Sir Walter Raleigh's Colony Vanished Over 400 Years Ago. Scientists Are Still Looking

16September 2021

Sir Walter Raleigh, an English adventurer, writer and explorer of the Americas, founded a colony in North Carolina in 1587 that later disappeared. Archaeologists hope to uncover new clues about what happened.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s one of the nation’s great mysteries: The first permanent colony of English settlers in what would become the U.S., founded in North Carolina in 1587 by Sir Walter Raleigh, disappeared three years later with virtually no trace.

Now, archaeologists hope a new search for the Lost Colony will unearth clues about what happened to 117 men, women and children who vanished and were never seen again.

The First Colony Foundation, a group of archaeologists, is partnering with the National Park Service for a series of digs beginning this week at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

“This dig includes new ground that’s never been tested archaeologically,” Jami Lanier, a cultural resource manager and historian with the National Park Service, said in a statement. “So, it’s very exciting to see what may be found.”

Scientists will dig for clues about the Lost Colony’s disappearance

Sir Walter Raleigh, a famed English explorer and among Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite subjects, was tasked with establishing a colony on Roanoke Island as England was trying to expand its reach across the globe.

The expedition that would travel to the island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1587 ultimately formed the first permanent English settlement in North America. (The land was previously home to the Carolina Algonquian people.)

Tin-glazed earthenware fragments were found at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in June 2016. Scientists are undertaking a new dig to search for further information about the Lost Colony.

National Park Service

National Park Service

But three years later, when a resupply mission returned to Raleigh’s colony, none of the previous inhabitants was there. The only clue to their disappearance was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a wall.

The dig occurring this week is focusing on a previous expedition to the area in 1585, when a group of military men and scientists scouted the land for Raleigh.

The search will occur on several sites, including a metallurgical and science workshop set up by Thomas Harriot and Joachim Gans just a few years before the permanent settlers arrived.

Archaeologists will reexcavate sites where previous searches may have missed or misinterpreted soil changes called “features” to better understand what was there, according to the foundation. Some artifacts have already been discovered there, but scientists have also used ground-penetrating radar to identify new areas of interest.

Last year, the team of archaeologists found shards of pottery they believe may have been owned by members of Raleigh’s colony.

The public is invited to watch the digs in person.

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