The following article by Ralph Pool was published in The Virginian-Pilot, Sunday, July 3, 1960:

The Lost Colony never was lost. When Governor John White searched abandoned Fort Raleigh in 1590, his missing settlers were safe, well fed and presumably happy, scarcely a dozen miles away.

This is the theory brought to light last week by Marshall Layton Twiford, 83, of Norfolk, in a story by Victor Meekins in the Coastal Times published in Manteo, N.C.

The theory isn’t Twiford’s. Rather, it is a tradition stemming from the remote past in the East Lake section of Dare County, a region of woodlands and tangled marshes and sluggish creeks, which won wide recognition for the high quality of the corn liquor it produced in prohibition days.

Not many miles from East Lake, and some 10 miles up Milltail Creek from Alligator River, is a wooded area of some 5,000 acres known as Beechland. This land is rich and somewhat higher than the surrounding marshes. For many generations, until about a century ago, it was the abiding place for a thriving community. Then plague struck, many died, and the frightened survivors fled.

Twiford grew up in the river community at East Lake, where his father, M.D. Twiford, a “hard-shell” Baptist preacher, was also a fisherman, farmer, postmaster and merchant. From his father, he learned the story of Beechland’s link with the Lost Colony.

When the English Colonist built Fort Raleigh, the Indians had a settlement at Beechland, with a woodland trail leading to the shore of Croatan Sound opposite Roanoke Island, the tradition says. They made friends with the whites.

John White left Fort Raleigh in August 1587 to bring back needed supplies from England. A year elapsed. With no sign of White, their fears of a Spanish attack from the sea increasing, and supplies doubtless at the vanishing point, the settlers abandoned Fort Raleigh and joined their Indian friends at Beechland, so the story goes.

When White finally returned in the summer of 1590, misfortune dogged him. The weather turned foul, and seven Englishmen drowned when their small boat capsized as they tried to land on Roanoke Island.

Finally reaching shore, White found Fort Raleigh far different from the settlement he had left three years before. He recounts that the houses had been pulled down and a strong enclosure built, with a high palisade of large trees. The place was deserted, but there was no sign of violence or of hurried departure. By agreement, the settlers were to have left crosses marked about the place if threat of danger forced them to abandon the area. There were no crosses. On a tree at the fort’s entrance, he found the word “CROATOAN” carved in “Roman letters”. Also, the letters “CRO” had been carved on a tree on the brow of a nearby cliff.

Croatoan 1870 Etching
Croatoan, 1870 Etching

White believed “Croatoan” to mean an island to the south, possibly the present Ocracoke. He planned to go there to continue his search, but the stormy weather continued and the expedition had to scurry out to the open sea to escape destruction.

White’s next idea was to sail to the West Indies, spend the winter, and return the following spring for further search. But the weather continued bad, the idea was dropped, and the expedition returned to England. There ends the recorded history of the Raleigh

One tradition holds that the John White colony journeyed many miles to the south and finally settled in what is now Robeson County, on the South Carolina border. And now there is Beechland.

According to the legend related by Twiford, the word “Croatoan” actually referred to the mainland district across Croatan Sound from Roanoke Island, now known as Manns Harbor. Marshy islands dotted the sound and it was almost possible to cross from island to mainland on foot until about 150 years ago. Then an inlet at the present Nags Head filled up, the flow of water from Albemarle Sound was diverted, and strong currents washed the islands away.

Croatoan, Twiford said, was named for an Indian woman who lived and died there and who must have been in some way notable, though only her name comes down to us.

Beechland was a fair, fruitful and happy land, the story goes. Its deep, black loam produced a bounty of corn, cotton and other crops. Its orchards yielded abundant fruit, its hives produced plenty of golden honey, its herds grazing in the reedy marshlands supplied hides, meat and milk. The sounds and rivers offered fish and oysters for the taking.

In time, the Indian trail of Croatan faded away and the inhabitants of Beechland came to depend on stout boats of their own making for contact with the outside world. They built up a brisk trade with the West Indies, exchanging drawn cypress shingles and farm produce for sugar, spices, rum, salt and other products.

In this prosperous community, neighbors came to the rescue of anyone whom misfortune struck. None were permitted to go in want; and in time of death, neighbors hewed a coffin out of the rot-resistant cypress, dug the grave and otherwise ministered to the bereaved. There was no thought of taking pay. Graves were marked with rocks from ballast dumped by ships returned from the West Indies. Many of these graves are to be found in Beechland today, and it is possible that archaeological investigation might turn up new evidence of Beechland’s links from the far past.

“I saw one of those coffins opened,” Twiford recalled. “It had been dug up accidentally by a bulldozer. The top and bottom halves had been fitted closely together and fastened with pegs. All I saw inside was a little ashes or dust. It ought to have been examined for buttons or other objects, but it wasn’t. The men reburied it, and the bulldozer crew circled around the graveyard.”

For many generations, Beechland flourished. At long last, tradition says, there came a day when the people paid little heed to spiritual things, refused to listen to the pleadings of a minister in their midst to humble themselves before God. When they failed to build a church and meet for worship, he warned them to expect catastrophe. Not long after, the minister’s warning was fulfilled.

Calamity struck in the form of a plague, likely cholera brought from the West Indies. Scores died. A few packed their belongings in their boats and escaped to Currituck and elsewhere.

Beechland vanished as a settled, prosperous community a few years before the Civil War. In later years, a few families trickled back. Twiford remembers as a small boy accompanying his father to the district, not many miles from East Lake. Three families then lived there, he says, named Smith, Basnight, and Stokes. “After a few years, these families disappeared too,” Twiford added. “I guess they just moved away.”

A check of John White’s roster of the Lost Colony reveals a Thomas Smith, but the link to Beechland is tenuous, to say the least, in view of the multiplicity of Smith’s.

(The Virginian-Pilot – Sunday, July 3, 1960; Section B)


Although Ocracoke did not play a major role in the first attempts by the English to colonize America, Ocracoke is part of the story from the first voyage led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe in 1584 until John White returns to search for his “lost” colony in 1590.

The English made five voyages of discovery and colonization from 1584 to 1590. Without going into great detail (many books have already been written about this period of American history), I will present highlights of the voyages with snippets of information regarding Ocracoke Island, mostly taken from accounts recorded by Richard Hakluyt, an Elizabethan historian, as transcribed by Andrew Thomas Powell.*

On April 27, 1584 two “barkes well favoured with men and victuals left England for the New World. Commissioned by Sir Walter Raleigh pursuant to a grant from Queen Elizabeth I, and under the command of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, this first expedition explored that portion of “Virginia” (originally the entire east coast of North America) that we know today as the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Sir Walter Raleigh:

On July 4 Amadas and Barlowe arrived “upon the coast” (the precise location is difficult to determine from Hakluyt’s account), then sailed north some distance and explored an island (perhaps the “isle of Wokokon,” [Ocracoke] or more likely a part of the northern Outer Banks). Hakluyt describes the island as containing “many goodly woods, and full of deer, conies [rabbits], hares, and fowl…in incredible abundance.”

After several days the English encountered various natives with whom they traded and visited, both aboard their ships, and in native villages on the mainland and on Roanoke Island.  Hakluyt goes on to describe many customs and manners of the native people.

While exploring this area the English learned of “a ship cast away” “five and twenty years past.” These white castaways, almost certainly Spaniards, remained several weeks, according to the natives, on “an out island unhabited, called Wococan.” With help from the residents from Sequotan, a village on the mainland, they departed in a makeshift vessel of two boats fastened together, and “were cast away, for the boats were found upon the coast, cast aland in another island adjoining [very likely Portsmouth Island].”

Sequotan (Secotan), a Drawing by John White, 1585:

Hakluyt describes Ocracoke as “unhabited,” but two early maps, White-DeBry from 1590 and Mercator-Hondius from 1606, clearly show one settlement on the island. Although no archaeological evidence of a permanent village on Ocracoke has yet been discovered, a number of Native American arrowheads and pipe bowls have been found on the island.

About the middle of September [1584] Amadas and Barlowe’s ships returned to England.

In the spring of 1585 Sir Richard Grenville, commanding seven ships and several hundred men, set sail from Plymouth, England on the second of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions. The goal was to establish a military colony on Roanoke Island under the leadership of Ralph Lane. In June they anchored at the Spanish port of Isabella, on the north side of Hispaniola (the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

There, according to Hakluyt, they traded for many “commodities of the Island” including horses. Andrew Powell, in his book, Grenville & the Lost Colony of Roanoke, observes that “this is clear evidence that Grenville’s vessel did have Spanish horses on board when it arrived at the Outer Banks.” He goes on to speculate, “Might the progeny of these bartered-for horses of Hispaniola be the Ocracoke Banker horses of today?”

Hakluyt says that on “the 26th [of June] we came to anchor at Wocokon. The 29th we weighed anchor to bring the Tyger [the Grenville fleet’s flagship] into the harbour [the calmer waters of Pamlico Sound…not Silver Lake Harbor], where through the unskillfulness of the Master whose name was Fernando, the Admiral [the flagship Tyger] stroke on ground, and sunk.” The wreck of the Tyger at Ocracoke Inlet in 1585 is the first recorded shipwreck along the Outer Banks.

John White’s Map of “Virginia,” 1585:

In a letter dated Aug. 12, 1585 from Roanoke Island, Ralph Lane writes to Sec. Walsingham in England: “There are only three entries and ports; these they have named, Trinity, Scarborough, and Ococan, where their fleet struck aground, and Tyger was nearly lost.”  Ocracoke (Ococan) Inlet is the only inlet that has remained open continuously since 1585. We cannot be certain where the other two inlets were located.

For nearly a month Grenville’s fleet remained at Ocracoke while various members of the party explored native villages on the mainland. In the process they burned a village and destroyed crops in retaliation for a silver cup they believed stolen by the “savages.”  By the 27th of June the Englishmen had anchored at Hatoraske.

On August 17, 1585 Ralph Lane and a band of 107 men arrived at Roanoke Island where they established their military colony. The fleet with the remaining sailors, under command of Grenville, returned to England where they made port by mid October.

On Roanoke Island a number of unfortunate conflicts with the natives ensued. Relations deteriorated rapidly after the English attacked a village and killed their chief, Wingina.

Ralph Lane, in his account of the military colony’s occupation, mentions that the natives “live upon shellfish…going to Ottorasko [Hatteras], Crotoan [an island that is now the northern part of Ocracoke and the southern part of Hatteras], and other places [presumably Wococon] fishing and hunting, while their grounds be in sowing, and their corn growing….”

As it happened, Sir Francis Drake arrived at Roanoke in June, 1586. A severe storm convinced Lane to accept Drake’s offer of passage to England, and he departed with the military men on June 18, 1856. As promised, Raleigh had sent two expeditions under the command of Grenville to re-supply the colony, but they arrived a few days after Drake left with the colonists. After searching Roanoke and surrounding areas without finding any of the colonists Grenville left fifteen men on the island with “all manner of provision for two years” and returned to England.

The second English colony, intended as a permanent settlement, and consisting of 117 English men, women and children, and two “savages” who were returning home, departed Portsmouth, England April 26, 1587 in three ships bound for Virginia. They disembarked on Hatteras Island, and traveled to Roanoke in small boats.

Arriving at Roanoke in July they found none of the fifteen men who had been left there the previous year. However they did find the skeleton of one of the men who had been killed by the natives. The English immediately set about repairing the existing houses and establishing their colony.

In spite of a series of mishaps, including skirmishes with the natives and violent storms, the colony showed signs of stability when Manteo, one of the natives who had accompanied Grenville to England and back, helped foster friendly relations between his people on Croatoan and the English. On August 13 Manteo was baptized.

On August 18 Virginia Dare, granddaughter of John White, governor of the colony, was born. She was the first English child born in the New World.

The Baptism of Virginia Dare:

Nine days later John White departed for England, intending to return the next year. On November 5 he landed at Martesew near Cornwall.

White’s efforts to return to Virginia in 1588 were thwarted when his ships were pressed into service by the crown because of war with Spain.

It was not until March 20, 1590 that three ships, the Hopewell, the John Evangelist and the Little John left Plymouth, England with two small shallops (small open boats propelled by oars and sails). By August they stopped at the “Low sandy Islands West of Wokokon” (Portsmouth Island and Core Banks) to collect fresh water and catch a “great store of fish in the shallow water.”

On the 17th of August White’s party approached Roanoke. While trying to navigate a treacherous inlet one small boat capsized, drowning seven sailors.  When White and his company finally made their way to the settlement they discovered no colonists. However the word CROATOAN was carved into a tree. This was the agreed upon “secret token” explaining where the colonists could be found if they needed to remove themselves from Roanoke. It was not accompanied by a cross, the agreed upon sign of distress.

John White Discovers CROATOAN carved into a Tree:

The expedition attempted to reach Croatoan, but were forced away by foul weather. At one time the wind “blew so forcibly, that we were able to bear no sail…wherewith we ran upon the wind perforce, the due course for England.” They arrived at Plymouth, England October 24.

No further attempts were made to contact the colony of 1587.

There is ample reason to believe that the English colonists were integrated with the friendly Croatan Indians on the island of Croatoan, and that their descendants inhabit Hatteras Island, and perhaps Ocracoke Island, to this day. There is also reason to think that a portion of the “lost” colony may have intermarried with mainland North Carolina Indians.


* Grenville & The Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Andrew Thomas Powell, 2011
Other books of interest regarding the early English voyages of exploration and colonization include The Outer Banks of North Carolina, 1584-1958, by David Stick, 1958, and Croatoan: Birthplace of America, by Scott Dawson, 2009.