Is This How England’s First Colony Vanished into the New World?

by Owen James Burke

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Above (clockwise, top to bottom): A slate writing tablet, clay tobacco pipes, a stoneware vessel, and a German token, found along Cape Creek, Hatteras Island, North Carolina, about 50 miles from the original settlement on Roanoke. Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

What happened to Britain’s first settlers of the New World over 425 years ago has been one of the greatest mysteries of the Americas’ short Eurocentric history. This spring, the search took a new turn, thanks to evidence uncovered by two independent teams of archaeological surveyors.


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Map: National Geographic Maps.

On August 18, 1580, John White, the appointed governor of Roanoke, the first English colony in the Americas, returned with stores of desperately needed supplies only to find a looted, abandoned colony. The only remaining clues were the words “CROATOAN” and “CRO” carved into a fence and a tree. “Croatoan” was then the name of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, but it was nearly half a millennium before any solid artifacts of these settlers having moved on surfaced.

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Pottery, coins and jewelry, like this gold signet ring probably worn by an English nobleman, have all been uncovered on Hatteras Island–far more than has ever materialized from any excavations that of Roanoke Island. Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

“The evidence is that they assimilated with the Native Americans but kept their goods, ” says archaeologist Mark Horton, excavation leader on Hatteras for Britain’s Bristol University. The 16th century artifacts were discovered amidst Native American artifacts, suggesting that some of the colonists had survived and perhaps even assimilated.

Both teams are still awaiting peer review of their research. Read more at National Geographic. –OJB

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