According to popular myth, the first English attempt to settle in North America – Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony at Roanoke – remains an unsolved mystery, in which the “Lost Colony” disappeared without a trace. In 1587, 117 colonists set off from England, intending to farm a fertile site beside Chesapeake Bay; however, after tensions grew between the privateers and their passengers, the ships dumped them at Roanoke Island. Their leader, John White, was stranded in England when war broke out with Spain. When White finally managed to persuade a reluctant sea captain to carry him back to Roanoke in 1590, he found the island abandoned. Even so, he was reassured by the absence of the agreed distress signal (a carved Maltese cross), while the word “Croatoan” inscribed on a tree seemed a clear message that the colonists had moved south to the eponymous island. However, fearful of both the Spanish and of the approaching hurricane season, White’s crew refused to take him any further. There the story usually ends, with the colonists never seen again. In fact, twenty years later, several reports reached the subsequent, more durable colony of Jamestown (in what’s now Virginia), of English settlers being dispersed as slaves among the Native American tribes of North Carolina. Rather than admit their inability to rescue their fellow countrymen, and thus expose a vulnerability that might deter prospective settlers or investors, the Jamestown colonists seem simply to have written their predecessors out of history.

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