Roanoke Island, 12 mi (19 km) long and 3 mi (4.8 km) wide, NE N.C., off the Atlantic coast between Croatan (W) and Roanoke (E) sounds in the Outer Banks. Manteo is the chief town, and tourism and fishing are the principal industries.
The English navigators Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, exploring for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, brought back such glowing accounts that Raleigh dispatched a colonizing expedition under Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Ralph Lane. The colonists landed on Roanoke Island in Aug., 1585, and built the "Citie of Ralegh" (or New Fort), but they returned to England the next year. In 1587 Raleigh sent another group under John White. Forced to return to England for supplies, White was unable to return until 1591, when he found the colonists gone and the letters CROATOAN carved on a tree. This gave rise to a theory that the settlers had moved to Croatoan Island or had joined the Croatoan or Hatteras Native Americans.
Another theory was later advanced with the discovery (1937–40) of some 40 stone tablets inscribed with what some believe to be the history of the "lost colony." The inscriptions tell of the death of many of the colonists (including Virginia Dare) from disease and Native American attacks and of the migration of others into the country's interior, as far away as Atlanta, Ga. The stones' authenticity, however, is questionable. In 1998 scientists said that a study of tree rings showed that the colonists had faced one of the worst droughts in the area's history.
Archaeologists at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (see National Parks and Monuments, table) uncovered many artifacts of the colony during the late 1940s; Festival Park in Manteo recreates the failed first settlement. In 1937 Paul Green's symphonic drama The Lost Colony was presented to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the landing of White's colony; it is now staged annually.
See K. O. Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony (1984).