Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Roanoke colony has become popular amongst urban legends and conspiracy theories a like. There are many theories today of what happened to the settlers who came to Roanoke, from cannibalism to migration, no one really has any solid proof of what happened to the 115 colonists who were left in the settlement. However Roanoke has a colorful history even before the colony was abandoned. Roanoke was the site of the first English childbirth in the “New World” and also hosted refugees that introduced tobacco, maize and potatoes to Europe.  Roanoke, also now known as the Lost Colony, was meant to gather riches for England and serve as a base for privateers to raid Spanish treasure ships. The first group of colonists arrived in 1585. Colonist relation with the existing native population was tumultuous at best. The invading colonists accused the people of the Aquascogoc village of stealing a silver cup, their retaliation for the cup was to raid and torch the Aquascogoc village. A violent act that would not go unnoticed or forgiven by the natives. Despite the sour relationship with the native peoples and lack of food, the Roanoke settlers built a fort and left 108 people on the island with the promise to return with more supplies. The relief ships however did not return when promised and the natives, angered by the burning of their own village, attacked the Roanoke fort. The fort was able to repel the attack but relations between the two parties were clearly getting tense. Francis Drake visited the colonists on a return trip from the Caribbean, he took several of the colonists with him back to England in the after math of the attack and general bad luck of the colony.  The relief party eventually came, to find the colony abandoned. They returned to England leaving a small outpost to protect England’s claim in the territory.

In 1587 a group of 115 colonists from Chesapeake were ordered to check on the remaining Roanoke settlement. Upon finding nothing in the colony but a skeleton, they were instructed to stay and establish a new colony. While trying to repair relations with the native tribes, a colonist was murdered while gathering crabs. The colonists feared for their lives, and begged the governor to go to England to ask for help.  Relief for the colonists was delayed for three years due to the Anglo-Spanish War and weather issues. On August 18, 1590 the governor returned with privateers to the colony, only to find it deserted. There was no evidence of a struggle or where the 115 colonists were. The only possible clue was the word CROATOAN that was carved into a fence post. Parts of the colony were dismantled, indicating the departure was not rushed, but possibly even planned. So what happened to the people of the Lost Colony?



There are many theories ranging from rational to supernatural as to what overtook the colonists in Roanoke. People have been trying to dig up the fate of Roanoke for centuries. Once Jamestown was established, John Smith (yes that John Smith) tried to find out what happened to the settlers. Chief Powhatan told him that he had personally lead the attack and killing of the colonists. Another version of this was relayed to the secretary of the Jamestown colony, saying that the colonists were living amongst enemies of the Powhatan and were slaughtered as a result of a raid on the enemy tribe.  However there is no archaeological evidence of either account. In fact, there is not much archaeological evidence of the Lost Colony at all.

In 1998 an excavation was lead to investigate the events of Roanoke. Archaeologists found a gold signet ring, gun flints, and two copper farthings. The lack of any archaeological evidence is blamed on shoreline erosion; between 1851 and 1970 nine hundred and twenty eight feet of shore was lost due to erosion. Erosion is a common threat to coastline archaeological sites, which is why monitoring of sites and possible excavation or preservation before their loss is so important.

Another theory is that the survivors just integrated with the surrounding natives, though there is no clear-cut evidence for this either. Popular culture today leans towards the dramatic, evidence for this is clear in Roanoke: The Cannibal Colony, and American Horror Story: Roanoke. Urban myths have tall tales of cannibalism taking over the colony to evil spirits haunting the settlers. Though Roanoke cannibals seem to thrive in popular culture, there is no evidence of cannibalism, at least not in that colony. Jamestown however has archaeological proof of cannibalism, in the form of skeletal remains. Jamestown experienced a terrible famine, and it was recorded that people had survived by eating rats, leather, and even the corpses of the recently deceased. However only written evidence of this survived, until 2012. During excavations, a pit of butchered horses and dogs were discovered and among the bones, were the bones of a human woman. The skull and tibia had cut marks characteristic of cannibalism. The cut marks were made with clear intention to remove flesh from bone and the brain from the skull. Though perhaps less terrifying, there was no evidence that the young woman was murdered, and it is believed that this all occurred post mortem.




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We may never have a full grasp on what happened to the settlers of Roanoke or the horrors they may or may not have faced. Without much of an archaeological record we can only speculate from written records and the evidence we do have as to their fate. The speculation and mystery around Roanoke has certainly help make its name popular even today. The Lost Colony has been used as a haunted house, a theme for a popular tv show, and even more loosely in a Supernatural television episode about a zombie virus. As long as popular culture keeps the mystery alive, we will be able to continue to speculate, and possibly even drive said speculations into new archaeological investigations. 

Written by Megan Liebold, FPAN Stafff

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