• History

The True Story Behind American Horror Story Season Six, As Told in 1930

3 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

American Horror Story often trades in the fantastical: Vampires, ghosts and monsters haunt the FX show. But the series’ sixth season, which premiered on Wednesday night, proves truth can be scarier than fiction. My Roanoke Nightmare recounts the true story of the lost colonists of Roanoke.

In 1587, a group of Englishmen led by Captain John White created a settlement at Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. Captain White returned to England for supplies. When he sailed back to the colony four years later, he found something unsettling. The story, an eerie aside to the history of the United States’ founding, was recounted in TIME in 1930 on the occasion of the birthday of Virginia Dare, White’s granddaughter and the first English baby born in America:

On May 8, 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh dispatched from England in three vessels 150 colonists, including 25 women and children, under the command of Capt. John White. With him Capt. White took his daughter Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare. The ships made land at Cape Hatteras on July 22, cruised up what is now Pamlico Sound to the “iland called Roanoac” where the colonists were dumped ashore. Two vessels immediately spread sail for England. A fort was built, homes staked out.

On Aug. 18, Eleanor Dare bore a daughter who was named Virginia after the Raleigh colony. She was the first English child born in America. Nine days later (Aug. 27) her grandfather, Capt. White, sailed back to England in the third ship to fetch more men and supplies. When he returned four years later he found the Roanoke fort in ruins, the colonists all gone. Carved on a tree was the word ‘Croatoan,’ the name of a friendly Indian tribe living down the coast. But searchers were never able to find Virginia Dare or the other settlers. Twenty years later colonists at Jamestown heard stories that all but a few had been massacred by Powhatan, that the rest had been absorbed into an Indian tribe.

At the time of that anniversary, TIME reported that some inhabitants of Robeson County, N.C., claimed to be descendants of those lost colonists, but there was no proof. And to this day, nobody knows what happened to the over 100 colonists who vanished. Historians have speculated that they were either slaughtered or dispersed, though archeologists recently uncovered English artifacts like flintlocks in nearby Native American sites that suggest the colonists probably assimilated into those tribes.

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because an American Horror Story character relayed it in the first season of the show. In that version, the settlers became ghosts that haunted the island and who were eventually banished with a curse using the word “Croatoan,” the same as the one carved on the tree.

In season six of the show, the story comes full circle: A couple named Shelby and Matt move to the area and find things amiss: Cathy Bates’ character appears in colonial garb, and Shelby (Sarah Paulson) wanders into the forest and finds herself seemingly in the 1500s. This season will likely offer its own interpretation of what happened to Virginia Dare and her fellow colonists.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com