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4.2: Roanoke, Raleigh's Lost Colony

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    Under the rule of Elizabeth I, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was an Englishman of vision who saw the potential for English colonization in North America. He understood that, for his island nation to grow strong enough to stand against other European countries such as Spain, its territory had to expand. Colonizing North America would benefit the English in numerous ways. It would give them possible access to untold riches, such as the Spanish enjoyed in their colonies, as well natural resources like timber needed for fleets of ships. It would also give closer access to the best fishing grounds in the North Atlantic, a launch point for a search for the Northwest Passage, and safe harbors on both sides of the Atlantic. A man of influence with important connections at Court, Gilbert raised the funds for an expedition and was granted the letters allowing him to lay claim to land in the name of the English Crown and set out in 1583. He reached Newfoundland, which had a mixed temporary population of various European fishers as well as Indians. Gilbert claimed it for England and then sailed on. His little ship, the Squirrel, and its larger partner, the Golden Hind, were caught in a particularly fierce North Atlantic storm. Gilbert refused to transfer to the larger and somewhat safer ship, as he would not abandon his ship or its crew; instead, he stayed on the Squirrel even as its decks were awash with the sea. The crew of the Golden Hind watched helplessly as the lights of the Squirrel vanished beneath the waves. The Golden Hind survived and brought the news back to England that the Squirrel went down with all hands, including Sir Humphrey.

    Gilbert’s dream of a North American English colony was shared by his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh who, like Gilbert, was an adventurer and man of many talents. Raleigh was one of the most famous courtiers of Queen Elizabeth I, who made him a man of wealth and power. Raleigh was a devout Protestant who harbored a great enmity for Catholic Spain. He also saw Spain as a source of wealth for anyone with ships capable of attacking the Spanish galleons filled with gold that sailed across the Atlantic from the Americas to Spain. When sailors such as Raleigh attacked a Spanish fleet, they brought wealth back for England, keeping a large portion for themselves. These privateers enriched themselves and England at Spanish expense. They also kept England diplomatically neutral, as they did not sail Crown ships but their own.

    To be an effective base, an English settlement would have to be close enough to the Spanish territory to target their ships bound for Spain yet far enough away not to be easily found and destroyed by the Spanish. Newfoundland was too far north for Raleigh’s purpose, and, by this time, the Spanish had been in Florida for almost twenty years. Both the French and Spanish had attempted to colonize Florida: the French at Fort Caroline in 1564, and the Spanish at St. Augustine in 1565. The Spanish destroyed Fort Caroline and drove the French out of Florida, securing their hold on the area. Raleigh opted to look for a location in the mid-Atlantic coastal area, far enough south to avoid harsh winters, yet far enough north to stay clear of Spanish warships.

    Raleigh took great care in planning his first exploratory expedition. He did not go himself; instead, in 1584, he sent two ships, one large, one smaller, with a company of soldiers, good provisions, and experienced officers and crews. The ships arrived safely at the Outer Banks in July, 1584. The region was inhabited by two main groups of Indians, each united by a common language group yet divided into several tribes. The first, the Algonquian, were the larger of the two and occupied the Outer Banks and nearby mainland coast; the other, the Iroquois, lived further inland. It should be noted that the Iroquois tribe, which gave its name to the Iroquois group, did not inhabit the Carolinas; rather, they lived to the northeast. The Algonquian first encountered by the English were friendly and curious about the visitors. They had seen ships sail by before and may have seen Europeans up close or at least heard stories of them from the Indians further south. These were probably the first English they had met. Raleigh’s men had brought items for trade: beads and metal items such as plates and cooking pots. Other Indians were not friendly, however, and killed some of Raleigh’s men. Nevertheless, the English had found a good place for a settlement, Roanoke Island, which was inhabited by the Secotan, an Algonquian tribe; it had plentiful wildlife, fresh water, and other natural resources to help a new colony survive. Raleigh’s men returned to England, taking with them two Indians, Manteo and Wanchese, with the encouraging report of what they had found.

    Raleigh had not been idle while his ships were away. He had been working to raise the funds for his main expedition, one that would actually create a permanent English settlement in North America. For this expedition, Raleigh outfitted a small fleet of ships. He had intended to lead the voyage himself, but Elizabeth I would not allow it. Instead, Sir Richard Grenville, Raleigh’s cousin, sailed with the fleet and 600 men on April 9, 1585; the ships were soon beset by storms. Grenville on the Tiger, the largest ship in the fleet, lost contact with the other ships, the Roebuck, the Lion, the Elizabeth, and the Dorothy. One of their smaller boats was lost as well. The Tiger made its way to the closest port on Puerto Rico and was soon joined by the Elizabeth. While waiting for the rest of his fleet, Grenville managed to capture a couple of small Spanish ships and build a new boat. Having no sign of the rest of his missing ships, he sailed on for Roanoke Island with his new fleet.

    Near Roanoke Island, the Outer Banks mark the edge of a shallow area of water along the mid-Atlantic coast. Large ships could sail up to the eastern side of the banks, but could get caught trying to cross to the western side and the shallow waterway separating the banks from the mainland. Vessels with shallow drafts could easily sail the sounds between the banks and the mainland. Later, when charted by the English, English pirates and privateers would find the area useful for avoiding their pursuers. At the time Grenville arrived, the channels were still largely uncharted, except for what Raleigh’s earlier expedition had learned. After a good voyage from Puerto Rico, the Tiger ran aground trying to cross over to the western side. Some provisions were lost, damaged by incoming seawater. They managed to save the Tiger. Better news awaited Grenville: both the Roebuck and the Dorothy had made the crossing successfully.

    Screenshot (205).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Secotan Ceremony | John White was famous for his paintings of scenes of life in the colonies; this one depicts a Secotan ceremony. Author: John White Source: Library of Congress

    Grenville took time to explore further inland, traveling to different towns of the Secotan. The Indian reception of the English was generally good. It was during this time of exploration that John White made his famous illustrations of the Indians. The English wanted to learn more about the lands further inland and, in particular, if they held gold, silver, and other riches. One unpleasant incident occurred: a silver cup belonging to the English was apparently stolen. They accused the Indians of one village of taking it, and, when it was not returned, they burned the village and its fields. This act foreshadowed the troubled relations ahead. Meanwhile, a site on the north end of Roanoke Island, not accessible by large ships, was chosen for the colony. The supplies had to be off-loaded from the ships onto the smaller boats, then taken to the settlement site and there again unloaded. The area was cleared of trees and underbrush, and fortifications were constructed, as well as a dock for the small boats, housing, storerooms, workshops, and enclosures for the livestock.

    Grenville returned to England knowing that he had not been able to fully provision the colonists he left behind under the command of Ralph Lane. He did, however, believe that another fleet would arrive soon with more provisions and colonists. On his way home, he tried his luck again at attacking Spanish shipping and claimed a great prize: a Spanish ship carrying a fortune in gold and other items, more than most people of the day could even imagine. Grenville returned home to England with his Spanish prize to find the mood in England was very negative towards Spain. The conflict had been brewing for some time and had worsened while Grenville was away, so his arrival with a Spanish fortune made him a hero.

    The Spanish issue caused the next fleet scheduled to arrive at Roanoke to be diverted, though Grenville had no way of knowing this when he left the little colony. Without the anticipated supplies, Lane and his men had to rely on trade with the local Secotan for food. For their part, the Secotan had welcomed the English but had not expected them to be such a burden. As with any hunter-gatherers and farmers, the Secotan food supply depended greatly on the seasons of the year. In the fall and winter, they relied on what they had harvested and had to keep the supply safe to feed all of their people throughout the winter until spring, when hunting, fishing, and gathering would improve. In addition to the burden the English were placing on the Secotan food supplies, the English had also unwittingly brought disease. Where the English visited, death often followed for the Indians, who had no immunity against such European diseases as smallpox and influenza. Neither the Secotan nor the English understood the cause of illness, but there was no doubt that a connection existed between the English presence and the sickness and death of the natives.

    The Secotan chief, Wingina, also known as Pemisapan, moved to protect his people. He had all their stores hidden so there would be nothing available when the English came to trade. Relations between the two groups continued to deteriorate. Pemisapan plotted against the English, and Lane learned of it. He decided on a bold plan to attack Pemisapan before Pemisapan could attack the English. The final result was several murdered Secotan. Pemisapan himself was beheaded.

    The English had won, but at what cost? Their strategy of reacting strongly against any opposition caused the Indians to fear them, which was the English goal. However, they also caused the Indians to fear their continued presence. Some tribes remained friendly to the English, yet their list of enemies was growing. The colony site on Roanoke was no longer viable. Lane planned to relocate when, quite unexpectedly, an English fleet arrived.

    Sir Francis Drake, another of Raleigh’s famous seafaring relations, had the largest English fleet to date to reach North America. He arrived off shore in June, 1586. Lane asked Drake for aide, and Drake obliged with supplies, boats, and a small ship capable of sailing the shallows—in short, everything Lane needed to keep his small group going until Raleigh could reinforce the settlement. Lane was prepared to remain when suddenly a massive hurricane hit. The storm battered the fleet of over twenty ships anchored offshore. The little ship that Drake gave to Lane was lost along with some of Lane’s men. Huge hailstones rained down, endangering the sailors and damaging their ships. For three days, the fleet and Lane’s group were battered by what may have been one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Carolinas. When it ended, so too did Lane’s resolve to stay. He and his men sailed back to England with Drake.

    Lane had no way of knowing that supplies from Raleigh and more colonists with Grenville were finally on their way; otherwise, he would not have left. Similarly, the supply ship and Grenville had no way of knowing Lane had abandoned Roanoke, much less why. Both arrived to find Roanoke deserted. Grenville had brought 200 men but chose to leave only fifteen at Roanoke and took the rest back to England. Lane’s departure from Roanoke was a setback for Raleigh, but valuable lessons had been learned. The men left with Lane at Roanoke had been soldiers, not farmers, and certainly not diplomats. They were ill-suited for the type of work needed to help the colony succeed. They could not farm, and they were easily offended and prone to violence. Their attitude did not help create good relations with the Indians. The lack of dependably scheduled support ships also had hurt the colony. The location, while protected from attack by large ships, was not suited to serve as a port of call for the English fleet, as visiting ships had to anchor two miles offshore. There, they were unprotected from storms and clearly visible to any other passing ships, including those of the Spanish who would find them easy targets in such an exposed anchorage.

    Lane believed from his explorations that a better option lay to the north, the Chesapeake Bay. He had traveled there while exploring the region and found that it had harbors that would accommodate the largest English ships. The Indians there were Algonquian and friendly, and the area was quite attractive. Also, from the stories the Indians told him, he thought it might be an even better place to use as a base for a search for gold in the interior. Unfortunately, Lane, having abandoned Roanoke, was out of favor and would not be allowed to go on the next expedition.

    The honor of leading Raleigh’s next voyage fell to John White, an artist, map maker, explorer, and friend of Raleigh’s. White had sailed with Grenville on the first attempt to settle Roanoke in 1585. White’s famous watercolors of the Indians, their villages, and the flora and fauna of the region were the first images the English public was able to see of North America. The plan was for White to lead this new group, first to Roanoke to check on the garrison left by Drake and to return the two Indians from that area. Then, White was to move onto Chesapeake to establish his colony away from the troubles of Roanoke. White’s fleet, led by the Lion, left Plymouth, England on May 8, 1587. It sailed towards the Canary Islands for the first leg of the journey. Because of ocean currents and winds, ships did not simply sail off in a straight line from point A to point B; rather, they followed a route. From England to the Canaries, across to the West Indies, and then up along the Atlantic seaboard was the favored passage of the time. The route took advantage of the currents off the coast of West Africa at the Canaries that drove ships and hurricanes westward to the Caribbean. As predictable as any crossing of the Atlantic could be, it provided points where the ships could resupply and, if they became separated in the crossing, regroup.

    The trip had been well planned, but even the best of plans can fail. Before leaving England, some of the colonists abandoned the project. White and Raleigh had recruited families for this attempt, not just soldiers and sailors as in the past. The colonists had skills that would help a colony survive on its own and not be dependent on its Indian neighbors. As the time for departure had approached, some of these colonists backed out, leaving White with fewer people than expected to make the crossing. Then, before even reaching the Canaries, storms separated one of the ships carrying supplies and colonists, further reducing their numbers. Even so, White pressed on.

    By June, White had reached the Indies where more problems befell the little group. Several became ill from fruit and water consumed on the first island they reached. While no fatalities occurred, the incident added to the unpleasant conditions aboard the ships. White was in charge of the colonists; a pilot named Fernandes was in charge of the ship. Fernandes, a trusted sailor for Raleigh, had been the pilot for each expedition to the Outer Banks. He had clashed with Grenville in the past, and now he and White found themselves at odds. Throughout the voyage, Fernandes made decisions that were not in the best interests of the colony, including a critical error when he did not take the time to acquire more provisions while in the Indies. White could only object and argue; he was powerless to force Fernandes to follow his orders. When they reached Roanoke late in July, again Fernandes acted on his own. He decided to leave White there and not go on to the Chesapeake Bay. He did not simply abandon White; he unloaded the colonists and their baggage and provisions and gave White a ship small enough to sail around the shallow sounds and large enough to sail up to the Chesapeake Bay.

    Only one of the fifteen men of Drake’s garrison was found, and he was long dead, leaving nothing but bleached bones. The settlement area for Lane’s colonists was still there and usable, although in need of repair. The colonists set to work, clearing the settlement area again and expanding it for new houses suitable for families to use. White’s luck seemed to be improving when the ship that had been lost before they reached the Canaries arrived undamaged with all hands, colonists, and provisions intact. White now had a colony of one hundred and eighteen men, women, and children.

    White also had a coastline inhabited by angry Indians. He had left Roanoke before the relations between the Secotan and Lane’s men had fallen apart. He wasn’t there when Lane’s men attacked and murdered the Secotan chief, Wingina Pemisapan. How much White knew of the enmity that Lane and his men had created with the Secotan is unknown. White’s first real indication of the anger of the Secotan was the brutal murder of one of the colonists, George Howe. He was shot repeatedly with arrows, and his skull was caved in.

    Manteo, one of the Croatoan Indians who had first traveled to England with Grenville and returned home with White, learned from his people that Drake’s garrison and the attack on Howe was the work of the Secotan. White, when at Roanoke, previously had had good relations with the Secotan; among those who stood for his portraits was their chief Wingina, later murdered by Lane. White had hoped to be able to reestablish those happy relations even after the murder of Howe. However, when the Secotan did not respond to his offer of peace, White chose to follow the English pattern and launched an attack against a Secotan village in the dark. The attack was a dismal failure, as the Secotan of that village, realizing that the English would almost certainly attack them in retaliation for the murder of Howe, had left. The Algonquian, such as the Secotan, used a multi-village system, moving from one to another as need arose due to the seasons, farming, or threats. If there was a problem at one village, the inhabitants would simply leave. When White and his men arrived at the village at night, they did not realize that the Indians they found there were Croatoan, his allies, not Secotan, his enemies; both were Algonquian and had the same language and dress. As soon as they realized their mistake, the English halted their attack, but they had already injured and killed some of the Croatoan. The Croatoan had realized the Secotan would leave and not be able to take all of their food stores with them. The Croatoan, short on corn, had therefore sent a foraging party to the abandoned village. This incident was the second time the English has accidentally attacked their greatest allies.

    Among the families at the colony was that of John White. His daughter and her husband, Eleanor and Ananias Dare, came as part of the colony, even though Eleanor was pregnant. On August 18, she gave birth to the first English child born in the New World, a daughter, Virginia Dare. The colonists were adapting well, but the threat posed by the Secotan, in addition to all the other problems of settling at Roanoke, reaffirmed for White the need to move the colony. At the same time, someone needed to return to England to convince Raleigh to send support as soon as possible. White had tried to find someone willing to sail for England amongst his colonists; they, in turn, were quite determined that White himself should go. With great misgivings, he agreed. Before his departure, White and the colonists agreed on a sign that they would leave behind in the event the colonists left Roanoke before White returned. The colonists would carve the name of their intended destination on a tree. White then sailed for England in the small ship. His trip was very difficult, and White nearly perished. After several weeks, he arrived in London at the worst possible time to ask for aide. The situation with the Spanish had reached the point of war, and all forces, including Sir Walter Raleigh, were committed to the protection of England. Still, Raleigh did try to send a support fleet. The situation with the Spanish interfered with the plans, as Raleigh’s ships were ordered to support Drake in defending England from invasion and not sail for Roanoke. A couple of smaller ships were found and prepared, and White was able to sail on them in April, 1588, but the captain of one chose to play the pirate, endangering his ship and crew, resulting in White and many others being injured; the chance to reach Roanoke was lost.

    Unbeknownst to the English, the Spanish had been searching for the settlement at Roanoke, whose precise location was a mystery. So determined were they to find the English that they sailed all the way up the Atlantic coast. In June, 1588 as they were passing the Outer Banks on the voyage back south, they found evidence of the English settlement but recorded no sign of any Englishmen. White had been absent from his colony for ten months, during which time the colony had no contact with England.

    Meanwhile, White continued tirelessly to look for ships for his return voyage to Roanoke. At every turn, his efforts were thwarted, and he was unable to sail for Roanoke until 1590; in August, three years after leaving, White finally reached Roanoke. He found the settlement abandoned and overgrown. The ship and boats that had been left were gone. He found his own belongings packed in chests which had clearly been there for a good length of time and had been ransacked. Evidence showed signs of Indians but not of an attack. The letters CRO were carved in one place, the word “Croatoan” in another. If the colonists had left under duress, they were to carve a cross as a sign, along with the name of their intended destination. No crosses were to be seen. White and company returned to their ship with the intent to sail for Croatoan but were forced off by storms. Rather than waiting them out, the ship sailed away, eventually returning to England without ever making it back to Croatoan.

    John White was never again able to return to the Outer Banks to search for his family and colony, the Lost Colony of history. Sir Walter Raleigh allowed his personal life to nearly destroy him, marrying a lady of the queen without obtaining the queen’s permission. He lost the favor of Queen Elizabeth I and was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Because of his imprisonment, his loss of favor, and other distractions, Raleigh did not send anyone to the Outer Banks until 1603. With the death of Queen Elizabeth I and the accession of King James I, Raleigh’s fortunes took a permanent turn for the worse, and he lost his hold on colonization in North America.

    No other English ships of the time made any effort to look for the colony, as the goal of English ships sailing along the North American coast was to hunt Spanish ships further south, rather than to search for missing Englishmen in the mid-Atlantic. Not until a new colony was established in the Chesapeake at Jamestown would any English take up a serious search for their lost countrymen. None would ever be found, although stories of blond haired, light-eyed Indians would persist.


    The attempts to colonize Roanoke Island provided painful lessons for the English which contributed to the success of later colonies. Diplomacy and consistency were needed to build goodwill with the natives. Too often individual English jeopardized relations with the natives through rash and violent acts. The Indians also learned painful lessons, discovering that the English were at best a mixed blessing. Disease brought by the English devastated the native population, contributing to the downward spiral in relations. In the end, the colony at Roanoke failed due to English mistakes. The fate of the Lost Colony remains unknown to this day. We can surmise that they did at first go to the Croatoan village, but what happened beyond that and why they left is unknown.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Sir Walter Raleigh was the man behind the attempt to colonize Roanoke.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The Secotan were an Algonquian people.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The Indians did not have any problems with English illnesses.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    The first English person born in North America was a girl, Virginia Dare, on Roanoke Island.

    1. True
    2. False


    This page titled 4.2: Roanoke, Raleigh's Lost Colony is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.