So what did happen to the settlers at Roanoke?

There’s an excellent and more detailed discussion of this in “A Voyage Long And Strange”.

Here is a link to the staff report in question, written by Bricker:

Of course, without basic supplies, how long did the white man’s advantage last? How easy is it to replenish your gunpowder supply? How many sentries to you lose to hostile locals testing your defenses at night (in the days before floodlights…)?

Also, I wonder. Sitting on an outer island of the Carolinas - how prepared was the colony for one of those Hurricane Andrew-type storms that might come through? One good storm and most of your supplies are washed away? Aren’t those the islands that are automatically evacuated any time a hurricane comes by? What are the odds they’d get at least one in the 3 years?

Given the fact that the walls were still up, they probably weren’t completely washed away by a hurricane, although that too is a guess. The overarching point remains: there’s no need to call it a mysterious disappearance, explainable only by aliens or the supernatural. There was no dearth of natural stuff waiting to serve as the cause for ruin.

This may be more of a GQ question, but is there a good method for estimating something like this?

BTW, nice column, Bricker. No one suspects the Spanish Armada.

Yes, statistically.

Consider the concepts of magnitude and frequency. From empirical data, we can run a frequency analysis on data regarding storms of different magnitudes. From that analysis we can say “A storm of this certain magnitude has an X percent chance of occuring in any given year”. Then you figure out the % probability of a certain magnitude storm happening within that 3-year period.

For example, there is a certain probability - I think a 25%-chance - of a 100-year storm happening within any given 30-year period.

You’d probably want to decide which frequency storm would cause, at a minimum, the level of damage needed to wipe out the settlement; then determine the % probability of that happening in the 3-year period.

Would that account for the specific location?
What were the odds of Katrina hitting New Orleans rather than 200 miles east or west?

Would and Andrew magnitude storm be necessary? A direct hit by a relatively small storm (Category 3 with 10 ft storm surge?) might be sufficient and it could be a death blow that forced the settlers to relocate rather than one that destroyed them outright.

Nice treatment, Bricker. The fate of the Roanoke Colony is one of the few spooky mysteries whose core story doesn’t have a simple explanation. No, I’m not invoking Bigfoot: I’m just saying that it’s not immediately clear whether the colony was overwhelmed, or whether the settlers uprooted themselves (and then were overwhelmed or perhaps absorbed into the native population).

Wikipedia lists other theories as well:

Bolded part mine. Is it plausible that “Signs of battle” could have been erased by the elements or by native Americans? Or can we reliably rule out the possibility that the colony perished in battle at their original site?

Wikipedia lists ongoing research. The Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project is attempting to work out whether the lost colony might have living descendants. East Carolina University has conducted archeological digs. And climatologist David W. Stahle of the University of Arkansas notes that the colony landed during the worst drought in their reconstructed 800 year series. The fight against ignorance continues.

Yes, one can account for location. You can calculate the odds of a storm occuring in one specific geographic location.

I will leave that question for someone else, as I’ve no earthly idea.

It doesn’t have to be too major. I was thinking that any storm that pulled the roofs off a few houses, flooded a lot of their stored food or especially gunpowder supply; wrecked some of their equipment like boats, etc. If it didn’t leave them completely vulnerable to the next Indian attack, it would likely give them incentive to pull up stakes and try to get to somewhere safer, if there wa a settlement a few hundred miles up the cost or down toward Spanish territory.

Great article, Bricker.

This used to be a topic that interested me a lot when I was a young man; interestingly because I grew up not too far from the other Roanoke (the one in Virginia mentioned in Bricker’s report.) As a child when I first heard about the disappearance of the “Roanoke colony” I thought “umm…it’s just up the road.”

There is a fundamental issue I’ve always had that has kept me puzzled for a long time, and maybe there is an answer out there for it in light of all the research that has been done in the last 20 years.

I can conceive of a mass Indian attack which killed all the colonists. There’s nothing to make me think that is a fanciful result. I could even imagine an Indian attack in which everyone was killed and no corpses were found. I think some people have a distorted view of how obvious the presence of human remains would be after a 3 year interval (assuming they died not long after White left.) Wild animals would quickly have the overwhelming majority of the carcasses totally consumed, and bones very quickly end up covered in the ground and unless White went around with a shovel digging up everywhere he was unlikely to find remains of people who were slaughtered and left to rot where they fell.

But dismantling all the homes? That seems less likely. The Indians definitely would have taken their spoils, anything valuable would be looted. But they’d have little reason to disassemble every dwelling in the colony and take it back to their village.

I also find it unlikely the colony slowly died off. That is not unrealistic by any means, through disease, famine et cetera. However slow die off would have meant burials and English settlers would have at least had some sort of crude cemetery that would have been discovered by White when he returned to the colony.

Of all the possibilities I think it most likely the colony relocated where it then came to a bad end. I find it unlikely the white settlers assimilated with the natives and find it most likely that after they left the initial colony they died due to an attack or enough of the colony starved to death or died from disease that the group became so small it was no longer capable of sustaining itself in the face of pressure from natives.

Does the ship’s log of the vessel that went looking for them still exist?

Great column Bricker.

An addendum: The Eleanor Dare Stones, found in North Georgia, “discovered” in the 1930s, though considered by pretty much all experts to be a forgery, are nevertheless an interesting epilogue to the story and show that there was a very clever forger who went to a lot of trouble in creating his or her own afterward. (To me the most damning thing about them as valid is that after 350 years they all seemed to have popped up at once from North Carolina through Georgia about the same time there was huge interest in the story.) The first one found reads:

Others follow her as she marries a chief, bears a daughter named Agnes, and dies in 1599 in what’s now Georgia. After first amazing scholars they were soon debunked and renounced but still have their supporters.

As for Powhatan’s claim he had killed them, I have a theory that he may have mistaken them with another group: the Spanish. The Spanish werent’ that interested in what’s now the Atlantic coast of North America for many reasons:

1- The near impossibility of sailing against the ocean currents and gulf streams made it take far too long to get there

2- A 1526 attempt to plant a settlement in what’s now South Carolina was an unqualified disaster; among other things the the first Africans in what’s now the U.S. accompanied them and either revolted or joined with the Indians and in either case the Spanish ran with the skins they could save. (While there’s any number of fanciful family trees claiming Virginia Dare, the Africans who were in the south 60 years before her generally are believed to have intermarried with/scattered their genes among the Indians. (There were many accounts of the black Indians with disclaimers of “and when we say black we don’t mean dark skinned we mean African black” by 16th and 17th century settlers in the Carolinas.)

  1. The Battered Bastards of Bobadilla (my term, not their’s obviously)- the pitiful one third of de Soto’s forces who managed to limp back to Spanish lands in Mexic after Hernando de Soto’s expensive and complete disaster of an expedition, wrote and testified in (paraphrasing somewhat) “we traipsed all over that freaking huge ass island* and all we found was Indians, more Indians, yet more Indians, a lot more Indians, a big ass river that’s as wide as any lake you’ve ever seen, a few pearls and enough gold to make some earrings and we lost those the 203rd time we fought with the Indians, who if we haven’t mentioned there’s a LOT of”, so there was no real incentive to explore their for gold and there was more than enough land for agriculture in South America/Mexico/Cuba/etc.

However, they did make some explorations of the territory. It wasn’t that far out of their way on return trips to Spain after all. On one they encountered a young Indian boy who, like Squanto far to the north, they either abducted or tricked onto their ship or perhaps he climbed aboard as an honored guest, but whatever the case he went with them all over the New World and the Old World. He was soon converted and baptized Luis (or Don Luis) and he traveled farther than any Indian in Virginia had ever traveled: he saw Cuba, Mexico and other Spanish settlements in Central and South America, and then to Spain itself where he was educated in the Spanish language and in Christianity. He was given an audience with the Emperor Philip II. He was gone for years learning about their culture and being debriefed about his own. He got homesick- not a lot of nice Algonquin girls in Madrid obviously and the ones in El Salvador were a bit too slave-ish and pox ridden- plus he was essentially living as a monk anyway. The Spanish were a bit loathe to return him however because he was a font of information and might spook his people, but he convinced them “How about this? I just don’t see myself as a monk, but I’ve always thought I’d make the perfect puppet king- nice pad like the one that provincial governor lives in, and with guards and firearms and swords it would be really easy, and as puppet king to His Most Catholic Majesty Philip I could bring all my people’s souls to God and their land to Spain, and there is gold in the New World- I know where it is. What do you say?” and finally they said “Yeah, sure.”

Hold onto him.

So in 1570, it was actually the Jesuits who decided to plant a settlement in what’s now the Mid Atlantic. They received of course the permission and blessing of the Spanish crown. St. Augustine had been founded in 1565 largely to block the attempts by the French to settle the area, and the Dutch and English were beginning to enter their waters more frequently as pirates/privateers and you never know when you might need a station up there, and much better we should settle in than the English or French, so we’ll send them to save souls for now and build a new St. Augustine as time goes by. The Jesuits founded a mission known as Ajaca… somewhere.

We’re not really sure where. The best bet seems to be the Eastern Shore of Virginia, but it may have been mainland Virgina, or it may have been as far south as North Carolina or as far north as New Jersey, but somewhere along the Atlantic the Spanish founded a mission in 1570. Their main purpose really was spiritual, but of course one way you get those loinclothed butts in the seats is with trade so they had some trade items as well. Surprisginly the Jesuits, who usually had a “We’re devout followers of God the Father…but we’re not crazy” attitude toward military accompaniment, opted for no garrisin of soldiers there, though they did take some servants and a couple of armed men. Spanish ships resupplied them en route back to Spain.

They made some converts and some headway. Indians always loved metal trinkets and new religions can be neat. The place never really blossomed but it wasn’t intended to, just a priest and seven monks and a couple of servants, but they were doing as well as they could. Their mission was Santa Maria de Ajaca, and they may have done better except unfortunately after about a year a Spanish supply ship came in and brought back a native son: Don Luis.

Once off the boat Don Luis gave a big “Hi mom, hi Dad, did you miss me? You’re not mom and dad? Sorry, I’ve been away for a while and you do wear buckskin and feathers like them. Well anyway, I’ve got a bit of a sales pitch for you…”.

Unfortunately for the Spanish he went a bit off book from the rehearsed “what I did on my ten year vacation and why I should be King, by Don Luis” speech and it went more like “Whatever I say look at the Spanish and smile and nod and wave. Don’t change expressions nod and smile at them. You doing that? Good. Okay, I’ve been all over the world with these dudes, when I thought I’d seen it all in Mexico- those stories we heard about the tribes to the south with the pyramids who have teeny tiny dogs and trip on cactus worms? They’re true!- and in the other places where they’ve been and made slaves of the population and stolen everything that was movable and planted over the rest, they took me to Spain. You know how many of these white guys there are? Well, I don’t, because I stopped counting when I got to several thousand and they are armed to the teeth and they worshipped a god who is nailed to wood and pissed off about it so he demands lots of people must suffer, so, smile and nod and wave at them, that’s it, the only way we’re going to survive as a people is to- smile nod wave- kill them. Kill every last one of them, don’t leave a single one, take their goods if you need to but kill them, that’s the important thing. Kill them. Smile nod and wave. Hi Padre! Kill 'em.”

And they did. Soon after the supply ship left the Indians killed everybody at the mission except for one of the servants. (Accounts vary as to why they spared him, but he was probably a boy.) When the Spanish ship returned they found the place sacked, burned, and the bones of the priest and monks. (Not sure if they were ever considered for sainthood but I’ll look it up.) It wasn’t worth the manpower it would take to go out and avenge the destruction so they didn’t. (They instead drove up to Massachusetts and picked up Squanto, or the Portugese did one or the other.)

So Don Luis lived happily ever after and disappeared from the record. Or did he?

By some accounts Don Luis was none other than Opechancanough, a member of the most powerful lineage among these peoples and the younger brother and heir in the interesting matrilineal variant of an agnatic succesion monarchy of their people to the great chief Wahunsunacock, father of (among many many many many others, Matoaka, better known as “the little rascal”, or Pocahontas; Wahunsunacock is better known by his title, King Powhatan [though the Powhatan was actually a tribe]).

Most discount the Don Luis was Opechancanough theory; among other things it would make Opechancanough 99 years old or thereabouts when he had his last major campaign against the English, which while it’s recorded he was ancient (had to be carried onto the field on a litter) it’s doubtful he was that ancient. One thing is for sure though: Opechancanough knew about Don Luis and the Ajaca massacre and he approved. From the moment Jamestown was settled he urged his big brother to wipe them out, get rid of them, they’ll take our land and kill us all if you don’t, don’t play with them just kill them (a parroting of Don Luis that probably is why some established the connection).

In any case Powhatan had other plans.

Must run- will continue.
*North America was generally believed to be an island continent long into the 17th century.

There does not seem to have been as massive a plague from disease in Virginia following the Ajacan mission as there was in other places after contacts with Europeans, but there could well have been some, and it’s also possible that Powhatan and his tribes were descendants of people affected by the widespread disease that followed de Soto and the one that wiped out poor Squanto’s village near Plimoth Plantation. Whatever the case, though there were definitely deaths from European diseases, they were of heartier stock than the Indians of South America, implying their parents or ancestors had picked up resistance somewhere.

Since the Powhatan Confederacy and its predecessors had no written history it’s impossible to say for certain what happened before 1607, but it seems and is recorded by biographers and historians that (the great chief known to history and hereafter referred to as) Powhatan was unique in their culture and their history. He was born to a powerful lineage within his tribe but seems to have been akin to Alexander the Great or Genghis Kahn of his people, extending their rule from their own village (which was possibly under the heel of another village when he was young) to a collection of vassal villages and tribes that stretched from New Jersey to the Carolinas on the seaboard and at least 60 miles into the interior in some places. As I mentioned in another thread he had a habit of taking wives, impregnating them, and then either before or soon after the baby was born giving them to his subordinate chiefs or allies as a way of cementing alliances, which seems not to have been a custom of his people but something he cooked up (though they mostly did practice polygamy and marital alliances before him). Pocahontas was one of the 20 or so children he is known to have kept and raised.

Certainly not all tribes and villages were under Powhatan’s thumb however and he had many enemies and was also seeking to suppress rebellion or expand territory. When James Town was founded he could easily have wiped them off the map and his brother Opechancanough begged him to do so repeatedly; Opechancanough saw the handwriting on the wall and definitely made mention of having participated in the raid on Ajaca whether he was Don Luis or not. (Certainly if you were writing a novel you’d make him Don Luis, but for history- he may have been but probably wasn’t; one of the most powerful pieces of evidence against is that per Smith’s account Opechancanough- who he named specifically- was fascinated by the clear glass on Smith’s compass when he was captured, while Don Luis would certainly have seen glass in Spain or the Spanish New World and would probably have been able to converse at least some in Spanish as he’d once been fluent in it.)

Powhatan instead wanted to make an alliance with James Town for their trade goods and above all their weapons. Contrary to many reports it wasn’t the matchbox firearms that the Indians were in awe of (they were scary the first time or two you heard them, but they were such a pain in the ass to reload and had no accuracy in anything less than short range/excellent conditions) but the swords, axes, and armor. (De Soto for example was out of powder and shot long before his worst battles and yet his men still killed 20:1 or more with their swords and battle axes- and dogs.) He wanted the English either to arm him in Euro style or to be his military allies in really extending his authorit-y. Opechancanough was more of the “you’re powerful enough already, why do you need more? Those guns and swords can be used against you just as easily as for you”, and of course he was right, but by the time Powhatan clocked that it was getting too late.

Like many Indian chiefs communicating with Europeans, spoke through at least one and sometimes several interpreters and the translation was often far from perfect. He also sometimes referred to himself in the third person as weroance (chief), perhaps like a moderator speaking alternately as Miller when posting but then saying [Mod Hat on], and it is believed by many biographers that he and his brother were involved in the attack on Ajaca (wherever that was), so this is a really long way of saying “I think he was probably talking about Santa Maria de Ajaca rather than Manteo”. Even if he weren’t the chief then- and he probably wasn’t yet- he could have said The Weroance had them killed and because he spoke of himself in the third person (it seems) it could have been interpreted as “I had them killed”. Also, he would have known that the English and the Spanish were different people probably- that the words that were remembered from the Spanish didn’t register with them and they looked a bit different- and once interpretation was done he would have known England and Spain were enemies- so I don’t really think he’d have gone around bragging to them that he killed the colonists when he knew that they were strong enough with their powder and swords to if not destroy him then at least make him know he’d been fought.

Trivia: the English began building Powhatan a “Mansion House” in the English style but never complete it before relations broke down. What is believed to be the chimneystill stands and may be the oldest English made structure in Virginia. (Technically it only dates to the 1930s but was rebuilt using the original rocks when the original chimney collapsed.)

When he died the chiefship passed to Opechancanough (unlike Saudi Arabia they were matrilineal but like Arabia kingship passed to the next oldest brother- unlike Saudi after the last surviving brother it went to the oldest surviving sister if there were any, then to the oldest member of the next generation matrilineally). Opechancanough timed a very advanced military operation and struck from many different places over many miles at once on March 22 1622 (called “The Good Friday Massacre”- though erroneously). His warriors wiped out roughly 1/3 of the English settlers and would have destroyed them all had it not been for an Indian boy named Chanco who warned his white foster family which allowed them to warn others (an interesting debate over whether Chanco was a hero or a traitor). How the English managed revenge is interesting but long story, but 22 years later, when he was ancient, Opechancanough did the same thing again in April 1644 and it was bloodier in terms of the number of English killed, but by that time there were so many more English there that it made only a dent in the population and Opechancanough was killed and his people wiped out. (His daughter was a piece of work later on as well.)
Anyway, long go nowhere story, but the point to the extent there is one is I doubt Powhatan wiped them out, but his brother may have known what became of, and the Ajaca mission and Don Luis probably didn’t help the poor folks down in North Carolina.

And Virginia Dare’s grandpa is one of my favorite artistsin the history of America.

A great mystery to me is that it would have taken little more effort to carve ‘we moved 5 miles west’ than to carve ‘Croatoan’, so why not do it? (English sailors are supposed to know what Croatoan means?) I can only guess it was an early strike by the Blair Witch.

Thing is, a lot of time passed between the colony’s last contact, the first failed contact, & the subsequent search efforts.


The houses & fortifications were gone.

The hurrican theory is back on the table.

Sampiro, hell of a story, but one tiny itty bitty little nitpick: “matchlock”.

Sampiro, thanks for posting, that was very interesting.

I don’t expect they needed a serious settlement-razing flood-tide hurricane to do them in.

If a decent storm camme along - how solid were those houses against 100mph winds and blowing debris?

Also, if their gunpowder got wet from rain or high water - how easy is it to make more in the wilderness, surrounded by hostile natives? Charcoal is easy, but sulphur and especially saltpeter? IIRC you can get the latter from horse dung - stable shovellings is one source - but not if the whole pile was washed away by a torrential downpour. (Assuming they even had any horses) If the nearest sulphur source was 50 miles away in hostile Indian territory, it might as well be 5,000.

A bunch of white guys without gunpowder are just a bunch of sitting ducks who have probably already forgotten how to make effective bows and arrows. Did they really have a 3-year supply of powder?

I think the wonder is that they found anything at all. I guess the Indians couldn’t be bothered to burn the place completely down.