In April 1587, English cartographer John White was sent along with 117 men, women and children to colonize the New World. After two months of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, White and the settlers landed on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina, United States.
This was the third group of Englishmen to travel to the island. The first group came on an exploratory basis in 1584, just to map the area for future settlers. The second group arrived the following year, but were attacked and driven out by the Secotan tribe.
Colonists led by White hoped to succeed where the 1585 group failed and many brought their families, while others hoped they would join the group later.
After 3 months on the island, in August 1587, John White needed to return to England in search of supplies and more settlers, planning to return to Roanoke within 6 months, but because of conflicts between England and Spain, his return was delayed for 3 years.
Finally in August 1590, John White returned to America, but the island was deserted and the settlers were missing, including his daughter Eleanor Dare and granddaughter Virginia, who had been born shortly before his departure.
The settlement was destroyed and in its place there was a very well built defensible fort.
Eventually, White found a clue to the settlers’ whereabouts. The word “CROATOAN” was carved into a pole and the letters “CRO” carved into a nearby tree.
This was the signal that had been previously arranged between White and the colonists, so that he could locate them in case they moved before his return.
He understood this to mean that the settlers had taken refuge with the Croatoan tribe on Hatteras Island, but White never confirmed the whereabouts of the lost settlers, as when he embarked to look for them, his ship was damaged by a storm and forced to return to England.
John White was never able to return to America to look for the settlers.
Over the centuries, there have been many theories about what happened on Roanoke Island.
Many speculate that they were driven out and then massacred by hostile natives, but the deserted colony showed no evidence of being hastily abandoned. Instead, the buildings were carefully dismantled and everything useful was taken away.
Other theories include starvation and disease, but no human remains have been found.
Another possibility is that they split into smaller groups and tried to survive on their own before dying or joining native tribes.
Evidence of this can be found, as during excavations on Hatteras Island, archaeologists discoverd English artifacts dating back to the 1500s, including a foil handle, pipes, a gold ring, pieces of glass, and sewing needles. So it is possible that the English settlers, or at least part of them, lived on the island with the Croatoan tribe.
There is also written documentation of native peoples with phenotypic characteristics of Europeans, such as blue eyes and light hair, who lived on the coast, corroborating the assimilation theory. This theory places settlers in several locations, including Virginia, the entire coast of North Carolina, and some points inland.
Recent research with DNA testing has been carried out in an attempt to determine whether the descendants of the Croatoan tribe may be related to the Roanoke settlers, but the results have been inconclusive.