John White, the governor of the Roanoke Island colony in present-day North Carolina, returns from a supply-trip to England to find the settlement deserted. White and his men found no trace of the 100 or so colonists he left behind, and there was no sign of violence. Among the missing were Ellinor Dare, White’s daughter; and Virginia Dare, White’s granddaughter and the first English child born in America. August 18 was to have been Virginia’s third birthday. The only clue to their mysterious disappearance was the word “CROATOAN” carved into the palisade that had been built around the settlement. White took the letters to mean that the colonists had moved to Croatoan Island, some 50 miles away, but a later search of the island found none of the settlers.
The Roanoke Island colony, the first English settlement in the New World, was founded by English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh in August 1585. The first Roanoke colonists did not fare well, suffering from dwindling food supplies and Indian attacks, and in 1586 they returned to England aboard a ship captained by Sir Francis Drake. In 1587, Raleigh sent out another group of 100 colonists under John White. White returned to England to procure more supplies, but the war with Spain delayed his return to Roanoke. By the time he finally returned in August 1590, everyone had vanished.
In 1998, archaeologists studying tree-ring data from Virginia found that extreme drought conditions persisted between 1587 and 1589. These conditions undoubtedly contributed to the demise of the so-called Lost Colony, but where the settlers went after they left Roanoke remains a mystery. One theory has them being absorbed into a Native American tribe known as the Croatans.
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