In 1590, John White, the would-be governor of a colony meant to be one of England’s first outposts in North America, discovered that more than 100 settlers weren’t on the small island where he left them.
More than 400 years later, the question of what happened to those settlers on Roanoke Island has inspired plays, novels, documentaries and a tourism industry in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Stories have taken root that the colonists, who left no trace aside from the word “Croatoan” carved on a tree, survived on the mainland, died in conflict with Native Americans or met some other end.
A new book, “The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island,” citing 10 years of excavations, aims to put the mystery to bed. Researcher Scott Dawson argues that the Native Croatoans took in the English settlers. “Basically, the historical evidence says that’s where they went,” said Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, in England, who worked with Dawson.
Other historians and archaeologists were more skeptical, saying that the evidence was inconclusive. But they said the idea has long been considered plausible.
“People don’t get lost,” said Malinda Maynor Lowery, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “They get murdered; they get stolen; they get taken in. They live and die as members of other communities.”
The English landed into a complicated fray of conflict and shifting alliances, said Lauren McMillan, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.
“They’re all interfighting, and these different groups are trying to use the English against one another,” she said. “The Croatoans perhaps saw the English as a powerful ally and sources of valuable new things.”
Maynor Lowery, who is Lumbee, added that the “lost colony” story is itself based on the incorrect premise “that Native people also disappeared, which we didn’t.”
Dawson, a founder of the Croatoan Archaeological Society, said he hoped his book would dismantle some of that story. “I was trying to get the Croatoans’ history back from the depths of mythology,” he said. “They played a huge role in American history.”
While the mystique around the settlers has ballooned over the centuries, archaeologist Charles Ewen said it is not clear how much their contemporaries even wondered what happened to them, given how common death and disappearances were in ventures across the Atlantic.
Historian James Horn and archaeologist Nicholas M. Luccketti said the settlers could have split up, with some on Hatteras and others about 50 miles inland to a place they call Site X.
“It’s a 400-year-old mystery that revolves around all sorts of mysteries within it,” Luccketti said. “It’s too tempting for many people.”