Today in 1587, 121 English colonists arrived at Roanoke Island, located off the coast of the modern state of North Carolina. Thus began the story of "The Lost Colony", a mystery that remains with us 420 years after the colonists set foot in the New World.
British colonies on the North American continent often began as semi-private enterprises wherein the monarch granted an individual or company a charter for the colonization of an area. Such it was with Virginia, a huge area near the center of the eastern seaboard that would later become the US states of Virginia and North Carolina. Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh, a wealthy renaissance man who owned a large chunk of Ireland, in the early 1580's with the condition that he colonize the area within ten years. Her Majesty's action was not done out of kindness: she hoped that the colony would serve as a base for privateers who regularly raided the Spanish treasure ships sailing home from Central and South America. Raleigh hoped to find some sort of wealth in the colonies, something that could be packed up and shipped home. The Spanish had stumbled on immense amounts of gold among the natives elsewhere in the New World, so there was no reason the same couldn't be true of this new charter.
In 1584, the first of Raleigh's expeditions left for the Virginia. The mission's leaders decided that the Outer Banks, a string of breakwater islands located off the coast of North Carolina, was the perfect place from which to raid Spanish possessions to the south. They also made contact with local Native American tribes. Upon their return to England, they produced samples of local plants and two native tribesmen---Manteo and Wanchese.
In the spring of 1585, the first colonizing expedition headed to sea. This would be England's first colony in the New World. This group was comprised of all men, many of them current or former soldiers. Upon reaching Roanoke Island, the men explored the immediate area and established their colony at the north end. It didn't take long for the men to run afoul of the local tribes; at one point the colonists burned a village and burned the local chief at the stake.
The leader of the colonists, Sir Richard Grenville, left 75 men on the island and set sail for home, promising to return the next year with food and supplies. By spring, 1586, the colonists and natives were no closer to finding peace. Grenville did not arrive as promised, so when Sir Francis Drake dropped anchor nearby after raiding trip to the Caribbean and offered the men a ride home, they all accepted. Grenville arrived soon thereafter, finding the colony abandoned. He left a force of 15 men to maintain an English presence in the area and then headed back across the Atlantic.
The second group of colonists left for the Virginia in 1587. This group included both men and women who intended to be permanent settlers. They hoped to meet up with the 15 men left on Roanoke Island, but no trace of them could be found. There was one local tribe, the Croatans, who were still on friendly terms with the English. According to them, the men were attacked and the nine survivors left in a small boat and sailed up the coast. They were never heard from again.
On August 18, 1587, less than a month after landing on Roanoke, Virginia Dare was born in the colony. She was the first English child born in the New World. This was good news, but it was just about the only good news during this period. Most of the local tribes were still hostile to the colonists, despite Governor John White's attempts at making peace. He decided to return to England to report on the situation and ask for more supplies and manpower. When White left Roanoke Island, there were 116 colonists there including the baby Virginia.
White returned to England at a bad time. The Spanish Armada, then sailing north, was the first order of business in terms of naval affairs. Every ship that could carry a cannon had been commandeered by the Royal Navy, leaving almost no ships for White to hire for a trip back to the colony. He eventually found two small vessels not in military service, but the return voyage was ruined when the crews decided to raid several vessels on the way. Instead, they were captured themselves and the supplies for Roanoke Island were stolen. White again returned to England.
Two years went by before the Governor was able to return to the colony. He reached Roanoke on August 18th, 1590, only to find the settlement abandoned. A search of the entire island turned up nothing, nor were there any signs of violence. The only clue found was on a post of the colony's fort, in which the word "Croatoan" had been carved. Had they left with that tribe, or traveled to Croatan Island, also located in the Outer Banks? White never found out: his men and the men on the ship, all privateers, refused to go on what they considered a wild goose chase. Governor White left Roanoke Island soon thereafter and faded into obscurity.
To this day, no one knows for sure what happened on Roanoke Island between the years 1587 and 1590. Multiple theories have been put forth, some possible and some highly unlikely. The most common theory is that the colonists, low on food and facing starvation, left to go live with a local tribe, maybe the Croatan. Sightings of white men in the interior of Virginia persisted as late as 1610, three years after the creation of the Jamestown colony. Over the next 250 years, reports of Native Americans who were fair-skinned, red-haired, understood English and/or practiced Christianity surfaced, but most of them are anecdotal.
In 1998, a team of climatologists and archaeologists made a startling discovery: during the years of the Roanoke colony, the entire southeastern area of what is now the United States experienced a drought that was the worst in 800 years. It is likely that the crops grown by the colonists would've failed during these years. Did this drive them to move away, go live with native tribes or, as some have suggested, sail away in the small boats they possessed? Most likely, we will never know.