The Lost Planters of Roanoke

The document takes the form of a diary or a captain’s log, recording all of the details of the journey to report back to White’s financiers in Europe. The document was written by John White, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh’s who led the third expedition financed by Raleigh intended to start a colony in Roanoke. Thus, it can be seen as a professional duty and or as a personal duty to record his attempts to find the family and fellow planters he left behind in the New World. It also would have been important for White to compile his thoughts and report back to Europe about the New World).

A picture depicting the discovery of the abandoned settlement by John White and his men (

The colony was located on Roanoke Island, near Dare County, in present day North Carolina. Roanoke had a humid, subtropical climate. Winters are short and mild, while summers are usually windy and warm. During late summer and early autumn, the region is vulnerable to high winds and flooding from hurricanes. The location of the island, jutting out into the Atlantic, makes it the most hurricane-prone area north of Florida, for both land-falling storms and brushing storms offshore. The primary source’s description of storms is very characteristic of the Outer Banks region.  The Outer Banks is composed of narrow islands of shifting sandbars that create treacherous navigation conditions earning it the name of “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. The shallow sounds and broad salt marshes behind the Outer Banks serve as further hindrances to water transportation. Hurricanes have been documented to cause entire islands to be cut in half.

A period map of the islands and coast that surrounded the island of Roanoke where the planters settled.

Included, also, is a link to a modern map of the area to help provide a more accesible context:,-75.673828&spn=9.534056,14.128418&sll=35.764343,-79.013672&sspn=9.551117,14.128418&gl=ca&hnear=Roanoke+Island&t=m&z=6

There were at least two voyages prior to this document, however they were only men who were exploring. In this third voyage they brought over women and children to try and colonize this new land. They were planters from England looking for a new life.

In March 1584, Queen Elizabeth I of England, granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of what is now known as Virginia, North America. Raleigh specifically had to establish a Colony or lose his right to Colonization. The Planters who travelled across the Atlantic were motivated for a number of reasons, Religious Freedom, better opportunities to own land and the chance to start a new life. However, it was not until 1587 that the colony was established, after two previous, failed attempts. The reason behind this venture was to provide England with wealth from the New world, but also to have a base in which to send privateers against the Spanish, as the Anglo-Spanish war had been going on since 1585.

An image depicting the style of ship that would have been used to transport planters to the New World (

These settlers came into contact with local natives when they arrived in North America. They interacted with a group called the Sectoans. Sectoans are American Indians whom were dominant in the Carolina region between 1584 and 1590. They had varying degrees of contact with the English colonies. The second group they came into contact with was the Croatoans. The Croatoans were a small native group that lived in the coastal areas of North Carolina but are now extinct; they were Algonquin.

Currently, the reason for the failure of the “lost colony” on Roanoke Island still remains a mystery and is often debated among historians. However, out of this, some plausible theories have arisen. Firstly, in the three year period of John White’s extended absence from the Roanoke Island colony to seek help, food and supplies in England, it is theorized that the colony’s population gradually died off from starvation and disease, as a result of the island and surrounding area’s limited food sources, or at least the colonists’ limited knowledge of the few available food sources. This historical theory distinguishes the importance of location, relative to the obtaining of food sources in order for a colonial settlement to survive and prosper.

A second idea is that the colony was destroyed, and the surrounding hostile indigenous tribes massacred its people. However, this theory is rather unlikely, as the fort at the colony’s site was well defended, and its inhabitants were well armed in preparation for such an attack on the colony, due to prior hostilities. In addition, human remains would have been discovered at the colony’s site, either by John White and his company, or by modern day archeologists.

A third and more likely theory is that the original colonists grew tired of waiting for John White to return, and became lost at sea in attempting to either return to England or were lost while fleeing north up the American coast in search of better food sources. Lastly, the final and most regarded theory is that the colony on Roanoke Island disbanded into factions, and had been absorbed and integrated into some of the more welcoming indigenous tribes, such as the Chowanoke people. Modern day descendants of these tribes have declared the validity of this theory with documented proof that members of such tribes had carried some physical features of “light and fair-skinned” people (such as grey/blue eyes, blonde hair), and that these physical features could resemble those of the original colonists.

The link below is a great visual representation of the many theories that surround the disappearance of the Roanoke planters.

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