Land was power. Competition to own land in the New World resulted in political competition in Europe. Hence, Queen Elizabeth I of England wanted to win against Spain and gain more power. Therefore, she gave Sir Walter Raleigh a charter to explore the New World and to claim land for her (Miller). He founded Roanoke Island, and thus the challenge of making a prosperous colony began. Many conflicts arose in order to sustain Roanoke Island, and when it finally reached stability, the colony was abandoned. Centuries later, the disappearance of the colonists of Roanoke Island remains one of history’s greatest mysteries and continues on as archeologists and historians still search for clues.

Source: United States Army
Maps of Roanoke Island and the battlefield on the island, showing Confederate defenses and attacking Union forces. Copied and reduced in size from Library of Congress.

Contrary to popular belief, Sir Walter Raleigh was not the only one who led Roanoke Island; several other leaders helped make the colony prosper and grow: John White, Sir Richard Greenville, and Ralph Lane. Less than a year after Raleigh brought colonists over from England to settle on Roanoke Island, the colony failed because the Englishmen simply did not know how to survive on their own in the New World. Therefore, Raleigh took them back to England, and later, Lane led another expedition to explore new land. Under his direction, the colonists arrived too late for farming, the supplies dropped, and Lane alienated the neighboring Roanoke Indians as well, who could have helped them with crops and farming methods. The colony began to fail, and Sir Greenville came over to see if he could revive the colony (Howe). Unfortunately, he was not successful and gave up. A few years later, John White had an idea to persuade people to move to Roanoke Island using incentives such as land and a say in the government. White led the colonists and started repairing the old houses left behind; he needed more supplies and sailed back to England. Due to the Spanish Armada, he was delayed three years in England and by the time he got back, the colonists had disappeared as well as their houses; the only evidence left behind was “CRO” written on a tree and “Croatoan” on a wooden fence post(Carney). White planned on searching for the colonists and set sail to Croatoan Island, but a storm prevented him from doing so. The people were never found.

Over the years, several theories were formed about what could have happened to the colonists of Roanoke Island. One theory states that the colonists just left and settled at Chesapeake Bay using rafts and small boats. Another more absurd theory asserts that the entire population was killed by a disease; it was recorded that no bodies or houses were found, which negates this theory. Another theory suggests that a hurricane or sever storm destroyed the colony. This also does not make sense because the wooden fence post with “Croatoan” written on it was still intact. Perhaps the colonists decided to live with the Natives; there was an island nearby named Croatoan, but there has not been enough evidence to prove this. Natives were known as “barbaric” by the English back then and were feared to have been capable of killing all the colonists as well as destroying the colony (“The Mystery…”). This is the most probable theory, yet there is no sufficient evidence to prove this either.

CROATOAN carved at Roanoke's fort palisade.

Today, there are many projects, researches, and excavations to solve the mystery of Roanoke Island. For example, Dr. Gordan Watts, First Colony Foundation board member and director of the Institute for International Maritime research, led a team of researchers in search for submerged remains of Elizabethan colonies in the shallow water of the Roanoke Sound. Watts and his team have found several trenches and artifacts that are from colonial times. Yet, there was no discovery that brought them a step closer to the mystery’s solution (Evans). Fred Willard and Barbara Midgett are long-time project supporters as well as volunteers; they dedicated many years working on excavations and digs to find clues about the Lost Colony. They even discovered shell midden deposits containing Croatoan artifacts. Using remote-sensing data to identify regional soils suitable for corn production (which the colonists would have needed), Willard and Midgett concluded Buck Ridge to be the most promising location. Following this, many more excavations near this area occurred. David S. Phelps and a team of researches and volunteers uncovered cooking pits, remains of fish and shellfish, pottery, stone tools, copper beads, 17th century English coins, lead musket shots, wrought iron nails and tools, and even European and Croatoan smoking pipes from their digs.  Phelps and his team found an early gunlock and a gold signet rain adorned with a rampant lion, which was a symbol of English nobility. Analysis revealed that the design is of the 16th century and could have a connection with the Lost Colony (Morrison).

In the end, the greed for power and new land led to the discovery of Roanoke Island and allowed colonists to make a new life. Yet, greed preceded the reality of organization and preparation that led to the demise of the colony and its people. The mystery of Roanoke Island, also known as the Lost Colony, was left unsolved by John White. However, archeologists and historians strive to find clues and evidence of this historical mystery in hopes to unravel it.  There are related events to the Lost Colony today; many disappearances of people and animals occur all over the world, and some people believe that UFOs are to blame. However, this has never been proven, as well as the mystery of Roanoke Island.  Will the mystery ever be solved? To this day, it still remains one of the greatest puzzles of colonial times.


Carney, Richard. “Roanoke Island.” North Carolina History Project n. pag. John Locke Foundation. Web. 25 Feb 2011.

Drye, Willie. “America’s Lost Colony: Can New Dig Solve Mystery?.” National Geographic (2004): 1-2. Web. 25 Feb 2011.

Evans, Phillips W. “Archeologists Work in Water and Land at Roanoke Island.” First Colony Foundation. 15 June 2010. Web. 5 March 2011.

Howe, C.K. Solving the riddle of the lost colony. Beaufort, NC: M.P. Skarren, 1947. 45. Print.

Miller, Lee. Roanoke: solving the mystery of the lost colony. 1st.
New York: Arcade Publishing Inc., 2001. 353. Print.

Morrison, Jim. “In Search of the Lost Colony.”American Archeology Winter 2006-07: n. pag. Web. 8 Mar 2011.

“The Mystery of Roanoke Island.” Mendhak n. pag.Mendhak. Web. 27 Feb 2011. Web.


About the Author

Elizabeth Kim is from Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is currently a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill and plans on being a Studio Art major.

One Response to “Roanoke Island”

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