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12 Sep 2013
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History & Culture

If you've vacationed on the Outer Banks before, then you may have heard of or seen the word Croatan. Torefresh your memory, our major five lane highway that stretches from Kitty Hawk to Nags Head uses the word (Croatan Hwy 158) and so does the major body of water that separates Roanoke Island from the mainland (Croatan Sound).

Have you ever wondered what the origin of the word is or have you ever wanted to learn more about the rich history behind it?

To begin our story about the origin of the word, we have to venture way back to the 16th century and describe the small, Native American group known as the Croatan tribe.

The tribe resided in present day Dare Country - which encompasses Alligator River, Croatan Sound, Roanoke Island and parts of the OBX including Hatteras Island. Hatteras Island was previously known as Croatoan Island and is where a majority of the tribe is believed to have lived.

The Croatan tribe is closely linked to the first British colonists of Roanoke Island who later became known as the "Lost Colony." Prior to settling onRoanoke Island, the colonists had settled on Croatoan Island (Hatteras Island) in 1584 and a few of them had been living there for several years before a group moved to Roanoke Island.


When John White returned from his fifth voyage to England, he found that the colony of the first English settlement in the New World was abandoned. The only clue to the colonists' whereabouts was the word C-R-O-A-T-O-A-N found carved on a post at the settler's fort on Roanoke Island. It is logical to believe that the colonists left Roanoke Island and had gone to live on Croatan Island, a place they had already lived before. It was also well-known that the settlers had built up a strong relationship with the Croatoan natives.

John White, who developed maps showing both Croatoan and Roanoke, wrote the following in 1590:

"I greatly joyed that I had safely found a certain token of their safe being at Croatoan, which is the place where Manteo was born, and the savages of the island our friends."

The Croatan people suffered from epidemics from diseases such as smallpox in 1698 and the tribe was believed to be extinct by the early seventieth-century.

Descendants of the Croatoan tribe are the modern day Lumbee and they began to appear some 50 years after the disappearance of the lost colony. People have described these people as having European features and speaking English. The state of North Carolina recognizes the Lumbee as true descendants of the Croatoan.

Croatoan has been found in several other mysterious places.

  • When famous poet Edgar Allen Poe was on his death bed, he apparently whispered the word shortly before his demise.
  • Croatoan was found scribbled in the journal of Amelia Earnhart after her disappearance in 1937.
  • Similar to the lost colony, Croatoan was found carved into the post of the last bed that horror author Ambrose Bierce slept in before mysteriously vanishing.
  • Notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart carved the word on his prison cell's wall before he was released and mysteriously vanished.
  • Croatoan was found written on the last page of the logbook of the ship Carroll A. Deering when it crashed into Cape Hatteras in 1921 with no one aboard.

The word has also been incorporated into an English expression "back to Croatoa" meaning to live in a primitive fashion.

Thanks for reading and if you want to learn more about the rich history of the OBX, be sure to check out our Outer Banks history section on our blog! :)