When the colony of Roanoke was founded in North Carolina, it was the first attempt at establishing a permanent English settlement in North America. But the expedition ended in failure and mystery.
The British were late to the “North American colony” game, and were way behind the Spanish and French. When the Genoese navigator Cristobal Colon (latinized as “Christopher Columbus”) landed in 1492 at what is now the Bahamas, searching for a way to China for the Spanish, he did not realize that he had blundered into two entirely unknown continents. By 1565, the Spanish had conquered virtually all of South America and Mexico, and gained a further foothold in North America by claiming Florida and founding the city fortress of St Augustine, and the French had claimed much of Canada and the Mississippi River valley.
The English had already made the first forays of their own to the New World in 1497 and 1498, when the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto, working for the British and better known as “John Cabot”, made two expeditions to what is now Canada, hoping to find a northern sea route to the Far East that would allow English trading ships to avoid the Spanish colonies to the south. In 1527, a Royal Navy captain named John Rut returned to “Newfoundland” and discovered rich fishing grounds there which would become economically important. In 1576 another sailor named Martin Frobisher reached Canada and thought he had discovered gold, but when he returned a year later with a team of miners he found nothing and returned to England. In 1577, during a voyage that took him around the world, Sir Francis Drake reached the Pacific coast of North America, in present-day California, calling it “New Albion”.
But it wasn’t until later that London made a serious effort to claim a place at the North American table. The first attempt at an English colony was in 1578, when Queen Elizabeth I granted a patent to Sir Humphrey Gilbert to establish a settlement on Newfoundland. Gilbert sailed in 1583, but died in a storm on a return trip back to England. A year later, a portion of Gilbert’s patent had been transferred to his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, who was, as a condition, required to establish a permanent settlement by 1591.
He quickly dispatched two captains, named Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, to explore the little-known region between Newfoundland and Spanish Florida. They landed on an island that they called “Roanoke”, in what is now North Carolina, and reported a rich verdant land inhabited by peaceful natives. They even brought back two Native Americans with them: Wanchese was from the Secotan tribe which lived on the island, and Manteo was from the nearby Croatoan tribe.
The following year, Raleigh (who had been knighted by the Queen and appointed as Governor of “Virginia”) dispatched a fleet of seven ships with 600 men, to establish a settlement on Roanoke. All of the colonists were men, and most of them were military: Raleigh, who had already commanded several privateering expeditions against the Spanish, expected to use his colony as a base for further raids against Spanish treasure galleons. The colonists left England in April 1585, planning to stop in the Spanish West Indies for supplies. After several mishaps, they arrived at Roanoke. But now an accident with one of the ships destroyed much of their supplies, and it was decided that only 108 of them would stay, while the rest would sail back to England to return later. The colonists constructed a small palisade fort to protect against any Spanish raids, and began exploring the surrounding area. They quickly found the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
But the venture was doomed to failure. The colonists were headed by Ralph Lane, who, like the others, was a military man who had no special skills for establishing a self-supporting settlement. And they had arrived too late in the year to successfully plant any crops. With few supplies and no experience in agriculture, the colonists found that they were utterly dependent upon the kindness of the local Natives to provide them with food, but instead they quickly antagonized their Secotan neighbors. When somebody reported that their silver cup was missing, the English assumed that one of the Natives had stolen it and, when it was not returned, Lane decided that the colonists had to act harshly in order to not show any weakness. So they burned the Secotan village to the ground and killed the chief, thereby making enemies of the very people they depended on for survival.
When Drake reached Roanoke in June 1586 with a privateering fleet from the Indies, he found the surviving colonists huddled and starving. Lane asked him to take them all to the Chesapeake Bay area, where they could escape the hostile Natives and where the environment was better suited for a settlement, but when a hurricane came barreling in, it convinced everybody to abandon the effort and return to England.
Unknown to Lane, however, two supply ships were already on their way from England, and they arrived two weeks after the colonists had left with Drake. Finding the settlement empty, they left 15 men behind (to maintain the English claim to the area). All 15 of them were quickly killed by the Secotan.
The first attempted English colony was a failure.
But Raleigh was anxious to try again: his Royal Patent specified that he would lose all his land claims if he had not established a settlement by 1591. Lane also wanted to return, and convinced him that the Chesapeake Bay would be a better spot for a new colony, to be named “Raleigh”. Raleigh agreed to the plan, but placed another colonist, John White, in command of the new expedition. This time, however, instead of a military force, White would lead a collection of 118 farmers, craftsmen and, most importantly, 17 women and 11 children, who would be able to establish a functional self-sufficient community. White’s own wife, daughter, and son-in-law would join the group.
The new colonists left England in April 1587, but they never reached their planned destination. For some reason, the captain of the small fleet that carried them across the Atlantic took them back to Roanoke Island and refused to carry them further to the Chesapeake. White stayed with them for six weeks before agreeing to go back to England with the ships and obtain more supplies. Leaving his family behind, he sailed away.
By the time White reached London, however, war had broken out between Spain and England, and the Spanish Armada would soon be inside the English Channel. It would be another two years before it was safe enough to cross the Atlantic and go back to Virginia.
When White finally arrived at Roanoke on August 18, 1590, he found it completely deserted. On the wooden palisade fence that surrounded the settlement, he found the carved word “Croatoan”, and on a nearby tree were the letters “CRO”. Assuming that this indicated that the colonists had all left for the nearby Croatoan Island (today’s Hatteras Island) where Manteo lived, and where they probably sought refuge from the hostile Secotans. White attempted to set sail for Croatoan to find the settlers, but a hurricane struck and damaged his ship, forcing him to return to Britain. Another English expedition in 1602 was also unable to find any trace of the settlers—and the “Lost Colony of Roanoke” entered the realm of legend.
Since 1602, the Roanoke mystery has provoked many theories and guesses, many of them fanciful and involving everything from alien abductions to the Lost Tribes of Israel. At some point a series of flat stones with carved messages was found, purporting to be written by White’s daughter Eleanor Dare, but the “Dare Stones” are almost certainly forgeries and fakes.
In 1998, the Croatoan Project began archaeological digs at the site of Native villages on Hatteras Island, and found several English-manufactured objects from the Roanoke time period, indicating some interaction between the Croatoans and the Roanoke settlers. Some historians have speculated that the colonists were all wiped out by the large Powhatan tribe, or perhaps by Spanish raiders, while others have concluded that they moved to the Chesapeake Bay area or traveled inland to live with the Tuscarora. Still other stories assert that the Roanoke refugees settled with the Lumbee tribe. Other researchers, however, doubt that any local Native tribe would have been able to absorb a group of people as large as the Roanoke settlers, unless they had broken into a number of small groups and scattered.
White’s description of what he found at Roanoke, moreover, indicates that the settlement was intentionally abandoned, and had not been suddenly destroyed. There were no bones or bodies, he noted, and nothing had been burned. The buildings appeared to have been deliberately and carefully disassembled rather than wrecked or torn down.
And it is not only the colonists that have disappeared, but also the colony itself. After five centuries, most of the original maps and documents have been lost, and today nobody is sure where the exact location of the Roanoke settlement was located. While traces of the failed 1585 expedition have been found, there is no sign of the 1587 palisade. Some authorities have concluded that it is now underwater, lost to centuries of erosion.