American Horror Story: What really happened to the Roanoke 'Lost Colony'?

A family portrait imagining life on Roanoke Island, created for the 2008 production of Paul Green's The Lost Colony (Wikimedia)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

As American Horror Story returns to our screens, its army of fanboys and girls will be desperate to know what actually happened at Roanoke - the setting for the latest iteration of the creepy hit show.

Roanoke was designed to open a new frontier for England, and lay down on a marker on the wild and dangerous American continent. Instead it has entered infamy as 'the Lost Colony', due to the mysterious disappearance of its inhabitants without trace.

The colony was overseen by legendary English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh and was originally financed by his half-brother and explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who drowned in 1583 on one of his other colonisation projects - perhaps a harbinger of what was to come.

One of the key aims of the Roanoke project was the establishment of a base from which privateers could be sent on raids against the Spaniards. So in April 1584, Raleigh - who never actually visited America himself - dispatched an expeditionary fleet to find a suitable spot on America's eastern seaboard. Roanoke Island, a tiny strip of land jutting out into the Atlantic from what is now North Carolina, was the spot they found.

Yet the settlement was troubled from the start. The first band of colonists, a tiny rump, arrived in 1585 and returned home within months, ravaged by a lack of food and frequent attacks by the local Indian population. Then, in 1585 a new band of around 100 people was dispatched to join the hardy quorum of 15 people who had been left behind to hold the fort. 

At first, this second attempt was promising. Governor John White's granddaughter gave birth to a child, Virginia, the first English child born in the Americas. And the colonists established friendly relations with one of the local Indian tribes, the Croatan. 

But the new arrivals soon began to complain about the same problems as their predecessors. Food was scarce and the native population was consequently harrying them. The Croatan remained friendly, but the other Indian tribes didn't share their warmth, and one of the settlers was murdered when he went fishing for crabs. The Anglo-Spanish war was raging, which made life on a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic quite perilous - and meant it was very hard to get supplies.

White realised things were getting desperate, so he went back to England to request some proper food and tools. White knew the colony wouldn't last long without replenishment. 

But when White returned to Roanoke, he found no-one there. The only clue to their whereabouts was a message carved into the wooden wall around the town. It was a just a single word: CROATAN.

At the time White believed his fellow settlements had taken a boat to Croatan Island. Perhaps they had grown tired of Roanoke and, in the governor's long absence, had decided to make a fresh start. But a subsequent search of the island, 50 miles away, found no trace of them. 

Perhaps CROATAN had a different meaning. Perhaps the settlers were taken in by the Croatans and became part of the tribe. Or perhaps there's another, darker explanation: perhaps the Croatan tribe had grown tired of their English interlopers, and butchered them. Was the crude etching on the Roanoke palissade really a cry for help?

Other theories have been postulated over the years. Some have suggested the colonists were killed by disease, and others have suggested a veangeful storm wiped them out. Both theories seem highly unlikely: White didn't find any bodies when he returned to Roanoke, and all the houses were still standing. 

Perhaps the colonists just sailed for home, and sank along the way. That's certainly a possibility, and countless people have combed the area around Roanoke, looking for wreckage, but they haven't found their quarry. In 2007 a major investigation was conducted in Great Dismal Swamp, a vast swampland between Virginia and North Carolina. The researchers found some wood which looked like it might have come from a boat, but no-one could say for certain.

Today, the mystery continues to baffle and beguile in equal measure, a Marie Celeste set on land. Noone has come close to solving the mystery so far, and for now, it looks like they never will.