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Roanoke Colony Settlement (The Lost Colony) (1584)


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The Roanoke Colony was the second English colony in the New World, after St. John’s in Newfoundland. It was founded at Roanoke Island in what was then Virginia (now North Carolina, United States).

The enterprise was financed and organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, who had received a charter for the colonization of Virginia from Queen Elizabeth I of England, specifying that Raleigh had 10 years in which to establish a settlement in North America or lose his colonization rights. Raleigh and Elizabeth intended that the venture should both provide New World riches and a privateering base from which to steal them from Spanish treasure fleets. With that in mind, an expedition was sent in 1584 to explore the eastern coast of North America for an appropriate location.

The 1584 expedition, led by Captains Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, chose the Outer Banks of modern North Carolina as an ideal location and made contact with the natives. They returned to England with a report of their find, samples of the local flora and fauna, and two natives: Manteo and Wanchese.

The following spring a colonizing expedition composed solely of men, many of them veteran soldiers who had fought to establish English rule in Ireland, was sent to establish a colony. The leader of the settlement effort, Sir Richard Grenville, was tasked with further exploring the area, establishing the colony, and returning to England with news of the venture’s success. Two occurrences could have led to his deciding to postpone the effort: 1) upon arrival at the Outer Banks the lead ship struck a shoal and flooded, ruining most of the colony’s food stores, and 2) after the initial exploration of the mainland coast and native towns there, a silver cup was noticed to be missing. The last native town visited was burned in retaliation. Despite a lack of food and this rocky start to relations with a potential neighbor, Grenville decided to leave Richard Lane and approx. 100 men to establish the English colony at the north end of Roanoke Island, promising to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies.

Unbeknownst to the English, the Outer Banks area was at the beginning of one of the worst periods of drought in 400 years. Although the natives were willing to barter some food for trinkets in the colony’s early days, as the year progressed into winter the natives became more and more reticent to trade. Lane’s reaction was to procure food through threats, and when threats didn’t work, military action. Among other things, he took a local Weroance’s (Wereoance = leader) son, Skikko, hostage and demanded food in recompense.

By April 1586, relations with the neighboring tribe had degraded to such a degree that they attacked an expedition led by Lane to explore the Roanoke River. His response was to attack the natives in their capital, where he killed their Weroance, Wingina.

April passed and there was no sign of Grenville’s relief fleet. When Sir Francis Drake arrived in June, on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean, he offered to take the colonists back to England. They accepted. Shortly after Drake’s fleet left, Grenville and the resupply arrived.

Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville decided to return to England with the bulk of his force. Fifteen men were left behind to maintain both an English presence and Raleigh’s claim to Virginia.

Raleigh dispatched another group of colonists in 1587, this time composed of men, women, and children led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh’s who had accompanied the previous expeditions to Roanoke. The new colonists were tasked with picking up the 15 men left at Roanoake and settling in the Chesapeake Bay area. Upon arrival at Roanoke, however, the fleet’s navigator, Simon Fernandez, refused to transport the colony further than the Outer Banks, claiming that continuing to the bay would delay his return to England into the North Atlantic storm season, thereby risking the fleet.

Forced to accept this reasoning, unveiled after 40 of the colony’s men had already been shipped to Roanoke Island to search for the 15 stationed there, the Roanoke settlement was re-established. Of the 15 men left the year before only the bones of a single man were found. The one local tribe still friendly towards the English, the Croatans on present-day Hatteras Island, reported that the men had been attacked, and the nine survivors had taken their boat and sailed up the coast.

The group of English settlers landed on Roanoke Island on 22 July 1587. Within a month (August 18), Governor White’s daughter had the first English child born in the Americas: Virginia Dare. Before her birth, Governor White reestablished relations with the neighboring Croatans and tried to reestablish relations with the tribes that Ralph Lane had attacked a year ago. The aggrieved tribes refused to meet with the new colonists. Shortly thereafter Ralph Howe was killed by natives as he crabbed alone in Albemarle Sound. Knowing what had happened during Ralph Lane’s tenure in the area and fearing for their lives, the colonists convinced Governor White to return to England to explain the colony’s situation and ask for help. There were approximately 117 colonists, 115 men and women who made the trans-Atlantic passage and two newborn babies (including White’s granddaughter) when White returned to England.

Fernandez was right; ships leaving Roanoke as late as White’s did were in danger. White’s vessel barely made it back to England. Plans for a relief fleet were put off at first by captains’ refusal to sail back during the winter, and then by political considerations: the coming of the Spanish Armada. Every able ship in England was commandeered to fight off the armada. This left White with no sound vessels with which to return to Roanoke, but he tried anyway.

In the winter and spring of 1588 White’s attempt to return to Roanoke was foiled, not by the weather but by human nature. The vessels released from defense duty were small, and the captains willing to sail them greedy. They attempted to capture several vessels on the outward bound voyage to improve the profitability of the venture, until they were captured themselves and their cargo taken. With nothing left to deliver to the colonists, the ships limped home to England.

For reasons unknown, John White wasn’t able to raise another resupply attempt for two more years, finally gaining passage on a privateering expedition that agreed to stop off at Roanoke on the way back from the Caribbean. John White returned on his granddaughter’s third birthday and found his settlement deserted. He organized a search, but his men could not find any trace of the colonists. Some 90 men, 17 women, and 9 children had disappeared; there was no sign of a struggle or battle of any kind. The only clue was the word “Croatoan” carved on to a tree. White took this to mean that they had moved to Croatoan Island, but was unable to search; a hurricane hit the Outer Banks and blew his fleet out to sea. By the time the storm abated the fleet was closer to England than Virginia and so, running low on provisions, returned home.

Controversy Over Lost Colony

While the ultimate disposition of the 1587 settlers is unrecorded (leading to their being known as the “Lost Colony”), there are multiple theories as to the colonists’ fate.

The most likely is that the colony dispersed and was absorbed by the indigenous population. The Lumbee, an indigenous people living on Croatoan, have the support of some historians in their belief that they are the descendants of a tribe that assimilated the Roanoke settlers. The settlers had left a clear message that they had gone to Croatoan (also spelled Croatan). The Lumbee people have in the past been denied federal Indian status due to their high degree of mixed blood. Despite John White’s difficulty in locating the settlers, some 50 years later the Croatan people were found to be practicing Christianity and having many of the last names of the Roanoke settlers. Stephen B. Weeks wrote in 1891, “their language is the English of 300 years ago, and their names are in many cases the same as those borne by the original colonists.”

Another is that the colony moved, and was then destroyed. When Captain John Smith and the Jamestown colonists settled in Virginia in 1607, one of their assigned tasks was to locate the Roanoke colonists. The natives told Captain Smith of men who dressed and housed as the English did living within fifty miles of Jamestown. Captain Smith was also told by Powhatan, Weroance (Chief) of the Powhatan Indians, that he had wiped out the Roanoke colonists just prior to the arrival of the Jamestown settlers, as they were living with the Chesapeake Tribe, a tribe that refused to join Powhatan’s confederacy. Powhatan reportedly produced captured English-made iron implements to back his claim.

Also, when Governor White left in 1587, he left the colonists with a pinnace and a number of small ships for exploration of the coast or removal of the colony to the mainland. Some surmise that the colonists may have tried to sail back to England and perished in the attempt.

Finally, some theorize that the colony was eradicated by the Spanish, as they had eradicated a similar French colony near present-day Jacksonville earlier in the century. This last is the least likely of the theories, as the Spanish were still looking for the location of the English colony as late as 1600, ten years after Gov. White discovered that the colony was missing.

Most likely is that the colonists dispersed throughout North Carolina to conserve resources: the Outer Banks areas was still in a drought period. Lee Miller, in “Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony: Roanoke”, surmises that the portion of the settlers who moved to Croatan Island probably intermarried with the inhabitants while those who moved inland were conquered and sold into slavery, which would explain the geographic dispersal of “Lost Colonist location” tales made during the 17th Century.

The Lost Colony Symphonic Drama

Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Green in 1937 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World, The Lost Colony is an epic outdoor drama combining music, dance, and acting to tell a fictional recounting of the ill-fated Roanoke Colony. It has played at Waterside Theater on Roanoke Island during the summer months near-continuously since that time with the only interrupion being the Second World War. Alumni of the cast who have gone on to fame include Andy Griffith, Chris Elliot, and Terrence Mann.

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