Yes, The Roanoke Colony Was Real — Here's The Story Behind AHS' Inspiration

Photo: Phofofest.
The sixth season of American Horror Story is unique for a variety of reasons — it's told through the framework of a TV show (within AHS) and it's more explicitly inspired by true events than previous installments of Ryan Murphy's series. Specifically, this season recounts the tale of the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke.

Our protagonists are Matt and Shelby Miller (played by Andre Holland and Lily Rabe), the talking heads in the show's faux documentary, My Roanoke Nightmare. Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding, Jr., meanwhile, star in the documentary's dramatic reenactment. That is, until the actors and the real Millers agree to move back into the house for a Big Brother-inspired sequel. Still following? Good.

In My Roanoke Nightmare, the Millers, who move to North Carolina and buy a mysterious old house, are haunted by the ghosts of the original Roanoke colonists.

But the real story behind the Roanoke Colony, and the word "Croatoan," is, in some ways, just as creepy as the fictional show. Colonists from England first established a site on Roanoke Island, in what's now North Carolina's Outer Banks, in 1587. But when John White, the colony's governor, returned in 1590 after a trip to get supplies from England, the colonists — there were more than 100 of them — had vanished. (In case you're wondering, White's trip back wasn't supposed to take three years, but he was delayed because of a war between England and Spain.)

Nothing remained of the original colony other than the word "Croatoan" carved into a fence post, and the letters "CRO" carved into a tree. There were no signs of violent struggles, no bodies found, and the colonists' buildings had been disassembled.

The North Carolina farmhouse Matt and Shelby move into in the show was built in 1792, which is long after the colony's disappearance, but it's still haunted by the colonists' ghosts — at least, according to their testimony.

It's no surprise that FX chose the true story of Roanoke as its inspiration for the show's sixth season.

"It's the greatest mystery in American history," says Eric Klingelhofer, PhD, an emeritus professor of history at Mercer University. Klingelhofer founded the First Colony Foundation and served as the lead investigator on recent research into Site X, an area about 50 miles inland from the original Roanoke Colony.

Ahead, we're diving into the theories about what happened to the Roanoke colonists, and what we do know from archaeologists' and historians' research. (We're focusing on evidence and history, so the more far-reaching theories, like the idea that the colonists were abducted by aliens or turned to cannibalism, won't be included.) And no, it's not connected to Roanoke, Virginia.
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Photo: Stock Montage/Getty Images.
What's so mysterious about the Roanoke Colony?
While there are plenty of logical explanations for what may have happened to the colonists, the fact that their remains haven't been found is fascinating to both scholars and laypeople alike. There were no graves found on Roanoke Island, and scholars still debate what happened to the lost colonists.
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So, what does "Croatoan" mean?
The story of "Croatoan" and "CRO" being carved on the gate post and tree, respectively, is legitimately creepy. Though the claims are unsubstantiated, the word has taken on an eerie legend of its own — outside the American Horror Story universe.

According to legend, Edgar Allan Poe whispered "Croatoan" on his deathbed. It's also supposedly been found written in Amelia Earhart's journal. (Of course, there's no evidence to support these claims, either.)
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When else has "Croatoan" appeared on American Horror Story?
The current season isn't the first time the American mystery of Roanoke has been invoked on the show. In the first season, Murder House, Billie Dean Howard (Paulson) tells Violet (Taissa Farmiga) that saying the word "Croatoan" can banish spirits.

Billie describes an exorcism at the Roanoke Colony, which involved the use of the word "Croatoan." Violet later tries to use the word to banish some of the murder house's other residents, but her efforts are unsuccessful.
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How are Matt and Shelby connected to the Roanoke Colony?
If Matt and Shelby's account is to be believed, they encountered the ghosts of the Roanoke colonists while living in their North Carolina home. Creator Ryan Murphy has hinted, though, that Matt, Shelby, and Lee may not be reliable narrators.
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Why do Matt and Shelby believe they were haunted by the Roanoke colonists' ghosts?
If Matt and Shelby aren't telling the truth, this would be a pretty creative lie. Would they fake the story for money? To cover up Mason's murder? Who knows!

The idea of a modern couple being haunted by colonists from centuries ago, though, is intriguing — and it definitely makes us want to know more about the real history of Roanoke. And with that, we bring you five theories about what may have happened to the lost colonists.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Theory 1: The colonists may have headed south to Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island).
This theory lines up with the "Croatoan" engraving — what if the colonists were leaving a note for Gov. White about where they went?

Archaeologists have found 16th- and 17th-century items on Hatteras Island, but there's no guarantee that they are connected to the Roanoke colonists.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
British archaeologist Mark Horton, who led an excavation at Hatteras, believes the colonists did move to the island and assimilated into a local Native American tribe, The New York Times reports.

Horton believes that some of the colonists may have joined the Native American tribe but kept some of their artifacts and heirlooms, which could explain the varied findings at Hatteras, National Geographic notes. Horton told the magazine that some of the items found on the island don't appear to have been acquired through trade, which could point to colonists' influence.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
While it's possible that the colonists split up and went to both Croatoan Island and another inland location called Site X (more on that in a minute!), the evidence at the latter site may be more convincing. Archeologist Nicholas M. Luccketti noted to the Times that ceramic pottery, which was found at Site X but not at the Hatteras site, makes a stronger case for the colonists' relocation.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
From what we've seen in My Roanoke Nightmare, we know that the colonists — at least, the version of the colonists the documentary filmmakers want us to see — didn't all agree on what to do after Gov. White left.

If American Horror Story does decide to play into the Hatteras theories, it's not clear how that will work, exactly. Matt and Shelby's house isn't on Hatteras Island, but that doesn't mean there couldn't be other colonists' ghosts there that we haven't seen yet.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Theory 2: The colonists moved inland to a secret fort.
This theory came about when researchers at the British Museum reexamined John White's "Virginea Pars" map. A spot on the map (about 50 miles west of Roanoke) may represent a fort, experts believe — and it's possible that at least some of the colonists headed there, rather than to Croatoan Island.

The star on the watercolor map gets even more intriguing, too. John White, and Sir Walter Raleigh's organization, may have wanted to keep the fort's location a secret to hide it from foreign spies.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Based on what experts know so far, it's likely that at least some of the colonists may have headed to the spot on White's map.

Klingelhofer explains that not only was a symbol marking the fort on the map, but there may have been another clue — in invisible ink. He explains that when the British Museum went to examine a separate symbol on top of the patch on the map, it resembled "a symbol for a fortified town."

That symbol may have been rendered in invisible ink, which could explain why it went undiscovered for so long. It may have represented a location where English colonists could "settle and be a threat to the Spanish empire," Klingelhofer notes.

The First Colony Foundation's work at Site X, an archaeological site off the Albemarle Sound that roughly corresponds with the spot on White's map, has yielded findings including pottery artifacts, though it can't be said definitively that the site is connected to the Roanoke colonists. National Geographic notes, though, that pottery found at the site is "similar to that dug up on Roanoke Island and common at Jamestown" — and it's not similar to pottery from the later 17th century, when other English settlers might have arrived.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Even if some of the colonists did head to the fort on White's map, they likely divided up beforehand, and not all of them headed west.

However, the map has brought researchers closer to solving the Roanoke mystery than ever before. In addition to the secret symbols, the colonists had apparently talked about moving 50 miles inland — roughly the distance to the spot on the map.

"We have evidence from this site that strongly indicates that there were Roanoke colonists here," Luccketti, who worked with the First Colony Foundation at Site X, told The New York Times last August. Still, he noted that if any of the colonists were at Site X, it was probably a very small group, and the findings certainly aren't evidence that the entire colony moved inland.

There's also the fact that archaeologists haven't found any European graves at Site X, the Times notes.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
It's not totally clear where the Millers' haunted house is, but it could, theoretically, be near the hidden fort from White's map. That could explain why the fictional ghosts from My Roanoke Nightmare are all hanging around the house — if the colonists died there, after leaving the original Roanoke site, they'd be doomed to haunt the land, even after the house was built.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Theory 3: The colonists divided into smaller groups and separated.
This idea takes some of the other theories about the Roanoke colonists into account. It's possible that some of the colonists may have headed inland, to the fort on John White's map, while others may have tried to sail to Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island).

"No one village could have held all those people," Klingelhofer says of the colonists, addressing the theory that they were assimilated into local Native American groups. Klingelhofer adds that the colonists "probably divided up."
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
The theory incorporates both the idea about Croatoan Island and the possibility of the fort from White's map, so it's more likely than some of the other theories.

"Certainly, we believe that they were split up," Klingelhofer says of the colonists. He suggests that the colonists may have divided into "family groups" of 10 to 20 people and gone their separate ways.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
If the colonists did divide up and go separate ways, "It's still strange why no one had been left behind on Roanoke, which was a well-defended site by that time," Klingelhofer says. We also don't know why the colonists would have decided to split up, if they indeed did so.

"Even if it was well defended, perhaps there just wasn't a food supply on the island that was still available for people. We don't know when they abandoned it, or when the last person abandoned it, presumably to go to Croatoan [Island]," Klingelhofer says. "But it could have been in the dead of winter, or after a hurricane, or something, or a bad storm. We just don't know."
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
In My Roanoke Nightmare's retelling of Matt and Shelby's experience, the show embellishes the ghost colonists' background, even when the Millers aren't around. By the faux documentary's account, Thomasin White is kicked out of the colony after her husband heads back to England.

After making a deal with a witch who just happens to be the Original Supreme (played by Lady Gaga), Thomasin goes back to the colonists to kill (at least some of) them. She wants to move the colony inland, which could correspond with the real theory about a fort on John White's map. But not all of them want to move, which relates to the theory that they divided up, too.

Of course, since not all of these background scenes involve Matt and Shelby, it's not clear how much of the ghost colonists' story was invented by My Roanoke Nightmare filmmaker Sidney (Cheyenne Jackson). But given the return of Piggy Man and the ring of fetal pigs at the house, it's safe to say we haven't seen the last of the paranormal, even though My Roanoke Nightmare is over.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Theory 4: The Roanoke colonists tried to sail back to England.
With Gov. White gone for so long, could the colonists have tried to return to their home country? This theory has made the rounds among historians, but there's not a lot of evidence to support it.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
"It's interesting, because we know that another group did try to do that," Klingelhofer says of the possibility the colonists tried to sail back. He adds, "Although there's no witness to it."
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
There's not a lot of evidence to support the idea of the colonists being lost at sea. Klingelhofer notes that while no one interviewed the Native Americans who may have witnessed the colonists sailing away, it's not a common story among historians.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
This one might not play into American Horror Story too much — we can't imagine the show leaving U.S. soil, since it's in the name. But if we see the return of the ghost colonists, there could still be a mention of others leaving the group to try to go back.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
Theory 5: The colonists succumbed to disease.
The colonists could very well have been the victims of a New World disease. The question, though, is where the infection could have occurred — no bodies have been found at Roanoke Island.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
National Geographic notes that the colonists may have decided to split up after a disease outbreak in the colony. It could help explain why they might have split into smaller groups.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
If the colonists fell prey to a disease while on Roanoke Island and didn't divide up and leave the colony behind afterward, researchers might have discovered bodies or graves by now, but no graves have been found at the site.
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Illustrated by Ivy Liu.
The ghost colonists in My Roanoke Nightmare seem fond of burning human beings alive. There's no indicator that any of them suffered from disease, but it's not a stretch to say that if someone was found to be infected, they might have been burned before the disease spread. Who knows — that could still be a flashback we have to look forward to.
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Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
The fate of Virginia Dare, John White's granddaughter, is also a mystery.
Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the New World. Her birth took place before White went back to England for supplies, and it's unclear whether or not she survived to adulthood.

"Based on what Governor White found, and he was looking hard for his daughter and grandchild there, he observed no graves," Klingelhofer says. "And it's possible he missed them, but he did not record it, and I think he would have noticed."

Despite the fact that not much is known about Dare's fate, her legacy lives on in North Carolina. Dare County is named in her honor, and the anniversary of her birthday is still celebrated at Fort Raleigh National Park.

Virginia Dare has become a mystery of her own — her disappearance led to a hoax independent of the colonists' disappearance. The alleged "Dare stones" were reportedly carved by her mother, Eleanor Dare, but were later revealed to be fake.
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How could Virginia Dare play into American Horror Story?
Dare hasn't been mentioned in American Horror Story yet, but we're not counting out the possibility of her playing a role. If, say, Shelby (the real Shelby, that is) is a descendant of Dare, it might explain why the Millers were haunted by the colonists' ghosts. We also still don't know a lot about Priscilla's character — could there be a fake Dare stone in our future?
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Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG/ Getty Images.
How accurate is My Roanoke Nightmare's portrayal of John White's family?
In My Roanoke Nightmare's dramatization, the angry ghosts are led by Thomasin White (Kathy Bates), the (fictionalized) wife of Roanoke governor John White.

Little is known about White's actual wife, but sources do cite her name as Thomasine Cooper, sometimes spelled Tomasyn Cooper. In reality, White's wife likely didn't make it to Roanoke at all.

We also haven't seen Eleanor Dare, White's daughter and Virginia's mother, make an appearance yet. Meanwhile, Wes Bentley's My Roanoke Nightmare character, Ambrose White, is likely fictionalized, since there aren't historical records of John White having a son.
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How does Piggy Man fit into all of this?
Okay, this is more of an American Horror Story question than one about the Roanoke Colony. But North Carolina is famous for pulled-pork barbecue, so it doesn't seem like a coincidence that we've seen Piggy Man return in both My Roanoke Nightmare and its follow-up series. There has to be more information coming about this mysterious villain.
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