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The Mystery of Roanoke

How could an entire village of people just disappear?

Ten-year-old Robert Ellis could hardly believe it. It was July 1587. And finally Robert and his father were here: America! Back home in England, most people had only heard stories about this dazzling, unfamiliar land.

The journey by ship across the ocean from England had taken two miserable months. Rats nipped at people’s toes. Human waste sloshed around the bottom of the boat. If you dunked into the ocean for a bath, you might get bitten by a shark. (This had actually happened to someone.)

But when Robert stepped onshore that warm day in 1587, memories of the nightmarish trip melted away. Stretched out before him was a place of unimaginable beauty. Golden beaches sloped into glittering water. Thick forests hummed with the sound of frogs. This was Roanoke, a tiny island off the coast of what the English called Virginia. (Today, it’s part of North Carolina.)

Robert, his dad, and about 115 other people had come here for an important mission: to start a colony, a little piece of England in America. They would build a cozy village, set up farms, and gather treasures to send back home—furs, fruit, spices, maybe even gold.

But if Robert had known what would soon happen on Roanoke, he might have jumped right back on the ship and sailed home to England.

Within three years, he and the other colonists would vanish from the face of the Earth. 

America in 1587

We created these maps to help you understand the location of Roanoke. But a real map from 1587 would look very different. Back then, America was not a country. There were no states. Native peoples spoke of places in their own languages. In Europe, people had begun using the name America less than 100 years before. The name honors a man named Amerigo Vespucci, an explorer from Italy. He was the first European to understand that North and South America were separate continents. As you look at this map, think about all the ways America has changed over the past 400 years

Many Wonders

For a kid like Robert living in 1587, traveling to America was almost as thrilling and terrifying as the idea of flying to the moon. Just 100 years earlier, people in Europe hadn’t known North and South America even existed. It wasn’t until the early 1500s that they found out: Amazing lands lay across the Atlantic Ocean.

Few could have imagined the wonders of the New World, as they called it. Tree after tree stretched as far as the eye could see. Giant mountains seemed to touch the clouds. Wildflowers bloomed in bright colors. And the animals! Buffalo and beavers and grizzly bears and salmon and so many flying geese that they blocked out the sun.

European countries like Spain, Portugal, France, and England were eager to seize the riches of this New World. Kings and queens sent explorers across the ocean: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Ferdinand Magellan. Tales of their journeys spread across Europe.

A Better Life

By the time Robert was born, in the late 1500s, explorers weren’t the only ones visiting America. Ordinary Europeans had started moving there to form colonies. These settlers built new towns while collecting (and sometimes stealing) natural treasures. Spain had already grown rich off its many colonies, becoming the most powerful nation in the world. England decided to set up its own colony. 

At the time, London, England, was crowded and filthy. Like thousands of others, Robert and his dad, Thomas, probably lived in a tiny, cramped home. Only very wealthy people owned land and roomy, comfortable houses. And if you weren’t born rich, you had almost no chance of ever achieving those things.

But if you joined England’s colony, you could get at least 500 acres of land in America—an area 25 times the size of the queen’s palace! To Robert and his dad, that would have seemed like something out of a dream.

And so the Ellises and about 115 others signed on to join the English colony. All were thrilled at the chance to start a better life in the New World. 

Grave Danger

But as Robert would soon find out, the New World wasn’t actually new at all. The 500 acres that he and his father were promised? That land was not England’s to give-—it already belonged to other people.

When the settlers arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587, some 7,000 Native American people were living in that area. Most belonged to tribes that were part of a big group known as the Algonquian. Members of these tribes had settled in the area nearly 1,000 years before. The Algonquian called this land Ossomocomuck. 

At that time, millions of Native peoples were living across America, members of hundreds of different tribes. Some had lived here for as long as 30,000 years. These lands had known the Mississippians, who built a grand city filled with soaring pyramid-like structures in the Midwest. Then there were the Ancestral Puebloans, who had lived in a castle-style building built into a mountain in today’s Colorado. And there were the Inuit, in Alaska, who glided through icy waters in sleek boats called kayaks.

The Algonquian near Roanoke were expert hunters. They shot deer with swift, silent arrows and speared wriggling fish from the ocean. They were also brilliant farmers, growing corn and beans and squash. During a good harvest, they would hold big, joyful celebrations around a crackling fire. 

But European explorers and settlers had put the Algonquian and other Native peoples in grave danger. Thousands were killed in vicious fights over food, land, and natural riches. Thousands more died from diseases like measles, spread by the Europeans.

So when Robert and the others arrived on Roanoke, most Algonquian in the area were already distrustful of English people. Gathering huckleberries and acorns from the woods, an Algonquian girl might have spied the Europeans building their new cottages. Her heart would likely have frozen in terror. She would have worried that the new settlers would bring more misery and death to her people.

Only one small tribe risked speaking with the newcomers: the Croatoan, who lived on an island of the same name, just south of Roanoke.

Worried Whispers

Within a few weeks of arriving, Robert began hearing his dad and the other grown-ups whispering worriedly around the fire at night.

The settlers were in trouble. They hadn’t brought nearly enough food or supplies. And with few Algonquian allies in the area to trade with, they would barely be able to survive the winter. Robert’s dad and the other settlers begged the colony’s leader, John White, to return to England and bring back help.

At first, White refused. His daughter, Eleanor Dare, was one of the colonists. Eleanor had just given birth to a baby girl, Virginia—the first English child born in America. How could he leave his family behind?

Eventually, White gave in to the colonists’ pleading. But first, he made them promise: If they moved anywhere else, they would carve the name of the place into a tree or post so White could find them when he returned. And if they were in danger, they would add a carving of a cross.

Then, with a heavy heart, White boarded a ship back to Europe. 

Without a Trace

In England, White faced one frustrating delay after another. By the time he found a ship to bring him back to Roanoke, three long years had passed. He imagined the settlers waiting for him on the island, hungry and afraid. And that was if they were even still alive.

At last, in August 1590, White arrived on Roanoke. He rushed toward the place where the colonists had built their cottages three years earlier.

What he saw stopped him in his tracks. Where there was once a bustling village, there was now only an empty clearing. Almost every trace of the settlers was gone: their tools, their teakettles, their chests of clothes. Dust skittered across the bare patch of earth. White almost sank to his knees in despair.

And that’s when he saw it: the word “Croatoan” carved into a wooden fence post. There was no cross to signal danger. Had the settlers simply moved south, to the island where their friends the Croatoan lived?

But as White and the crew sailed toward Croatoan to find out, a hurricane hit. Raging winds pushed the ships farther and farther out to sea. Getting to the island was impossible.

John White would never learn what had happened to his family and the other colonists.

Haunting Clues

For the past 400 years, the disappearance of the colonists has puzzled people. Were they killed in fights with the Algonquian? Did they try to sail back to England and get lost at sea? Or did they live happily ever after on Croatoan?

Experts have found little to answer these questions. But there have been a few clues.

Nearly 20 years after the settlers vanished, England started a new colony called Jamestown, just 100 miles north of Roanoke. From a group of Algonquian, the new colonists heard rumors about people nearby who wore English clothes and lived in English-style houses. Yet although the Jamestown colonists searched for months, they never found these mysterious Englishmen.

More recently, teams of archaeologists have combed through areas around Roanoke, including Croatoan. They’ve dug up many items that belonged to the Algonquian: razor-sharp arrowheads, bits of pottery, fine copper jewelry. These finds have helped them learn more about the rich cultures of Ossomocomuck.

The teams have also found a few items that may have belonged to English people in the 1500s. But they haven’t found enough to say for sure where the Roanoke settlers ended up.

Mystery Solved?

And perhaps that is the key to the mystery. Today, many experts believe that the Roanoke colonists may have split up and been welcomed into different Algonquian tribes. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we can imagine.

Robert may have traded in his itchy woolen pants and stiff leather shoes for a soft deerskin wrap and moccasins. The Algonquian may have shown him how to aim a bow and arrow, helping him become a skilled hunter. They may have patiently taught him how to speak their language. Robert and the other colonists may have gone through these changes so quickly that there was soon almost no trace of their Englishness left—which might be why there are few clues for archaeologists to find today.

In other words, the Roanoke colonists might not have gone missing at all. Like generations of newcomers who moved to America after them, they may have survived thanks to the help and generosity of the people who already lived here.

We will never know for sure. But we do know what happened next. More and more Europeans arrived and laid claim to land that was not theirs. By 1733, there were 13 English colonies lined up along America’s east coast. About 50 years later, these 13 colonies would break away from England to become the United States.

As this new country was forming, Native peoples across America were forced from their homes and farms. Millions suffered starvation, disease, and violence. Within about 100 years of the Europeans’ arrival, as many as 90 percent of Native peoples in the Americas had died.

Many Algonquian peoples of the east coast were among them. But some survived to pass on their rich customs and traditions and stories. Today, the Algonquian are a major Native group in North America.

As for Robert and the Roanoke settlers? Their fate will likely remain a mystery forever. 

Continue the Learning Journey

What do you think happened to the colonists who settled in Roanoke? Did they die, try to return to England, or move to Croatoan? Or maybe something else happened? Write a paragraph to explain your idea. Include clues from the article that support your thinking.

Become a Mystery Writer

Here’s how to plan and write your own mystery story.

The author of the story you just read creates a feeling of mystery and suspense. Let that inspire your own mystery story! Use the slideshow above to plan and write your tale of suspense and wonder. Read your story to a friend or family member. Try pausing in different spots as you read to see if they are able to guess who is guilty or what really happened! 

This story took you back in time to the year 1587. If you could use a time machine, when and where would you want to go? Would you go back to a time in history or find out what happens in the future? Pick a time and place. Then make a list of things you would do, people you would talk to, and questions you would ask. Would you want to stay in that time period forever? Why or why not?

Archaeologists have dug up items to learn about the lives of Native people like the Algonquian and colonists from Europe. What items would tell people in the future about your life? Choose three objects for a time capsule. Draw or take a picture of each item. Then show your objects to a family member or friend. Explain why those things are important to you and what they would reveal about your life.

This article was written by Allison Friedman for Storyworks magazine.

Image Credits: Shane Rebenschied (header); Illustrations by Steve Stankiewicz