The disappearance of the Roanoke colony long remained one of the oldest unsolved mysteries in the United States. It all began back in 1587, when Sir Walter Raleigh financed the attempts of John White to establish a British colony on Roanoke Island, just off the coast of North Carolina. They landed that July and established themselves rather quickly. Everything seemed to be going well for the thriving colony of 115 people. In fact, John White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare, gave birth to a daughter while in Roanoke. Virginia Dare became the first English child born in the Americas.
White sailed back to England to gather fresh supplies, but the Anglo-Spanish War delayed his return. After being away from his family for three years, White finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, but he arrived to find the entire colony had simply vanished. They left nothing behind except the word “Croatoan” carved into a post and “Cro” etched into a tree. But what does "Croatoan" mean and where could the colony have gone?
In 2020, amateur archaeologist Scott Dawson, a native of Hatteras Island, just south of Roanoke, released a book, The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island, in which he provides evidence from researchers that the colonists "were never lost" and "the mystery is over," as he told The Virginian-Pilot. The colonists, Dawson said, moved to Hatteras Island and assimilated into the Native American tribe, the Croatoans, who already lived there. Scientists who studied the area, he said, uncovered a mix of English and Native American artifacts, proving that the two communities lived together.
Even if the mystery is truly solved, it's still interesting to speculate on what people theorized over the years.
Local Native Tribes Absorbed The Colonists As Friends Or SlavesPhoto: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons via National Archives and Records Administration
An island named Croatoan (now Hatteras Island) just south of Roanoke is home to a Native American tribe of the same name. Because the settlers developed a good rapport with the tribe and they carved “Croatoan” on the fort's gatepost, many assumed the settlers moved to the island and were absorbed into the tribe. As Scott Dawson's 2020 book The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island shows, this theory appears solid and solves the mystery.
Previous researchers also considered other possible connections to Native Americans.
Some theorize they moved north to join the Chesapeake tribe, or perhaps the Chowanocs or Weapemeocs. In the years after the colony disappeared, many people reported seeing Europeans and European-made goods in the area, though it was mostly hearsay. The Zuniga Map, a chart of the area drawn aroun 1607 by a settler from the Virginia colony of Jamestown, states "four men clothed that came from roonock" lived among the Iroquois. Another English man claimed to see two-story stone houses at the Indian settlements of Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen. British settlers supposedly taught them how to build such houses. Contemporary archeologists unearthed evidence including a gold signet ring, part of a rapier, and a slate and pencil that likely belonged to the Roanoke colonists while living among Native people.
It's also possible the colonists met with Native people who were less friendly. Jamestown colonist secretary William Strachey reported seeing Native tribes with European slaves who were forced to beat copper. To this day, many Native people in the region claim to have European ancestry, but DNA analysis of present-day local families proved inconclusive.
The Colonists Fell Victim To Cannibalism Or Practiced It ThemselvesPhoto: John White / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Unlike the Croatoans, other Native American tribes may have been more hostile to the Roanoke colonists. There's a theory that a cannibalistic tribe could have attacked and eaten the British colonists.
If true, that would explain why no bodies were ever found.
Many native cultures used bones as ingredients for healing remedies, grinding them into a powder form. Although it's a time-consuming task, they would've had time. White was gone for three years, and there’s no way to know exactly when the settlers started to disappear. There isn't convincing evidence that any tribes in the area practiced cannibalism, but there is proof that the colonists of Jamestown resorted to cannibalism in 1609. It’s quite possible their predecessors in Roanoke succumbed to eating human flesh as well.
Edgar Allan Poe Had A Mysterious Connection to The Word 'Croatoan'Photo: Edwin H. Manchester/C.T. Tatman / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The whereabouts of the Roanoke colony isn't the only part of this mystery: archeologists and historians are still trying to figure out why the word "Croatoan" was carved into that post. Were the colonists saying the Croatoan tribe would know what happened to them?
While we still don't know, the word "Croatoan" is connected to another strange event centuries later.
Not much is known about the death of author Edgar Allan Poe in 1849. After disappearing on a trip from Virginia to Pennsylvania, he turned up nearly unconscious and babbling incoherently in a gutter in Baltimore, MD. While on his deathbed, Poe allegedly whispered the word “Croatoan.”
It's not clear what illness he suffered from, and his official cause of death is unknown. All medical records and his death certificate were allegedly lost. Could he have experienced what the lost colony did?
'Croatoan' Appears At The Site Of Many Other Mysterious DisappearancesPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
This mysterious word also reportedly showed up in other places.
Infamous stagecoach robber Black Bart supposedly etched the word into the wall of his prison cell right before his release in 1888 and he was never seen again. Horror author Ambrose Bierce vanished while in Mexico in 1913, and the bed he last slept in allegedly had the word “Croatoan” carved into a post. The word also appears on the last page of the logbook of the ghost ship Carroll A. Deering in 1921, which ran aground without its crew on Cape Hatteras, near what was once known as Croatoan Island. And Amelia Earhart reportedly scribbled the word in her journal, found after her disappearance in 1937.