The Spanish settlement of St. Augustine and the English colony of Jamestown were the first European colonies in North America. But before their success, many others failed. “The Spanish had hit it rich in Mexico and the Yucatán, and everyone else was convinced that they, too, could find the incredible riches that must be out there,” says David “Mac” MacDonald, co-author of We Could Perceive No Sign of Them: Failed Colonies in North America. The "Lost Colony" of Roanoke may be the best-known abandoned settlement, but the stories of these seven failed colonies are a reminder of the perils faced by the early explorers, who were often one disease, mutiny or storm away from disaster.
1. San Miguel de Gualdape, 1526
San Miguel de Gualdape is a colony of many firsts. It was the first known European settlement in the continental United States, the first to bring enslaved Africans to the continent—and the location of the first slave revolt in North America. In 1526, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón landed in present-day South Carolina or Georgia with 500 colonists and 100 enslaved Africans. Their settlement lasted mere months. The ship holding most of the colonists’ food stores sank, and they had arrived too late to plant crops. Then, an unknown illness struck down 350 of the 500 settlers and an unrecorded number of their captives. A group of enslaved persons took matters into their own hands, burning down an owner’s house, killing him and escaping into the forest. The remaining Spanish settlers abandoned the colony and sailed for home.
2. Ochuse (Pensacola), 1559
Forty-eight years before the English founded Jamestown, conquistador Tristán de Luna y Arrellano established a Spanish settlement in Pensacola in 1559. Sailing North from Veracruz, Mexico, he arrived in what is now Florida with 1,500 soldiers, colonists, enslaved peoples and Aztecs. Upon arrival, a hurricane sank their ships, causing a great loss of life and provisions. With food scarce, 1,500 people opted to march inland, leaving behind 50 soldiers and some enslaved Africans. From 1560 to 1561, the remaining occupants rose up in mutiny and by 1561, the site was abandoned.
3. Ajacán, 1570
The colony of Ajacán was founded by nine Jesuit missionaries in 1570 on Chesapeake Bay. They had brought along a member of the Powhatan tribe, Paquiquineo, a man the Spanish had kidnapped from the area nine years prior as part of their mission to convert his people to Catholicism. With provisions dwindling, the missionaries followed their captive into the forest in search of food—giving him the chance to escape and exact his revenge. Paquiquineo regrouped with the Powhatan to destroy the Spanish mission and murder the settlers who had attempted to colonize their land.
“Early explorers tended to regard Indigenous people as simple-minded and didn’t realize that very often, they were being manipulated by them,” says MacDonald. “A frequent tale in the stories of lost colonies was that 'There is tremendous wealth and gold and jewels just at the other side of that mountain.' It was a wonderful way of getting Europeans to leave.”
4. Roanoke, 1585
The “Lost Colony” of Roanoke was the first English settlement in North America. Founded by Sir Walter Raleigh in August 1585, it was quickly beset by food shortages and conflicts with local tribes. By 1586, Sir Francis Drake took the first settlers of Roanoke back to England by ship, but a year later, 100 more settlers under the leadership of John White were sent to replace them—including White’s wife, daughter and infant granddaughter. White returned to England to resupply the colony but was delayed by the Spanish Armada’s attack on the British navy. The settlers he left behind were never seen again.
By the time White returned in 1590, the site had been abandoned. The only clue as to what had happened was a word discovered carved into the wooden fence around the settlement—“Croatoan.” Croatoan was the name of an island 50 miles away and home to a Native American tribe of the same name.
5. Sable Island, 1589/1599
Called “the graveyard of the Atlantic” for the number of shipwrecks on its shores, Sable Island was first settled by the Marquis De La Roche in 1589 or 1599. Faced with a lack of volunteers, La Roche approached men imprisoned for crimes and gave them a choice: execution or a second chance on Sable Island. Seventy former convicts joined him, though the colony, located off the coast of Nova Scotia, was soon beset by crimes and infighting. In 1602, La Roche stopped supplying it. He relented a year later, though by 1603 just 11 of the 70 settlers were still alive. Sable Island is still populated by wild horses descended from livestock imported by Europeans.
6. Saint Croix Island, 1604
Founded by Pierre Dugua de Mons and cartographer Samuel Champlain in 1604, Saint Croix was one of the first French attempts to colonize North America. An icy winter isolated the island settlement, located near the modern-day border between Canada and the United States, leading to food shortages and scurvy—and prompting Champlain to proclaim “there are six months of winter in that country.” Thirty-five of 79 settlers died during the winter of 1604-1605. In August, de Mons gave the order to move the settlement to the more favorable location of Port Royal, though it, too, was abandoned in 1607.
7. Popham Colony, 1606
Like Jamestown, Popham colony was founded by the Virginia Company in 1606. Located at the mouth of the present-day Kennebec River in Maine, Popham was intended as a trading settlement. The 120 colonists built defensive walls, homes, a church and the first-ever British ship to be constructed in North America, “The Virginia.” Their success was short-lived. In 1607, food shortages sent half of its 120 original inhabitants home to England.
When the expedition’s leader, nobleman George Popham, died of unknown causes in 1608, his second-in-command, Raleigh Gilbert—nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh—took power. The nail in the coffin for the colony came in September of that year with the news that Gilbert had inherited his family’s estate back in England. He and the remaining 45 inhabitants of Popham set off for home, abandoning England’s first New England settlement.