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The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island

#2093 // July 13, 1984 // Manteo, NC
Roanoke Voyages
400th Anniversary of the first attempt
to settle on Roanoke Island, North Carolina

"The Elizabeth",
50 tuns sailing ship led by
Captain Thomas Cavendish

Vessel of the second Roanoke voyage,
sailed from England on April 9, 1585
(Roanoke voyages in 1584, 1585, 1587).
[View contemporary map]

While Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in the New World, Roanoke Island was host to English settlers even before the start of the 17th century. Roanoke Island is famous for having the first-ever English colonial settlement on American soil. But what it is most famous for is, that the island was the birthplace of the first child born to English parents in the New World and how mysteriously these first English settlers disappeared without a trace after a short time. There were two expeditions to Roanoke Island, on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina, before the colony, what was to become the "Lost Colony", was established in 1587.
1584 - First Roanoke Voyage
On March 25, 1584, the English Queen Elizabeth I. Tudor (* 1533, r. 1558, † 1633) granted Sir Walter Rale(i)gh (* c. 1554, † 1618) a charter for the colonization of the area of North America. The charter gave Ralegh the opportunity to establish a successful English colony within seven years or he would lose his right to colonize. Colonizing would allow the English to benefit from North America's natural resources, similarly to how Spain gained wealth by their colonies. A colony would also serve as a forward operating base for privateers to attack Spanish vessels. Sir Walter Ralegh organized an expedition led by the captains Arthur Barlowe (* 1550, † 1620) and Philip Amadas to explore the Eastern coast of North America[1]. The expedition left the English harbor town Plymouth on two barks on April 27, 1584 and arrived at Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584. The expedition members returned to England in September 1584 along with two Native American tribe leaders named Manteo from the Croatoan tribe and Wanchese from the Roanoke tribe, who described the geography and living conditions of the area to Ralegh. Roanoke Island, a three mile strip of land offshore present-day North Carolina, south of Albemarle Sound, seemed to be a perfect area to establish a colony.
[1] The land west of the Atlantic coastline from Newfoundland to Florida was given the name Virginia by the English. The land was named for the newly discovered unspoiled land and Elizabeth I., the "Virgin Queen".
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1585 - Second Roanoke Voyage
Based on this information, Ralegh organized a second expedition, to be led by Admiral Sir Richard Grenville (* 1542, † 1591). Sixhundred men aboard a fleet of five ships "Tyger" (flagship), "Roebuck", "Red Lyon of Chichester", "Elizabeth", "Dorothy", and two smaller pinnaces departed Plymouth on April 9, 1585. Among the expedition members was John White (* c. 1540, † c. 1593) an English artist, acting as mapmaker to the expedition, and later Governor of the "Lost Colony". The voyage and expedition was ill-fated from the beginning. Grenville's flagship "Tyger" drifted off the fleet during a heavy storm. Grenville sailed to Puerto Rico, then a posession of Spain, where he landed on May 11, 1585. Puerto Rico was the predetermined rendezvous point in case that ships became separated from the rest of the fleet. One week later the "Elizabeth", who also became separated, arrived. With delays caused by the need to gather salt, the purchase of supplies, and the capture of a small Spanish frigate, then used by Grenville's second-in-command, Ralph Lane, to carry salt dug at Cape Rojo, they left Puerto Rico on June 7, 1585 and headed towards the Outer Banks, a string of barrier islands off the coast of present-day North Carolina, where they arrived off Cape Fear on June 23, 1585. On June 29, 1585 the "Tyger" ran aground at Wococon (may be the present-day Ocracoke Inlet) with the loss of most of the supplies on board. After the damages were repaired Grenville reunited with the remaining fleet which cruised in present-day Pamlico Sound. Finally the expedition fleet reached Roanoke Island in late July 1585. After Grenville made preliminary explorations of the area he decided to leave 110 men led by his second-in-command military captain Ralph Lane (* c. 1532, † 1603) to establish the colony at the north end of Roanoke Island, promising to return in April 1586 with more colonists and fresh supplies. Grenville left Roanoke Island on August 17, 1585.
1585 - First Settlement led by Ralph Lane
The colonists built Fort Ralegh and a village, but the settlement was doomed to failure from the beginning. The colonist arrived too late in the season for planting, and supplies were dwindling rapidly. To make matters worse, Lane alienated the neighboring Roanoke Indians, and ultimately sealed the fate of English colonization on Roanoke Island by murdering their chief, Wingina. Grenville already burned the village of the small Aquascogoc Native American tribe, on account of a missing silver cup, during his explorations. April and May passed with no sign of relief from Grenville. Lane decided on June 18, 1586 to abandon the settlement after eleven months due to constant threat of Native American attacks and waning stocks of food. Fortunately, Sir Francis Drake (* c. 1540, † 1596), on his way home to England from a successful privateering venture in the West Indies, made a planned stop at Roanoke Island and offered the colonists to bring them back to England, where they reached Portsmouth on 28 July, 1856. Grenville's delayed supply vessels arrived two weeks after the colonists' departure from Roanoke Island. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville headed for home almost immediately, leaving behind a small detachment of 15 soldiers with food for two years both to maintain an English presence in the New World and to protect Ralegh's claim to Virginia until another group of colonists could be recruited.
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Dangler of a necklace (?) with German inscription found at Fort Ralegh's excavation site
The obverse side reads:
(True good fortune comes from God)
On the reverse side is:
(John Schultes from Nuremberg [Germany])
Courtesy by Fort Raleigh National Historic Site


#796 // August 18, 1937 // Manteo, NC

350th Anniversary of the birth of
Virginia Dare on August 18, 1587,
first child of English parents born
in America on Roanoke Island,
the "Lost Colony",
present-day North Carolina

Virginia and her parents
Ananias and Eleanor Dare

US Mint // Commemorative Half Dollar Coin // 1937
350th Anniversary of the Colonization of Roanoke Island, NC
Obverse design:

Portait of Sir Walter Rale(i)gh
(* c. 1554, † 1618),
English navigator, explorer, politician, and poet,
leader of the Roanoke Voyages and
founder of the Roanoke Colony
Reverse design:

Commemorating the
Birth of Virginia Dare
(* 1587, † unknown),
first child of English parents born
in America on Roanoke Island

Elanor Dare and her daughter Virginia

Baptism of Virginia Dare, lithograph, 1876
Source William A. Crafts (1876),
"Pioneers in the settlement of America - from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849",
published by Samuel Walker and Company, Boston


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1587 - Third Roanoke Voyage
End of 1586 John White, an English artist and explorer, already a settler of the abandoned 1585 colony, recruited 117 men, women, and children who wanted to settle in the New world. In 1587 Sir Walter Ralegh started a new attempt to establish a permanent settlement on the lower end of the Chesapeake Bay. This one would be more ambitious, with its own coat of arms (see image at the left) and the title, "Cittie of Ralegh". On January 7, 1587 Ralegh named "John White of London Gentleman, to be the Chief Governor" of the new Virginian colony. Ralegh also appointed twelve assistants to aid the Governor to establish a rugged and substantial colony. On April 26, 1587 John White, the colonists, and Croatoan chief Manteo, who had become an ally during his stay in England, left the English seaport of Portsmouth aboard of the 120 tuns "Lyon", captained by Gov. John White with Simon Fernandez as master and pilot, a flyboat of 20 tuns with master Edward Spicer, and a pinnace captained by Edward Stafford. But the small fleet did not actually leave England until May 8, 1587. From the beginning of the voyage White had problems with the Portuguese pilot of the "Lyon", Simon Fernandez (* c. 1538, † c. 1590). Off the coast of Portugal, the flyboat was lost in a storm. The fleet finally reached Roanoke Island on July 22, 1587.
It was intended to be only a brief stop to pick up the 15 English soldiers, Grenville left back after the abandonment of the 1585 colony, and then to sail immediately to their planned destination Chesapeake Bay, two days sail further north, to establish the settlement «Cittie of Ralegh» there. However they found Fort Ralegh razed and the houses abandoned. Of the fifteen men left by Grenville, the only trace was one human skeleton. That bones may have been the remains of one of the soldiers, but there was no way to be certain. The garrison was vanished without a trace and no clue could be found as to what may have happened to them. Discouraged, the settlers wished to return home to England as they were relying on the assistance and experience of the English soldiers. However the "Lyon's" pilot Fernandez refused to let the colonists re-embark, and insisted they had to establish the new colony on Roanoke Island. Fernandez' behavior remains unclear. Unfortunately Governor White was rather a better artist than a commander and therefore not strong enough to force Fernandez to obey his orders. The colonists were forced to unload their supplies from the "Lyon" and to stay on Roanoke Island. But finally there was one bit of good luck - the missing flyboat, last seen off Portugal, arrived.
1587 - Second Settlement led by Govenor John White
The settlers immediately repaired the fort and fixed up the village agreeing with White that the settlement would be only a temporary homeland for them. Govenor White quickly made contact with the friendly Croatoan Native American tribe led by Chief Manteo, who explained to him that the lost 15 soldiers were killed by hostile Secotan, Aquascogoc, and Dasamongueponke warriors. White also made attempts to end the hostilities with other Native American tribes caused by the previous settlers. He also produced many watercolors about the Algonquians Native Americans' culture in the area. Among the new colonists were Governor White's pragnant daughter Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare, one of the twelve assistants to the governor. On August 18, 1587 Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter, Virginia, the first child born to English parents in the New World, and the granddaughter of Govenor White. Shortly after Margery Harvey gave birth to a baby whose sex and name were not recorded. After one month it became obvious that a leader of the colony must return to England in order to obtain badly needed supplies. After the colonists put their request in writing to White on August 25, 1857, he agreed to return to England with Fernandez' fleet to organize ships in order to bring supplies and eventually more settlers to the colony. He instructed his assistants to be in charge of the colony during his absence. White clearly understood that in case the colonists should decide to leave the place, they would carve their destination on a tree and add a Maltese cross, if they were forced to move because of Native American's attacks. After a disastrous passage on board the flyboat White reached England via Ireland by the end of October 1587.
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1590 - The Lost Colony
Governor White reported the both births and the colony's awkward situation to Ralegh. However, Ralegh was not able to assemble a relief fleet for the Roanoke Colony, because the Spanish King Philip II. (* 1527, r. 1556, † 1598) was amassing an Armada for an attack on England and therefore all English ships were urgently needed in defense of England. An attempt of White in 1588 to send two smaller ships, the 30-tun bark "Brave" and the 25-tun pinnace "Roe", to Roanoke failed. Following the usual practice, the ships engaged in piracy on the way. The "Brave" was attacked by larger French ships, lost the ensuing battle and limped back to England. Later, the "Roe" also returned. The mighty sea battle with the Spanish Armada was fatal to the attempts to relieve the colonists on Roanoke Island. It took still a year and a half after the defeat of the Spanish Armada before in 1590 a fleet of three barks "Hopewell" (also known as "Harry and John"), "Little John", and "Moonlight" (formerly "Mary Terlayne"), and two pinnaces "Conclude" and "John Evangelist" were again sent to Roanoke Island. Two shallops were lost under tow in the waters just off Plymouth. Governor White had booked a private passage on the "Hopewell" because, for unknown reasons, his official participation in the relief mission was unwanted and even his presence as a private passenger with no real authority was barely tolerated.
The fleet reached the Outer Banks on 15 August 1590. Three days later White and members of the ships' crews, finally arrived at the site of the village. This day, August 18, was exactly the third birthday of White's granddaughter, Virginia. The men found a peaceful and silent place - an undamaged fort, dismantled houses and no trace of the settlers. No clues of Native Americans' attacks or any other kind of violences could be found - no burned houses, no dead bodies, nothing at all. The only indications of the settlers' whereabouts was the word "CROATOAN" carved in the gatepost of the fort and the letters "CRO" carved in a tree. However, a Maltese cross, the sign agreed on in case the colonist were forced to leave the settlement, was missing and White was hopeful that his family and the other settlers were still alive. Croatoan was the name of a friendly Native American tribe which lived on an nearby island, present-day Hatteras Island, NC. White wanted to sail to Croatoan, but the losses of ship anchors in a storm, and privateer's impatience prevented them from stopping there. White arrived Plymouth on October 24, 1590 and never returned to the New World.
Between 1590 and 1602 Ralegh sent several expeditions to the Roanoke area to sift out the secret about the colonists' prolonged disappearance, but with no results. The "Lost Colony" became an unsolved mystery to this day. Over the centuries many theories about the colonists' fate were constructed, but none of them could be proved. A quite likely theory could be the following:
More and more months passed without the urgently expected return of Governer White and the supply vessels, chronically shortage of food caused by bad harvests, and a lack of essential hardware to maintain and improve the settlement had a demoralizing impact on the colonist. The settlers faced the same problems that the 1585 colonists did, but compared to their forerunners they had an important disadvantage - there were no ships to sail away. It might well be that they became convinced that the only way to survive would be building closer relationships to the local Native American tribes and to live with them. As time went on the settlers, voluntarily or by force, were assimilated into the local tribes.
To prove that theory, a project was started in 2007 to collect and analyze DNA from local families in the Roanoke area, the Outer Banks, and the North Carolina's mainland coastal area, to figure out, if they are related to the Roanoke settlers, to local Native American tribes or to both. Results are still outstanding.

John White discovers the word "CROATOAN" carved into Roanoke's fort palisade
Source unknown artist

Please click English flag at the left to learn more about the history
of Roanoke Island's colonization and the leading persons involved.
Please click flag at the left to view map of North Carolina

Please click here to view map of present-day Roanoke Island


// Elmar R. Göller // All rights reserved // Contact // Publishing Information