Scholars still want to know what happened to the lost colony.
Scholars still want to know what happened to the lost colony.
Illustration via Library of Congress map.
Before the Pilgrims landed, a group of English settlers attempted to make this country their home -- and no one knows what happened to them.

    Among England’s three early Colonial settlements, Roanoke, off the coast of North Carolina, is perhaps the most intriguing.
    The other two settlements were Jamestown, Virginia (1607), and Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts (1620). Together, more than 320 people --117 at Roanoke, 104 initially at Jamestown and 102 at Plymouth Colony -- laid the groundwork for the English colonies. (The Spanish had already settled in St. Augustine by 1565.)
    Here is a brief account of all three, along with links and sources for further study:

Roanoke: The Lost Colony

Location: Roanoke Island. The Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Year established: 1584-87

Initial population: 117 colonists (sometimes listed as 120).

What's in a name: The word Roanoke is thought to be of Algonquian origin, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. It may be interpreted as “northern people.” But the online dictionary explains the word has also been defined as a “place where shell beads are found.”

Background: Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 or 1554 -1618), adventurer and friend of Queen Elizabeth I, had traveled to American in 1578 with explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert.  After returning, he recruited colonists to settle near Roanoke Island. Raleigh called the land Virginia after the monarch, who had been known as the virgin queen. (The land is present-day North Carolina.) Raleigh funded and authorized these settlement attempts, notes the North Carolina History Project website, but he did not personally lead the expeditions.

Early attempts: The first two ships sailed from England and landed on the North Carolina coast July 13, 1584.
    It doesn’t sound as though they were well-prepared. They “unsuccessfully tried to establish good rapport with the Indians, and lacked proper provisions for permanent settlement,” recounts the North Carolina History Project.
    A second Colony, established as a military post, was set up in 1585. Again, there was a supply problem. The Colony was abandoned. The third landing, in July 1587, is the one still researched today.

The settlers: John White led the group. His plan was to make the Colony sufficient via agriculture, while coexisting with the Native Americans. There were financial goals as well: “Their purpose had been to harass Spanish shipping, mine for gold and silver, and discover a passage to the Pacific Ocean,” recounts Encyclopedia Virginia.
    The group reached Roanoke Island in July 1587. White had his wife and daughter, Eleanor Dare, along with her husband, Ananias Dare. Eleanor Dare gave birth to the first English child born on American soil, Virginia Dare.

How it went: Realizing that more supplies were needed, the colonists decided White should return to England. He left in August 1587 and reached England in November. But because of an impending war with Spain, White didn’t return to the Colony until Aug. 15, 1590.
    “The next morning the English saw what they presumed to be signal fire from the colonists, but after a long walk down the beach they found no settlers,” recounts the National Park Service website.  On Aug. 18, 1590, Virginia Dare's birthday, they arrived at the village site. “They found carved on the palisade surrounding the fort the word "CROATOAN, without any crosses or signs of distress." (Croatoan refers to a tribal group of Carolina Algonquians.)
    There was more bad luck to come. Stormy weather made it impossible for White and the others to find Croatoan. They were unable to locate the colonists.

End note: Historians and archeologists continue to explore the fate of the lost colony. A group of scholars have combed the earth for evidence (broken pottery) that some settlers were living in an area near Merry Hill, North Carolina.

Jamestown Colony

Location: Approximately 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on the southeast coast of Virginia

Year established: 1607

Initial population: 104 colonists

What's in a name: Jamestown was named for King James I of England.

Background: These settlers also had an eye toward profit. In 1606, King James I -- who succeeded Queen Elizabeth, “granted a charter to a group of London entrepreneurs, the Virginia Company, to establish an English settlement in the Chesapeake region of North America,” recounts the website for Historic Jamestown. The company wanted the 104 colonists to settle, find gold and a water route to the Pacific. They took three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery. 
     The settlers -- all men-- arrived on May 14, 1607.  Within days, the Powhatan Indians attacked. Famously, Capt. John Smith (1580-1631) thought he was going to be executed by Native Americans but was saved by a woman, Pocahontas.
      That account, while a wonderful story, is debatable. As put by Encyclopedia Britannica, “Some scholars believe he (Smith) might have misunderstood the event -- that it could have been an adoption ceremony rather than an intended execution -- and others contend that he fabricated the incident outright.”

The settlers: At times, the settlers traded with Native Americans for food, but they were also plagued by famine and disease. Only 38 survived the first nine months. Women were among the 70 newcomers to arrive in Jamestown in 1608, according to a timeline on the Historic Jamestown website. More settlers helped bring stability to the Colony but didn’t achieve the purpose of finding gold. Smith, known for his tough leadership, made enemies and was injured in a gunpowder explosion. He went back to England in 1609.  Scholars now believe that during that winter, starving settlers resorted to cannibalism, dining upon the body of a deceased teenage girl.

  How it turned out: Despite relentless hardships -- 80 to 90 percent of the settlers were dead by 1610 -- the settlement had staying power. The first representative legislative assembly in North America met at Jamestown in 1619. There is also a shameful distinction: The same year as the legislative assembly, the first slaves in the American Colonies were brought to Jamestown by Dutch traders. Jamestown also was the setting of Bacon’s rebellion in 1676. 

Plymouth Colony, or, the Colony of New Plymouth

Location: Southeastern Massachusetts, 37 miles southeast of present-day Boston

Year established: 1620

Initial population:  102 men, women and children 

What's in a name: Plymouth is a borough of southwest England on Plymouth Sound. The word means mouth of the Plym River, according to The American Heritage Dictionary. The colony had previously been surveyed by Capt. John Smith of Jamestown, credited with initially exploring the area and naming it Plymouth.

Background:  The story begins in the early 1600s, when a group of religious separatists in England decided to move to Holland. While the separatists -- the Pilgrims -- enjoyed religious freedom there, they still weren’t happy. “Their children wanted to speak Dutch instead of English and they missed other things about English life as well,” recounts the National Park Service website. “Their leaders, William Bradford, Reverend John Robinson and several others, worked out a plan to move the entire Pilgrim church group to America. That way they could still be English.”
     They wanted to go, but didn’t have the money to fund the voyage.  A group of shareholders known as The Plymouth Company helped fund the Pilgrims.
     With 102 passengers, the Mayflower departed for America on Sept. 6, 1620. During the trip, the Mayflower was blown off course and landed north of where the Pilgrims had permission to settle. In need of an governing document, they wrote the Mayflower Compact, which called for self-government.
    Then, after a month of searching, they decided to make Plymouth home.
    The Pilgrims “planned to engage in businesses such as lumbering and fishing, sending wood and fish to England to be sold,” recounts the Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website. This is how the investors would recoup their money. “In actuality, however, instead of sending back goods, the Pilgrims had to ask the merchant adventurers for even more money, again and again and again.”
    The merchant adventurers were unhappy, and the Pilgrims eventually bought most of them out.

Legend:  Traditionally, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The rock ( or a rock, at any rate) still marks the spot. But The Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website admits, “There are no contemporary references to the Pilgrims' landing on a rock at Plymouth. … The first references to Plymouth Rock are found over 100 years after the actual landing.”

How it turned out: Half of the Mayflower’s passengers either died during the voyage or the first winter. But Plymouth was a permanent settlement. In 1691 it became part of the royal province of Massachusetts. By that time, Plymouth Colony had between 7,000 and 7,500 inhabitants, according to

     To know more:


     Population of the 13 Colonies (1610-1790)

     Quick Study: First permanent settlements in North America

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