Wednesday, 13 July 2022

The Lost Colony by Catherine Randall

In May this year, I was lucky enough to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and visit Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Roanoke Island has fascinated me for years, not only because it is the site of the first attempt to settle an English colony on the coast of North America, but because it is the site of the mysterious Lost Colony. 

The Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of the longest-standing
historical mysteries in North America

In 1584 Queen Elizabeth I gave one of her favourite courtiers, Sir Walter Raleigh, a royal charter granting him permission to explore and colonise lands not already held by ‘any Christian prince’. I am sorry to say they didn’t give a second thought to the Native Americans who already lived there. The main aim of the enterprise was to bring back gold and silver from the New World, chiefly by establishing a base in North America from which the English could raid the Spanish treasure ships which had been ploughing the Atlantic between Spain and the Americas for a century.

Sir Walter Raleigh was the force and often the finance behind
the exploration and colonisation of North Carolina but
he never actually visited it himself

Three voyages were sent to North Carolina over a four-year period from 1584 to 1587.

The 1584 voyage was a short exploratory voyage. The captains and crew of the two ships established good relations with the local Algonquian tribe and reported back that Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks was a highly suitable place for a settlement.

In 1585, another expedition, consisting mainly of sailors and soldiers, was sent to Roanoke Island with the aim of discovering more about the area and establishing a base there.

This is a reconstruction of the type of ship in which the colonists would
have sailed. It is moored at Roanoke Island Festival Park

After building an earthen fort, the majority of the expedition departed, leaving behind just 107 men, mainly soldiers, but also including a scientist named Thomas Hariot, and an artist, John White. Hariot and White wrote and drew detailed accounts of the lands and waters around Roanoke, giving Europeans their first view of this unfamiliar land and its people.

However, things did not go well for these colonists – much of the food supplies they had brought from England were lost in a storm almost as soon as they arrived, and they had to rely on food supplies from the Algonquian tribe. Relationships between the tribe and the colonists became strained, marked by misunderstandings and sometimes violence, and they culminated in the killing of the Chief by the leader of the colonists. When Sir Francis Drake appeared at Roanoke on his way back from raiding Spanish ships, the colonists gladly accepted his offer to take them home to England.

Nevertheless in 1587, a third expedition set sail from England in an attempt to establish a proper colony in North America. The destination this time was supposed to be north of Roanoke, near Chesapeake Bay. Earlier explorations had concluded that this would be a more suitable place for a permanent settlement. However, due to arguments between the leader, John White, and the pilot navigating them, the 117 colonists – men, women and children – were deposited at Roanoke Island with the pilot refusing to go any further. There were other problems too. The local tribes were less than friendly, after their treatment by earlier colonists, and it soon became clear that the colonists’ food supplies were inadequate. They had also arrived too late to plant for a harvest that year.


The only good news for the 1587 colonists was the birth of John White’s granddaughter,
Virginia Dare, the first European child to be born in America

They decided that John White must return to England for supplies. In the meantime, the colonists would split into two groups – one venturing onto the mainland to find a better site for a permanent settlement, the other remaining on Roanoke.  It was also agreed that if they left the colony before White’s return they would carve their destination on a tree.

John White promised to return immediately, but in the event he was not able to return for three long years.


The view from Roanoke Island. The colonists must have gazed
at this view, longing for their leader to return

When White finally returned in 1590, the settlement was silent. The colonists had completely disappeared. The only clue to where they might have gone were the words CROATOAN carved into a post and CRO carved in a tree. Croatoan was the name of an island further south, but White wasn’t able to investigate because a hurricane forced the ships to return to England. No evidence has ever been found that the colonists reached Croatoan Island, and no one has ever found definite evidence that they moved further inland.

Artist’s impression of John White’s return to Roanoke

The fate of the Lost Colonists is a mystery to this day.

Writing Challenge

For today’s writing challenge, I’d like you to use this historical mystery as the start for a piece of creative writing. What do you think happened to the Lost Colonists? Did they explore further inland and live with local tribes? Did they try to sail back to England and end up somewhere completely different?  Did they go to Croatan Island but get swept away by a hurricane? Did something weird and wonderful happen to them? Let your imagination run wild! Happy writing!

Book Recommendation 

This week I also have a book recommendation for you. This children’s novel by American author Rebecca Behrens is all about a modern girl’s search for the truth behind the Lost Colony when she is forced to spend a summer on Roanoke Island with her botanist mum. It is magical and mysterious and conjures up the feel of the island perfectly. It’s available online in the UK. If you’re interested in the Lost Colony, I would highly recommend it. 


The White Phoenix by Catherine Randall is an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in London, 1666. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021.

Published by the Book Guild, it is available from bookshops and online retailers.

For more information, go to Catherine’s website:


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