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The lost colony of Roanoke Island

On May 8, 1587, a group of 117 men, women and children left England to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Excited by stories from other travelers to the New World, the colonists under the command of John White headed for a destination on the Chesapeake Bay.

Due to concerns for the upcoming summer hurricane season, the colonists were forced to stop their journey earlier than planned, and they settled on an island off the northeast coast of what is now North Carolina, at the southern edge of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Map indicating the location of Roanoke Island and Jamestown.Picture: Map of Roanoke Island and Jamestown. Roanoke Island is situated off the coast of North Carolina. Jamestown, Va., is located at the James River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary.

This colony on Roanoke Island was the first English settlement in the New World. In 1587, shortly after the arrival of the colonists, John White's daughter gave birth to the first child of European parents to be born on American soil. Her name was Virginia Dare.

However, life wasn't easy for the early colonists, and on August 27, 1587, John White--now the new governor of the colony--left the settlement and returned to England to get more supplies.

Because of England's war with Spain, there were no ships to spare. Three years passed before John White could return to Roanoke Island with the supplies. When he finally returned to the colony in 1590, he found the island deserted. The only trace left by the colonists was a mysterious 'cro' carved in a tree, and 'croatan' carved in a fence post.

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Trees provide an explanation

Where did the colony go, and why did they leave the island? Where they went or what happened to them is still a mystery (see the 'further reading' section for more information), but a study by researchers Dennis Blanton from the College of William and Mary and climatologist David Stahle of the tree ring laboratory of the University of Arkansas sheds some light on the mysterious circumstances under which the colonists disappeared.

The researchers looked at the tree rings of centuries-old bald cypress trees in swamps along the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Every year in the growth season, trees grow by adding a layer of wood cells, usually consisting of thin-walled cells formed early in the growing season (called earlywood) and thicker-walled cells produced later in the growing season (called latewood). Trees usually stop growing at the end of fall and the difference between the earlywood and latewood is visible as the tree ring, usually extending around the entire circumference of the tree.

The width of the tree ring indicates how much the tree has grown in a particular growth season. The wider the ring, the better the conditions for growth. By measuring the width of the rings from the trunks of the trees, the research team learned that the rings were smaller than average during the years 1587-1589 and during the years 1606-1612.

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What a time to create a settlement!

As it turns out, the tree rings indicate that the settlement of Roanoke Island coincided with the worst three-year drought of the past 800 years. What a time to create a settlement! And even worse, when the Jamestown colonists arrived years later to set up their colony in Virginia, another major drought occurred, this time the driest seven-year episode in the entire period between 1215 and 1984.

The tree rings indicate that the settlements of Roanoke Island and Jamestown coincided with respectively the worst three-year and seven-year period of the past 800 years. Picture: Tree rings indicating drought. The width of a tree ring indicates how much a tree has grown in a particular growth season. These tree rings indicate that the settlements of Roanoke Island and Jamestown coincided with respectively the worst three-year and seven-year period of the past 800 years.

Jamestown was founded in 1607 but nearly failed in 1609 and 1610 when the colony suffered an appallingly high death rate. The droughts would have affected the colony's supply of food and clean water. The colonists were expected to live off the land and trade and tribute from the Indians. But because of the drought, neither the colonists nor the Indians had much food to share.

What exactly happened to the colonists at Roanoke Island is still a mystery, but the research indicates that the colonists at both Roanoke and Jamestown established a settlement during the worst possible times.

References and further reading

About the research

The original article from the research team is published in Science:
Stahle, David W., Cleaveland, Malcolm K., et al. The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts. Science, April 24 1998, Vol. 280:564รข??567. (Subscribers can find the article online.)

Droughts Played Major Role In Jamestown, 'Lost Colony' Tragedies, an article in W&M News, the newspaper of the College of William & Mary.

Trees reveal early colonists arrived during worst drought in 800 years, an article in the Bay Journal.

About Roanoke Island

For an excellent website about the history at the time of the settlement in Roanoke, visit the National Park Services' Roanoke Revisited: Heritage Education Program.

Tree ring research

Visit the Ultimate Tree Ring Web Pages of professor Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, from the Department of Geography, The University of Tennessee. His website also includes many educational resources.