From the English ship Hopewell anchored off the coast of what is now North Carolina, Governor John White watched with elation as a column of smoke rose into the summer dusk.
The plume from Roanoke Island “put us in good hope that some of the colony were there expecting my return out of England,” he wrote later. Three years had passed since the governor had set out from the first English settlement in the New World on what was to be a brief resupply mission, leaving behind more than a hundred men, women, and children. But his return voyage had been delayed again and again by the outbreak of war with Spain. At last, on August 18, 1590, White and a party of sailors waded ashore on Roanoke Island. According to White’s account of events, they spotted fresh footprints but met no one. As the men climbed a sandy bank, they encountered a tree with the carved letters “C R O.” This was, the governor explained, a prearranged code. If the settlers were to leave the island, they should carve their destination into a tree or post. Adding a cross would mean they left in an emergency.
Reaching the abandoned settlement, the governor spotted a post on which “in fair capital letters was graven CROATOAN without any cross or sign of distress.” Yet the post itself was part of a defensive palisade thrown up after White had left—a clear sign that the settlers had prepared for an enemy attack.