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Roanoke

Updated on May 5, 2010

Roanoke colony, the first English settlement in America. Its founding was spurred by the exploration of the English navigators Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe in 1584. Subsidized by Sir Walter Raleigh, they discovered Roanoke Island, situated between Albemarle and Pamlico sounds in present-day North Carolina, and considered it a suitable site for a colony. Raleigh obtained a grant of land from Queen Elizabeth I and sent out a colonizing expedition under Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Ralph Lane. They landed at Roanoke in August 1585 but almost immediately encountered Indian hostility and serious food shortages. In 1586 they abandoned the colony and returned to England with Sir Francis Drake.

Raleigh, however, was not discouraged. In 1587 he organized a second expedition. Unlike Grenville and Lane, whose primary interest in the New World was the discovery of riches, the leader of this group, Captain John White, shared Raleigh's aspiration to establish a permanent English colony in America. More than 100 colonists, including several families, accompanied White. They had intended to land on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, but the sailors refused to take them farther than Roanoke. When they arrived there in July 1587, White took up his duties as governor of the colony. Shortly afterward, White's daughter Eleanor, wife of Ananias Dare, gave birth to the first English child born in America. Since the whole area from Pennsylvania to South Carolina was then called Virginia, in honor of Elizabeth, the virgin queen, the baby was christened Virginia Dare.

In the summer of 1589, White sailed back to England for fresh supplies. England's war with Spain delayed him, however, and when he returned to Roanoke in 1590 or 1591, there was no sign of the colonists. The only evidence of the existence of the lost colony, as it came to be known, was the word "Croatoan" carved on a doorpost. This carving gave rise to the idea that the colonists migrated inland to join the Croatan Indians, who had displayed friendship for them. This theory is reinforced by the fact that a group of Indians now living in the North Carolina hills call themselves Croatans and often have English names. On the other hand, a group of stone tablets, discovered in 1937 in the vicinity of Roanoke Island and now housed at Brenau College in Gainesville, are said to record the lost colony's history. The inscriptions tell of the colonists' trek along the shores of Albemarle Sound, where they were decimated by disease and Indian attacks. The survivors were said to have migrated into the interior of the island. The tablets are believed to be a hoax. The so-called Dare Stone, which was later discovered, is purported to contain a message from Eleanor Dare to her father and again tells of the colonists' struggle with Indians and sickness.

In 1947, archaeologists employed by the U.S. government at the Fort Raleigh Historic Site reported the discovery of artifacts and portions of the fort walls of Roanoke colony. However, the mystery of the colonists' disappearance has never been solved.

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