On this day in 1590, John White, the governor of the Roanoke Island colony in present-day North Carolina, returns from England with provisions to find his settlement deserted. White and his men saw no trace of the 100 or so colonists he left behind, among them his daughter Ellinor Dare, and granddaugher Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America; August 18 was to have been Virginia’s third birthday.
As no human remains or signs of violence were present, the only clue to the fledgling colonists’ mysterious disappearance was the word “CROATOAN” carved into the palisade that had been built around the settlement. The initial outpost had been established in the summer of 1585, under the sponsorship of Sir Walter Raleigh, but a lack of supplies and bad relations with the local Native Americans caused many of its members to return to England with Sir Francis Drake a year later, leaving behind a small detachment.
These men had all disappeared by the time a second expedition led by John White, replete with fresh men, his daughter, and supplies, arrived in July 1587. White left for England in late 1587 to request assistance from the government, but was prevented from returning to Roanoke until August 1590 due to the Anglo-Spanish War.
For many years, it was widely accepted that the colonists were massacred by local tribes, but with no bodies ever discovered, nor any other archaeological evidence, this seems less likely. The most prevalent hypothesis now is that environmental circumstances forced the colonists to seek shelter and protection with local tribes, as English surnames and Christianity are said to have occurred in the history of the Croatan tribe; same is largely based on oral renditions and also lacks conclusive evidence. Some artifacts were discovered in 1998 on Hatteras Island where the Croatan tribe was based, but researchers could not definitively say these were from the Roanoke colonists.
Other theories on the abrupt disappearance suggest cannibalism by local tribes to account for the lack of human remains, or that the settlers perished at sea whilst trying to return to England. History may never fully reveal what actually happened to the settlers who vanished on Roanoke Island, and it shall likely remain an eternal mystery.