The Roanoke Colony (1587–1588)

What Happened?

  • In 1587, a small English colony was founded on an island off the coast of modern-day North Carolina. It would have been the first permanent English settlement in the so-called “New World.” 
  • In the settlement’s difficult first founding year, its mayor and founder, John White, went back to England to request more resources and people. When he returned three years later, the colony had vanished. White found the word “Croatoan” and the letters “CRO” carved into trees within the colony’s borders (image below).
  • The lost Colony of Roanoke is one of the most notorious mysteries in American history; the lack of concrete evidence explaining its disappearance has made it the subject of widespread speculation. 
  • One of the most popular and well-supported theories is that the settlers joined the nearby Indigenous Roanoke-Hatteras Tribe, who lived on an island then-called Croatoan Island. Conflict with the Roanoke-Hatteras peoples, disease, and famine also may have caused the colony’s disappearance.
Four English colonists standing around a tree with "Croatoan" carved into it. One is gesturing to the carving, while the other three cluster around him. More colonists and a ship can be seen in the background.

The Lost Colony, design by William Ludwell Sheppard, engraving by William James Linton (from A Popular History of the United States, 1876).

How is this related to climate?

  • Data collected from tree-rings in Virginia indicate that the Roanoke Colony was founded and then disappeared during the most extreme drought in the area in the previous 800 years, which occurred between 1587 and 1589. 
  • This drought was likely a result of climate variation during the Little Ice Age and was severe enough to have caused a subsistence shortage, possibly contributing to the Colony’s disappearance. 

References and additional resources: