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Revisiting the Lost Colony

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

--as published in the Asheville Citizen Times

Most people don’t like change. Change may mean being uncomfortable. Losing control. Suddenly feeling out-of-sorts and incompetent. In the face of change, “…but we’ve always done it this way!”... suddenly seems legitimate.

Change can be small: your spouse rearranges the furniture and you are disoriented and resentful—“but my recliner has always been next to the wood stove!”.

Change can be medium-sized: a new neighbor offers five-dogs-barking to your evening routine; you lose face by sticking your fingers in your ears during meal times, and you feel out-of-sorts, like screaming at the top of your lungs.

Change can be extra-large: a U.S. President tweets his disdain for the universe, turning well-mannered decorum into a rarity that would make Howard Stern look virtuous; suddenly you fear for your life, the threat of nuclear retaliation leaving you uncertain and feeling out-of-control.

Modifications to our furniture, our routines or our culture make us uneasy. We would expect a similar response when someone challenges our historical narrative; offering a different version of what we were taught was true (a change in perspective).

So I shall not be surprised when I tell you, “The Lost Colony was not really lost”, that you will most likely feel uncomfortable. Perhaps even irritable.

I shall do my best to break it to you gently...


Arriving in 1585, the first English colonists in North America built a small fort on Roanoke Island (formerly a part of the Virginia Colony, but today, nestled inside North Carolina’s Outer Banks). Running out of supplies and struggling to feed themselves, the colonists befriended the Roanoke Indians and began to rely heavily on their food sources. After a series of harrowing events not altogether verified—a stolen silver cup, English reprisals and Native American counter attacks—the would-be colonists soon abandoned their new settlement and returned to England.

Sir Walter Raleigh, a wealthy English entrepreneur, sent another group of settlers to try again in 1587. Unfortunately, they chose the same island with the same disgruntled neighbors.

Once again, struggling to survive, the 117 colonists decided to send a small group back home for more supplies. Before departure, John White (the leader of the re-supply team) arranged for a means of “texting”. If the settlers decided to move to a friendlier neighborhood, they would leave a message carved into a designated tree, telling of their whereabouts. Suggesting he would return in six months, White departed.

Three years later, due to European wars and transportation complications, White returned on his “rescue” mission. Unsurprisingly, he found the island deserted; with only the word “Croatoan” carved into the chosen tree. The word referred to a nearby island named after the friendly Algonquian tribe that lived there. Sixty-five miles south of Roanoke, the colonists made it clear they had relocated.

Finding no evidence of struggle, no belongings left behind and—although warranted—no “Dear John letter”, White attempted to reach the relocation site. After a day’s journey, the weather became nasty and the ship’s captain felt it too dangerous to continue. Abandoning the short journey to Croatoan (today’s Hatteras Island), White returned to England—a 3,686-mile journey—empty-handed. The colonists were never seen or heard from again.

Sadly, White’s failed—and lame—rescue would doom the colonists to obscurity. Over the next 25-years, several Europeans attempted to find the colonists—curious, I guess—but no one actually visited Hatteras Island, their new address. And so, over the centuries, they were conveniently "mysticalized." The reworked story, which was much more interesting than the reality of inept address-finders, gradually became embedded in our historical narrative… and in our history books. They were the Lost Colony (while you read these words, mysterious, paranormal music plays in the background).

Captivating, book-selling theories, outdoor dramas and theatrical releases evolved—suggesting murder, starvation, cannibalization, assimilation into northern tribes, interbreeding, abduction by aliens—and most were romantically plausible. And most failed to mention their new permanent address.

Adding to the intrigue, Virginia Dare (born to White’s daughter prior to his departure from Roanoke) would become the first English-born child of the New World… and would disappear along with everybody else (which ultimately led to a profusion of nauseatingly sentimental accounts about North Carolina’s missing first-born citizen).

Frankly, and embarrassingly shoddy, many historians failed to notice that the first recorded visit to Hatteras Island occurred 114-years after the colonists were lost. Signs of a British presence—blue-gray eyes, an English shirt or two, other small artifacts—were duly noted, but the colonists were long gone (dying, among other things, from attrition). Despite the tardy evidence, the story had already been spun. The colonists were still, somehow, officially lost.

In retrospect, to suggest that our moved-to-a-friendlier-neighborhood adventurers were lost, or that history lost them, would be like saying, “My brother left a note on the fridge; he said he was going to be at Harry’s house, but when I looked at Bob’s house, he wasn’t there… so he must be lost; or maybe, I’ve lost him, because when I went to look for him at Harry’s house 20-years later, he wasn’t there… although I noticed that he left one of his shoes.”

Who would say this?! Apparently, historians who love mysterious, confusing plots.

So let’s straighten this out, once and for all. The colonists weren’t lost, nor did history lose them. Most likely, they moved to Hatteras Island—exactly what they said they were going to do (as many historians, and archaeological records, are now confessing). Rather than a “Lost Colony”, they were a “Hey, We’re over Here!, Colony”.

Yes, this is major change in historical narrative. It’s uncomfortable.

Perhaps I’ve ruffled a few feathers. Maybe you’re getting angry. Maybe you’ll never read this column again!

O.K., maybe I’m wrong.

Never mind.

--Ben Fortson

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