America's Oldest Unsolved Mystery
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America's Oldest Unsolved Mystery

Story and photos
by Kathleen Walls
Published 6-13-2024


Scene wth queen and villagers in Lost Colony Play

American's oldest mystery has never been solved. I loved visiting the Outer Banks to learn more about the story. The story began with the settlement of Roanoke in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The prelude was the earlier all-male expeditions. The first led by Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas, in 1584 was more of an exploratory one. One thing they did had a profound effect on the final settlement; they brought two young natives, Manteo and Wanchese, back to England.

scene in The Lost colony Play where natives confront Spanish explorers

The second expedition in 1584 was led by Ralph Lane and Sir Richard Grenville. This ended in disaster when Lane accused a Native Secotan chief of stealing a silver cup and killed him. Not a smart move as the settlers were dependent on the native's good will. The survivors returned to England with Sir Francis Drake. He was either a pirate or privateer depending on whether you were Spanish or English.

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scene in The Lost colony Play where villagers dance before leaving for the Roanoke colony,

The main act began in 1587 when a group of 117 (That figure varies between 115 and 120 depending on the source) English men, women and children settled the area. John White was governor and the settlers brought with them two natives who had visited England with the first returning expedition.

scene in The Lost colony Play where Queen Elizabeth holds court in England

Naturally politics played a big hand in affairs then as it still does. Spain had already established a colony in Saint Augustine and had driven the French colonists  out of Fort Caroline that would become present day Jacksonville. England wanted her share. Elizabeth I gave Sir Walter Raleigh the right to settle a colony in the New World and claim it for England.  

The Lost Colony

A visit to the Outer Banks offerd me ample opportunity to view that story. There is the award winning play, The Lost Colony, which offers a somewhat factual portrayal of what might have happened and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site which preserves historical facts. Several places around the area put you in the mood.  ThThe Elizabethan Gardens lets you experience a typical Elizabethan garden of the time. Roanoke Island Festival Park recreated the experience of the colonists and more. The First Colony Inn is the place to stay here.

Two ladies in Elizabethan costume of stage at The Lost colony play

The Lost Colony tells the story in song, dance and action at Waterside Theater, an outdoor theater located on Albemarle Sound where the settlers anchored their ship. A good way to really get into the feel of things is to take the backstage tour before the play begins. You are greeted at the gate by two of the "settlers."  The night I attended, Emma and Olivia were the guides. This lets you see scenery being prepared and costumes readied.

 hut for scene in The Lost colony Play being prepared backstage.

The play was written by Pulitzer winning author Paul Green, and performed since 1937, is the longest running outdoor drama in the country. It's won a 2013 Tony Honor for Excellence and is the only outdoor theater to receive that honor. The stage has three areas and begins with the narrator setting the scene on a side stage. Then the main stage comes to life with the Native Algonquians meeting Europeans for the first time.

 Sir Waltyer Raleigh presents tow native american warriers dressedin English costume to Queen Elizabeth as court and villagers look on

The play progresses through the earlier expeditions and the political maneuvering in the queen's court in England. Sir Walter Raleigh flattering the queen telling her the new land was named "Virginia" in honor of her, "The Virgin Queen."

scene in The Lost colony Play where priest blesses native american as others look on

The play portrays the birth of Elyoner's child, Virginia Dare. Things grew difficult for the colonist. Of the two natives who had gone to England, their reactions were opposites. Mateo believes cooperation with the settlers is the only way to go. Wanchese sees the English as a threat and believes they will exterminate his people.  Conflicts arise. Food was scarce and so John White agreed to return to England for supplies. Unfortunately,  by the time he arrives, war has broken out with Spain. Queen Elizabeth refuses to allow any ships to leave as all are needed to fight Spain.

It is three years later before Governor White returns to Roanoke. There he finds the site abandoned and the letters CRO carved on a tree. He takes this to mean they have gone to live with a friendly tribe at modern day Buxton. A storm prevents him and his men from searching there. The ship sailed back  toto England and he never returned to America.

The Lost Colony stays pretty true to historical fact until the last act when no one today knows the actual ending. In the play, Spanish ships are sighted and the settlers plan a move to another place. 

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is a way to explore the facts of the lost colonists. The Waterside Theater is on the grounds of the historical site.

Stop in the museum first and catch a ranger explaining what is historically known. The museum is filled with exhibits of native pottery and artifacts. One particularly interesting display board offers the possible explains and the reasons for and against each possibility. Natural causes: could have been a hurricane, starvation or disease. They could have been attacked by either natives or Spaniards. The most commonly believed theory was that they left of their own accord because of any number of rreasons such as invading Spaniards or the natives becoming more hostile there. If that is the case--and it is bolstered by the fact the settlers left the word CRO carved on a tree and CROATIAN on a post as instructed by John White when he left to return to England for supplies—what happened next?

Exhibit at Fort Raleigh offering logical possibilities as to what happen to the settelers of the lost colony.

Coroatian was the name of an island nearby and the friendly tribe who lived there. The settlers could have gone farther inland or even to the Chesapeake Bay. Did they become assimilated into the natives' culture? There is some evidence of that but nothing conclusive.

large stone marker commemorating baprism of Virginia Dare

On the grounds there are some must-sees. An 1896 Memorial Marker commemorates the first settlers. It is carved with information including the date the fort was built, July- August 1585, and named simply "The New Fort in Virginia." It commemorates the birth of Virginia Dare on August 18, 1587 to Elyoner White Dare and Ananias Dare.

It notes the date of Virginia Dare's baptism, August 20, 1587, and the baptism of Manteo  the preceding  Sunday. It is careful in its wording, "These baptisms are the first known celebrations of a Christian sacrament in the territory of the first thirteen original United States." Saint Augustine being a Catholic Spanish colony had several sacraments celebrated earlier.

 Earthworks at Fort Raleigh

One of the most impressive structures at For Raleigh National Historic Site is the reconstruction of the earthworks created by Ralph Lane and the members of the second expedition. So far no one knows what the earthwork was used for as it was too small for even the few men in that group let alone for the later 117 colonists. They do know it was a typical earthworks built by digging a ditch and using the removed earth to build walls around it./p>

Strolling the Thomas Hariot Nature Trail out to Albemarle Sound, you realize you are walking where these first colonists walked. It's an awesome feeling.

The Elizabethan Gardens

The Elizabethan Gardens place you in a traditional English garden such as Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh would have been accustomed to. The flowers range from giant hydrangeas to colorful lilies and everything between.

Elizabethan Gardens entrance

It also has the largest stature of Elizabeth I in the country. 

If you're lucky you may meet the resident cat, Momma, back near the greenhouse. The gardener I met there told me about the year one of the garden workers was also in the play. The cat had become so attached to the young man. It often followed him back to the theater. One night it wandered on stage with him. The cast just proceeded as if that was part of the show.   

Roanoke Island Festival Park

Roanoke Island Festival Park is an interactive family attraction that offers you a simulated experience of the first English settlement in America. The park’s centerpiece is the Elizabeth II, built to resemble one of seven English ships that made the voyage in 1585. There are recreated native villages and a recreated colony, with costumed interpreters. It's a living history lesson.

model of ship Elizabeth II at Roanoke Island Festival Park

Lost Colony Inn

Lost Colony Inn is the perfect place to stay for your visit. It's located just across the bridge on Nags Head.  My suite was named for Margaret Lawrence, Elyoner Dare's maidservant.

front Lost Colony Inn 

One of the other rooms was named for a special woman, Margery Harvie. This was the other woman who bore a child in the lost colony a short time after Virginia Dare.

The Inn is featured here.

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