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Some local Native American groups were friendly to the colonists. Some even shared their food with the newcomers. 

 Illustration by Gary Hanna


What Happened to This Colony?

For more than 400 years, experts have been trying to solve the famous case of a lost colony

As You Read: Think about what makes a community successful. What problems did the Roanoke colonists face?

It was a hot August night in 1590. John White had just spent weeks at sea. Finally, he spotted the rugged shore of Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. White was anxious to see the family and friends he had left behind three years earlier. He especially missed his daughter and baby granddaughter.

But when White reached the island, no one was there. The wooden houses had been taken apart. The island was overgrown with weeds. There was a word carved into a wooden post: CROATOAN. That was the name of an island 50 miles south, where a friendly American Indian tribe lived. Had the colonists moved there?

White never found out. Raging storms kept him from searching. He was forced to return to England. To this day, no one knows what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke. 

It was a hot August night in 1590. John White had just spent weeks at sea. Finally, he spotted the rugged shore of Roanoke Island. It’s off the coast of what is now North Carolina. White was anxious to see his family and friends. He had left them three years earlier. He especially missed his daughter and baby granddaughter.

But when White reached the island, no one was there. The wooden houses had been taken apart. The island was overgrown with weeds. And there was a word carved into a wooden post: CROATOAN. That was the name of an island 50 miles south. A friendly American Indian tribe lived there. Had the colonists moved to Croatoan?

White would never find out. Raging storms kept him from searching. He was forced to return to England. To this day, no one knows what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke. 

A Rough Start

White and about 115 other men, women, and children arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587. They had left England to make their home in what they called the New World.

Things didn’t go as planned. One Native American tribe on Roanoke had been attacked by English explorers in the past. So when White and his group arrived, the native people were not welcoming. They attacked the colonists, killing one.

Food was scarce, and the colonists were starving. White worried they wouldn’t survive. So, just a month into their new life, he sailed back to England for supplies. His trip back to America was delayed by a war between England and Spain. He never saw the colonists again.

White had arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587. With him were about 115 other men, women, and children. They were going to try to settle what was known to them as the New World.

But things didn’t go as planned. A native tribe who lived on Roanoke had been attacked by English explorers in the past. The tribe was called the Algonquians (al-GAHN-kwee-uhnz). So when White and his group arrived, the Algonquians were not welcoming. They attacked the new settlers, killing one.

Food was scarce. The settlers were starving. White worried they wouldn’t survive. So he sailed back to England for more supplies just a month into their new life in America. His trip back to Roanoke was delayed by a war between England and Spain. The colonists were never seen again.

Digging for Clues

More than 400 years later, historians are still trying to crack the case. Did the colonists move away? Were they attacked by enemies? No bones or graves belonging to the colonists were discovered on Roanoke. But clues were found nearby. 

Researchers dug up artifacts, including a sword handle and stone writing tablet, on the island of Croatoan (now called Hatteras). And pieces of old English pottery were found 50 miles west of Roanoke, in an area researchers call Site X.

Eric Klingelhofer is an archaeologist with the research group First Colony Foundation. He says these clues suggest that the colonists split up and moved away. But others say the items could have belonged to Native Americans who traded with European colonists. Experts continue to search for answers.

“We’ll keep digging until we solve this mystery, one of the greatest in American history,” Klingelhofer says. 

Historians are still trying to crack the case more than 400 years later. No bones or graves belonging to the settlers were discovered on Roanoke. But clues were found nearby.

Researchers dug up artifacts on the island of Croatoan (now called Hatteras). The artifacts included a sword handle and stone writing tablet. And pieces of old English pottery were found in an area researchers call Site X. It’s 50 miles west of Roanoke.

Eric Klingelhofer is an archaeologist with the research group First Colony Foundation. He says these clues suggest that the colonists split up and moved away. But others argue that these artifacts could have belonged to American Indians who had traded with European settlers. Experts continue to search for answers.

“We’ll keep digging until we solve this mystery, one of the greatest in American history,” Klingelhofer says.

1. Describe what John White found when he returned to Roanoke.

2. What challenges did the Roanoke colony face?

3. What do you think happened to the settlers of Roanoke? Support your response with text evidence.

1. Describe what John White found when he returned to Roanoke.

2. What challenges did the Roanoke colony face?

3. What do you think happened to the settlers of Roanoke? Support your response with text evidence.

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