The lost colony of Roanoke: Whatever happened to British America’s first city?

And it all started so well. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

It’s the late 16th century and you, Queen Elizabeth I, are stuck with a major dilemma. Despite other European countries like Spain and Portugal colonising parts of the New World – a.k.a. the entire Western Hemisphere – you’re struggling to crack the nut that is settling in North America.

These other countries are decades ahead of you. The only attempt England has made is sending an expedition led by Sir Humphrey Gilbert to colonise a bit of St John’s in Newfoundland. He managed to get himself drowned.

But, wait, there’s great news! Gilbert’s half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, is keen to swallow up his late sibling’s glory and wants to take his charter and colonise a nice bit of coastal America instead. Rather than going north (Canada) he’ll take a stab at the warmer middle bit (the American east coast).

“Sick,” you think to yourself. “All’s well, he’s on his way – what could possibly go wrong?”

As it turns out, the answer to that question was literally everything.

A map of the colony. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

On 4 July, 1584, exactly 192 years before America would mark its independence from Great Britain, Raleigh’s crew landed on Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina. Three years later, after deeming it viable for settlement, Raleigh dispatched a group of 115 people to the New World who settled in and founded the colony of Roanoke. He sent with them a personal friend who had been on a previous expedition to Roanoke, John White, who became the governor of the colony.

Governor White was fairly well-liked, the colony settled relatively quickly, and everything seemed to be going fine and dandy. That was until the colonists began to have some frequent, not-so-friendly run-ins with the local Native American tribe, the Croatoans. The final straw was when one of the colonists went out alone searching for crabs and was killed by a native. The colonists begged Governor White to head back to England to get some extra help for the colony. He left in 1588.

His return was delayed by another unlucky twist: a rather inconvenient war with Spain. When he finally managed to get back to Roanoke in 1590, he was flabbergasted by what he found: a deserted colony without a single trace of where the colonists had gone, or even, really, that they had been there at all. The only clue was the words ‘CROATOAN’ carved into a fence post, and ‘CRO’ carved into a tree.

Everyone, and everything, had completely disappeared.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

In the centuries since, no one has been able to conclusively discover what actually happened to these disappearing settlers. Today, we don’t have a single fucking clue as to what went on in those two years that John White left the colony.

However, thanks to a combination of human nature and the internet, a number of theories have emerged. Some of the more popular include:

They integrated with the Croatoan tribe

Many historians have hypothesised that the settlers just said, “Fuck it”, and adopted the Native American lifestyle after their governor failed to return.

This is plausible, to a degree: despite the bouts of fighting, many of the colonists got on well with the Croatoan tribe. This would explain the markings on the tree and fence post and the lack of evidence of violence in the empty settlement.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

They were murdered by the Spanish

Due to the aforementioned raging war going on between England and Spain at the time, it’s feasible to think the Spanish went and wreaked havoc on the England’s first and only settlement in North America. Spanish troops were in Florida at the time of Roanoke and could have made a special pilgrimage to destroy the precious colony.


They were murdered by the Native Americans

The tree engraving, the mass disappearance, the previous altercations… The idea that the Croatoan tribe killed the Roanoke colonists is not a crazy one. The challenges with this theory lie in the lack of any trace – no bones, no blood – that might indicate a murderous attack broke out.

In the 1930s, evidence that seemed to support this theory was discovered, when a farmer found a set of marked stones that looked to be messages from the colonists. The Dare stones – named for John White’s daughter Eleanor Dare, who was presumed to have left them – were addressed to John White to tell him what had become of the colony. They said, essentially, that all but seven settlers were killed by ‘savages’; the rest had fled.

By 1941, a journalist had discovered that they were forgeries. All the same, the theory they present is still widely believed to be the true story of what happened to the Roanoke colonists.

They just left

After, you know, their governor left saying he’d bring back help and then just didn’t return, one of the more feasible theories argues that the settlers of Roanoke abandoned the colony – and disappeared, one presumes, into the wilderness.

What actually happened to England’s first American colony? Who’s to say. All we can say for sure is that this is a piece of 4 July history you won’t be hearing Americans bringing up too much today.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.