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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

The Roanoke Colony was England’s first attempt at establishing a permanent settlement in the New World. In August 1587, over 110 colonists called the island home. Three years later, they vanished without a trace. The events leading up to the settlement’s disappearance have baffled historians for centuries and the fates of the settlers remain unknown, making the Lost Colony of Roanoke one of the greatest mysteries of the Western Hemisphere.

Diplomatic relations between England and Spain were rapidly deteriorating in the late 1500s, marked by trade disputes and religious dissention. In 1559, Queen Elizabeth I of England passed the Act of Supremacy, which reestablished the Church of England as her country’s official religion. King Philip II of Spain, a Catholic, saw this legislation as direct opposition to papal authority and a facilitator of Protestant revolts in his European landholdings. The bitterness between the two monarchs escalated in the 1580s with state-authorized privateering missions (essentially piracy) of enemy cargo ships.

John White pointing to 'CROATOAN'

England sought to disrupt Spain’s monopoly of the Atlantic trade and stake a claim in the New World. While aforementioned privateering missions were conducted in the Caribbean and South American coasts, no efforts for English colonization were undertaken until 1584, when Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh which allowed him to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories…to have, horde, occupie [sic], and enjoy...”

Raleigh organized an expedition later that April. He recruited Captains Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas to navigate a crew of eighty men to the New World (Raleigh, himself, never ventured to the North American continent). The voyagers departed from England to the Canary Islands—off the West African coast—and then made the two month trip across the Atlantic to the West Indies. From there, they sailed north and scoured the East Coast in search of habitable lands.

The expedition made landfall at Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584. Roanoke, which is protected by a string of islands to the east (the present-day Outer Banks), was concealed from Spanish patrols in the Atlantic, and close enough to the Caribbean Sea for privateers to conduct regular raids on Spanish merchant ships. Shortly after coming ashore, the bewildered Anglicans made first contact with the indigenous Carolina Algonquian Indians.

The Algonquians arrived in the Outer Banks region, called Ossomocomuck, between 600 and 900 A.D. An estimated 5,000 – 10,000 people inhabited the area at the time of the English landing. They lived off the land—cultivating corn, beans, and tobacco (called Uppowoc), hunting, and fishing—and regularly interacted with neighboring tribes on a commercial basis. Each tribe was led by a werowance (a chief) who inherited power through the mother’s family. Wingina, Chief of the Secotan, was one of the first people the English encountered.

Exchanges between the Algonquians and English were exactly how you’d expect them to be…tentative and a little awkward. However, as they grew more acquainted, both sides exhibited increased compatibility and friendliness with the other. Trade agreements were even struck. The Algonquians traded tobacco, spices, and precious stones for the iron farming implements the English had on-hand. Relations progressed so well that Wingina allowed for two emissaries, Manteo from the Croatoan and Wanchese from the Roanoacs, to join the English on their return voyage that September.

Roanoke Island, with its fertile land, defensible position, and friendly natives, was the ideal location for a colony in the eyes of Sir Walter Raleigh. He named the land “Virginia,” in honor of Queen Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen), and made plans for a second voyage the following year.

Drawing of the village of Secoton (by John White)

The successes of the 1584 expedition instilled great optimism and potential for the 1585 voyage. Unlike the first trip, which was purely exploratory, the second trip was more of a military operation with the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent colony on Roanoke Island. Eight ships and six hundred men, under the direction of Sir Richard Grenville and Colonel Ralph Lane, left England in April 1585.

The second voyage across the Atlantic was much more treacherous than the first. Inclement weather heavily damaged two of the eight ships and completely destroyed one. The English fleet was forced to dock at Puerto Rico in order to make much-needed repairs. This diversion caused significant delays for winter preparations. To make matters worse, as the English navigated the Croatoan Sound, one of their supply ships, The Tyger, ran aground and ruined the crew’s food supply. When the English arrived on June 26, there were enough rations left for only 100 of the original 600 men to stay on the island.

Scientist Thomas Harriot was one of the men who remained on the island. He conducted anthropological and observational studies on the Algonquians to gauge their intentions and lifestyles. Manteo, one of the two emissaries from the previous voyage, led Harriot nearly 100 miles into the American interior and introduced the English to local plants, animals, and geography. From his travels, Harriot was able to accurately map out 200 miles of coast and learn the customs of the Algonquian people. He would praise the Indians for their kindness and generosity in his later publishings.

The English settlers’ food supply was completely exasperated by the winter of 1585-86. They increasingly relied on and competed with the Indians for food. That, combined with the spread of infectious European diseases, caused Anglo-Indian relations to deteriorate quickly. Eventually, diplomacy ceased to exist. Violent conflicts broke out frequently. In one instance, the English burned the entire village of Aquascogoc down on the premise that one of its inhabitants had stolen a silver cup.

Chief Wingina had little hope of mending ties with the English. He severed all supply lines to the colonists in an effort to starve them off the island. When that didn’t work, he considered more aggressive means and organized an ambush on the English colony in the spring of 1586. However, the plan was not kept secret for long and Wingina was captured and beheaded before it could be carried out.

The settlers who survived the harsh winter and Indian attacks were disheartened, to say the least. This was not the land of opportunity they were promised by members of the first expedition. It wasn’t until June 1586, with the arrival of Sir Francis Drake, did the colonists have an opportunity to leave the island. Fifteen of Grenville’s men were ordered to stay on Roanoke to maintain England’s claim while the rest of the expedition returned home with Drake.

Undeterred by the second voyage’s outcome, Raleigh organized a third colonial expedition to the New World in 1587. He recruited 118 colonists (including 17 women and 9 children) for the journey, most of whom were from the lower classes, looking for upward mobility in the social strata and excited by the opportunities colonization may bring. Artist John White—who was accompanied by his pregnant daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, Ananias Dare—was appointed governor of Virginia by Raleigh just prior to launch.

The colonists set sail from England on May 8, 1587. The original plan was to sail north of Roanoke and establish a colony in the Chesapeake Bay; however, due to extenuating circumstances that remain unclear, the plan changed and the colonists arrived at Roanoke Island on July 22.

Upon landing, Governor White ventured out to find the fifteen men who stayed behind from Grenville’s expedition. He discovered the 1585-86 settlement completely desolate. All of the men had vanished with the exception of one, whose skeleton was found in the middle of the camp (and if that isn’t foreshadowing, I don’t know what is…). Against his better judgement, White brought the rest of the colonists ashore and proceeded to reconstruct the old settlement.

Reconstructed earthworks from 1585 expedition

Hostilities between the Indians and English did not seem to tamper in the year between settlement expeditions. On July 28, George Howe, one of White’s assistants, was killed in an Indian ambush while catching crabs. The colonists launched a retaliatory attack the following week, however they mistakenly fought against friendly natives. In an attempt to secure good relations, Manteo was baptized a Protestant on August 13 and named “Lord of Roanoke and Dasemunkepeuc.” This was the first Protestant baptism in the New World. Five days following Manteo’s baptism, Eleanor gave birth to a baby girl, Virginia Dare—the first Anglican born on American soil. She was baptized on August 20.

Despite the glimmers of hope, the colony was struggling to survive. Resources were once again running low and morale was even lower. The colonists urged White to return to England to gather more supplies and additional settlers, to which White obliged. He left Roanoke Island at the end of August 1587, expecting to return early the following year.

When White reached England, he was denied return voyage. The conflict with Spain had escalated into the Anglo-Spanish War (1585 – 1604) and all English ships were conscripted into service to fight the Spanish Armada. White would not have an opportunity to return to Roanoke until 1590.

On August 18, 1590, the day of his granddaughter’s third birthday, John White returned to Roanoke Island, only to find the settlement completely abandoned. All of its structures had been systematically deconstructed and its inhabitants vanished. The only clue to their whereabouts was the word ‘CROATOAN’ carved into a wooden palisade. Based on what little information he had, White believed the settlers had moved to Croatoan Island, which is forty miles south of Roanoke. He was unable to sail to Croatoan due to a string a severe storms and returned to England without any closure for the fate of his fellow colonists.

Scholars have proposed numerous theories as to why the settlement was abandoned…

  1. They were ambushed and killed by American Indians: it’s no secret that Anglo-Indian relations soured over the course of attempted colonization. Were the colonists massacred by Algonquian Indians on the warpath? There’s little evidence to support this theory, due to the lack of bodies found at the site and intentional dismemberment of its buildings.

  2. They were attacked by the Spanish: Spain was aware of Roanoke’s existence and spent years scouring the coast looking for the English intruders. If found, the Spaniards would have surely destroyed it in order to maintain control of North America. However, no record of them finding the colony exists.

  3. A hurricane destroyed the settlement: The colonists would have been on Roanoke Island for a couple of hurricane seasons, and the Carolina coast is notorious for hazardous weather. Was it possible that a strong storm swept the colony away? Perhaps, but the presence of the lone palisade makes that theory highly unlikely.

  4. An epidemic killed off the colonists: Inadequate food, shelter, and water sources may have spelled disaster for the settlers if a wave of smallpox or influenza swept through. However, the English had immunities to these diseases. If these diseases were present, the American Indian population would have been more adversely affected. Additionally, the lack of graves places little validity in this theory.

  5. The settlers were starved out: The colonists were already extremely short on supplies when White left in August 1587. Malnutrition and deprivation were likely outcomes if they were unable to get assistance from surrounding Indian tribes. However, death by starvation is unlikely for reasons similar to the epidemic theory.

  6. The colonists did, in fact, move to Croatoan: White instructed his fellow colonists that, if they decided to abandon Roanoke, they should carve the name of where they were going into a tree. If the colony was in distress or under attack, they should carve a Maltese cross instead. Since “CROATOAN” was found written on a palisade, it is highly possible that the settlement moved to Croatoan Island. The lack of a Maltese cross indicates a voluntary effort to leave. Recent archaeological investigations of Croatoan Island (present-day Hatteras) have produced numerous Elizabethan Era English relics; however, they cannot be directly linked to the Roanoke colony.

  7. The colonists moved to the Chesapeake Bay: operating under the same theory as Croatoan Island, the settlers may have moved to their original destination in the Chesapeake Bay. So far, no evidence exists to support this postulation.

  8. The colonists moved further inland: The settlers wanted to establish a permanent “Cittie of Raleigh” approximately fifty miles inland. John White’s famous “La Virginea Pars” map (c. 1586) indicates a possible location for the second settlement. However, the map marking was probably a planned location, since no archaeological evidence has been found in the area.

There is one final theory that has garnered a considerable amount of attention. In 1607, at the Jamestown colony, John Smith interviewed Chief Powhatan about the missing English colonists from twenty years prior. Powhatan reportedly said he noticed Anglican-looking people in the camp of a rival tribe, the Chesepians. However, all members of that community were slaughtered during a raid he conducted shortly before the Jamestown colonists arrived. While this idea parallels the Indian attack theory, it also postulates that the English settlers assimilated with Native American culture. If that’s the case, the colonists could have very well survived the Roanoke colony and lived undetected by returning European settlers.

We may never know what happened to the Roanoke colonists. It’s a question that has perplexed the continent for over 400 years. And despite the mounting archaeological and historical evidence, we are no closer to solving the mystery than we were in 1590.

Virginia Dare Statue

Roanoke’s significance doesn’t end with a colony vanishing from existence. Far from it. The island would continue to play an important role over the course of American history. On February 7, 1862, General Ambrose Burnside and 11,500 Union troops made an amphibious assault on the island and easily overwhelmed the small Confederate defensive force commanded by Brigadier General Henry Wise. The Battle of Roanoke Island was one of many coastal assaults during the war in accordance with the Anaconda Plan—restricting access to Confederate ports and blockading routes to Europe. Roanoke Island is the gateway to the Albemarle Sound and was pivotal in controlling the North Carolina coast.

News of the Confederate defeat spread across the state, prompting numerous escaped slaves to seek asylum on the island. Major General John G. Foster, commander of the Union 18th Corps, controlled the island and instructed Chaplain Horace James to organize a freedmen’s colony in May 1863, intent to “train and educate [ex-slaves] for a free and independent community.”. The Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island was the first of nearly one hundred contraband camps formed during the Civil War.

Thousands of refugees flooded the island, with peak occupancy at 3500 people. Many of the able-bodied men who arrived enlisted in the 1st and 2nd North Carolina Regiments as combat troops. The rest of the community built schools, churches, and businesses, forming an immersive cultural center of African American heritage. Following the end of the Civil War and the formation of the Freedman’s Bureau, the colony was dissolved in 1867 and the land returned to its former owners.

Another momentous historic event took place on Roanoke in 1902. Reginald Fessenden, the Father of Modern Radio, conducted the first wireless voice transmission from Cape Hatteras to Roanoke Island. Fessenden was contracted by the US Weather Bureau to find a way to wirelessly warn ships of dangerous travel conditions. By manipulating amplitude modulation (AM radio) signals, Fessenden was able to produce clear and articulate sounds over the airwaves for the first time in human history.

There are many things to see when visiting Fort Raleigh National Park. I would suggest starting at the Visitor Center where you can see Native American and Elizabethan-era artifacts recovered from the island and view a 17-minute dramatization of the colony’s progression.

Just outside of the Visitor Center are two monuments: one commemorating the Freedmen’s Colony and another called the 1896 Monument. In 1894, the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association (RCMA) purchased the settlement site and began archaeological excavations the following year. After uncovering numerous artifacts and earthen works sites, members of the RCMA dedicated Roanoke Island as a historic site on November 24, 1896.

Located behind the Visitor Center are some reconstructed earthworks. Hundreds of years of wind, rain, and erosion reduced the original earthworks to miniscule mounds by the 1900s. The current earthworks were recreated in the 1950s and are the same dimensions as the original fort.

One incredibly unique feature of Fort Raleigh is the Waterside Theater. Ever summer, the park showcases The Lost Colony, a play written by Paul Green to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Roanoke’s founding and the longest-running symphonic drama in America. Sure, every park has reenactors, but it’s not often you get to see an entire theatrical performance!

One final destination worth mentioning at Roanoke is the Elizabethan Gardens. These elaborate gardens were constructed between 1951 and 1955 in memoriam of the lost colony. Visitors can enter through the Gatehouse and, for a small fee, tour the 10-acre property. The park contains a Knot Garden (an intricate perimeter of trimmed hedges), a Sunken Garden of aromatic plants, perennials, and herbs, and nearly a mile of trails.

Fort Raleigh is absolutely astonishing. It tells the tale of England’s first attempt at colonizing the New World and the mysterious circumstances surrounding its disappearance. The historic experience goes deeper, as visitors get to tour a 16th century-style Elizabethan Garden and humbly recognize our nation’s first Freedmen’s Colony. There is no shortage of information to learn nor activities to do at this national park, making it a must-see destination.

Visit the NPS Website for more information on Fort Raleigh National Park!

Check out some videos on the Lost Colony of Roanoke by Buzzfeed Unsolved and Khan Academy!

Learn more about the Roanoke Freedmen's Colony by clicking the link!

Click the link to learn more about the Elizabethan Gardens!

Visit the Lost Colony website for information on showtimes for the 2019 season!


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