In 1584, Raleigh sent a small reconnaissance fleet to what would become Croatan Sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They returned with glowing reports of a land inhabited by “most gentle, loving and faithful” Indians who lived “after the manner of the Golden Age.” Knighted by his “Virgin Queen,” Raleigh named the new land after her: Virginia. In 1585-86, he dispatched Sir Richard Grenville with a small group of would-be settlers. Sir Francis Drake encountered them a year later, starving and wanting nothing so much as passage back to England. Nothing daunted, Raleigh launched three ships and 117 people (men, women, and children) to what is now called Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, in 1587. After establishing them on the swampy island, their leader, John White, decided to sail back to England to fetch the supplies that Raleigh had promised to send. (Unknown to White, the supply ships were stalled because of the attack of the Spanish Armada against England.) When White returned to the colony in 1590, he found no settlers and only the barest trace of a settlement—a few rusted items and what was apparently the name of a neighboring island carved into a tree: CROATOAN.
Had the colonists fallen prey to disease? Starvation? Hostile Indians (who took them captive to “Croatoan”)?