Obscure History: Roanoke Colony Disappearance
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Obscure History: Roanoke Colony Disappearance

As we celebrate a holiday dedicated to the first English colonists maybe we should discuss the first actual English colonists

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Obscure History: Roanoke Colony Disappearance
Original Roanoke Colony Map Drawing 1587, John White

This Thursday, in homes across the United States, we will sit together around our dinner tables and celebrate a holiday based on the, frankly historically inaccurate, “first Thanksgiving” between the pilgrims and the Native Americans at Plymouth Rock. These settlers however were not the first English colonists to set foot on the soil of the “New World”. Instead, that title belongs to the settlers that founded the colony on Roanoke, North Carolina in 1585. From its establishment in 1585, Roanoke was surrounded in mystery, successes, and hardships; from the first English child born on North American soil to the first mass disappearance in what would become American history.

The first establishment of the colony of Roanoke began with a mysterious captain’s motives. Whenever the first 115 colonists left the safety of their ship to begin in the New World, the captain of the ship refused the colonists who asked to return to the ship and insisted they stay and establish the colony as they were dispatched to do. The captain’s motives for this decision could never be fully explained. The colonists, in spite of feeling uneasy, began to make their lives in the “New World” including the welcoming of the first English baby born on North America, a little girl named Virginia Dare.

After one of their founding members was murdered while hunting for crab to eat by a member of the local Native American tribe, the colonists insisted they send back a representative, the colony’s Governor John White, to ask Queen Elizabeth I for reinforcements and supplies to aid in the colonists’ survival. As Governor White’s ship left Chesapeake Bay there was no way he could have ever expected the mystery that would befall the 116 colonists he had left to fend for themselves. It is important to note here that had the circumstances been perfect, Governor White’s return to England and request for reinforcements may have quickly been accepted and his return to Roanoke swift. Instead, Governor White returned to England during the Anglo-Spanish War that meant that any efforts for colonization were put on hold to assess the Spanish Armada’s threat to England. It would take three years before Governor White would return to the Roanoke Colony with supplies and reinforcements, when he landed on August 18th 1590, the day that would have been Virginia Dare’s third birthday, he found the colony empty, the only sign of life being the word “CROATOAN” etched into the front of a tree.

The fascination with the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony and its people has captivated people throughout history, from the time the colony disappeared even into today with shows like “American Horror Story” using the mystery as a backdrop for its past season. There have been many theories revolving around the disappearance of the colonists, some ludicrous and based in the supernatural others being more realistic. Some of the theories include the people of Roanoke were all killed by the Native American tribes which surrounded them one of whom was knows as the Croatoan tribe who may have left their name etched ominously into the tree face as a warning to future settlers. Another theory suggests that the people of Roanoke assimilated to the Native American tribes, living with them and learning the ways of their cultures to ensure survival in the harsh environments of their New World, and so on into the interesting, logical, and just plain strangely improbable.

We may never find out exactly what happened to the colonists of Roanoke and yet the fascination with the way they lived, the way they died, and the legacy of their disappearance lives on even centuries afterwards. There have been books written, plays, songs, movies, and TV shows which reference directly to Roanoke or use its disappearance as a plot device. The intrigue and mystery of the Roanoke Colony and its inhabitants will continue until there are answers discovered that can lay the mystery to rest. So now when you discuss the history of Thanksgiving while eating with your family and friends you can now use your knowledge of the Roanoke Colony mystery as a talking point, it may not be as recent as discussing the election but it may cause just as much debate.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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