Still Searching for the “Lost Colony”

By Donna K. Keesling

“CRO” and “CROATOAN,” carved into a tree and a post were the only clues that Englishman John White found when he returned to Roanoke Island with supplies for the English colony in 1590. He searched in vain for the 116 English colonists, including his daughter and granddaughter, that he had left behind three years before. What happened to those English colonists, now known as the “Lost Colony,” and why do we continue to search for them?

Beginning in 1584, England sent ships to North America with the intention of exploring the continent and establishing a permanent settlement. The explorations were sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, a courtier and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. In July of 1584, two English sailing vessels arrived on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina and anchored off the coast. After a few weeks of exploring Roanoke Island, the ships returned to England with two Algonquians, Manteo of the Croatoan tribe and Wanchese of the Roanoacs.

In the spring of 1585, seven ships set sail from England with approximately six hundred people on board, including Manteo and Wanchese. Sir Richard Grenville commanded the company, intending to establish a permanent colony and base for raiding Spanish ships. Ralph Lane, an Irishman, was appointed governor of the colony. Under his direction, the soldiers built an earthen fort on Roanoke Island. Because one of the ships was damaged and much of the food supply was destroyed, Grenville returned to England leaving only 107 or so soldiers and colonists on the island. During the winter of 1585 and spring of 1586, Lane’s men explored areas to the north and west. They met native Americans along the southern shore of the Chesapeake Bay and determined that the Bay would be a better location for their colony. After difficulties with the Algonquians and unfavorable weather, the soldiers and colonists returned to England with Sir Francis Drake. Grenville returned to Roanoke Island and then left fifteen men to maintain the military colony.

John White led the voyage in 1587 to establish a settlement colony that included women and children. John White, an accomplished artist, had been on the previous voyages. His drawings of Native Americans “heavily influenced the way Europeans imagined an Indian community.”[1] His watercolor map of eastern North Carolina, based on the work of cartographer Thomas Hariot, is part of a collection of his drawings owned by the British Museum.

Approximately 117 colonists set sail in 1587 to establish the “Cittie of Ralegh” on the Chesapeake Bay. After the ship stopped at Roanoke Island to search for the men left behind by Grenville, the ship’s pilot refused to sail to the Chesapeake Bay because summer was ending. The colonists remained on Roanoke Island, repairing the fort and dwellings built by the early English settlers and attempted to establish a permanent colony for England. In August of 1587, Virginia Dare, the granddaughter of John White was born on Roanoke Island.

Once again, there were difficulties with the native Americans and food supplies were running low. John White left the colonists on Roanoke Island and returned to England for supplies. By the time he returned three years later, the colonists were gone. Prior to his departure, the colonists agreed to inform White if they left Roanoke Island by carving their intended destination on a tree. White found “CROATOAN” carved into a palisade post and “CRO” carved into a tree. White immediately set sail for Croatoan Island (present-day Hatteras Island), assuming that the colonists had gone there. A storm disrupted his voyage, and he was forced to return to England, never knowing what became of the colonists.

The story of the Roanoke voyages is presented at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (NHS). Fort Raleigh NHS, acquired from the State of North Carolina in 1941, “protects and preserves known portions of England’s first New World settlements from 1584 to 1590. This site also preserves the cultural heritage of the Native Americans, European Americans and African Americans who have lived on Roanoke Island.”[2]

Fort Raleigh NHS features a reconstructed earthen fort, built in 1950 on the site discovered by archeologist Jean C. Harrington in 1947. At the Waterside Theatre, the story of the colonists is presented in a symphonic play titled The Lost Colony. The drama, managed by the Roanoke Island Historical Association, has been performed almost continuously since 1937.

Archeologists began investigating the Fort Raleigh site at the northern end of Roanoke Island in 1895. In a dig conducted by Talcott Williams, a newspaper journalist, the rough dimensions of the fort’s ditches were determined. In 1947, archeologist Jean C. Harrington discovered and mapped the precise location of Fort Raleigh. Harrington focused his search for the settlement on an area near the fort but found few artifacts that suggested the colonists had lived there. An area that archeologists called a “science workshop” was discovered during a dig led by Ivor Noël Hume in 1991. They unearthed objects that they believe were used in metallurgy experiments performed by Thomas Hariot and Joachim Gans who were part of Lane’s colony. More than 200 artifacts from the late 1500s were excavated in 2008 by a team from the First Colony Foundation, including English and Algonquian ceramic pottery pieces. In 2016, tin-glazed earthenware fragments, likely from an apothecary jar, were located near the Lost Colony Box Office.

After Brent Lane, a board member of the First Colony Foundation, noticed patches on John White’s map of eastern North Carolina, archeologists excavated near the confluence of the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers, fifty miles inland from Roanoke Island. During their digs from 2012 to 2017, they found European and native American pottery. Their “working hypothesis” was that the artifacts were from a small group of colonists that had left Roanoke Island, but they never found a definitive “silver bullet” at the site.[3]

In September of this year, archeologists from the First Colony Foundation again searched on Roanoke Island. The dig explored multiple sites, including the metallurgical and science workshop and areas that were surveyed in 2016 using ground-penetrating radar. The archeologists unearthed sherds from Iberian olive jars, a gun flint, and a piece that may be from equipment used in the science workshop. In addition, the archeologists found structural evidence from the 1585 military colony. They plan to resume their fieldwork later this year.[4]

The search for the “Lost Colony of Roanoke” continues to this day. Historians wonder and search for clues as to the fate of the colonists left behind by John White. Did they go to Croatoan with Manteo’s people, or did they travel fifty miles inland?

Archeologists continue to search for the exact location of the 1587 settlement. “While over 100 years of archeology has yielded important clues to the fate of the lost colony of 1587, the exact location of the colony remains unknown. Over 400 years of erosion and rising seas levels have reduced the size of Roanoke Island by almost a half a mile, leading some archeologists to believe the site may be underwater.”[5] And so the search continues.

[1] Andrew Lawler, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York: Doubleday, 2018), 162.

[2] “England’s First Home in the New World,” Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, last updated June 3, 2021,

[3] Andrew Lawler, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York: Doubleday, 2018), 181.

[4] “Latest Dig Yields New Clues at Fort Raleigh Historic Site,” The First Colony Foundation. September 30, 2021,

[5] “Archeology at Fort Raleigh,” Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, accessed October 18, 2021,