Black Bart, an infamous 19th century stage coach robber supposedly scratched the word into his jail cell walls. After his 1888 release from incarceration, he vanished.
Notorious sarcastic and cantankerous writer Ambrose Bierce also supposedly left the world carved into his bed before he mysteriously stepped out of his own life.
In 1921 a commercial schooner is said to have the word written in its logbook before it hit land on Roanoke Island. Its entire crew was missing.
The above are some of the most popular legends about the word “Croatoan,” but it’s difficult to verify any of them. The one Croatoan story that can be confirmed is the word’s original appearance in American history. It’s tied to the still unexplained disappearance of England’s first American settlement.
In 1590 Roanoke colony governor John White returned from a three-year supply run to the mother country, he found the village (which is an island off the coast of modern day North Carolina) eerily deserted. The 89 men, 17 women, and 11 children who had come to settle and conquer the New World were utterly gone, including his three-year-old grandchild Virginia Dare. She was the first English child born on American soil, and became a historical, literary and commercial symbol in her own right.
The village showed no sign of struggle or death. Instead it was a picture of calm abandonment grown over with the lush indifference of grass and weeds. The colonists’ buried chests of valuables were unearthed and scattered, but there were no bodies or signs of violence.
When John White left, he had agreed that they leave a sign of danger if they had to flee while he was gone: a cross. What he found carved on a post was another message entirely: “CROATOAN.” A tree was marked “CRO.”
John White, no doubt reeling from the shock of the situation, soon had to leave Roanoke Island for good to save his ships from a violent storm. He returned to England where he died three years later. There were no rescue missions to recover the lost colonists, but the word Croatoan maybe isn’t as mysterious as it seems at first.
John White believed that the word may have been a signal that the colony had joined the friendly Croatan Native American tribe at their nearby island, Croatoan, which is modern-day Hatteras Island. Still, there’s no way to know whether or not the colonists truly left with and assimilated with the Croatans, or if they were perhaps captured by them.
Many people have attached a supernatural strangeness to the situation, suggesting that the lost colony somehow crossed a border into an alternate reality (a route that AHS: Roanoke explores with glee.) This superstition is inflated by the myths and legends described above about other North Americans mysteriously vanishing from the world and all, except Edgar Allen Poe whose cause of death is deeply mysterious, leaving nothing but “CROATOAN” behind. The word serves as a thread to tie together the unexplainable, offering no answered, only a misguided connection. Mysteries strung together with unfounded lore are more exciting, but perhaps even more terrifying. Is it sometimes more terrifying to assign just a touch of meaning to something than to sit with the silent unknown?
Books to learn more about the mysterious lost colony of Roanoke
Roanoke: The Lost Colony–An Unsolved Mystery from History by Heidi E. Y. Stemple and Jane Yolen
Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
The Lost Colony of Roanoke by Jean Fritz
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