The Roanoke Colony was the first English colony in the New World (St. John's in Newfoundland was claimed in 1583 by Humphrey Gilbert but no settlement was attempted). It was founded at Roanoke Island in what was then Virginia (now North Carolina).
The enterprise was financed and organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, who had received a charter for the colonization of Virginia from Queen Elizabeth I of England, specifying that Raleigh had ten years in which to establish a settlement in North America or lose his colonization rights... With that in mind, an expedition was sent in 1584 to explore the eastern coast of North America for an appropriate location... The following spring, a colonizing expedition composed solely of men, many of them veteran soldiers who had fought to establish English rule in Ireland, was sent to establish the colony... Despite a lack of food (due to damage to the ship) and this rocky start to relations with a potential neighbor, Grenville decided to leave Ralph Lane and approximately 100 men to establish the English colony at the north end of Roanoke Island, promising to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies.
When Sir Francis Drake arrived in June (1856), on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean, he offered to take the colonists back to England, which they accepted. Shortly after Drake's fleet left, Grenville and the resupply arrived. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville decided to return to England with the bulk of his force. Fifteen men were left behind to maintain both an English presence and Raleigh's claim to Virginia.
In 1587, Raleigh dispatched another group of colonists. These 91 men, 17 women, and 9 children were led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh's who had accompanied the previous expeditions to Roanoke... Of the fifteen men left the year before, only the bones of a single man were found. The one local tribe still friendly towards the English, the Croatans on present-day Hatteras Island, reported that the men had been attacked, and the nine survivors had taken their boat and sailed up the coast... The settlers landed on Roanoke Island on July 22, 1587... Knowing what had happened during Ralph Lane's tenure in the area and fearing for their lives, the colonists convinced Governor White to return to England to explain the colony's situation and ask for help. There were approximately 117 colonists - 115 men and women who made the trans-Atlantic passage and 2 new-born babies (including Virginia Dare) - when White returned to England.
Ships leaving Roanoke as late as White's did were in danger from the Atlantic, confirming Fernandez's claim; White's vessel barely made it back to England. Plans for a relief fleet were put off, at first, by the captains' refusal to sail back during the winter. Then, the coming of the Spanish Armada led to every able ship in England being commandeered to fight, which left White with no sound vessels with which to return to Roanoke... He finally gained passage on a privateering expedition that agreed to stop off at Roanoke on the way back from the Caribbean. White returned on his granddaughter's third birthday, and found the settlement deserted. He organized a search, but his men could not find any trace of the colonists. Some ninety men, seventeen women, and nine children had disappeared; there was no sign of a struggle or battle of any kind. The only clue was the word "Croatoan" carved into a post of the fort, and "Cro" carved into a nearby tree.
The principal theory is that they dispersed and were absorbed by either the local Croatan or Hatteras Indians, or still another Algonquian people; it has yet to be established if they did assimilate with one or other of the native populations.
In 1998 "The Croatoan Project," an archaeological dig sponsored by East Carolina University, discovered the first material connection between Roanoke and the Croatoan. The archaeological exploration uncovered a 10 carat gold 16th century english signet ring. The ring was discovered along with a flint lock for a 16th century english musket, and two 16th century copper farthings inside an excavated pit within the bounds of the ancient capital of the Croatoan chiefdom, 50 miles from Roanoke.
May'2012: new clues from an old map? (Amazingly, the article doesn't even mention Croatan.) Even White’s map, which was included in a 2007 British Museum exhibition, appeared to hold no clues. But two small patches layered atop the map intrigued Brent Lane, a member of the board of the First Colony Foundation who was helping research the site of an American Indian village.