Letter From American History – December 2011

9/14/2011 • AH Issues

Lost Colonies

North Carolina’s Outer Banks, 200 miles of skinny islands in harm’s way of almost every hurricane that sidles up to the East Coast, have so many tragic stories to tell, from shipwrecks to shark attacks, it’s no wonder that one of the great mysteries of American history occurred there.

On July 4, 1587, long before Jamestown or Plymouth, several boatloads of English folk set foot on dunes near what is today Manteo, N.C. The colonists soon began running out of food and had to deal with native populations already antagonized by early explorers. Within a few months of landing, they sent their governor, John White, back to England for help.

Politics and greed combined to keep a supply ship from returning for three years. When it did, in 1590, White found that all 90 men, 17 women and 11 children left behind had completely disappeared. Included in the missing was Virginia Dare, John White’s granddaughter, the first English child born in America. Missions to find them were launched as early as 1602, but hardly a trace has been discovered in 400 years.

Theories are plentiful. Many researchers suspect the Lost Colony moved to the mainland or other nearby islands. Some think cannibals ate them. Others believe the colonists tried to return to England in small boats and perished at sea. Or were they raided by the Spanish? And how to explain Tuscarora and Croatan Indian legends of white ancestors?

A 1998 study of growth rings from ancient cypress trees in the area showed the settlers ran smack into the worst drought in 800 years, from 1587 to 1589. A group from Houston is studying the DNA of local populations to see if the colonists were in fact absorbed by the Indians.

Whatever the truth, it begs the question of what went wrong with so many early European settlements. The rivers were full of fish. The forests were havens for wildlife and extraordinary timber. Why did so many starve? What was the tipping point that turned small colonies—finally—into cities like Boston and New York? Verlyn Klinkenborg offers insight in our cover story, "Why Was Life So Hard for the Pilgrims?"