The Lost Colony of Roanoke

by JoHarrington

The first British colony in America disappeared without a trace. It's a mystery which has kept people guessing since the 16th century.

There are details to thwart every theory mooted to date. What happened to the intrepid pioneers of the Lost Colony?

The hundred and fifty strong men, women and children had set up a fortress camp in what is now North Carolina, USA. They were there in 1587, but nothing remained by 1590.

Their colony had been dismantled in an orderly fashion, without any sign of a struggle. Cryptic messages had been etched onto nearby trees. But of the people and their belongings, including the buildings, there was no trace at all.

Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony

Lee Miller's book is just the latest in a wealth of literature and theories aimed at attempting to find a solution for the Roanoke Mystery.

The First British Colony in America

Queen Elizabeth I had to do something or else the Americas would never be English speaking. The scene was set for one of history's greatest mysteries.

In 1584, the Elizabethan court in England was worried.  With the French colonizing Canada and the Spanish and Portuguese taking over South America, the opportunity for a British presence in the New World was narrowing.

There was just that vast tract of land, sandwiched between Mexico and Canada, left ripe for the plunder.  But first the British had to claim it.  They had to send people over to create a colony and that's precisely what was in the charter.

On March 25th 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh received his written permission from Elizabeth I.  He was to finance and settle a township of English people in the Americas.  He was to use that as a base to bring riches back to Britain, either from the natural resources there, or from piracy privateering against the Spanish galleons coming from the south.

Raleigh gladly accepted it and rushed away to make his plans.  Britain was in the game.

He worked quickly.  By April 27th, 1584, he was waving goodbye to Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, two men whom he'd commissioned to find a likely spot for a colony.  It's one of those beautiful quirks of history that they found it on July 4th.

It was Roanoke Island, then off the coast of what the British were already calling Virginia (after Queen Elizabeth - the Virgin Queen), but which today is North Carolina.  It was already occupied, but since when did that ever stop imperial interests?

Amadas and Barlowe befriended representatives from the three native tribes, the Secotans, Roanokes and the Croatans.  The leader of the Roanokes, Wanchese, agreed to accompany the sailors back to England. The Croatan leader sent her son, Manteo, with him. It was the latter who was to be instrumental in providing intelligence about the area.

While in London, Wanchese and Manteo were housed in some splendor at Sir Walter Raleigh's house.  However access to them was restricted and they were not free to wander about the capital.  Wanchese quickly became suspicious of the English motives and stopped co-operating with information.

An English scientist named Thomas Harriot was lodged with the two native men.  He quickly set about learning Algonquian, and attempting to teach the men English.  Manteo became fluent, but Wanchese never acquired more than a few words.  He simply didn't want to.

When a fleet full of English colonists set off from Plymouth, on April 9th 1585, both native men and Thomas Harriot were on board.  The English now had a vast wealth of geographical and local political knowledge, mostly gleaned from Manteo.

Books about Roanoke - The First Colony in English America

Buy these histories to discover more about what life was like for the Elizabethan colonists, in what would one day be the United States of America.

Grenville's Roanoke Expedition: The First Aborted Colony

Many believe that the Lost Colony was the first, but there was a disastrous trial run first.

Loaded with provisions, people and intelligence about the area, five ships left Plymouth Harbour in 1585.  It took them twenty-one days to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The voyage hadn't been trouble free.  A severe storm had separated the fleet early on in the journey.  The Tiger, carrying expedition leader Sir Richard Grenville, lost sight of the other four completely.

But they had contingency plans against this very eventuality.  They were all to make their way to Puerto Rico and regroup there.  The Tiger arrived first and Grenville built an English fort in Guayanilla Bay.  The remains of that are commonly used to envisage how the fort in Roanoke would have looked.  (See picture above.)

Soon the Elizabeth arrived too. The captains of both ships indulged in a little privateering against Spanish ships, while they were waiting for the others.

By June 7th, two months after building the Elizabeth Fort, Grenville decided to carry on to Roanoke, deciding that the rest of the fleet was never coming.  They set sail, but two weeks later, the Tiger hit a sandbar in Ocracoke Inlet, on the Outer Banks of modern day North Carolina. It damaged Grenville's ship and ruined most of his food stores.

On the bright side, he'd found the rest of his fleet.  The Roebuck and Dorothy were both moored in the Outer Banks.  They also had the passengers from the fifth and final ship, the Red Lion.  But the captain there had gone off privateering against the French in the waters off Newfoundland.

It may seem at this point that those Elizabethan captains were very easily distracted and heavily into criminal piracy.  You'd be right in that assumption, but they were also acting under orders. There was no money to be made in ferrying passengers across the Atlantic, but vast fortunes to be found in harrying the Spanish and French.

Queen Elizabeth I had almost certainly told them to do it; or, at least, Sir Walter Raleigh had!

Books about British Pirates in the Americas

Be under no illusion here. Those earliest British colonies were all about piracy and absolutely nothing to do with Puritan religion. This was not Massachusetts.

Killing the Natives and Setting up Camp

It wasn't the most auspicious start for a British colony in America. It was quickly over too.

Repairs to the Tiger meant a short delay before undertaking the final leg of the journey to Roanoke Island.

Sir Richard Grenville (pictured) and his fellow captains passed the time exploring the coastal settlements and meeting local tribes.  Manteo and Thomas Harriot were invaluable as interpreters, but Wanchese was still highly suspicious.

It was with good reason.  During one of the introductions, the native village of Aquascogoc were less than receptive to meeting English buccaneers and colonists.  They refused point blank to welcome them. 

Very quickly, Grenville claimed that a silver drinking cup had gone missing, and he accused the Aquascogoc of stealing it.  Retribution was swift and genocidal.  English soldiers surrounded the settlement and burned it to the ground. Every man, woman and child within it was killed.

That 'incident' sent a powerful message across all of the vicinity. The local tribes learned from the onset that denying the English would mean brutal violence.  It pretty much set the stage for the next four hundred years of interaction.

Finally the Tiger was fixed and the fleet could finish their journey. They arrived on Roanoke Island on August 17th 1585 and built a fort.  Unfortunately for them, it was desperately apparent that they hadn't got the supplies nor manpower to successfully establish their colony. Nevertheless, their new governor, Ralph Lane, was willing to give it a try.

Grenville promised to return in April 1586 with both, then took his ships off to do some more privateering before going home to England.  Manteo also reassured the abandoned first Roanoke Colonists.  He nipped home to his Croatan people and fetched enough food to see the English through the winter.

Wanchese also stayed, but only until April 1586.  As soon as it became apparent that Grenville wasn't coming back, the Roanoke chief returned to his own tribe.  No doubt he also carried a wealth of intelligence about these violent Europeans.

Very soon afterwards, a group of native warriors attacked the fort.  Against all odds, the English managed to repel them, but it had left them very shaken.

They were just highly relieved to be visited by Sir Francis Drake.  Another British pirate, he had been off plundering and pillaging in the Caribbean in spring 1586.  When he popped by to see how his countrymen and women were getting on, he found them desperate to get out of there.

The first Roanoke Colony was abandoned and returned home with Drake.  They took with them tobacco, potatoes and maize to be introduced into Europe.

A few days later, Grenville finally did return.  He learned from Manteo what had happened, none of which boded well for an English claim in the New World.  Selecting fifteen of his most experienced and hardy men, he left them at the fort to maintain that claim.  The rest sailed back home with him for further instructions.

Learn about Raleigh, Grenville and Drake

All three men were British pirates, harrying the Spanish on behalf of Elizabethan England. They all had parts to play in the first and abandoned Roanoke Colony.

The Arrival of the Lost Colony of Roanoke

This is the group of colonists around which such a long historical mystery lingers.

Queen Elizabeth I wasn't exactly ecstatic about the failure of Raleigh's Roanoke Colony. She threatened life and limb, if he didn't stay good to his word and charter and get more people over there, fast.

Sir Walter Raleigh (pictured) formed a coalition of twelve men, who were charged with helping him finance and found a lasting settlement on Roanoke Island.

They included John White, who had sailed on both of the previous trips, and who was willing to become the colony's governor.

White had carefully drawn a map of the area, as he sailed along its coastline. He determined that the colony would be better placed in Chesapeake Bay. Raleigh concurred.

With a late start and winter intervening, it took much longer to gather together the required colonists, fleet and supplies to undertake the second colonial endeavor.  But they were ready by early summer. 

On July 22nd, 1587, a fleet under the command of Simon Fernandez arrived at the Roanoke fort.  Portuguese born and Spanish trained, Fernandez was now a certified pirate preying on his former countries, and a British citizen too. 

White had collected together 150 people to form the new Chesapeake colony, but first they had to stop by semi-abandoned Roanoke to pick up the fifteen men left by Grenville the year before.  They did not find them.  A single skeleton was lying bleached in the middle of the ruins. 

It didn't take a genius to determine what had gone on, but later Manteo was to confirm it.  Warriors from an alliance of Secotan, Aquascogoc and Dasamongueponke tribes had defended their lands, killing every Englishman left by Grenville and destroying the fort.

White was devastated and furious.  Those fifteen men had been factored into the defenses for the new colony at Chesapeake Bay.  But that wasn't to be either.  As the colonists made to return to their ships, Fernandez refused to admit them.

For reasons which he kept to himself, he wanted the colony to remain at Roanoke.  It was here that he ordered the supplies to be unloaded and here where their settlement was rebuilt.

Popular Accounts about the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Read these books to learn more about the first British colony and the mystery of what happened to it next.

Re-establishing Roanoke: Britain's Claim in the New World

With no choice in the matter, Governor John White quickly organized the rebuilding of the Roanoke Colony. But there was a problem.

Chesapeake Bay might have been a better prospect, but without Fernandez's co-operation, they were stuck on Roanoke Island. 

Already in the midst of summer, there was little time to plant crops and gather a harvest.  Once again, Manteo came to the rescue of the colonists.  The Croatan people provided sustenance for the winter.

Against a backdrop of the hustle and bustle of building, there came two major events for the young colony.  The first was retribution and the second was a birth.

John White is usually portrayed as pictured. He's an artist and a dreamer. Someone who epitomized the American Dream before anyone had even come up with that ideology.  He was a kindly father, grandfather and governor; an unlucky and later sorrowful man.

The fact that he habitually sailed with Sir Richard Grenville on his privateering expeditions, and was now happily invading American land to form a base for European colonists and pirates, seems to get air-brushed from the narrative.

As his second act, after re-acquainting himself with the friendly Croatans, was to lead an attack against them with brutal abandon.  To be fair, he thought that he was sacking a village of Secotans, in revenge for their part in the previous destruction of Roanoke Colony.  Manteo soon put him right.  Amongst the Croatan tribes-people killed was Manteo's own mother.

It's difficult to follow Manteo's thought processes now.  He was suddenly Chief of the Croatans, and it was after this that he supplied the Roanoke Colony to ensure the survival of the English. He also gave assurances to White that the Croatan people would help defend the colony against other native tribes.

This was desperately needed.  Since they'd arrived thirty-five colonists had been killed in attacks by native people.

Was Manteo very forgiving, stupid or just pragmatic?  He'd been to England. He'd seen the fleet and the armory.  He knew what could be coming next.

On August 18th 1587, John White became a grandfather.  His daughter and her husband were amongst the colonists he had brought into the New World. Eleanor Dare had made the voyage while heavily pregnant; and she now gave birth to the first British baby born on American soil - Virginia Dare.

However, it was also very apparent that they'd woefully misjudged the supplies needed to firmly establish Roanoke Colony.  As soon as he was able to catch a ride on a passing British ship, Governor John White returned to England to raise more provisions.  Manteo went with him. 

It was the last that they would see of the people they left behind.

For the British colonists at Roanoke, in modern day North Carolina, the 'first white baby' born in America was their hope for the future. But what happened to her?

Children's Books about Roanoke: The Lost Colony

These books are the Roanoke tale told for children. They focus more on the mystery and less on the murky political history and piracy.

The Mystery of the Roanoke Colony

It took three years for White and Manteo to return. By then, the whole colony had disappeared.

While White and his colonists had been arriving in the New World, King Philip II of Spain had achieved a Papal dispensation to overthrow the Protestant Queen of England.

By the time John White and Manteo arrived back in Britain, the on-off Anglo-Spanish War was in full swing. 

They couldn't have returned during the winter months; and by the time the crossing could be safely undertaken in the spring, it was known that the Spanish Armada was en route to attack England.  No ship could be spared to take them back to the Americas.

Nevertheless, White did manage to commandeer two smaller vessels for the crossing, in the spring of 1588.  They even made it over the Atlantic.  But then spotted some Spanish ships coming their way.  The captains immediately attempted to capture the galleons, but they were completely out-classed.

The entire cargo of the British ships was confiscated by the Spanish capitan; and White was forced to return back to England empty-handed.  On May 28th 1588, the Spanish Armada arrived and now there weren't even small ships free to transport them.

It took three years all told before John White and Manteo were able to set foot again on Roanoke Island.  They arrived on little Virginia's third birthday, on August 18th 1590.  A shock awaited them.  The colony was gone.

There were no ruins as before.  The buildings had been unhurriedly dismantled and removed. No sign of so much as a scuffle was anywhere about.  The people and their settlement had all just disappeared into thin air.

Naturally, there had been some discussion before the men left, about what would happen if the colonists felt the need to move on.  The agreement had been to carve a message into a nearby tree.

John White ran to the tree and sure enough the message was there.  It simply read 'Croatoan'.  Another tree, close by, also conveyed the word 'Cro'. 

Had they joined with the Croatan tribe or relocated to Croatoan Island?  White wasn't to find out.  The crew of his ship weren't willing to hang about.  He either left with them now, or he was stranded here alone.

Devastated at the loss of his family, White boarded the ship.  The Roanoke Colonists were never seen nor heard of again.

Map Showing Roanoke Island and Croatoan Island

Novels about the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Such a delicious storyline, with an ending yet to be written, was never going to be abandoned by fiction writers. Here are their dramatized imaginings.
RoanokeWhite Seed: The Untold Story of the L...Roanoke: The Lost Colony (Keepers of ...
Cate of the Lost ColonyIndian Wood: A Mystery of the Lost Co...Roanoke: A Novel of the Lost Colony
Updated: 12/02/2012, JoHarrington
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What do you think happened to the Lost Colony? Any thoughts on what led to its disappearance?

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[email protected] on 03/19/2017

A dictator idiotship person in the beginning. Disease STD's. And idiots that believed in whomever fled these people across the seas. Kudos to the people who wanted to leave idiocy. But . well, at least we have America and Rump-Trump. Oh how wonderful.

JoHarrington on 12/02/2012

Lana - That's another theory. They all built boats, but the boats sank.

JoHarrington on 12/02/2012

Mira - That's one of the major theories. I also wonder if Fernandez was really as British as he made out. He could have kept them there because that's the location in which he'd already tipped off the Spanish or Portuguese.

Ragtimelil on 12/02/2012

Just wondering if they built boats, maybe they didn't make it.
If they'd been plundered, wouldn't there have been signs of the buildings left?

Mira on 12/02/2012

This was interesting. I wonder why everybody left. Maybe Spaniards came and plundered? According to what you're writing, they would have known about the colony.

JoHarrington on 12/02/2012

That is a very good point. I have no idea, unless they built boats for themselves.

Ragtimelil on 12/02/2012

How would they have tried to get off the island?

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