Croatoan: The Lost Colony


Even though the first successful English colony, Jamestown, is sometimes spoken of in history, there is the story that really never gets spoken of because it is mired in mystery. In some legends, the entire story is probably one of the biggest horrors in history. The pilgrims are always spoken of around Thanksgiving and there are often mentions of the settlement at Jamestown, however the Roanoke settlement goes down in history as the mysterious colony that disappeared without a trace and many believe all kinds of strange stories about it.

The saga began on a summer day over 400 years ago when co-captain Arthur Barlowe and a few dozen other Englishmen stood at the railing of their ship and peered anxiously across the water at a strange new world. They had no idea what to expect, but the odor wafting to them from the small islands off the coast of what is now North Carolina filled Barlowe with wild hopes. Barlowe wrote in his diary that the vegetation was at its summer peak, and the aroma was like that of “some delicate garden” full of fragrant flowers.

Barlowe was part of an expedition sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to find a place for a colony. Roanoke Island, protected from the Atlantic Ocean by the slender sand dunes that came to be known as the Outer Banks, seemed a likely spot to set up the new colony.

Barlowe continued to write about how the soil was the most sweet and plentiful and that entire area was fertile and welcoming. He even wrote about how the natives that they encountered were gentle, loving and faithful.

Based on Barlowe’s writings, Queen Elizabeth I was very excited to hear of the progress of the expedition. The queen decides to name this new place Virginia. Subsequently, she gives Sir Walter Raleigh permission to establish a colony in the area. He was to finance and plan the expedition to what is now North Carolina. Raleigh has tenyears to complete this mission.

Walter Raleigh funds an expeditionary voyage from Plymouth to America to investigate whether it would be possible to set up a colony. When the ships land, the officers meet the brother of the chieftain of Roanoke Island. The company returns to England successfully and with them they have packed several items form the new world, including skins and pearls. They also take back two native tribesman called Manteo and Wanchese. This generates interest and support for another expedition.

Shortly after the arrival, the men begin to suspect that local Indians have stolen a silver cup from them. In retaliation they destroy their village and burn the chief alive. Despite the obvious discourse with the natives, Richard Grenville decides to leave the men there to build the proposed colony. He vows to return in April of 1586.

A colony is established on Roanoke Island. Ralph Lane is made Governor and relations with the natives improve as the settlers receive a lot of help from them. However, there are still a few tribesmen who see the new settlers as hostile.

When April passes and there is no sign of Grenville, the men decide to catch a ride home with Sir Francis Drake. Drake had stopped at the colony on his way back from a successful voyage to the Caribbean. Ironically, Grenville arrived shortly thereafter. After finding the settlement empty, he decides to leave fifteen men there to protect England’s claim.

The second group of settlers arrived at Roanoke Island on July 22, 1587. This group contains 117 people, both men and women. They are led by John White. John White’s daughter would give birth to the first English child born in America on August 18, 1587. The child’s name was Virginia Dare.

The settlers built their colony and tried to make peace with the natives. They were successful in befriending the Croatoan tribe, but other tribes were openly hostile toward the colonists. A settler by the name of George Howe was murdered by natives while hunting crab on the beach. After this incident, the settlers became nervous of their new home and convinced John White to return to England and ask for help. John White reluctantly left. He would never see any of these people again.

The mystery of Roanoke began when a supply ship returned in 1590 to find not a single living soul, and no evidence of war, famine or any other possible reason for the colony’s complete disappearance. In fact, there is still no generally accepted explanation for what happened to those settlers.

What had once been a settlement of two-story, thatched-roof cottages was lost. The first seed of English presence in the New World, given purchase through the efforts of 117 people, had been uprooted inexplicably. In its place, a husk remained. The houses had all been taken down. A roughly built fort surrounding the former settlement was all that signaled the former presence of the colonists. And on a post was carved one of only two clues: the word “CROATOAN.” On another tree, White found the carving “CRO.”

The carved word “CROATOAN” was an obvious clue. Perhaps the colonists had moved in search of protection or a steady food supply from the native tribes. It appeared they hadn’t left under duress; there were no Maltese crosses carved anywhere, the agreed-upon signal the colonists would use to indicate that danger had befallen them.

Yet no search of Croatoan Island was ever launched. Subsequent expeditions to locate the lost colony either failed or were undertaken as an excuse for piracy or other commercial endeavors. It wasn’t until the Jamestown Colony was established in 1607 that any earnest searches were conducted to discover the fate of the lost Roanoke colonists.

Not only were the colonists themselves lost, the colony was as well. Poor record keeping among White and others as well as years of abandonment have kept the exact whereabouts of the 1587 colony a mystery. Numerous digs on Roanoke failed to produce any evidence of the lost colony. Remnants of the 1585 settlement have been discovered, but no evidence of the lost colony has been found.

This was odd because White was an artist and a cartographer to some degree.

At first it was proposed that the entire settlement was swallowed up by the bay waters.

Another explanation is that the Roanoke settlers fell victim to the Spanish, whose settlement was just down the coast in Florida. It’s certain that the Spanish in the West Indies were aware of the English colonists’ presence. One Roanoke settler named Darby Glande left the 1587 expedition once it set ashore in Puerto Rico to take on supplies.

He later reported that he told Spanish officials the location of the Roanoke settlement.
In the opinion of Johns Hopkins University anthropologist Lee Miller, the colonists wandered into a violent shift in the balance of power among inland tribes. Natives with whom the colonists were friendly lost their hold over the area, and Native Americans hostile to the settlers took control. If the Roanoke colonists made the trip inland when this happened, the men would’ve likely been killed and the women and children captured as slaves. The colonists would have then been traded along a route that spanned the U.S. coast from present-day Georgia to Virginia.

There are also theories about blonde haired blue eyed Indian children found in the Lumbee tribe and to this day some 400 years later DNA experts are trying to find traces of the Roanoke colonists to try and find a link to them and the local tribes.

Archeologists also theorized that the Roanoke settlers became very sick with a plague where they started warring with each other eventually killing and eating each other. Local tribes had even reported that the colonists died in a great war within their own ranks.

Lawrence Stager is the chief proponent of the cannibalism theory and had been the prevailing theory for sometime about what happened to the colonists.

This would be a very frightening theory, because not only would the Roanoke colony be the first English colony, but the first colony to be involved in some dark zombie holocaust.

Remember, they had very little supplies and food. There is always the possibility that the colonists were attacked either by tribes or pirates and still the idea of eating human flesh to survive is compelling. Perhaps the first feast of the settlers was not turkey but “people.”

The relative isolation of the settlement and the time elapsed before the return of the supply ship would allow for the remaining colonial zombies to rot back into the earth. Without any humans left to feed on.

The plague would not have spread and the so-called zombie outbreak would have simply died off.

Even Max Brooks, author of the book “World War Z”, has speculated about the possibility of the Roanoke Zombie outbreak in his book “The Zombie Survival Guide.”

The word ‘Croatoan‘ that the settler’s had carved into the tree was not an accusing finger but an indications that the peaceful Croatoan’s would know what had happened. The Croatoans were spiritualists and their history is rich in spiritual ceremony and ritual. Many ceremonies were held to raise the spirits of the dead to help in the harvest.

There was evidence that they did have some idea what had happened but were not taken seriously. Why? Because some of the explanations were paranormal in nature and the colonists were frightened by tribal superstition.

The Croatoans reported that, simultaneously with disappearance of the colonists, there was a great depletion of the game in the forests and the fields in which the tribe hunted. Virtually all species of wildlife had abruptly died. Many birds had fallen from the sky and many of the animals died off as well.

The Croatoans believed that the spirit endured and walked the earth even after the death of the body and they believed there were ‘greater spirits’ that manifested themselves in the elements – wind, earth, fire, water and so forth. Most importantly, they also believed in an evil spirit, a source of all evil, an equivalent the Christian’s Satan. This spirit was from the snake or reptile and it was able to attach itself to humans and the human victim would become territorial and venomous like the snake.

The Croatoans told the colonists that the entire region had been taken over by the reptilian spirit and that they attacked each other. One of the legends states that it was John White’s Daughter that brought the “plague” of evil to the colony because the child was allegedly possessed by this so called reptilian spirit.

The colony has been mentioned in various supernatural stories that exploit the Croatoan “legend” of demonic possession, cannibalism and vampirism.

One memorable instance involves the DC Comics/Image Comics crossover that features Batman and Spawn. The comic is called “War Devil” and in the storyline the colony’s disappearance is attributed to a demon named Croatoan who sacrificed 100 colonists of Roanoke in an effort to appease hell.

On an episode of the CW program ‘Supernatural’ entitled “Croatoan,” an alternate reason is given for the disappearance of the colony. In this show it is attributed to a demonic virus which renders the host unable to make decisions for themselves and causes them to become bent on spreading the virus and harming those who would try to resist. After the day ended, all that were infected on Roanoke Island had disappeared.

In episode seven of the second season of the WB program ‘Angel’, entitled “Darla“, the disappearance of the colony is explained by the arrival of The Master, a powerful vampire disguised as a monk who turns a dying prostitute into his vampire minion. It is suggested that they devour the colonists shortly afterwards.

The first episode of the 2000 Fox series, ‘FreakyLinks’, entitled “Fearsum” deals with the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony. This episode states there are two reasons for the colony’s disappearance, the official and the “unofficial”. The official reason is that the colony ran out of supplies and relocated to the Croatoan Island; with the unofficial reason being that an evil spirit was born into John White’s daughter, Virginia Dare. The evil spirit killed everybody in the colony during the three years between White’s last voyage and when he discovered the colony to be empty.

Stephen King also has addressed the mystery of the Roanoke colony with a fictional take. The novel and TV miniseries ‘Storm of the Century‘ alludes to the mystery of the Lost Colony. It claims that the demon in the story, Andre Linoge, had demanded a child from the Roanoke colonists to raise as his heir. The colonists refused and the demon forced them to walk into the Atlantic Ocean and commit suicide. In the novel ‘IT‘, also written by King, the colony is referenced in relation to a similar, fictional mystery of a missing settlement occurring in the novel’s main setting, Derry, Maine.

As you can see, there seems to be a strange element to the story that history wishes would go away. That is the possibility of a colony being somehow overtaken by what the Indians called a reptilian spirit; a spirit that has been with us from the beginning of the settlement of the new world. Perhaps it still exists, that is if you believe in some superstitious offerings by a strange Native American tribe.