One of the most peculiar stories in American History is the story of the lost colony of Roanoke. In 1587, 115 colonists were dispatched to Roanoke Island to begin a new colony in the New World. These colonists preceded the colonists of Jamestown, The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Within 3 years of the settlement the colonists had disappeared without a trace. There were no signs of struggle and there was not a mass grave found. The only thing that remained was an inscription on a tree that read CROATOANS. This disappearance has baffled historians for centuries and has led to many projects, archaeological digs, and even forgeries.
While the mystery of Roanoke has never been solved it does remain an important event in early American history. This was the first attempt of the English to establish a permanent settlement in the New World. To understand the importance of this event it is essential to look back a few decades in Europe and study the events leading up to this attempt.
Roanoke Colony Facts: English Exploration of the New World
The main reason for the discovery of the New World was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Before the fall of Constantinople the Silk Road allowed for much trade with the east and west. This trade brought much wealth to western countries and when the road was blocked many European powers began looking for alternatives.
Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World sent shockwaves through Europe. Each notable nation sponsored explorers to sail to the New World in order to secure more wealth and expand their power. However, England did not show much interest in these explorations. After the death of King Henry VII the infamous King Henry VIII took power and England was thrown into decades of civil unrest. Henry VIII’s personal matters took center stage and while Spain was building a global empire Henry VIII was busy arguing with the Pope about divorce. While England changed their power structure and became a Protestant nation, they did not explore much of the New World. After Henry VIII’s death, England was thrown into Civil War until Queen Elizabeth took power and ushered in a Golden Age.
It would be during the reign of Queen Elizabeth that England would establish itself as a world power once again. Sir Walter Raleigh explore the coast of North America and call the land he explored, Virginia after the “virgin queen.” During this time he also looked for suitable place to land colonists and try to establish an English colony in the New World. This is when he chose Roanoke Island.
Roanoke Colony Facts: First Voyages to Roanoke Island
On April 27, 1584, Raleigh dispatched an expedition led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore the eastern coast of North America. They arrived on Roanoke Island on July 4, and soon established relations with the local natives, the Secotans and Croatoans. Barlowe returned to England with two Croatoans named Manteo and Wanchese, who were able to describe the politics and geography of the area to Raleigh. Based on the information given, Raleigh organized a second expedition, to be led by Sir Richard Grenville.
Grenville’s fleet departed Plymouth on April 9, 1585, with five main ships: Tiger (Grenville’s), Roebuck, Red Lion, Elizabeth, and Dorothy. A severe storm off the coast of Portugal separated Tiger from the rest of the fleet. The captains had a contingency plan if they were separated, which was to meet up again in Puerto Rico, and Tiger arrived in the “Baye of Muskito” (Guayanilla Bay) on May 11.
While waiting for the other ships, Grenville established relations with the resident Spanish while simultaneously engaging in some privateering against them. He also built a fort. Elizabeth arrived soon after the fort’s construction. Grenville eventually tired of waiting for the remaining ships, and departed on June 7. The fort was abandoned, and its location remains unknown.
Tiger sailed through Ocracoke Inlet on June 26, but it struck a shoal, ruining most of the food supplies. The expedition succeeded in repairing the ship and, in early July, reunited with Roebuck and Dorothy, which had arrived in the Outer Banks with Red Lion some weeks previous. Red Lion had dropped off its passengers and left for Newfoundland for privateering.
In The New World
During the initial exploration of the mainland coast and the native settlements, the Europeans blamed the natives of the village of Aquascogoc for stealing a silver cup. As retaliation, the settlers sacked and burned the village. English writer and courtier Richard Hakluyt’s contemporaneous reports also describe this incident. (Hakluyt’s reports of the first voyage to Roanoke were compiled from accounts by various financial backers, including Sir Walter Raleigh. Hakluyt himself never traveled to the New World.)
Despite this incident and a lack of food, Grenville decided to leave Ralph Lane and 107 men to establish a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island, promising to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies. The group disembarked on August 17, 1585, and built a small fort on the island. There are no surviving renderings of the Roanoke fort, but it was likely similar in structure to the one in Guayanilla Bay.
As April 1586 passed, there was no sign of Grenville’s relief fleet. Meanwhile, in June, bad blood resulted from the destruction of the village, and this spurred an attack on the fort by the local Native Americans which the colonists were able to repel. Soon after the attack, Sir Francis Drake was on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean, and he stopped at the colony and offered to take the colonists back to England. Several accepted, including metallurgist Joachim Gans. On this return voyage, the Roanoke colonists introduced tobacco, maize, and potatoes to England. The relief fleet arrived shortly after Drake’s departure with the colonists. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville returned to England with the bulk of his force, leaving behind a small detachment of fifteen men both to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh’s claim to Roanoke Island.
Roanoke Colony Facts: The Lost Colony
In 1587, Raleigh dispatched a new group of 115 colonists to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay. They were led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh who had accompanied the previous expedition to Roanoke, and was appointed governor of the 1587 colony. White and Raleigh named 12 assistants to aid in the settlement. They were ordered to stop at Roanoke to pick up the small contingent left there by Grenville the previous year, but when they arrived on July 22, 1587, they found nothing except a skeleton that may have been the remains of one of the English garrison.
When they could find no one, the master pilot Simon Fernandez refused to let the colonists return to the ships, insisting that they establish the new colony on Roanoke. His motives remain unclear, however, and new evidence offered by author Brandon Fullam indicates that Fernandez not only had good reason for his actions, but that the decision to alter the Chesapeake Bay destination had already been agreed to prior to their arrival at Roanoke.
White re-established relations with the Croatoan and other local tribes, but those with whom Lane had fought previously refused to meet with him. Shortly thereafter, colonist George Howe was killed by a native while searching alone for crabs in Albemarle Sound.
The colonists persuaded Governor White to return to England to explain the colony’s desperate situation and ask for help. Left behind were about 115 colonists – the remaining men and women who had made the Atlantic crossing plus White’s newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.
White sailed for England in late 1587, although crossing the Atlantic at that time of year was a considerable risk. Plans for a relief fleet were delayed first by the captain’s refusal to return during the winter, and then the attack on England of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent Anglo-Spanish War. Every able English ship joined the fight, leaving White without a means to return to Roanoke at the time. In the spring of 1588, White managed to acquire two small vessels and sailed for Roanoke; however, his attempt to return was thwarted when the captains of the ships attempted to capture several Spanish ships on the outward-bound voyage (in order to improve their profits). They themselves were captured and their cargo seized. With nothing left to deliver to the colonists, the ships returned to England.
Roanoke Colony Facts: Return to the Colony
Because of the continuing war with Spain, White was unable to mount another resupply attempt for an additional three years. He finally gained passage on a privateering expedition organized by John Watts and Walter Raleigh. They agreed to stop off at Roanoke on the way back after raiding the Spanish in the Caribbean. White landed on August 18, 1590, on his granddaughter’s third birthday, but found the settlement deserted. His men could not find any trace of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children, nor was there any sign of a struggle or battle.
The only clue was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post of the fence around the village, and the letters C-R-O carved into a nearby tree. All the houses and fortifications had been dismantled, which meant that their departure had not been hurried. Before he had left the colony, White instructed the colonists that, if anything happened to them, they should carve a Maltese cross on a tree nearby, indicating that their absence had been forced. There was no cross, and White took this to mean that they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island), but he was unable to conduct a search. A massive storm was forming and his men refused to go any farther; the next day, they left.
Roanoke Colony Facts: Captain John Smith and William Strachey
Once the Jamestown settlement was established in 1607, efforts were undertaken by the English to acquire information from the Powhatan tribe about Roanoke. The first definitive information concerning the fate of the Lost Colony came from Captain John Smith, leader of the Jamestown Colony from 1608 to 1609. According to chronicler Samuel Purchas, Smith learned from Chief Powhatan that he had personally conducted the slaughter of the Roanoke colonists just prior to the arrival of the Jamestown settlers because they were living with the Chesepians, a tribe living in the eastern portion of the present-day South Hampton Roads sub-region who were related to the Pamlico tribe in Carolina and who refused to merge with the Powhatans. This shocking information was reported to England and by the spring of 1609, King James and the Royal Council were convinced that Chief Powhatan was responsible for the slaughter of the Lost Colony.
The second source of Chief Powhatan’s involvement was William Strachey, Secretary of the Jamestown colony in 1610-11. Strachey’s The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia seemed to confirm Smith’s report and provided additional information: The colonists had been living peacefully among a group of natives beyond Powhatan’s domain for more than twenty years when they were massacred. Furthermore, Powhatan himself seemed to have directed the slaughter because of prophecies by his priests that he would be overthrown by people from that area, and he reportedly produced several English-made iron implements to back his claim.
The information from these two sources, John Smith and William Strachey, provides the basis for the traditional view that the Lost Colony was slaughtered by Chief Powhatan, and versions of the Powhatan-Lost Colony-slaughter scenario have persisted for more than 400 years. However, no bodies were found and no archaeological evidence has been found to support this claim.
Furthermore, recent re-examination of the Smith and Strachey sources advanced by author and researcher Brandon Fullam has suggested that the massacre described by Powhatan was actually of the 15 people left behind by the first Roanoke expedition, leaving the fate of the second colony still unknown.
Roanoke Colony Facts: Theories
There are quite a few theories that have been formed through the past 4 centuries.
Integration into a Tribe
The most popular theory is that the remaining colonists merged with a friendly Indian tribe. This theory is based on different reports of Welsh speaking Indians, Indians with gray eyes, etc.
The founding of Roanoke was right around the time that the Spanish Conquistadors ruled the Caribbean. Another theory is that the colonists were slaughtered by the Spanish.
The Dare Stones were discovered from 1937 – 41 and believed to be inscribed by Eleanor Dare, the mother of Virginia Dare. All but one of these stones are considered frauds, however one is believed to possibly be genuine and is still being studied.