The Tudor Society

24 October – Roanoke, the lost colony

On this day in Tudor history, 24th October 1590, John White, the governor of the Roanoke Colony, returned to England after failing to find the lost colonists, which included his daughter, Ellinor (Elenora), his son-in-law, Ananias Dare, and his granddaughter, Virginia Dare.

But what happened to these colonists and what did the word CROATOAN carved onto a post mean?

Find out all about the Roanoke Colony and the theories regarding the disappearance of all 115 people, including the very latest research, in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 24th October 1537, Queen Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, died at Hampton Court Palace twelve days after giving birth to a son who would grow up to be King Edward VI.
In last year’s video, I shared contemporary accounts of Jane Seymour's illness and death, as well as details of how her remains were prepared for burial and where they were buried:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1521 – Death of Robert Fayrfax (Fairfax), church musician and composer, in St Albans. He was buried in the abbey there. Fayrfax was a Gentleman of the Chapel of the households of both Henry VII and Henry VIII, and attended the 1521 Field of Cloth of Gold. His works included the Magnificat Regale, Salve regina, six masses and English part-songs.
  • 1525 – Death of Thomas Dacre, 2nd Baron Dacre of Gilsland, from a fall from his horse in the English borders. He was buried at Lanercost Priory, in the Dacre family mausoleum. Dacre fought at the Battle of Bosworth on the side of Richard III, but was able to earn Henry VII's trust and favour afterwards. Henry VII put Dacre in charge of the English west march and he was active in the borders, until he was imprisoned in early 1525 after trouble in the borders. He was fined and released in September 1525.
  • 1545 – Death of Sir John Baldwin, judge and Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. He was buried at Aylesbury.
  • 1572 – Death of Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby and Privy Councillor during the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I, at Lathom House in Lancashire. He was buried at the parish church in Ormskirk.
  • 1589 – Death of Christopher St Lawrence, 7th Baron Howth and an active participant in Irish politics. He was buried in Howth Abbey in Dublin.


On this day in Tudor history, 24th October 1590, John White, the governor of the Roanoke Colony, returned to England after failing to find the lost colonists, which included his daughter, Ellinor (Elenora), his son-in-law, Ananias Dare, and his granddaughter, Virginia Dare.

If you heard my 18th August talk last year, you may remember that Virginia was the first child born to English settlers in the New World and that she was born in the Roanoke Colony, in what is now North Carolina, in August 1587, just days after the arrival of the colonists. Her grandfather, governor John White, had to return to England for supplies at the end of that year, but events such as the Spanish Armada conspired against him and he wasn’t able to return until three years later, in August 1590. As I explained in my previous talk, when he arrived at the colony, all 115 people he’d left behind had disappeared and all that was left was the word Croatoan carved onto a post. Now, in 1587, when he was about to leave, White had instructed the colonists of Roanoke to leave a message, carving their new location on a tree or post for him to find, or carving the Maltese Cross symbol if they were attacked, So, did the word Croatoan mean that they had moved to Croatoan, now Cape Hatteras, which was 50 miles to the south of the colony, or were they referring to the Croatoan Indians? Bad weather and events conspired against White once more and he was forced to return to England in October 1590 before he’d been able to search for his family and the other colonists, and solve the mystery of this lost colony.

The lost colony is still a mystery, with archaeological digs in the Hatteras area finding 16th and 17th century artefacts, but nothing definitive. But then in 2012, a watercolour map thought to have been worked on by John White, from the British Library collection was examined. On the map, 50 miles from the Roanoke Colony was a patch which careful examination of the map found to be covering a blue and red star, which they thought might symbolise a fort. It’s not known why this location was covered up with a patch, but archaeology in this area found artefacts like guns, a nail, and English pottery which was not sent to the Americas after 1624. Again, nothing definitive, but the artefacts combined with legends regarding a pale-skinned and blue-eyed native in the area, have led to the theory that the colonists may have split up and been assimilated by neighbouring tribes, some relocating to the spot marked with the star and others to Hatteras, or Croatoan, as it was known.

Just this month, there have been news articles about more archaeological finds in what is now Bertie County, North Carolina, with English pottery pieces dating back to the 1580s being found there, pieces of jugs and pots, for example. The excavation area comprises 72 digs, each covering an area of 1.24 square metres, and Phil Evans, president of the First Colony Foundation, said that the finds in the area suggest that about a dozen people, from at least one Roanoke family, lived there, and possibly with their servants. Here's a link to the news article on these archaological finds -

Other theories include the colonists being killed in an attack, them dying of disease or in extreme weather.

Will we ever know for sure what happened to the lost colony? I hope so!

Only 1 comment so far Go To Comment

  1. R

    Roanoake is an interesting mystery because its a real puzzle. The problem with the trauma and death theories is that no human remains were found. Now I dare say some people obviously died and were killed because that was a sad fact of early settlement. People simply failed to adapt to a harsh climate, to fully understand the local people or to even learn from them. They died. Nothing mysterious about that in the sixteenth century but what happened to the bodies? But an entire colony of several hundred people is a different matter.

    I think some died, some got captured and killed, but many of the people moved away and set up elsewhere or joined other colonies. Virginia Dear probably died unfortunately as many babies very sadly did but we don’t really know. I suspect they will find the human remains as they did in Jamestown and the horror will be revealed. The same fate was the real problem with the Vikings. They were the first people to found colonial towns from Europe since pre history and they were there for three years and vanished. Human remains were found in Labradour but not enough to say the people all died. Today we take the sagas more seriously and we have evidence that they didn’t just go home but moved further up to the Saint Lawrence River and into what we now know as New York State, on the edge of the settlement area. If the Vikings moved, later people moved, its a natural thing to do and I hope the research which older scholars still question, is vindicated. Its a true mystery.

    I know this isn’t history but its an interesting side piece.
    I love the series Sleepy Hollow and in one episode a boy from Roanoake appeared in the nearby town. He was dressed in clothing from 300 years ago and speaking old English. The hero is 200 years out of his time and is called to translate the unknown language. He traces the boy to the lost colony covered in mist for 300 years and finds everyone is sick and cannot leave. The boy is sick and the illness spreads around the town. He finds the Headless Horseman is threatening the village but unable to cross because of an accident curse. He goes to the village and finds a cure for the town but the curse is broken. However, the Horseman is always defeated by Crane who also cures everyone and Roenoake vanishes never to be seen again. Basically the curse enables the people to die. Its not based on anything true but its a theory that they died of the plague which may explain no bodies as the natives may have burned the dead and buried only ashes outside of the area. Interesting and mysterious.

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24 October – Roanoke, the lost colony