In 1587, a group of roughly 115 colonists including women and children arrived on Roanoke Island (part of present-day North Carolina) under the leadership of governor John White. Later on that year, as relations with the local native tribes started to deteriorate, the colonists urged White to make a return voyage to England and come back with more supplies for the fledgeling colony.
Due to the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War (which the famously doomed Spanish Armada from your history class was part of), White was unable to return to Roanoke until nearly three years later in 1590. When he did, he found that everyone had disappeared without a trace and the entire colony had either been systematically dismantled or razed completely to the ground. All that remained was a single skeleton and an odd carving in a wooden gate post ...
Before he left for England again in 1587, White proudly welcomed his newborn granddaughter, Virginia into the world. She was the first English child born in America.
Upon his return to Roanoke in 1590, he could find no traces of the colony or his wife, daughter and granddaughter. This map shows the location of Roanoke in relation to the eventual successful colony of Jamestown, established in 1607.
Only two mysterious clues remained at the site: a single skeleton and the word "Croatoan" carved into a wooden gate post (or tree, depending on which account you go by).
White had instructed the colonists to carve a cross into a nearby tree if they were ever forced to leave that area and/or were attacked. Since no such carving was found and the colony had been completely removed, he theorized that it may have been a deliberate relocation.
The mystery has persisted ever since that time, with no conclusive answers as of yet. White tried to lead several more expeditions to try to find out what happened, but inclement weather and other misfortunes kept preventing a proper investigation.
Some theorize that the colonists grew tired of waiting and tried to sail back to England on their own and ended up dying at sea in the attempt.
"Croatoan" was a name for one of the nearby tribes, and as a result many theorists believe that the colony may have been wiped out by them. At the time of White's departure, relations between settlers and natives weren't exactly peachy-keen, lending further credibility to the theory.
When the Jamestown colony was established in 1607, one of their missions was to find out the fates of the Roanoke colony. Two separate accounts, including one from Captain John Smith (yes, the one from Pocahontas) claim that a local chief - Chief Powhatan - confessed openly to have systematically slaughtered the Roanoke colonists. Historical evidence of Powhatan's claims, however, suggests that his slaughters had nothing to do with the Roanoke settlers.
Others suggest that the settlers may instead have chosen to integrate with some of the other tribes nearby that were still friendly with them. Indeed, there are to this day some tribes that claim to have ancestors belonging to the Roanoke colony.
Later expeditions also found some tribes with two-story dwellings that they said they learned from settlers who integrated with their tribes. There were also numerous reports of certain tribes having distinctly European features such as light hair and eyes.
Another theory is that the colonists simply moved to another location, though that doesn't quite explain the mysterious carving.
Recently, experts claim to have unlocked yet another part of the mystery with evidence from an old map that seems to indicate that the colonists moved to a site about 60 miles west of the island they originally inhabited.
This map features two patched areas that were amended after the map was first drawn. Underneath the patchy area toward the top, in the region marked "I," there was originally a symbol that closely resembled the way forts are often depicted in such maps.
Could this have been the final stop for the Lost Colony of Roanoke? Sadly, that area is heavily populated today, so investigating it for remains of the colony is incredibly challenging.
The disappearance of the Roanoke colony was one of America's first major mysteries, and one that has not been conclusively solved to this day. One last theory suggests that the whole disappearance was a hoax, that White discovered only graves when he returned. Reporting that back to England would have been too discouraging to future settlers and - more importantly - future investors, so White and his men came up with the disappearance story as an alternative.