Changing Planet

What “Sleepy Hollow” Didn’t Tell Us About Roanoke’s Lost Colony

Fox’s new fantasy series “Sleepy Hollow” touched on one of the biggest mysteries of American history on Monday: What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?

The fate of the lost colony has stumped historians for centuries. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I chartered Sir. Walter Raleigh to establish a colony in North America. The colony, by initial accounts, was successful, with 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children. But when a supply ship led by John White (the grandfather of the first English child born in the Americas at Roanoke, Virginia Dare) landed in 1590, he found a deserted settlement and two mysterious carvings: “Croatoan” carved into a post and “Cro” on a nearby tree.

The settlers had vanished—without a trace, without a sign of struggle, and with no clue to what had happened.

So when “Sleepy Hollow” introduced a Roanoke plot line, we checked to see if any new discoveries had been made.

Turns out, we’re a little bit closer to the truth.

Eric Klingelhoffer, an archaeologist at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and a member of a research project funded by National Geographic and the Waitt Grants program, talked to us about the ongoing efforts to find out what happened in Roanoke.

In Case of Emergency…

The “Croatoan” and “Cro” carvings led White to believe that the colonists had moved to Croatoan Island (known today as Hatteras Island). The governor of Roanoake had also provided instructions, in case of emergency, to travel to a location 50 miles away, or roughly where Croatoan Island was.

No sign of the settlers were ever found there.

But Klingelhoffer and his team think the colonists may have indeed moved to a location 50 miles away—just not in the direction originally discussed.

In particular, the team thinks Albemarle Sound, an estuary that is at the conjunction of several rivers, including the Roanoke, could be a key piece to the puzzle.

“This is well away from Roanoke,” Klingelhoffer points out. “Most people thought [the 50 miles away point] was in Cape Henry or the Chesapeake area in Virginia. But we thought, ‘This could be in any direction.’”

The team has some interesting findings to back this theory up. And the group is pushing previous expeditions with technology that goes beyond classical archaeological techniques.

“We employed land, sea, and air,” he said.

Soil testing in the area has shown signs of Native American life near the head of the sound. A researcher has also found early colonial artifacts as well. Klingelhoffer said that while the age of the artifacts hasn’t been verified, “they could be from the Elizabethan period.”

The shoreline in this area has also yielded clues. Near the mouth of a creek off the sound, archaeologists found remnants of what appear to be a wooden vessel.

“We’re not saying if there’s an Elizabethan ship,” he cautiously said. “But we want to go back to do a serious excavation and go back underwater to see what it is.”

Perhaps the most obvious confluence of modern technology with this age-old enigma is the usage of remote sensing and satellite pictures.

“We’ve done some aerial photography,” Klingelhoffer said. “[We used] ground penetrating radar across the most promising location for Elizabethan activity.”

The artifacts that have been found are promising, though age has yet to be verified. Still, Klingelhoffer is excited about what this might mean.

“No Europeans or Englishmen were on the sound until 1650,” he said. “Is this stuff a holdover from 1650 or earlier, like 1585 [when the Roanoke colony was founded]?”

Clues in Eroding Cliffs

Researchers are now racing against climate change to find out what happened to the lost colony.

Erosion has been a huge problem, washing artifacts out to sea and destroying clues that might point to Roanoke’s fate.

Klingelhoffer recalls an incident in 2007 where a cliff completely collapsed, revealing artifacts that may have come from a long ago village.

He worries that clues will wash away soon.

“The rising sea level is going to destroy [artifacts],” he said. “We need to solve the mystery.”

One thing for sure: Unlike the TV show, nobody expects to find the settlers living a ghostly existence… in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

Tanya Basu is a news apprentice at National Geographic. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Previously, she studied economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
  • Sharon

    The Governor told the colonists to go 50 miles into the mainland, not to Hatteras. Plus, there is evidence of the colonists on Hatteras Island. If they went 50 miles into the mainland, they would be at the Albemarle Sound site discussed here. Most likely, they split up with some going inland and some to Hatteras.

  • Dawn Taylor

    Just thought you’d like a link to the Lost Colony Research Group of which I am a researcher (Founded by Roberta Estes and Anne Poole). And if that isn’t enough I’m also President of the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society.

    We’re using genealogy and dna to tell the story of where Lost Colony truly went.

  • Dixie Burrus Browning

    The colonists had alienated all the tribes on the mainland, Their only friends were the Croatoans. By going there (where they said they were going: where Surveyor general John Lawson, 1700, said he found blue and gray-eyed Indians with auburn hair, who said their ancestors could talk from a book) they could watch for a ship from England.. A number of people have based careers on the so-called mystery.

  • Roberta Estes

    The Lost Colony Research Group has sponsored archaeological digs for the past several years on Hatteras Island and other locations. Our newsletters have lots of stories about the results.

    We also have a DNA project

  • Auburn Seal

    I recently wrote a fun historical paranormal called Roanoke Vanishing that speculates the outcome of the colonists! It’s great to see the colony of Roanoke in the spotlight. In promoting my book, it’s been amazing to me how many adults have never heard of (or at least don’t remember) the Lost Colony. I’ve been fascinated with it since 7th grade!



  • terrance

    I am very interested in this lost colony along with
    Other areas i have heard about.
    I would like more information on findings an othet
    Areas of intrest.

  • Not Important
  • Mike Peake

    I wonder if much time and research has been spent speaking with the current native Americans in the area? Possibly they have stories handed down that might mention if the settlers were taken in by local tribes. I think the actual reason the settlers vanished is not alien or other- worldly, simply unclear at this time and yet to be discovered.

  • Natalie

    I am trying to figure out what happened to them, my self. I have a very interesting lead on it, and I know this is going to be very intriguing.

  • David webb

    50 miles inland…? In which direction…? North South or West..? They couldnt go 50 miles East or they would all drown. Why would they head into hostile Indian territory knowing they would all get killed off…? So what I am saying is.., why wouldn’t it be true to go 50 miles south to “croatoan ” island where it would be safer..? Common sense should take over. So what the rescue party had found written had to be true.. Those carved words “croatoan” and “cro ” were telling where they went to…. Duhhh……

  • biscuit expert


  • Ben Bosher

    John White, the governor of Roanoke Colony, had said “50 miles into the main”. In those days the word “main” meant “a continuous stretch of land or water”. Thus, they could have moved 50 inland or 50 miles into a body of water (such as a river or a sound). It’s sad modern researchers aren’t acquainted with Elizabethan Era English, as I am, because if they were, they would know what I just told you about the word “main”, and they would be better able to solve the “Lost Colony” mystery. Also, two different words were used (interchangeably) in the narratives (written by White, Lane, and others) to describe the location of the settlement. One was “island” (meaning of course, “land surrounded by water”), and the other was “iland”, from “ealand” (meaning “land along a river”). Now, was the colony on Roanoke Island or along the Roanoke River? Given the fact that White had drawn on his map a fort on the Roanoke River, but not one on Roanoke Island, I would say the colony was on the river. That means when they moved, they went 50 miles up the river. By chance it turns out that near 50 miles up the Roanoke River, which was itself an Indian trade route, there is an overland Indian trade route which crosses the river. A good permanent location to move the colony for purposes of trading. The field researchers have investigated and dug at the location on the Roanoke River and found evidence of Roanoke Colony era English artifacts, which would support the colony having been there. Now if they would just investigate and dig at the location of the trade route junction farther up the river, they may have this mystery solved, or at least closer to being solved.

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