In 1587, an English settlement was established on an island off the coast of what’s now North Carolina as Queen Elizabeth attempted to stake a claim in the New World. Three years later, the entire town and its hundred-plus inhabitants disappeared without a trace. The houses were gone, the settlers presumed dead. The mystery of Roanoke Island has baffled historians for centuries, and it’s likely we’ll never know what truly became of the missing seaside village. Still, the “Lost Colony” of 117 people haunts the history books with one portentous clue: the word “Croatoan” carved into a single wooden post. That was all that remained.
Fast forward 400-odd years and the legend of the Roanoke colony is still an epic question mark in American history. But leave it to Ryan Murphy’s hit television series starring Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr. and the rest of American Horror Story players to revisit our nation’s oldest ghost story for the show’s sixth season. This is not, however, the first time that AHS has addressed the legend of Roanoke Island: Paulson’s character in season one recounts the story, claiming that the settlers were slaughtered and their ghosts were banished by a Native American spell. As Time points out, that spell didn’t work to get rid of ghosts in the first season, and the flicker of Kathy Bates in full colonial cosplay gives us the hint that it might not have worked here either. But first, let’s rewind for some context for this very historical season of American Horror Story.
The British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh had established the very first English settlement there in 1585, but they had returned to England the following year. In 1587, Raleigh sent another a group of men, women and children to settle what would later become Dare County, North Carolina. However, while Queen Elizabeth wanted to establish an English colony, growing unease between England and Spain put the expansion plan on hold.
Raleigh chose a man named John White to serve as the colony’s governor. Upon the settler’s arrival in Roanoke, White made contact with nearby Native American tribes, including the Croatoans, though tensions remained. The colonists begged White to sail back to England to replenish the colony’s dwindling supplies. Desperate, he returned to England, having left behind his wife, daughter, and newborn granddaughter in Croatoan territory. Little did White know that he would never see or hear from his family or any member of his colony again.
England, on the other hand, had found itself in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War after an attack by the Spanish armada. Consequently, Queen Elizabeth ordered that every English ship be used in the efforts against the Spanish, which prevented White from getting back to Roanoke and ultimately delayed his return to the colony by three years. The Roanoke governor had attempted several times to cross the Atlantic during the war but was unsuccessful until he boarded a privateering expedition and convinced them to stop at the colony on its way to the Caribbean. When White finally returned to Roanoke, he was devastated to see nothing left but a fence surrounding the village that should have been there.
No one can truly say what really happened to the colony of Roanoke, but theories run wild. It’s probable that the settlers, facing a particularly bad drought, ran out of supplies, dispersed and assimilated into the nearby tribes. The North Carolinian forests were home to several Native American peoples, including the Powhatans and the Chowanokes, both of whom have been linked to the Roanoke survivors by way of trade fare. The Croatoans, however, did not take as kindly to the English men and women attempting to move in on their land. If you look at it that way, it it’s also possible that the Croatoans could have slaughtered the Roanoke settlers and disposed of their bodies, though some people believe the people of Roanoke joined the Crotoan tribe.
Another popular theory is that the Spanish settlers in the Florida region massacred the people of Roanoke and destroyed the colony. This was war, after all, and the race between the European nations to mark new land was nothing short life or death. However, reports that the Spaniards couldn’t even find the area until 1600 refute the possibility. Some suspect a hurricane, though there was lack of debris, and that theory doesn’t explain why the fence was still standing and how every other bit of the tiny village was still gone.
The Island of Roanoke is cherished for its fertile land and the breath-taking flank of mountains around it. But its soil has a sordid past that’s clearly packing secrets, and probably some people. Who knows what version of Roanoke’s disappearance will emerge in this season of American Horror Story. But judging by the pitchforks, effigies, and mean-mugging Puritans stalking the mansion halls in Wednesday’s episode, I think we can rule out the possibility of a reconciliation. Ghosts hate that.