The History and the Mystery of the Lost Colony
In July, 1587, 115 English settlers and one Native American stepped ashore on Roanoke Island. Roanoke Island lies just inside the barrier beach, near the mouth of Albemarle Sound.
Queen Elizabeth had given Sir Walter Raleigh exclusive rights to a huge, vaguely defined tract of remote, heathen and barbarous lands in the new world with a proviso that he establish a permanent English presence by 1591.
(Archaeological digs show that these heathen and barbarous people had been occupying Roanoke Island for 1500 years before the colonists arrived, since the time of Christ. This was a technicality of no immediate concern as long as everybody played nice.)
The newcomers had no way of knowing that their destinies would become tangled in the rivalry of two great world powers: England and Spain.
And they were not the first to settle Roanoke Island. They were coming onto an island where explorers led by Ralph Lane had already trespassed.
Three years prior, Raleigh had sent a group to reconnoiter the Albemarle and Chesapeake area to find a base of operations for privateering.
Queen Elizabeth was opposed to outright war with Spain, but she coveted the gold that Spanish ships ferried across the ocean from their colonies in Central and South America. She strongly encouraged her seamen to become privateers. (Pirates with permission and percentages.)
How much more convenient it would be if privateers could intercept Spanish ships from a colony in the New World!
Algonquian Indians offered the seafarers food and friendship and taught them how to survive in the wilderness. Short-sightedly, Lane and his adventurers repaid the kindness with arrogance. The colony was soon foundering from famine, storm, and disputes with Native Americans now hostile to the fractiously needy white man, once thought to be godlike, who spread smallpox.
Supplying colonies with necessities from abroad was always a logistical nightmare. Lane’s men might not have been so desperate if a long-awaited provisioning ship had not mired in an inlet. Unable to enter quiet waters, the ship lay at anchor in the ocean, battered until it finally sank.
The break point, however, was a terrible storm that lasted four days, flattening the island and wrecking ships. The troops had had enough. When Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer stopped by in 1586 after raiding Spanish ships, they wasted no time accepting his invitation of a sail home.
Despite the hard circumstances, the trip turned out to be a huge propaganda success. The soil is the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful and wholesome of all the world … The earth bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor, gushed a returning captain.
Investors swooned over visions of an idyllic land and Spanish gold. They clamored for shares in the enterprise. ( Lack of a safe harbor and incipient war with Spain would eventually lead to unfulfilled expectations.)
There were two men in Lane’s party who took a more thoughtful approach. Each of them appreciated the wisdom of the natives and saw the potential for colonizing the land and developing its natural resources for England.
Thomas Hariot was a scientist, and John White was a painter, a map maker and a keen observer. White’s artwork and maps give us the first historical glimpse into native life in a new world.
Hariot’s book, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia was the first book about the land and its people written by someone who had actually spent time here. White’s artwork and Hariot’s book stimulated continued interest.
Sir Walter Raleigh helped John White put together a community of men, women and children, families mostly middle class hoping to jump a rung, who would brave this new world. Their original destination was Chesapeake, hospitable and safe, but during what may have been a mutiny, the Navigator ordered sailors to leave the group on Roanoke Island.
The nominal reason? It was too late in the season to go on to Chesapeake and return to England before winter. The more likely reason? Privateering.
Sailors would happily follow these orders; often their only pay was a share in the proceeds from high seas adventures, more financially rewarding than ferrying colonists.
As Governor of the colony, John White objected. He was overruled.
Almost immediately after the settlers landed there was a birth and a death.
A colonist collecting shellfish along the Sound was killed by Native Americans . . .
. . .And a baby girl was born to Eleanor Dare, John White’s daughter. She would be the first English child born in the New World.
The baby was named Virginia Dare in honor of the Virgin Queen, and the land was named Virginia.
The colony was low on supplies. They had arrived at the end of the growing season so there was no time to plant crops — if they had any inkling of what they should be planting.
John White reluctantly left his family and the new settlement to collect provisions from England. He expected to return the following year.
In the days of sailing ships, it took more than two months to cross the ocean, that is, if your ship was lucky and was not blown off course or smashed by storms or boarded by pirates or detoured by a Captain who hankered for privateering — or caught in a war.
Imminent war with Spain took precedence over carrying anxiously-looked-for supplies to a beleaguered colony. Queen Elizabeth issued a stay of shipping in preparation for invasion by the invincible fleetes made by the King of Spain: the infamous Spanish Armada. All ships were commandeered for an ad hoc English flotilla.
Still, John White managed to locate a pair of dinky pinnaces that had been rejected for military service. Barely seaworthy, they were attacked by French pirates who playd extreemely upon us with their shot, hitting White in the side of the buttoke and robbing us of all our victuals, powder, weapons and provision… They aborted the expedition and limped back to England.
Finally, in March 1590, threat of Spanish invasion had passed and White was able to set sail again with two ships equipped by Raleigh. The voyage took almost six months; privateering and sea battles doubled cruising time.
It was too dark to navigate the shoaled inlets when they arrived, so White and his party shouted and sang folk songs and sounded trumpets to reassure the colonists. Nobody answered, but a column of smoke gave hope.
Bad weather and capricious currents made threading the inlet from the Atlantic Ocean into Albemarle Sound hazardous. During the short sail, seven of the chiefest (mariners) were drowned.
Governor John White had finally reached Roanoke Island, on August 18th, 1590, his granddaughter’s third birthday.
Unknown to White, crops had probably failed during his three year absence. Tree rings show extreme drought in the southeast from 1587 through 1589. Colonists were likely dependent on largesse from Indians that could be unreliable if their crops were failing, too.
He found no one. The smoke had apparently come from dead grass and trees. Chests that White had buried were unearthed, his belongings scattered, my books torne from the covers, … my pictures and mappes rotten and spoyled with rayne, and my armour almost eaten through with rust. Scattered dwellings were in ruins, but White found no signs of strife.
They had all recognized what a slender thread connected them, one to the other, and to their survival in the wilderness. Before John White left, some of the settlers agreed to make their way to Chesapeake; others would stay and await White’s return. If they had to vacate the island, they promised to leave a sign for him.
CROATOAN, carved into a wooden post, was that sign. I greatly joyed that I had found a certain token of their being at Croatoan where Manteo was born and the Savages of the Iland [are] our friends.., White wrote.
Manteo, you may now have gathered, was the Native American travelling with the English. He is memorialized in the name of the town where Fort Raleigh is located.
(The name of one other Native American, Wanchese, is memorialized on Roanoke Island. Like Manteo, Wanchese, had spent time in England. Though he was initially on friendly terms with the English, he grew increasingly mistrustful and ultimately hostile. In fact, he was one of the group who attacked George Howe while he was collecting shellfish.)
Manteo was special. He learned how to speak English. He was impressed by English technology. He worked with Hariot to record Native American language and customs. He was presented to investors at Raleigh’s home in full (English) costume. He befriended Ralph Lane during his explorations. He assisted John White in establishing the colony. He was an interpreter and peacemaker on Roanoke Island.
He was both an oddity and a tool for the English, but genuinely respected, especially by John White and the colonists. A month after the colonists landed, Manteo was christened in Roanoak, and called Lord thereof. . . in reward of his faithful service.
Manteo was royalty. He was chief of the Croatoans, a small tribe who lived on Hatteras Island. His mother was royalty, too. She was, for lack of a less awkward term, chieftainess of a tribe. (In Algonquian communities it was not unusual for women to hold high office.)
Like the Lost Colonists, Manteo fades into history in 1587.
The word on the post gave hope. It would appear that the colonists had left Roanoke Island to join the Croatoans.
John White would have liked to sail the fifty miles south to Hatteras Island to re-unite with the colonists. But the deaths of those critical crew members, coupled with the loss of one of the ship’s anchors (the fourth on this particular voyage), and bad weather, precluded the trip. Sailors were impatient to head back to England.
John White would never find the colony nor see his family again.The loss of the colony was a personal tragedy for White from which he did not fully recover. He never returned to the New World. Resigned, he wrote to a friend that he must give over the fate of the colonists and his family to the merciful help of the Almighty, whom I most humbly beseech to helpe and comfort them.
Searches for survivors were futile, though one Jamestown colonist wrote that he had seen an Indian boy whose hair was a perfect yellow with reasonable white skin. . .a Miracle amongst all Savages.
Meanwhile, the mystique of the Lost Colony cast a spell that exists today. All sorts of theories short of alien abduction have been advanced to explain the disappearance of the colonists.
They were murdered by hostile Indians. They were prisoners of the Spaniards. They died of famine or disease. They left the area to settle elsewhere.
Under the auspices of the Croatoan Archeological Society in Buxton, an archaeologist from England and volunteers have uncovered thousands of artifacts on Hatteras Island.
They show a clear mix of Native American and English pieces, copper rings, sword handles, earrings, a Nuremberg token, writing slates, glass, that appear to date back to the time of the Roanoke colony. Many are displayed in the Hatteras Public Library.
Co-founder of the Society and author of The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island, Scott Dawson, stresses that it is a story of brotherhood and friendship rather than violence and hatred. . . a story that leads to assimilation and family.
Two sites, called X and Y, have also been worked in Bertie County near the mouth of the Chowan River. Motivating this archaeological dig is the belief that colonists may have sailed west in Albemarle Sound toward the Roanoke River. This was Tuscarora territory, and these tribes were known to be hostile to the white invaders. However, there seems to be evidence that English settlers had successfully set up housekeeping.
Had John White not been caught between war and weather, his quest might have ended happily. We can only speculate and wonder.
The history and the mystery of the Lost Colony is kept alive by nightly performances in summer overlooking the water and by exhibits at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
(Next: New Beginnings, the Albemarle Connection, a Pandemic and a Revolt)