When you hear the word Croatoan, most of us think about the lost colony of Roanoke Island. The word was carved on a plank and was the only clue left behind in the oldest unsolved mystery in America. But did you know that Croatoan, also spelled ‘Crotan’, appears in history several more times? What is the secret behind this word that has haunted our country for centuries?
The Croatoan Indians
The Croatoan were a small Native American tribe that lived in the coastal areas of what is now North Carolina. It is believed that they may have been a branch of the larger Roanoke people, or that the tribe allied with the colonists.
The Croatoan lived in the area that is currently known as Dare County. This location encompasses the Alligator River, Croatan Sound, Roanoke Island and parts of the Outer Banks, which include Hatteras Island.
While they are now extinct as a Native American tribe, they were one of the Carolina Algonquian peoples, and there were many of them at the time of the English encounter in the 16th century. The Roanoke territory also extended to the mainland, where they had their chief town on the western shore of Croatan Sound. Historians believe that the Algonquians had a total population for 5,000 to 10,000 people.
The Croatan Indians were a part of the Carolina Algonquins, which was a southeastern designation of the greater Algonquian source. Agriculture was the Croatan’s primary source of nourishment and the fact that there was enough food for the Roanoke colonists and themselves demonstrates how effective their farming skills were.
The Native American tribe regulated each person’s position in society by public marks. The chiefs of leaders, known as werowances, controlled between one and eighteen towns. The greatest werowances could oversee seven or eight hundred warriors. The English people were amazed at the great awe in which the werowances were held. They said that no people in the world carried more respect towards their leaders.
The Modern Era and Legacy of the Croatan Indians
The Lost Colony Center for Science and Research has excavated English artifacts within the territory of the former Croatoan tribe. The artifacts could have been evidence of trade with the tribe or of Indian’s finding them at the former colony site. The Center is conducting a DNA study to try to determine if there are European lines among the Croatan descendants, which could help solve the mystery of Roanoke Island.
A historical marker placed by the state of Georgia states “In 1870 a group of Croatan Indians migrated from their homes in Robeson County North Carolina, following the turpentine industry to southeast Georgia. Eventually many of the Croatans became tenant farmers for the Adabelle Trading Company, growing cotton and tobacco. The Croatan community established the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Adabelle, as well as a school and a nearby cemetery. After the collapse of the Adabelle Trading Company, the Croatans faced both economic hardship and social injustice. As a result, most members of the community returned to North Carolina by 1920.”
Other Links to Croatoan in History
The lost colony of Roanoke is not the only mystery that surrounds this word. Archeologists and historians alike are still unsure about why Croatoan was carved into the post in the first place. It clearly wasn’t to point the blame at the tribe, and the colonists didn’t move in with them, so what is the significance of the word?
The word “Croatoan” has shown up several other times over the past few centuries. Each time about a mysterious disappearance and nowhere near Roanoke.
The events leading up to the death of horror writer Edgar Allen Poe are still a mystery today. He disappeared for a short time and when he was seen again, he was babbling incoherently in the streets. He may have been drunk, but he wasn’t just drunk, he was delirious. Allegedly one of the things that Poe mentioned while he was on his death bed while still in a state of delirium was the word “Croatoan.”
The illness that Poe had and the cause of his death is still unknown. All medical records and his death certificate were allegedly lost. Is it possible that he experienced the same thing that the lost colony did?
Croatoan was also found written in the journal of Amelia Earhart after her disappearance in 1937.
The Horror author Ambrose Bierce vanished while in Mexico in 1913. The bed that he last slept in had the word “Croatoan” carved into a post.
The notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart etched the word into the wall of his prison cell right before he was released in 1888, and he was never seen again.
“Croatoan” was also written on the last page of the logbook of the ghost ship Carrroll A. Deering back in 1921, when it ran aground on Cape Hatteras, right by what was once known as Croatoan Island.