Newfound survivor camp may explain fate of the famed Lost Colony of Roanoke

Find provides “compelling evidence” to help solve one of America’s oldest historical mysteries.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
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More than a hundred men, women, and children sailed from England to North Carolina in 1587 to build a new settlement. Three years later they had vanished, leaving few clues of their fate.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

Pieces of broken crockery recently unearthed in a North Carolina field belonged to survivors of the ill-fated Lost Colony, the first English settlement in the Americas. That dramatic claim has stoked a long-simmering debate over what happened to the 115 men, women, and children abandoned on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island in 1587.

Working on a bluff overlooking Albemarle Sound, 50 miles west of Roanoke Island, a team from the First Colony Foundation uncovered a trove of English, German, French, and Spanish pottery pieces.

“The number and variety of artifacts recovered provide compelling evidence that the site was inhabited by several settlers from Sir Walter Raleigh’s vanished 1587 colony,” said archaeologist Nick Luccketti, the team’s leader.

FRENCH RETREAT
The French focused on the north after their Florida colonies were sacked by the Spanish. Québec was their first permanent settlement on the St. Lawrence River.

SPANISH ASSAULT
Attacking from San Agustín, Spanish Catholic soldiers marched to Fort Caroline and massacred over 300 French Protestant settlers in 1565.

ROANOKE MYSTERY
The Anglo-Spanish War delayed a relief expedition to the English colony. Searchers in 1590 found a clue that colonists may have moved to Croatoan Island.

PURITANS OF PLYMOUTH
Low on supplies after harsh sailing conditions, Puritan separatists fleeing the Church of England abandoned their Virginia route in favor of Massachusetts.

JAMESTOWN STRUGGLES
The Virginia Company’s outpost, a private venture, almost failed before its cash crop—tobacco—piqued England’s interest. In 1624 Virginia became a royal colony.

SPANISH EXPANSION
Spain colonized Florida’s eastern coast in the mid-1500s in an attempt to counter French encroachment.

FIRST FAILED COLONY
Vikings from Greenland settled in Newfoundland between 990 and 1050, nearly 500 years before other Europeans. Why their colony ultimately failed is unknown.

Hover over the map to discover more about the lost colonies.

1500–1621

COLONIAL PURSUITS

European nations had similar motives for

seeking a foothold in the New World.

The Spanish set sail with a fervor for

gold and to convert souls to Roman

Catholicism, the French desired trade

and profits, and the English—arriving late—

hungered for prestige and equal standing

as a colonial power. Many early ventures

ended in failure.

Charlesfort

Failed colony

Successful colony

1562-1563

JAMESTOWN

English

French

Spanish

Selected fort or mission

200

0

miles

200

0

kilometers

Modern names are shown for physical features.

GULF OF

MAINE

Tadoussac

1600-1601

PORT-ROYAL

1605

First successful French colony

QUÉBEC

Île Sainte-Croix

Charlesbourg-

Royal

1608

1604

1541-1543

First French

attempt

at colonization

Sable Island

1598-1603

380 mi ENE

Sagadahoc (Popham)

1607-1608

Cape Cod

PLYMOUTH

1620

Long

Island

Ajacán

1570-1571

Most northerly

Spanish mission

JAMESTOWN

1607

Roanoke

DETAILED

LOWER RIGHT

Fort San Juan (Joara)

Inland Spanish outpost

1567-1568

Santa Elena

Charlesfort

1566-1587

1562-1563

San Miguel de Gualdape

First attempted colony

1526

San Mateo

1565-1569

Fort Caroline

SAN AGUSTÍN

(St. Augustine)

1565

1564-1565

First permanent

settlement on the

Atlantic coast

Santa María de Ochuse

1559-1561

GULF OF MEXICO

Possible

site of

fort

Roanoke

I.

Roanoke

First outpost 1585-

1586, Colony 1587-?

Hatteras

Island

Cape Hatteras

Croatoan Island

(Now part of

Hatteras I.)

Cape Lookout

MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NGM STAFF; SCOTT

ELDER. ART: DAVID STEVENSON

 

SOURCES: LARRY E. TISE, EAST CAROLINA

UNIVERSITY; BRADLEY DIXON, UNIVERSITY OF

TEXAS AT AUSTIN; TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH

MUSEUM; LIBRARY OF CONGRESS; DAVID B.

QUINN, EXPLORERS AND COLONIES; CARL

ORTWIN SAUER, SIXTEENTH CENTURY

NORTH AMERICA

Lake

Huron

1500–1621

COLONIAL PURSUITS

Tadoussac

European nations had similar motives for

seeking a foothold in the New World.

The Spanish set sail with a fervor for

gold and to convert souls to Roman

Catholicism, the French desired trade

and profits, and the English—arriving late—

hungered for prestige and equal standing

as a colonial power. Many early ventures

ended in failure.

1600-1601

Charlesbourg-Royal

1541-1543

First French attempt

at colonization

QUÉBEC

1608

Île

d’Anticosti

GULF OF

ST. LAWRENCE

Prince

Edward

Island

Île Sainte-Croix

1604

Sagadahoc (Popham)

1607-1608

PORT-ROYAL

GULF OF MAINE

1605

PLYMOUTH

First successful French colony

1620

Long

Island

Cape

Breton

Island

Cape Cod

(Joara) Fort San Juan

1567-1568

Inland Spanish outpost

Ajacán

JAMESTOWN

1570-1571

1607

Most northerly

Spanish mission

Sable Island

1598-1603

Santa María de Ochuse

Roanoke

Charlesfort

DETAILED

LOWER RIGHT

1559-1561

Hatteras

Island

1562-1563

San Miguel de Gualdape

Cape Fear

Santa Elena

First attempted colony

1526

1566-1587

Fort Caroline

1564-1565

Possible

site of

fort

GULF

OF

MEXICO

San Mateo

1565-1569

Roanoke

I.

Roanoke

SAN AGUSTÍN

(St. Augustine)

1565

First outpost 1585-

1586, Colony 1587-?

Hatteras

Island

First permanent

settlement on the

Atlantic coast

Cape Lookout

Charlesfort

MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK AND SOREN WALLJASPER, NGM STAFF; SCOTT ELDER.

ART: DAVID STEVENSON

 

SOURCES: LARRY E. TISE, EAST CAROLINA UNIVERSITY; BRADLEY DIXON, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS

AT AUSTIN; TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM; LIBRARY OF CONGRESS; DAVID B. QUINN,

EXPLORERS AND COLONIES; CARL ORTWIN SAUER, SIXTEENTH CENTURY NORTH AMERICA

Failed colony

Successful colony

1562-1563

JAMESTOWN

English

French

Spanish

Selected fort or mission

200

0

miles

200

0

kilometers

Modern names are shown for physical features.

The announcement came just months after another archaeologist claimed to have found objects related to the lost settlers on Hatteras Island, located about 50 miles south of Roanoke Island. If both discoveries hold up, they support the theory that the colonists split up into two or more widely separated survivor camps, almost certainly aided by Native Americans with whom they likely assimilated.

Clues to colonists’ fate

The Lost Colony was made up largely of middle-class Londoners who found themselves stranded on the North Carolina shore when the Spanish Armada attacked England, plunging their nation into war. At the time, the colony’s governor, John White, was in London gathering supplies and additional colonists. When he finally returned to the settlement three years later, he found it deserted.

The sole clue to the settlers’ fate was a post carved with the word “Croatoan,” then the name of Hatteras Island and its native inhabitants, who had been on friendly terms with the English. One of them, Manteo, traveled twice to England and was made a lord by Queen Elizabeth I.

White also wrote that the settlers intended to move “fifty miles into the main,” an apparent reference to an inland site. The governor never located the settlers, who included his daughter Eleanor Dare and his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.

View Images

A map drawn by the colony's governor includes a patch covering the symbol of a fort located 50 miles inland from Roanoke Island. Researchers say they've discovered evidence of Lost Colony survivors in this area.

The case went cold until 2012, when researchers noticed a patch on a watercolor map of eastern North Carolina painted by White. Beneath the patch they found the image of a fort at the head of Albemarle Sound. Its location is 50 miles to the west of Roanoke Island, matching the governor’s account. On top of the patch was another faint outline of a fort, this one drawn in what analysts said was invisible ink.

Scholars speculated that White wanted to hide the existence of the fort from the Spanish, who viewed the Roanoke venture as a threat to their domination of North America and the critical shipping lanes off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The Spanish sent an expedition to wipe out the rogue colony, but they, too, failed to find the settlers.

In 2015 Luccketti’s team excavated the area marked on the map, close to a Native American village called Mettaquem. Since early European colonists typically built their settlements near Native American sites, this seemed a good place to start.

View Images

A piece of English ceramic from Site X may be part of a pot used by a survivor of the ill-fated colony.

Clay Swindell, an archaeologist associated with the First Colony Foundation who examined Mettaquem, said the palisaded village was home to some 80 to 100 people. Just outside its wall, at a place they called Site X, Luccketti’s team found no fort, but they did uncover two dozen pieces of English pottery that they maintained likely belonged to Lost Colony survivors.

In January, the archaeologists excavated in a field two miles north of Site X, which they dubbed Site Y. Here they found European ceramics in far greater number and variety than at Site X. Luccketti contends that at least some of the settlers moved from Roanoke after White’s 1587 departure, bringing along their European ceramics. He says that a small group, possibly a single family, may have taken up farming alongside their Native American neighbors as they waited in vain for rescue.

Mystery solved?

William Kelso, an archaeologist who led the effort to uncover the 1607 Jamestown fort, is confident the finds “solve one of the greatest mysteries in early American history—the odyssey of the Lost Colony.” Other archaeologists, however, warn against jumping to conclusions.

“I am skeptical,” says Charles Ewen, an archaeologist at East Carolina University. “They are looking to prove rather than seeking to disprove their theory, which is the scientific way.”

Luccketti’s assertion hinges on dating the small pieces of pottery—no easy task since styles remained the same for long periods of time. The ceramics at Site X and Site Y conceivably could have been left by later English traders who came from Jamestown, which was settled two decades after the failed attempt at Roanoke. Researchers agree, however, that the discovery of two separate caches strengthens Luccketti’s case.

“I have no problem with their interpretation of the ceramics in question as possibly late 16th century and potentially associated with the Lost Colony,” concludes Jacqui Pearce, a ceramic expert at the Museum of London. While all of the pottery continued to be made well in the 17th century, she says it seems unlikely this particular collection of pots was made after 1650, when the first known English traders began to infiltrate the area.

Still, the finds were mixed with soil plowed in subsequent centuries by later settlers and enslaved Africans, and the team has yet to find clear remains of an Elizabethan homestead. “One must find artifacts of known 16th-century date in a stratigraphically sealed context,” says Henry Wright, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan.

What Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke? A prominent American mystery, the lost colony of Roanoke has captivated historians and archaeologists for generations. Learn the facts behind the disappearance of the settlement and its inhabitants and how modern technology continues to uncover new clues as to what happened on Roanoke Island.

One intriguing clue that points to Roanoke colonists rather than Jamestown traders is the lack of early 17th-century clay pipes at Site X and Site Y. Early Roanoke expeditions appropriated pipe smoking from the Native Americans, and Raleigh made it fashionable in England. Slender clay pipes with small bowls, quite distinct from their indigenous counterparts in material and style, were inevitable parts of any English trader’s kit by the early 1600s.

But these pipes did not turn up at Site Y. Pearce called the absence of these significant. “If any of the inhabitants of the Lost Colony smoked, then they would have used native pipes rather than London-made ones,” she said.

Second survivor camp?

While Luccketti’s team was digging at Site X, a group led by Mark Horton, then an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, was excavating the remains of a Native American village on today’s Hatteras Island, the historical Croatoan. Working with volunteers from the Croatan Archaeological Society, he uncovered European artifacts, including the hilt of a 16th century rapier and part of a gun.

Scott Dawson, head of the society, said the artifacts provide evidence that the colonists assimilated with the Croatoan people. “We now know not just where they went but also what happened after they got there,” he wrote of the colonists in a recent book.

Horton, who has not yet published his finds, cautioned that these objects were all found in a context dating from the mid- to late-17th century. That means they might be heirlooms passed down by the descendants of the colonists, or later trade goods obtained from Jamestown.

Luccketti doubts that large numbers of Roanoke colonists descended on Croatoan, in part because environmental evidence indicates that rainfall was scarce in the decade following the settlers’ arrival. “You don’t just dump a hundred people on an island in a drought,” he said.

But Horton said the discoveries from Site X, Site Y, and Hatteras give credence to the increasingly popular theory that the Lost Colonists went their separate ways and merged into the local Native American communities. “This is typical in situations like shipwrecks,” he says. “Order breaks down and you end up with several survivor camps.”

And there is a clear precedent. In 1586, when food ran perilously short for members of the first Roanoke colony, its leader dispersed his hundred settlers across the region, including to Croatoan, so they could forage—a tactic that proved successful until they could hitch a ride back to England.

Dawson hopes to resume digs on other parts of Hatteras in the search for a survivor’s camp, while Luccketti’s team also intends to continue their hunt. “There is not enough data, but they should keep looking,” says Ewen.

Andrew Lawler is a journalist and author who has written about controversial excavations under Jerusalem and the search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke for National Geographic.