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First English Colonies

Roanoke Island: The Lost Colony

by Matt Stokes

Research Branch, Office of Archives & History, 2007.

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"The carte of all the coast of Virginia," by Theodor de Bry, 1590.  The map is a depiction of the North Carolina coast, then known as "Virginia",  in 1585. Call no. FVCC970.1 H28w, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill. Presented online at NCMaps.Related entry: Lost Colony play

The Roanoke colonies, the result of three attempts at colonization on the eastern shores of what would become North Carolina, laid the foundation for later English colonization initiatives. In April of 1584, explorers Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe set out from England to survey the coast near Cape Hatteras. In the course of their expedition, they encountered few obstacles and their positive report prompted Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a colony in the New World. In 1585, Sir Richard Grenville, Raleigh’s cousin, sent seven ships loaded with colonists and provisions to establish a colony on Roanoke Island. Although the settlement survived, poor relations with the natives and food shortages constantly plagued the colony.

After English supply ships failed to reach Roanoke Island, the colonists returned to England, and in the process missed the arrival of a re-supply ship. The ship’s crew found the colony deserted and left fifteen men at the site to await their return. They never did, and eventually the men returned to England. Two years later, Grenville sent another colonial expedition of 150 men, led by artist John White. The third colony, choosing the same location their predecessors had abandoned, saw improved relations with natives and the 1587 birth of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World. Soon after Dare’s birth, White returned to London to secure more provisions for his fledgling colony, only to return three years later to find the colony abandoned, with no trace of inhabitants and most structures destroyed. The vanquished settlement is often referred to as the “Lost Colony,” a story retold each summer on Roanoke Island in Paul Green’s outdoor drama.

Although the first English colonies were unsuccessful, the attempts brought attention to the dangers inherent in creating a new society in a foreign world, and laid a course for future colonists.


References and additional resources:

Lost Colony & Jamestown Droughts (NOAA):

Powell, William Stevens, and Jay Mazzocchi. 2006. Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 982-983.

Roanoke Colonies Research Newsletter. Online in the NC Department of Cultural Resources Digital Collections.

Quinn, David B. 1974. England and the discovery of America, 1481-1620, from the Bristol voyages of the fifteenth century to the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth: the exploration, exploitation, and trial-and-error colonization of North America by the English. New York: Knopf.

Quinn, David B. 1955. The Roanoke voyages, 1584-1590; documents to illustrate the English voyages to North America under the patent granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584. Works issued by the Hakluyt Society, 2d ser., no. 104. London: Hakluyt Society.

Quinn, David B. 1985. Set fair for Roanoke: voyages and colonies, 1584-1606. Chapel Hill: Published for America's Four Hundredth Anniversary Committee by the University of North Carolina Press.

Image Credit:

Bry, Theodor de. "The carte of all the coast of Virginia".  Frankfort: 1590. Call number FVCC970.1 H28w, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (accessed May 31, 2016).


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Hi, Grace.

Thank you for your question. I think you will find the article at very helpful.

Mike Millner, NC Government & Heritage Library


I'm am currently doing a school project on Roanoke island and why the colonists decided to settle there. can you give any more detail about what made Roanoke appealing in Walter Raleigh's eyes?


Hello, Omaur.

I have found an article that I think you will find helpful:

Thank you.

Mike Millner, NC Government & Heritage Library


The 30 seconds of this audio will totally cause my students to lose focus and not listen. Just putting that out there...


Hello! It is being an issue and I am grateful to have found a source for my Junior research paper.
I have decided upon Roanoke, (clearly) so may I ask: What are some of the most popular theories surrounding the disappearance of these colonists?
Is it true the buildings disappeared as well, or is the other statement of them being overgrown the truth?

Hoping for a hasty reply, I thank you for even giving me THIS source. Sunk a couple days into this already.


Dear Finian,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and sharing your question and project.

The fate of the colonists has continued to remain a mystery, with a number of theories dominating, including that the settlers perished from disease and deprivation, that they were killed by local Indian tribes, and that they moved inland and settled among Indian communities.

In the past few years archeologists have re-examined clues from John White's map as well as sites inland.  Evidence from this preliminary work has led some to re-visit the theory that remaining colonists relocated inland and assimilated among Indian communities.

Here are a few sources that talk about this recent work:

National Geographic:

New York Times article:

Archaelogy Magazine:

You may also want to the look at the references and additional resources included with the NCpedia articles.  They will give you more information about the colonists and the colony’s site.  

And here are more articles in NCpedia that talk about the so-called Lost Colony:

Please also visit the National Park Service site for Fort Raleigh:

I hope this helps!  Good luck with your project and please reply if you need additional assistance.

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library


I'm doing an project about Roanoke and I was wondering how Roanoke stills manifests itself in later American time periods ?




Hi Akira,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia.

Can you tell me a little more about what you're looking for?  Please feel free to post a reply back here.

It migth help you to look at additional information in NCpedia on Roanoke Island.  Here is a link to search results:  For example, during the Civil War, Roanoke Island served as colony for freed African American men and women. And here is a link to that article:

If you can give me a bit more information about what you are interested in, I can help find additional resources.

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library


Can you tell me anything more about their government/politics?

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