An interesting story for diffusionists --
Special Feature: The Lost Colony
Introduction by Sara Whitford, Article below by Scott Dawson
Since Paul Green's play first took the stage on Roanoke Island in the
1930s, countless masses have been enthralled with the mystery that is
"The Lost Colony." Indeed, before that time, the circumstances
surrounding those English colonists who allegedly disappeared into
thin air from the face of history never created much cause for concern
to England, the public or even the State of North Carolina.
A full 350 years later, however, something magical happened when one
playwright's interpretation of the story first made its debut. It was
a writer's dream-come-true. Green had formed an emotional bond between
the audience and his characters, something every writer of fiction
even historical fiction strives to do.
From that moment forward, things changed. The public imagination was
stoked and a newfound interest in the fate of the colonists took root.
One may argue, "But these weren't mere 'characters,' as Green was
writing about real people and real events."
Well... a little bit. After all, how could Green possibly know
individuals who lived 350 years before him well enough to flesh out
their characters in a script, much less on stage? He had to take
creative liberties in order to have a story to tell. The facts were
far too bland to stand on their own, so he did what any good writer
would do... he dressed things up a bit.
This, in and of itself, is not problematic. The problem comes when the
public cannot distinguish between the artistic license that Green took
in creating his much-loved play, versus the historical facts available
to us. The line between historical facts and artistic fantasy were
blurred a long, long time ago.
What if there is no Lost Colony? What if they never were lost to begin
What if one day an archaeological excavation demonstrates what,
perhaps, should have been common sense all along... that the colonists
went exactly where they left their note, "Croatoan", saying they would
go, and that they lived there as best as they could until they died
out or assimilated into the Indians who had taken them in?
Coastal Carolina Indian Center invited Hatteras native and author,
Scott Dawson, to offer his thoughts on the Lost Colony. He brings up
some outstanding questions, and offers insight into facts that many
may not be aware of as they wonder about what happened to the colonists.
The Lost Colony? Maybe not.
By Scott Dawson
Author & Hatteras Native
E-mail Scott Dawson
You may have heard the tale of the Lost Colony.
If so, you probably heard that 117 English colonists disappeared in
1587 and left no clues as to where they went and that nothing has ever
been found to shed some light on the mystery.
This article is an attempt to educate the public about the Lost Colony
of 1587, America's oldest mystery, and a story so wrapped in myth that
many facts as to their whereabouts seemed to have been ignored over
Recent archeological digs on Hatteras Island, together with genealogy,
oral history, and the primary sources of the many voyages that took
place from 1584 to 1590, give an abundance of clues as to the
whereabouts of the missing colony.
The first clue is a message carved on a palisade that was discovered
by Governor John White in 1590 on Roanoke Island. The message said
CROATOAN in capital letters.
Although this has been cited many times over the years as some sort of
"mysterious clue," the reality is, it's perfectly logical that they
left the note.
You see, before John White left the colony in 1587 to get supplies
from England, he told the colonists to carve the name of the place
they were going on a tree if they left Roanoke Island and to put a
cross under it if they left for reasons of danger.
No cross was found, and White, in his own records, stated he was
relieved to know that the colony was safe in Croatoan with Manteo.
Manteo was an Indian from Croatoan who had been to England twice,
spoke English and had been used as an interpreter. John White had a
daughter and granddaughter among the missing colonists and made an
attempt to go to Croatoan to pick them up during his 1590 voyage, but
he was turned back by foul weather that drowned seven of his company.
So where is Croatoan and were the English familiar with this place?
Croatoan is modern day Buxton on Hatteras Island, an island the
English had visited on all of their voyages. It was where they had
originally landed in 1584 and even lived for a time in 1585. The
colonists went there again in 1587 and had a feast. It was the
hometown of their ally and interpreter Manteo and appears on all of
John White's maps. So yes, the English were familiar with Croatoan and
there has never been a mystery as to where that place was.
However, after John White's failed attempt to reach the island in
1590, no other attempt to reach Croatoan was made for another 80 years!
An excerpt from John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina (p. 62)
First Colony of Carolina.
The first Discovery and Settlement of this Country was by the
Procurement of Sir Walter Raleigh, in Conjunction with some
Publick-spirited Gentlemen of that Age, under the Protection of Queen
Elizabeth; for which Reason it was then named Virginia, being begun on
that Part called Ronoak-Island, where the Ruins of a Fort are to be
seen at this day, as well as some old English Coins which have been
lately found; and a Brass-Gun, a Powder-Horn, and one small Quarter
deck-Gun, made of Iron Staves, and hoop'd with the same Metal; which
Method of making Guns might very probably be made use of in those
Days, for the Convenience of Infant-Colonies.
A farther Confirmation of this we have from the Hatteras
Indians, who either then lived on Ronoak-Island, or much frequented
it. These tell us, that several of their Ancestors were white People,
and could talk in a Book, as we do; the Truth of which is confirm'd by
gray Eyes being found frequently amongst these Indians, and no others.
They value themselves extremely for their Affinity to the English, and
are ready to do them all friendly Offices. It is probable, that this
Settlement miscarry'd for want of timely Supplies from England; or
thro' the Treachery of the Natives, for we may reasonably suppose that
the English were forced to cohabit with them, for Relief and
Conversation; and that in process of Time, they conform'd themselves
to the Manners of their Indian Relations. And thus we see, how apt
Humane Nature is to degenerate.
Sir Walter Raleigh's ship.
I cannot forbear inserting here, a pleasant Story that passes
for an uncontested Truth amongst the Inhabitants of this Place; which
is, that the Ship which brought the first Colonies, does often appear
amongst them, under Sail, in a gallant Posture, which they call Sir
Walter Raleigh's Ship; And the truth of this has been affirm'd to me,
by Men of the best Credit in the Country.
If anything, the fact that no one went back to Croatoan is a greater
mystery than where the colony went. The next European to travel to
Hatteras (on purpose and not by shipwreck) was John Lawson in 1701.
Lawson published a book called A New Voyage To Carolina that is the
definitive work on the North Carolina Indians of the 1700's. In this
book, Lawson recorded that many of the Hatteras Indians, or Croatoans,
had grey eyes and said that their ancestors could speak out of a book
(read) and that they were, indeed, descendents of the 1587 colony.
These Indians even said that a ship, which they called Sir Walter
Raleigh's ship, still appeared among them. Lawson goes on to say that
this tribe was very proud of their affinity to the English. (See entry
at right to read excerpt from Lawson's book.)
So we have the message on the palisade, Manteo's home town, and the
oral history of the Hatteras Indians all pointing to Croatoan.
All of this is old news though. What is really interesting is what
happened in 1993.
The native families of Hatteras Island can show you arrowheads,
pottery and other artifacts that they have found from what all who
live there believe to be, the old Croatoan village site. In the
1970's, locals of the island used to sit by the road and sell
arrowheads for a nickel each to tourists. Buckets full of pottery and
arrowheads could be found all over the ridges where Croatoan Village
once stood. In 1993, however, Hurricane Emily surged 10 feet of sound
tide over this village site and ripped out many layers of sand in the
process. As a result, an enormous amount of new artifacts were
uncovered and found by local residents, Zander Brody, Eddie Oaks and
Eventually, archeologists came to the site. Dr. David Phelps had found
some Croatoan artifacts before back in the 1980's while doing work for
the 400th anniversary of the first English voyages to the New World.
Phelps returned to the island and with help from a lot of volunteers,
struck pay dirt. This time not only were Croatoan artifacts found but
European ones as well. Among the European artifacts were the iron ring
of a caulking hammer, lead shot, nails, bricks and, most importantly,
a gunlock that dates to 1583 and a gold insignia ring that probably
belonged to a man named Master Kendall, who was part of the 1585 voyage.
This ring and gunlock found by David Phelps now reside at East
Carolina University. More and more artifacts come out of the Croatoan
site each time they dig. Even European skeletons have been found,
along with Native American bones.
These finds led to a search of the genealogy of the old islander
families, along with deed records of the land where the artifacts were
discovered. So far, this has been a great success. Due in part to the
isolation of the island, many of the families have been living there
for over 400 years and bear the surnames and genealogy to prove it.
The Indian blood is obvious in the physical features of almost all the
A Plot by King James?
The political situation in England also plays a major role in the fate
of the colony. When King James took over he deliberately abandoned the
colony for financial reasons.
Sir Walter Raleigh's rights to the profits of the New World could not
be killed simply by killing Raleigh, which King James did by
beheading. Raleigh's rights to the riches would pass to his heirs
unless the colony was never contacted again. This is why the English
never returned despite knowing the colony had moved to the Island of
Colony Life on Hatteras
The question now is not where did the colony go, but what happened
after they reached Hatteras Island?
To understand the story of the Lost Colony, one must read and
understand the voyages that preceded it. The problem for most people
is that the primary sources are in Old English, incomplete, and vague
at times on purpose due to the fact that the colony was a secret. The
English were at war with Spain and if the location of their settlement
got out, the Spanish would find and kill the colonists. The Spanish
had already killed off a French attempt to settle down in Florida back
in 1562, killing over 130 men. This massacre heavily shaped the
mindset and preparations that went into the English voyages.
There are five 16th century voyages to the New World:
The first is the 1584 reconnaissance mission, where Amadas and
Barlowe are sent to find a good place for a future, larger settlement.
They are looking for a place with three things: a good defensive
position to use as a raiding point against return voyages of Spanish
ships, natural resources, and friendly native people with profitable
items to trade.;
The next voyage is the one in 1585, which was a military
settlement led by Ralph Lane and Richard Greenville that lasted almost
a year and was very poorly managed and started a senseless war with
people on the mainland.;
Then we have the 1586 supply voyage where only 15 men are left
to literally hold the fort;
Next, we have the "Lost Colony" of 1587;
Finally, John White's return to search for the colony in 1590.
It would take several essays to cover all of those voyages in detail
but it breaks down to this: The colony had no option but to go to
Croatoan and many good reasons for going there. Not only was it the
home town of Manteo and friendly natives that had fed and lived with
the English for almost a year prior to the "lost colonists" arrival
but this friendship is noted again in 1587. The Croatoan throw the
English a feast and the mainland Roanoke Indians murder George Howe,
one of the colonists. The Roanoke also killed two of the English left
there in 1586 and chased the other 13 away. We learn this from the
Croatoan who tell Edward Stafford in 1587 while feeding him and his men.
What would you do?
Here is an island of people who love you and show great acts of
kindness nestled in a world that hates you for vicious crimes carried
out by your military the year before.
In a prearranged agreement to indicate where you move to it is agreed
that you carve the name of the place on a tree and leave a cross under
it if you left for reasons of danger.
You carve "Croatoan" on a palisade and "Cro" on a tree and leave no cross.
You carefully remove all the buildings and small boats.
No one ever goes to Croatoan searching for you.
In addition columns of smoke are spotted when John White passes
Hatteras Island on his way to Roanoke to see the Croatoan message.
White clearly state that he believes the colony went there in his
letter. He attempts to go to Croatoan, but is driven away by a storm.
Doesn't anyone wonder why no one ever went to Croatoan again?
Some have created the ridiculous myth that Croatoan is a poor place to
Quite the contrary, people have lived off the land there for thousands
of years. A bridge was not built to the island until 1964 and no
power, running water, doctor or police lived there until the 1960's.
Nevertheless, thousands of farmers and fishermen called the place home
throughout the 1700s, in fact well into the twentieth century.
If you can understand that, and take another look at the facts it is
obvious the colony went to Croatoan.
Did they do well? Probably not.
The fact that John Lawson find some blue eyed Indians that wear
English clothes and tell him they had White ancestors and mention Sir
Walter Raleigh's ship by name is what I would expect to find 100 years
later. The 1587 colony only had 16 women, and most likely a lot of
them died in the first few years, despite the help of the Croatoans
(See Jamestown and Plymouth). To pass on a few seeds, clothes and iron
tools is about all one could hope to find and is exactly what Lawson
I, for one, am far more interested in the Croatoan than the "lost
colony." The European artifacts found on the Croatoan dig are argued
Sadly, what is ignored are tens of thousands of native artifacts that
no one seems to give a hoot about. Must there be something from the
"lost colony" to warrant another dig? Why is no one focusing on the
clear discovery of a major Croatoan village? I would like to learn all
I can from what these artifacts can reveal.