There are many theories about the disappearance of the colonists on Roanoke Island. Before John White left for England he discussed with those he left behind the possibility of abandoning the colony. Roanoke is a barrier island, susceptible to the tempestuous weather of the Atlantic Ocean. Science has shown that the late 1580s was the worst drought in 800 years, and the island was not an ideal agricultural setting at the best of times. Food and water shortages and a desire for better shelter could all have motivated the settlers to move inland for a better place to make a permanent colony.
Conflict with the Indians had already occurred, so if the colonists left under violent circumstances they were to carve a cross into a nearby tree. White found no cross, but he did find the word “Croatoan.” There was a nearby Croatoan Island, and the Croatans were a friendly neighboring tribe that lived more inland and were trading partners of the English. White believed his people were nearby, but he did not find either group, and the ship’s crew would not stay longer to make a more thorough search. White gave up and died in 1593.
There is little evidence to go on about Roanoke, but there are interesting clues. Roanoke was not only abandoned it was dismantled. The buildings were gone as if they had been taken apart and moved. There were no mass graves, or dead bodies lying around. A storm might have taken them out to see, or perhaps they used the wood for ships to return to England, but there is no evidence for either. Some have suggested that the Spanish, living in Florida, might have captured and imprisoned them, since over in Europe, the Spanish Armada attacked England in 1588, but no trustworthy evidence has ever emerged to support it.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.