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Roanoke- America's Beginnings

Updated on July 25, 2014

England's first attempts to colonize the Americas began with an expedition in 1584. At the behest of Queen Elizabeth's trusted counselor, Sir Walter Raleigh, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe set sail to the North American coastline on a scouting mission. Their goal; to explore the sounds and estuaries in search of the "perfect" location for the first English settlement in the Americas.

Raleigh, the great soldier, statesman, and adventurer, had been given a charter by the Queen that endowed him with the exclusive rights of the land he claimed in her name, but her sponsorship was withheld. Raleigh would bear the cost of the colony on his own. Certain that he'd prosper, he agreed to her terms.

Amadas and Barlowe's first landing in the New World was believed to have been in the area of Hatteras, an island off the coast of modern day North Carolina; they then traveled northward where they found an area that would soon be called Roanoke.

Amadas and Barlowe

Barlowe's descriptions of the New World were reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. He speaks of the smell of sweet flowers, the cedars rising tall on the horizon, vines laden with grapes, and greenery everywhere. He describes the flight of the cranes as they take to the skies in reaction to the unknown blasts of gunfire; he writes of the cheers of his men as they watch the birds' movements across the sky.

Upon their arrival the men had no idea that the land where they'd anchored was not the mainland, that the land they claimed in the name of the Queen was indeed no more than a barrier island. In Barlowes's own words; "We manned our boats, and went to view the land next adjoyning, and to take possession of the same, in the right of the Queenes most excellent Majestie, and rightfull Queene, and Princesse of the same, and after delivered the same over to your use, according to her Majesties grant, and letters patents, under her Highnesses great seal." They believed themselves to have found what Raleigh was looking for.

Like the Spanish before them, Amadas and Barlowe lay claim to land in the name of a monarchy. How much land did their claim include? Did anyone really know? Or did they just mean everything?

Portrait of an Indian Chief by the Governor of the Cittie of Raleigh, John White
Portrait of an Indian Chief by the Governor of the Cittie of Raleigh, John White | Source

Granganimeo

A few days after their arrival, the men were met by one of the island's inhabitants, a Native American named Granganimeo. The men, impressed by his lack of fear, invited him aboard. They had him to dinner, shared a meal and drank wine. The English gave him gifts; a shirt, a hat, and select items they'd seen him gaze at in curiosity. When Granganimeo left the ship, he went to his own small sailing craft and proceeded to fish.

Granganimeo returned the following day, accompanied by his brother and an additional forty to fifty men. Barlowe describes the company as a "very handsome and goodly people, and in their behaviour as mannerly and civill as any of Europe." He would later come to find that Granganimeo's brother was in fact a tribal chief, Wingina. But it doesn't seem to have concerned him that a king already ruled the land they had just claimed for Raleigh in Queen Elizabeth's name. Since Wingina was not a Christian monarch, his claim to the land was irrelevant.

Most European explorers saw Indian societies in terms of their own experience. They acknowledged nobility, and they understood that each region boasted powerful chiefs, but that was where their understanding ended.

Sir Richard Grenville
Sir Richard Grenville

Grenville's Expedition

In 1585, after a year of exploration, Amadas and Barlowe returned to England. The stories and wonders they brought with them (pearls, animal skins, potatoes, tobacco leaf, and two natives named Mateo and Wanchese) sparked the imagination of England's citizens and opened the eyes of the English Queen. Colonization was no longer a dream. It was imminent.

The spring of 1585, found five ships setting sail from England's Plymouth port carrying the first group of English settlers to the New World. The expedition was led by Sir Richard Grenville.

On June 26th, the settlers landed on the Atlantic coast, and then spent the next month searching for a suitable place to build their community. Their arrival at Roanoke was cause for celebration. The environment was perfect and the natives were friendly. A miscalculation in provisions could have been a disaster, but relations between the settlers and the Native Americans were good. The settlers were provided with help in building shelters and hunting game.

Once Roanoke had been established (late summer), Grenville made his way back to England in order to pick up more supplies. Ralph Lane was named governor of the colony.

Ralph Lane
Ralph Lane

Roanoke's First Governor

As time when on, autumn brought colder weather, nodding its head towards the bitter cold that would accompany the winter months. Relations between the Native Americans and the settlers began to deteriorate. The natives weren't fools, and they could see that these visitors weren't solely there to explore; they were there to take land; they were there to stay.

The help of the local tribe came to an end. Food was withheld, and the colonists were hungry. The natives attacked the settlement. Their reasons for attack are unknown, but history tells us that although the colony depended on the local natives for food, they were also prone to kidnapping and keeping the natives hostage.

Natives were held until their ransom was paid, and the ransom was often that of information. One example of this may have been the colonist's search for riches, namely pearls. What history doesn't tell us is to what lengths the colonists were antagonized and threatened by the natives who wanted them to leave, or that much of the settlement's discourse was in fact caused by bickering and quarrels amongst the members of the colony itself.

Lane is said to have not been a very diplomatic man. His tendency to deal sharply and violently with both the colonists and the natives failed to endear him to anyone. A quarrel with Wingina led to the chief's death; he was beheaded on June 10, 1586. But their quarrel stemmed from Wingina's organization of a planned attack on the colony. Was Lane wrong to have protected the people he governed? I think not. Was he justified in ordering the death of a native chief? I don't know.

Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake

The Arrival of Sir Francis Drake

The day after Wingina's death, Sir Francis Drake arrived at Roanoke. En route to England, he stopped to offer Lane's colony help and supplies. Those supplies consisted of various types of equipment, 100 black slaves, and 300 South American Indians that had been taken from Spanish settlements he'd raided in the Caribbean Islands and Florida. He also offered to leave a ship, but the arrival of a hurricane quickly changed his plans. With his ship blown out to sea, Drake offered the colonists a choice; to accept a minimal amount of provisions and wait out Grenville's expected arrival or to join his own expedition and return to England.

Lane immediately accepted Drake's offer to return to England, as did the colonists who were present. Three colonists who'd gone out on a scouting mission in the up-country were left behind as Drake had no time to wait for their return. His ship, already laden with the extra weight of those abandoning their home sites had no more room. Belongings were thrown overboard, as were important records; what hadn't already been destroyed was simply cast away. Those records may have been the missing link as to what had really happened during the time the settlers lived there. But it doesn't matter, fish can't read.

Grenville's ships arrived with the promised relief supplies shortly after the colony had been deserted, causing a multitude of criticism for Lane's abandonment of the settlement. Grenville, on the other hand, not sure where the settlers had gone, left behind fifteen of his men and enough provisions for two years.

Rumors abounded upon Lane's return to England; many accusing him of leaving his post because he mistrusted Grenville's intentions. No one speaks of the way the colonists were living, or the fact that many had already left the settlement and moved towards the ocean in search of food; mussels, fish, and clams. Lane never again commanded a colonial expedition. Maybe he didn't want to, but more likely, he wasn't allowed to.

Map by John White- 1585
Map by John White- 1585

John White

Artist John White had been among the first group of settlers at Roanoke. He painted scenes of Native American villages, the people, the customs, and the wildlife that surrounded him in a place he'd hoped to call home. After returning to England, he advocated for future colonization.

In 1587, White convinced Raleigh to give the colony another try, and in May of 1587 he once again left Plymouth for the New World. White was accompanied by ninety men, seventeen women, and nine children. This attempt at colonization focused on families, and each was required to put up a portion of their own money to help offset Raleigh 's cost. In return, the families were each given 500 acres of land. White was so sure that life in the Roanoke would be successful that two of his own family members accompanied him, his daughter Elinor Dare and her husband Ananias. The family was on its way to a new future, in a new land. John White's new role would be that of the colony's governor.

Upon their arrival, the settlers immediately began to repair the cottages and buildings that had been deserted by Lane and his men. The previous fort had for the most part been destroyed, and the fifteen men Grenville had left behind with supplies a year earlier were nowhere to be found.

The earlier colonists had given the new group a foundation to work with, but the presence of women and children gave the entire venture a new sense of urgency. Aware of the mistakes made in their first attempt at colonization, Raleigh made sure that the second group was more prepared. Experience and careful planning would surely make a difference. The prospective colonists didn't just set off with provisions of food, clothing, and tools. They were also supplied with everything they could have needed to implement a self sustaining community. Trunks included books, maps, and pictures. But these things were not enough, and shortly after landing it became clear that they had once again made a mistake in calculating for provisions.

Good relations with a neighboring tribe, the Croatoan, may have led the governor into a false sense of security. They were friendly, open people, who when questioned told White that the fifteen men who'd disappeared were actually killed by members of the Roanoke, Wingina's tribe. The settlers wasted no time in attacking the village of Dasamonquepeuc , but the Roanoke had already fled the area. The settlers didn't get revenge, but they did kill a number of the Croatoan tribe members who were present within the community at the time of attack. Whatever relationship had been forged was now tenuous; the colonists had made a grave mistake.

Harsh weather, specifically drought, forced White to return to England far sooner than he had originally planned in order to conduct business and restock necessary supplies for the colony. That he had mixed feelings about leaving would be an understatement. Not only did he leave his daughter and son-in-law behind; he also left his newly born granddaughter, the first English baby to be born in America, Virginia Dare. The colonist's however, supported his return to England. They knew that replenishment of their supplies was necessary, and so did their governor. White departed for England late that summer; he wouldn't return to Roanoke until August of 1590.

John White's return to England was marked by the threat of a Spanish invasion. Raleigh, who'd never set foot upon North American land, was far too busy organizing ships to thwart a Spanish invasion to bother with worries about a faraway colony. Every seaworthy ship and every able bodied sailor was needed in England to combat the Spanish Armada. John White would have to wait, and so would the colony of Roanoke.

Before leaving Roanoke, White made an agreement with the colonists that if something unforeseen were to happen during his absence, they would carve the name of their location somewhere in the fort. If they were in danger, the name would be accompanied by a cross.

It would be almost three years before White would return to Roanoke in August of 1590. Anchoring at Hatoraske, a nearby harbor, White was ecstatic at the sight of smoke rising in the distance. His happiness however, was short lived. Upon closer inspection, the island was found to be deserted. The dissipating smoke had been nothing more than a small fire in the forest.

"We let fall out grapnel near the shore, and sounded with a trumpet and call, and afterwards many familiar English tunes of songs, and called to them friendly. But we had no answer." ~John White

The fort was in ruins, its gardens non-existent. Wild grass, weeds, and pumpkin vines were the only vegetation to be found. Knowing the agreement he'd had with the group, White searched for some sign of where they'd gone. He looked for the carving, and then he found it. The word Croatoan carved on a post, and no cross anywhere nearby. Can you imagine his relief at the sight of that doorpost? They'd only moved on, so he began to search. John White scoured the area for days before having to abandon the search due to inclement weather. The settlers were never found, and they were never heard from again. The colony had simply disappeared.

John White returned to Plymouth, England heartbroken. He had failed as governor, father, and grandfather. White later moved to Ireland where he spent the remainder of his life living on Sir Walter Raleigh's estates sketching maps for his tenants. White died in 1593.

Modern day Robeson County, in the state of North Carolina is home to a surviving group of Native Americans who call themselves Croatoans, and their native dialect surprisingly contains a number of words that sound like Elizabethan English. Known as the Lumbee Tribe, 41 of the 95 Lumbee family names were last names of the Roanoke colonists.

Could the ancestors of these people have known the settlers? Is it possible that they could all have moved on from the Croatoan Island together? Would it be too far fetched to believe that some could even be descendants of the members of the lost colony? And if so, is it possible that the blue eyes and blonde hair more than a few have inherited find their roots in England. I'd like to think so, but then again, we'll never know. Regardless, the legend lives.

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    • awdur profile image
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      awdur 3 years ago from Chicago

      WillStarr- Thank you for reading and voting up! I appreciate it!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Excellent! Well worth the read and voted up.

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