly four journeys back and forth, navigating difficult and unknown waterways. Going north simply did not make sense. I realized that they had to have gone in an entirely different direction.
Another set of questions arose. Why had they gone to America in the first place? What were they looking for? The colony was sponsored by Sir Walter Ralegh, the darling of Queen Elizabeth and an enormously wealthy grandee. Most historians have assumed that the 1587 colony was to be an agricultural settlement devoted to reaping the natural produce of the land, but this did not seem to me to square with Ralegh's ambitions. Ralegh played for big stakes and was impressed by tales of Spanish discoveries of Indian gold and silver mines in Central and South America. He set out to create an English America in the northern continent where he, like Spanish conquistadors, would carve out a vast empire, find gold and other precious minerals, and possibly a water passage through the landmass to the South Sea (Pacific). In time, he believed, the English, not the Spanish, would be lords of the world.
Who were the Lost Colonists and where did they come from? Incredibly, a list of their names has survived that tells us that there were 92 men, 17 women, and 9 children, all boys. Ten or 11 married couples went and many of the colonists were related — brothers, cousins, or fathers and sons. Local research that I carried out in London reveals a much fuller portrait of their origins, however, and suggests that some left England for religious reasons. If so, they were the first English Puritans to go to America, more than 30 years before the Pilgrims.
I wrote A Kingdom Strange as a narrative, setting the story against the high drama of the love affair between Elizabeth and Ralegh, the looming threat of invasion by the Spanish, and the struggle between Protestants and Catholics that had split Europe in two. The fate of the colonists was inextricably connected to the grand designs of European monarchs; the ambitions of courtiers, privateers, and merchants; power struggles between warring Indian peoples; and even to vagaries of the weather. It is a rich and tragic story of near misses and shattered hopes.