Croatoan Island is now known as Hatteras Island and is located near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The island’s history is associated with the Roanoke Colonists, the vanguard of English settlers who twice attempted — in 1585 and 1586 — to found an English colony on nearby Roanoke Island. The second attempt was successful for a time, but it is not known what happened to the people who settled there.
Two Efforts to Colonize
In April 1585, English soldier Sir Walter Raleigh sent his first band of 100 colonists to establish a colony on Roanoke Island, but the expedition was unsuccessful and occasioned a further attempt at colonization the next year. Raleigh entrusted the leadership of this second effort to his friend John White. White and his troupe were successful, but he was soon compelled to leave the colony and charged those left behind with instructions to leave some signal behind if they should move the settlement.
One Clue Left Behind
The period of the second colonization effort coincided with England’s sea battle with the Spanish Armada. White found, then, that on his return to England, all viable sea-fearing vessels were being requisitioned by the Navy to face the Spanish. This meant that White was unable to return to Roanoke Island until 1590, at which time he found that the colonialists were gone and had left few traces of themselves. They had, however, left one small but significant clue to their whereabouts: the word "CROATOAN" had been carved into a tree in the town square.
Given the colony’s friendship with the neighboring tribe on Croatoan Island, and especially with a Croatoan named Manteo, many people have inferred that the inscription signifies that the Roanoke Island colonists fled or moved to the nearby island. This theory is supported by explorer John Lawson’s encounters with the Hatteras Indians in the early 1700s. The Hatteras Indians were descendants of the Croatoans, and Lawson described them as possessing European features and being able to speak English.
Some people, however, are unsatisfied with this conclusion, and many competing theories have arisen that attempt to explain the mysterious disappearance of the colony in different terms. For instance, Hamilton MacMillan, a North Carolina resident who lived close to Pembroke, North Carolina, asserted that not only could the Pembroke Indians he had encountered speak English, they also bore the names of the original Roanoke colonists. He concluded, therefore, that the colony must have moved to the Pembroke region after leaving their original location.
Still others assert that after White’s departure, the majority of the colonists moved on to the place where they originally intended to dock: Chesapeake Bay. A few colonists remained behind to inform White of their new location upon his eventual re-arrival. It has been supposed that this diminished number of colonists were invaded and were forced to flee to their Croatoan allies, into whom they eventually were assimilated.