The Lost Colony is one of America's earliest and most enduring mysteries, puzzling historians for centuries as to the fate of nearly 150 men, women, and children who landed on Roanoke Island, and subsequently disappeared off the face of the earth. This ghostly and fascinating tale peaked curiosity for so long, and so deeply, that the story was eventually transformed into the country's first and longest running outdoor drama, aptly named "The Lost Colony." Since 1937, The Lost Colony has been performed to a packed house at Manteo's stunning Waterside Theater, inspiring generation after generation of theater goers, and causing visitors to wonder, even today, what happened to that band of English colonists.
Filled with spectacle, music, and enthralling dialogue, the play has seen its share of minor revisions since it was originally penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, changing with the discovery of new revelations about the colonists' fate. But the underlying story of over 100 colonists who disappeared without a trace remains hauntingly the same, and a visit to the theater to take in the acclaimed drama will sure to be a lingering highlight for any Outer Banks vacationer.
History of the Lost Colony
In the late 1580s, under the command of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh began a series of explorations to North America in the hopes of colonizing and securing more lands for England. At the time, England's relations with Spain were strained, to say the least, and in Elizabeth's eyes, the Spanish had been gobbling up southern portions of the New World for nearly a century, and it was time for England to catch up. It also didn't hurt that Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the favorite members of the court at the time, (a distinction that would eventually change and lead to his beheading by the queen's successor, King James I), and his requests to be granted ships, men and supplies were enthusiastically granted.
Raleigh's first venture to Roanoke Island, chosen in part because of its' easy navigational route to and from the Atlantic across the Roanoke Sound, was a success. Led by Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe as an exploratory venture, the captains encountered the Croatan Native Americans, and returned to England with two prestigious members of the tribe, Manteo and Wanchese, who shared their knowledge of the area with Sir Walter Raleigh and proved, in many Englishmen's minds, that colonization was an easy next step.
A second voyage to the New World was quickly launched, this time with the goal of a permanent settlement in mind, filled with sailors, soldiers and builders, and commandeered by Sir Richard Grenville. This expedition was a success in some ways, and a failure in many others. Five ships were sent to Roanoke Island, with one being shipwrecked temporarily off the coast of Ocracoke Island and losing a large portion of the food supplies along the way. Upon arrival, a skirmish broke out with some of the English settlers and local natives from the neighboring village of Aquascogoc, and relations with the local inhabitants quickly deteriorated. Despite these ominous setbacks of new enemies and a substantial loss of food, Greenville departed confidently with his fleet of ships, and left behind 107 men to establish a settlement, led by Ralph Lane. Lane commandeered and successfully built a small fort, Fort Raleigh, as well as a village of soldiers, sailors and working men. Buildings were erected, and the colony survived for a year, despite the isolation and lack of supplies coming in. However, the relations with the natives were growing dangerously hostile, and when Sir Francis Drake popped by the settlement in 1585, the colonists, fearing an impending war with the natives, hitched a ride back to England.
Undeterred with the eventual departure, or rather retreat, of this initial colony, Sir Walter Raleigh sent a new voyage to the Roanoke Island, this time with a colony consisting of 150 men, women and children. Captain John White, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh and previous visitor to Roanoke Island, led the expedition, and his own daughter, Eleanor Dare, was on board as part of the new settlement. She was a newlywed, recently married to Ananias Dare, and was also pregnant with their first child.
Their arrival on Roanoke Island in 1587 was not a welcome one, as they expected that at least some of Greenville's original men would be on the island to help them with their new settlement. Finding no one there except a lone skeleton, and subsequently finding out that their captain, Simon Fernandez, refused to let them board back onto the ships and retreat home, the colonists were forced to remain on Roanoke Island and try to set up a colony.
Capt. White addressed the hostile native situation right away, and reestablished connections with the Croatans while trying to find peace with the other tribes that the previous colony had egregiously formed bad relations with. These meeting did not go very well, with many of the hostile natives refusing to even meet with White, and as a result the colony begged White to return to England for help. (It should be noted that during this initial settling-in period, Eleanor Dare gave birth to White's granddaughter, Virginia Dare, who was the first English child born in America.)
White sailed back to England for help intending to return quickly with additional men and supplies in the spring of 1588, leaving 115 men, women, and children behind, including his own daughter and granddaughter. White made it back to England successfully, but the war with Spain held up White's return to the New World, and he waited for three long years until he was finally able to return to the island via a privateering expedition that agreed to pass through Roanoke Island en route to the Caribbean.
White arrived on August 18th, 1590, Virginia Dare's 3rd birthday, and found the settlement completely deserted. There was no trace of the 115 people left behind - only empty buildings and forts, some of which were dismantled, with no sign of a battle, a struggle, or any clue as to what had happened. The only mark the colonists left behind were the words "CRO" and "CROATAN" carved into neighboring trees. White quickly deducted that this was an indication that the colonists had simply moved to Croatan Island, (present day Hatteras Island), and he begged the boat to do a quick search of the region. Unfortunately, the expedition turned up empty handed, and White would spend the remainder of his days wondering what happened to his daughter, his son-in-law, his granddaughter, and all the other colonists who were left behind.
Theories of the Lost Colonists Disappearance
For well over four centuries, historians have contemplated and formed arguments about what happened to the Lost Colonists, as they came to be known. For many years, the prevalent theories were that the colonists had starved to death from the lack of supplies, or were killed by the neighboring tribes, who were already incredibly hostile towards the newcomers, based on their experiences with the previous expedition. These theories certainly made sense considering the length of time that Capt. White was away before he was able to return with food and supplies, and his unsuccessful attempts to create friendly relations with the local natives while he was initially with the colonists. However, both theories are frequently shot down by the fact that no sign of the colonists were found on site - no bodies or skeletons - and the village remained relatively intact, with some buildings dismantled or town apart meticulously, suggesting they had been carried to a new location.
This, combined with the clues left behind carved into the trees, led the majority of modern historians to believe that the colonists had simply migrated south to Hatteras Island, where the Croatan Native Americans were friendly and could help them adapt. Despite the fact that Captain White and subsequent explorers found no trace of the 115 men, women and children on Hatteras Island, additional clues discovered throughout the centuries have led historians to believe that this may be the concrete answer, and that the colonists may have very well survived.
One explorer over a century later stumbled upon the Croatan Natives and noted, with curiosity, that the natives slightly resembled Englishmen with "blue eyes and fair hair." The most recent evidence to support this theory came to light just a few years ago, when archeologists digging along the Buxton and Frisco Woods came across an insignia ring that dated back to the 1580s, the exact time of the colonists' disappearance.
Now there is certainly no concrete evidence that a peaceful move to a neighboring island was the colonists' final fate, and there will likely never be a complete explanation for the colonists' disappearance and life thereafter. However many historians and curious visitors are comforted by the most prevailing theory that the colonists simply migrated south, and perhaps ended up happily living among the friendly Croatan Natives on an Outer Banks beach. After all, a fate of living full-time on the seashore, thriving on an abundance of local seafood, is a happy ending that most all Outer Banks visitors dream about and hope for.
The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama
The Lost Colony Outdoor drama came centuries after the disappearance itself and was originally a "pageant" that was intended to last just one season. This initial play was first performed in 1925 against the natural backdrop of the Roanoke Sound, and after its success, the original organizers hoped to revamp the production to be a star attraction of the region's upcoming celebration of Virginia Dare's 350th birthday. North Carolina playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green was approached about creating a more solid script that could be performed multiple times, and which would combine drama, music and dance to tell the fascinating story of the original Lost Colony.
Green took on the project with gusto. At the time, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and for many actors, screenwriters, and other theater workers, the only work available was work that was administered by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), sanctioned and distributed by the United States government. Thankfully for Green and his co-workers, the WPA provided a large grant of money to fund the play, and out-of-work Broadway actors, set designers, and musicians were shipped into Roanoke Island to bring Green's script about the Lost Colonists to life. At the same time, additional workers were hired to construct the now famous Waterside Theater, a fantastic backdrop for the production set in the heart of the colonists' country, and overlooking the Roanoke Sound. On the 4th of July, 1937, the drama debuted to a packed house and was incredibly well-received.
Originally, The Lost Colony was only scheduled to run for one season, for the Virginia Dare celebration only, however after President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended an August 18th showing and remarked at how great the show was, and how fascinating the story was itself, it became evident that The Lost Colony would become a summertime tradition.
The show has run every summer since, with brief interludes over the decades. During World War II, the show was shut down for four whole years as the Outer Banks region was hunted by German U-Boats lying just offshore. Not long after, in 1947, the Waterside Theater burned to the ground, although it was quickly rebuilt by locals who both appreciated the show's addition to the local culture, and benefitted from the increased tourism revenue that the show provided. The theater would have to be rebuilt a second time just 13 years later, in 1960, after Hurricane Donna swept through the area. But thanks to the dedication of local workers, the curtains opened again in time for the 1961 season.
Thanks in no small part to the resiliency of Outer Banks locals and their dedication to the small play that garnered a national audience, The Lost Colony has become a training ground of sorts for over 5,000 actors and theater technicians at the start of their careers. As a result, many famous actors have walked across the Waterside Theater stage including Terrance Mann, William Ivey Long, Senator Marc Basnight, and Andy Griffith, who loved Roanoke Island so much that he spent the majority of his retirement years living there, in a quiet residence by the Roanoke Sound.
The show is still going strong, and is still performed to excited audiences who are just as enthralled and memorized by the story and by Paul Green's resurrection of the tale as they were over 70 years ago. An annual tradition for many seasoned vacationers, and a must-see for newcomers, The Lost Colony is a fascinating theatrical display of America's earliest, and eeriest roots.
Visiting the Lost Colony
The Lost Colony drama generally runs every night from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Ticket prices vary depending on section, age, and group discounts. A VIP section is available for patrons who want to be close to the action, and a discount is given to seniors 62 and over, kids under 12, and groups of 10 adults or more. In addition to the tickets for the show, patrons can also purchase a backstage tour ticket to see the behind the scenes work involved to bring the story to life, right before the show itself, or can also purchase rain insurance, in case the show is cancelled.
Yes, it should be noted that because the Waterside Theater is an outdoor theater, The Lost Colony drama is cancelled on excessively rainy nights, so theater goers who purchase tickets in advance are advised to purchase the additional rain insurance to ensure they are compensated for their tickets, just in case of cancellation.
Patrons are advised to purchase tickets in advance to ensure availability as well as great seats. Because of the show's long running popularity, it is not unusual for a prime summer night performance to book up quickly. Tickets can be ordered in advance by calling the box office at 252-473-6000, or online at The Lost Colony's Website at http://thelostcolony.org/tickets/.
The show starts promptly every night at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m., with backstage tours starting an hour earlier at 7:00 p.m. or so. Patrons are advised to arrive at least 30 minutes early to ensure they get through the ticket booth and to their seats on time. There are also two concession stands, operated by the Manteo Lion's Club, to provide refreshments to patrons. (If you plan on purchasing a drink or snack, be sure and bring cash, as credit cards and checks are not accepted.)
The Waterside Theater is also wheelchair accessible, with seats reserved for visitors with special needs. Be sure and call ahead of time to make sure that seating is available. Sign language interpreters are also available to theater goers with two weeks advance notice. Simply call 252-473-6000 to arrange this service as needed.
Photos are allowed during the performance, provided the flash is turned off, and comfortable clothing and attire is suggested since it is an outdoor theater, and not a formal venue. Smoking and alcoholic drinks are not allowed on the premises, and patrons are advised to follow all etiquette guidelines as they would in a regular theater - turn off cell phones, try not to disrupt the other theater goers, and simply enjoy the show.
The theater itself is a gorgeous site, and with a normal 8:00 p.m. start time, summer visitors will be treated to an open view of the Roanoke Sound which blends into a cool summer night and a performance held under thousands of stars. Not to spoil the surprise, but the show itself is an incredible swirling array of dancing, magnificent costumes, music, and even fire throwing, so if the setting doesn't leave you spellbound, the performance most certainly will.
Be sure and bring the kids along as well, as the family-friendly venue and fast-moving performance is sure to make history entertaining for absolutely everyone in the group. The show runs approximately 1.5 - 2 hours, with a short intermission in between, and many visitors find that the time flies by as they become enveloped with the fate of the colonists. Be prepared to have a heated debate in the car ride home over whether The Lost Colony's ending was accurate, or if a different ending should have been considered and performed.
Essentially, a night at The Lost Colony outdoor drama will surely be an incredible and enjoyable evening out for everyone in the family. Plan in advance, have a rainy night back-up plan, and be prepared to be enthralled with the country's longest running and arguably its most acclaimed outdoor drama.
Tips and Tricks for Visiting the Lost Colony
- Frequent visitors, homeowners, locals, and really anyone with a love of the Outer Banks should check out The Lost Colony's website for special discounts for selected groups, usually offered at the very beginning of the season. Generally, The Lost Colony honors its local contingent by performing a week or two of shows at a discounted rate, in mid-May to early June, and shoulder season vacationers are advised to review the calendar to see if any of these special, early performances coincide with their stay.
- Theater goers are encouraged to bring along plenty of bug spray, especially on hot summer nights when the local Roanoke Island mosquitos welcome a full audience. Remember that the Waterside Theater is an outdoor venue, so a quick spritz of bug spray before the performance will ensure that there is no excessive swatting during the show. Umbrellas are not allowed in the theater due to the close seats, however ponchos are encouraged and welcome on drizzly evenings.
- Be sure and stick around after the show. Often, some of the performers will come out, still in character, and will greet and mingle with theater goers. Though not a guaranteed experience, a little lingering after the performance may allow your party to meet local Native Americans, English royalty, and everything in between.
- The Lost Colony is not the only performance to grace the stage of the Waterside Theater. The venue also supports a number of other events and special performances, including annual symphony performance, Shakespearean plays, and a regularly scheduled Children's Theater which is shown almost weekly in the summer months. For theater lovers who may be too young for The Lost Colony, or a special event that entails talents from across the state and the country, check out the Waterside Theater's calendar to see what other events are on the agenda.
- Remember that you can book your seats well in advance, and secure your night out on the Roanoke Soundfront, by booking online at http://thelostcolony.org/tickets/. Make sure you check the weather beforehand and purchase rain insurance as needed. Remember that on the Outer Banks the local rule of thumb is "if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes," so large groups and budget conscious travelers should seriously consider the rain insurance, just in case.
Roanoke's deep love and preservation of its history is evident from the replica of the Elizabeth II sitting in Shallowbag Bay to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, which marks the exact locale where the settlers first carved out a New World home. But perhaps no venue pays homage to the local history like The Lost Colony. Now a historical attraction in its own right, and dating back to the Great Depression era, this outdoor drama is essentially a historical play about a historical event, and captures the absolutely fascinating story of the Lost Colonists like no museum or travelling exhibit ever could.
Plan a night out that the entire family will enjoy, and be sure and book tickets for the seasonal summer show. With incredible theatrical displays, dramatic roles that have launched the careers of dozens of world-acclaimed actors, and a storyline that still has historians puzzled, The Lost Colony isn't just a show, it is an event. Delve deep into one of the region's most beloved mysteries, and reserve a front row seat to Outer Banks culture, art, and history at its best and all rolled into one, with a visit to The Lost Colony.