'American Horror Story' Revisits a Great Centuries-old Mystery

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Illustration depicts John White (c1540 - c1593) and others as they find a tree into which is carved the word 'Croatoan,' Roanoke Island, North Carolina, 1590. Three years previously, White had left a group of colonists on the island and returned to England for supplies, intending to return in a matter of months, but a variety of circumstances (not the least of which was Britain's war with Spain) prevented his immediate return. When he was able to get back to the colony, it had been abandoned with only the word on the tree as a clue (the nearby Hatteras Island was then known as Croatoan).
Illustration depicts John White (c1540 - c1593) and others as they find a tree into which is carved the word 'Croatoan,' Roanoke Island, North Carolina, 1590.Credit: Stock Montage/Getty Images
Ruth Perl Baharir
Ruth Perl Baharir
Ruth Perl Baharir
Ruth Perl Baharir

Where did the 118 colonists who came to a small island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1587 vanish to? In the absence of any solid findings, writers, filmmakers and tour guides have proposed all kinds of answers to the riddle. Now “American Horror Story” takes on the puzzle.

Just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of this month, viewers of “American Horror Story” will be able to breathe a sigh of relief as the final episode in the series’ sixth season is aired. This season of the horror series has revived one of the greatest American unsolved mysteries, which has remained baffling for more than 400 years. 

Practically every kid in America has heard about the 118 pilgrims who arrived on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island in 1587. The Roanoke colony is also known as “The Lost Colony” and its story is a staple of American elementary school textbooks. It was writer, poet, soldier and British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh’s second attempt to found a settlement, and the first time that families were included in a delegation of this kind. During their brief stay in the colony, Virginia Dare, the first child to be born to English parents in the New World, was born. Her grandfather, John White, was the colony’s governor. A few weeks after the group arrived, the grandfather headed back to England to fetch more supplies for the colonists. But then the war with Spain interfered with his plans and it was three years before he was able to get back to the colony. When he finally came back to Roanoke, he found the place deserted.

Illustration depicting the baptism of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Roanoke colony. Credit: Hulton Archive, Getty Images

To imagine the scenarios that must have run through his mind, one has to appreciate the conditions in which the settlers lived at the time and the hardships they faced: One of the main threats to the English in the New World were the tribes of Native Americans who sought to repel the invaders. Many were also vanquished by cold and hunger, as they didn’t know how to find food in their new surroundings and were used to wearing relatively lighter clothing. Others died of diseases like typhus, plague and scurvy. 

“More than 70 percent of the people who crossed the ocean then never reached their destination,” says Prof. Arnon Gutfeld of Tel Aviv University, whose field is American history. And those who were lucky enough to survive the journey faced long odds once they arrived in the New World. 

“Most of the first immigrants who came off the boats didn’t know the kind of environment they were coming to,” Gutfeld explains. “They froze and starved to death, and often the only thing left of them was a message seared into the bark of a tree – ‘Here died so-and-so on such-and-such date.’”

llustration depicts John White. Credit: British Museum

Gutfeld says that the colonists who survived did so with the help of friendly Native American tribes, who had ways for coping with the brutal winters and also knew the animals around and how to hunt them. “The Americanization process essentially starts when the British colonists start to eat turkey and wrap themselves in bearskins,” he says. “Before that, they’re dressed in black silk.”

Ralph Lane, one of the first Englishmen to visit the Roanoke area, paints a bleak picture of the conditions there: “We lodged upon an island, where we had nothing in the world to eat but pottage of Sassafras leaves The broad sound we had to pass the next day all fresh and fasting: that day the wind blew so strongly and the billow so great, that there was no possibility of passage without sinking of our boats ... By four we were at Chipanum, whence all the Savages that we had left there were left, but their wares did yield us some fish, as God was pleased not utterly to suffer us to be lost ”

Thomas Harriot, who accompanied Lane in his expedition to the region, wrote in his “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia”: “For want of provisions excepting for twenty days, we lived only by drinking water and by the victual of the country, of which some sorts were very strange unto us, and might have been thought to have altered our temperatures in such sort as to have brought us into some grievous and dangerous diseases; secondly, the want of English means for the taking of beasts, fish and fowl could not be so easily provided for us Some want we also had of clothes Often in the time of winter, our lodging was in the open air upon the ground And yet there were but four of our whole company (of one hundred and eight) that died all the year all four were especially feeble and sickly persons and those that knew them marveled they lived so long.” 

Illustration depicting the baptism of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Roanoke colony. Credit: Samuel Walker and Company

So there were many things that could have caused the 118 to disappear. White, who headed a search mission for the lost colonists, found the letters CRO etched into the bark of one tree, and the word Croatoan etched into another. In his 1590 journal of the search expedition, he wrote that before leaving the colonists several years before, he had asked them to carve a cross into a tree should they fall into danger. But when he returned, he found no such sign. He also saw that the buildings had collapsed and “the houses had been taken down.” 

White goes on to describe how members of the search expedition found items the colonists had left behind, which led him to believe that they were still alive: “Captain Cook and I went to the place which was in the end of an old trench made two years past, where we found five chests that had been carefully hidden by the planters. Of the same chests, three were of my own, and about the place many of my things spoiled and broken, and my armour almost eaten through with rust. This could be no other but the deed of the Savages, our enemies.” White took the letters carved in the trees to mean that the colonists had gone on to Croatoan Island, some 50 miles away.”

Prof. Karen Ordahl Kupperman of New York University says in her book “Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony” that she believes the mysterious letters do indicate that the colonists moved to nearby Croatoan Island (present-day Hatters Island), but when White and his crew arrived there three years later, they found nothing. 

A scene from 'American Horror Story.'Credit: FX Networks

Searching for clues

More than 400 years after the failed search mission, the current season of “American Horror Story” has sparked renewed interest in the myth. The plot is set in present-day North Carolina, in a house haunted by ghosts from the lost colony. The show’s sixth season is being praised by critics and viewers alike as the scariest ever, and new theories about the characters pop up after each episode airs.

But viewers are also showing great interest in the fate of the real colonists whose story inspired the show’s creators. New websites about the subject have sprouted up, many advancing the popular yet unproven theory that the colonists assimilated with the tribes in the Croatoan area. There are also many online debates as to how long the colonists could have survived after they disappeared. But no one can say they’ve found the solution to the riddle of the colony’s disappearance.

Sir Walter Raleigh.Credit: National Portrait Gallery

In the absence of any solid findings, writers, filmmakers, directors, tour guides and others have come up with all sorts of theories of their own, giving rise to much – often quite profitable – folklore. In the late 1930s, a California tourist named L. E. Hammond claimed to have found stone tablets inscribed with the story of the settlers after they’d left the colony. Hammond maintained that John White’s daughter Eleanor Dare, mother of Virginia, made the etchings on the stones, which said that her husband and daughter were dead. But in 1941 The New York Times reported that Hammond had forged the tablets as part of a moneymaking scheme.

Technological advances opened new avenues of investigation. The first promising finding in centuries was discovered in 2012 by researchers at the British Museum. X-ray scanning of White’s maps revealed a hidden star-shaped sign on one of them, marking a spot on the beach not far from the colony. Experts believe this is the place to which the settlers moved after they left Roanoke. The researchers who found the sign believe it was deliberately hidden, perhaps to deceive the many spies from the British kingdom.

A map of Roanoke colony.Credit: John White

In recent years, experts from the First Colony Foundation have been visiting “Site X,” the spot marked on White’s map. “We have evidence from this site that strongly indicates there were Roanoke colonists here,” archaeologist Nicholas Luccketti told The New York Times last year, referring in part to shards of Surrey-Hampshire border ware, a type of ceramic no longer imported to the New World by the 17th century.

Other colonial artifacts that were turned up at the dig include a storage jar, a hook for stretching skins, a buckle and rifle parts. Luccketti and his colleagues are optimistic about finding further clues, but stress that there is still much work to be done.

Since 2007, Roberta Estes, an independent researcher with a DNA laboratory, has been investigating the genealogy of Native American tribes and of colonist descendants in North Carolina. Her research director, Anne Poole, tells Haaretz, “At the start of the project, we interviewed people who could be descendants of the colonists and of the native tribes. It’s amazing how many of them did not have a Native American appearance.”

She was surprised by how much excitement the project has generated. “People are constantly asking to be part of the research. Many of them say that their ancestors claimed to be descendants of the lost colonists. Others just want to help to solve the riddle in any way they can.”

Poole and Estes are currently looking for families in Britain who will agree to take part in the research, in order to compare their DNA with that of the Native Americans’ descendants. But Poole says it has been much harder to get the British interested. “It’s making it harder for us to find a match, but all we need is one test that matches.”

“This story has captured Americans’ imagination because no one knows what really happened there,” says Gutfeld. “As a historian, if I don’t have information, I leave it to the people who write television shows.”