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Monday, August 9, 2021

The CORA Tree

The CORA Tree, Hatteras Island, North Carolina

Anyone familiar with the history of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island has heard how John White, the colony's governor (and artist for earlier expeditions), sent back to England for supplies but unable to return for three years, found the carved inscriptions on a tree and then one of the posts surrounding the palisade at the abandoned town site. "CRO," one read, and then more fully, "CROATOAN," clearly indicating where the colonists had moved in his absence. White knew very well that Croatoan referred to another island about fifty miles to the south--what is now the southernmost stretch of Hatteras Island--and the people who lived there.) It was made into this big mystery because people forgot for a while (maybe willfully) that this was an actual location name.

Theories abound, of course, on what happened to the colonists from there. It's generally agreed that at least some moved inland, and one historian theorizes, drawing from records of Spanish voyages between 1587 and 1590 (the colony's arrival on Roanoke to White's return), that at least one major hurricane hit the Outer Banks and forced any survivors to relocate.

What if "CRO" was not the only clue the Lost Colonists left for White, or others, to find them?

In my research over the past year, I kept running across mention of the CORA Tree--an ancient oak located on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, rivaling the Angel Oak in Charleston, South Carolina, in age. The most persistent legend to explain the four letters carved into this tree involves a young woman accused of being a witch who, as she's tied to the tree in preparation for being burned, disappears in a flash of lightning that left only her name carved there.

Uh huh.

Another theory emerges. What if CORA was early colonial shorthand for yet another region and/or people group of the time, just as CRO was?

On John White's famed Pars Virginia map, a region due west and a little south of Croatoan bears the label Cwareuuoc, often shortened to Coree, which very easily could have been shortened to CORA. Croatoan itself derived from the native Kuh-rah-wo-tain, and another group, Secotan, from Suh-kwoh-tain. So it seemed very plausible to me that there might be a connection there.

Naturally, I wanted to see the tree for myself, so on my last research trip to Hatteras earlier this year, I determined to find it. Bless my husband for indulging these little scavenger hunts!

To my surprise, we found the tree right without any trouble--a single oak, located on a grassy median on a quiet residential street, a few blocks away from the waterfront. We parked and got out.

The letters are still there, and fairly legible:

Y'all know this was more than enough to delight this history nerd's heart! Sadly I didn't get more than a couple of good photos--it took a video to even remotely capture the sprawling splendor of this beauty, which did indeed remind me of the Angel Oak in miniature.

One commentator says that this being a water oak, it's highly unlikely this tree is the 300+ years old it's purported to be. But the Angel Oak is at least that old. And while the question is always asked, How do we know it is, I would counter with, Well, how do we know it isn't?

Here is where history bleeds into the speculative, which happens a lot. In this case, though, I'm okay with that, because it makes for some interesting early colonial story fodder.


  1. Nice bit of historical digging and imagining here!

    1. Thanks! It was SO fun. :-) And to be fair, I wasn't the first to come up with the possible connection to the Lost Colony.


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