The settlers were murdered by a local Native American tribe
John White, upon his return to England, recorded that there had been skirmishes with local Natives, including an attack just a month before he returned to England.
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Previously, attempts to colonize Roanoke Island had been made between 1585 and 1586, but those settlers were forced to return to England due to the large amount of violence between them and local Native Americans. It escalated to a point where Ralph Lane, the governor of the first Roanoke colony, killed Wingina, the king of the local tribe. Such regicide likely would not result in diplomacy anytime soon. With the settlers arriving with John White arriving only a year later, it is more than possible that the local Native Americans would retain their feelings of hostility to those infringing on their land. John White, upon his return to England, recorded that there had been skirmishes with local Natives, including an attack just a month before he returned to England. A massacre of the settlers also explains the lack of time to write more clues beyond the word “Croatoan” if they were under attack. It may have been a last-ditch effort to communicate their troubles to John White, as Croatoan aside from being the name of a nearby island, was also the name of one of the local tribes.
Roanoke Island is not a particularly large place and it is self-contained as all islands are. For 115 people to be killed on the island, without a mass grave site or sign of massacre visible, is largely preposterous. There would almost certainly be signs of a scuffle, with the settlement itself likely falling into disarray. When John White returned, the settlement had been largely untouched, implying that it was left, not seized. Furthermore, the word “Croatoan” carved onto a tree does not seem the most logical clue if their settlement was under violent attack.