Roanoke Colony

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A map of the Roanoke area, by John White (colonist and artist).

The Roanoke Colony on Roanoke Island in Dare County in present-day North Carolina was an enterprise financed and organized by Sir Walter Raleigh. It was carried out by Ralph Lane and Richard Grenville (Raleigh's cousin) in the late 16th century to establish a permanent English settlement in the Virginia Colony. Between 1585 and 1587, several groups attempted to establish a colony, but either abandoned the settlement or disappeared. The final group of colonists disappeared after three years elapsed without supplies from the Kingdom of England during the Anglo-Spanish War, leading to the continuing mystery known as "The Lost Colony".

Raleigh receives rights to colonize

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Sir Walter Raleigh had received a charter for the colonization of the area of North America known as Virginia from Queen Elizabeth I of England. The charter specified that Raleigh had ten years in which to establish a settlement in North America or lose his right to colonization. Raleigh and Elizabeth intended that the venture should provide riches from the New World, and a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain. Raleigh himself never visited North America, although he led expeditions to South America in 1595 and 1617, seeking El Dorado in the swamps of the Orinoco River basin.


In 1584, Raleigh dispatched an expedition to explore the eastern coast of North America for an appropriate location. It was led by Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, who chose the Outer Banks of modern North Carolina as an ideal location from which to raid the Spanish, who had settlements to the south, and proceeded to make contact with local Native Americans, the Croatan tribe of the Carolina Algonquians.

First group of settlers

Template:See The following spring, a colonizing expedition composed solely of men, many of whom were veteran soldiers who had fought to establish English rule in Ireland, was sent to establish the colony, prospect for precious metals, and uncover the copper smelting techniques of indigenous tribes. The leader, Sir Richard Grenville, was assigned to explore the area further, establish the colony, and return to England with news of the venture's success. The establishment of the colony was initially postponed, perhaps because most of the food stores were ruined when the lead ship struck a shoal upon arrival at the Outer Banks. After the initial exploration of the mainland coast and the native settlements there, the natives in the village of Aquascogoc were blamed for stealing a silver cup. In retaliation, the last village visited was sacked and burned, and its weroance (tribal chief) executed by burning.

Despite this incident and a lack of food, Grenville decided to leave Ralph Lane and, with approximately 75 men, decided to establish the English colony at the north end of Roanoke Island, promising to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies. They disembarked on August 17, 1585.[1]

As April passed, there was no sign of Grenville's relief fleet. The colony was still in existence in June when Sir Francis Drake paused on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean and offered to take the colonists back to England, an offer they accepted including the metallurgist Joachim Gans. The relief fleet arrived shortly after Drake's departure with the colonists. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville returned to England with the bulk of his force, leaving behind a small detachment both to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh's claim to Virginia.

Second group of settlers

In 1587, Raleigh dispatched another group of 117 colonists. They were led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh who had accompanied the previous expeditions to Roanoke.

The settlers landed on Roanoke Island on July 22, 1587. On August 18, White's daughter Eleanor gave birth to the first English child born in the Americas, Virginia Dare. Before her birth, White re-established relations with the neighboring Croatans and tried to re-establish relations with the tribes that Ralph Lane had attacked a year previously. The aggrieved tribes refused to meet the new colonists. Shortly thereafter, a colonist named George Howe was killed by natives while searching for crabs alone in Albemarle Sound. Knowing what had happened during Ralph Lane's tenure in the area and fearing for their lives, the colonists persuaded Governor White to return to England to explain the colony's situation and ask for help. There were approximately 115 colonists €” the 114 remaining men and women who had made the trans-Atlantic passage and the newborn baby, Virginia Dare €” when White returned to England.

Crossing the Atlantic as late in the year as White did was a considerable risk, as evidenced by the claim of pilot Simon Fernandez that their vessel barely made it back to England.[2] Plans for a relief fleet were initially delayed by the captain's refusal to sail back during the winter. Then, the coming of the Spanish Armada led to every able ship in England being commandeered to fight, which left White with no seaworthy vessels available to return to Roanoke. He did manage, however, to hire two smaller vessels deemed unnecessary for the defence and set out for Roanoke in the spring of 1588. This time, White's attempt to return to Roanoke was foiled by human nature and circumstance; the two vessels were small, and their captains greedy. They attempted to capture several Spanish ships on the outward-bound voyage to improve the profitability of their venture, but were captured themselves and their cargo taken. With nothing left to deliver to the colonists, the captains returned to England.

The discovery of "Croatoan"

Because of the continuing war with Spain ( Anglo-Spanish War (1585) ), White was not able to mount another resupply attempt for three more years. He finally gained passage on a privateering expedition that agreed to stop off at Roanoke on the way back from the Caribbean. White landed on August 18, 1590, on his granddaughter's third birthday, but found the settlement deserted. His men could not find any trace of the ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children, nor was there any sign of a struggle or battle. The only clue was the word "Croatoan" carved into a post of the fort and "Cro" carved into a nearby tree. All the houses and fortifications had been dismantled, which meant their departure had not been hurried. Before he had left the colony, White had instructed them that if anything happened to them, they should carve a Maltese cross on a tree nearby, indicating that their disappearance had been forced. As there was no cross, White took this to mean they had moved to Croatoan Island, but he was unable to conduct a search. A massive storm was brewing and his men refused to go any farther. The next day, they left.

Hypotheses regarding the disappearance of Roanoke

The end of the 1587 colony is unrecorded (leading to it being referred to as the "Lost Colony"), and there are multiple hypotheses as to the fate of the colonists. The principal hypothesis is that they dispersed and were absorbed by either the local Croatan or Hatteras Native Americans, or another Algonquian people; it has yet to be established if they did assimilate with one or other of the native populations.


In F. Roy Johnson's, "The Lost Colony in Fact and Legend", co-author Thomas C. Parramore wrote;

...The evidence that some of the Lost Colonists were still living as late as about 1610 in Tuscarora country is impressive. A map of the interior region of what is now North Carolina, drawn in 1608 by the Jamestown settler Francis Nelson, is the most eloquent testimony to this effect. This document, the so-called "Zuniga Map",[3] reports "4 men clothed that came from roonock" still alive at the town of Pakeriukinick, evidently an Iroquois site on the Neuse." It also goes on to say, "...By 1609 there were reports in London of Englishmen from Roanoke living under a chief called "Gepanocan" and apparently at Pakerikinick, It was said that Gepanocan held four men, two boys, "and a young Maid" (who may be Virginia Dare) from Roanoke as copperworkers..."

Francis Nelson Map circa 1607

On February 10, 1885, state legislator Hamilton McMillan helped to pass the "Croatan bill", that officially designated the Native American population around Robeson County as Croatan. Two days later on February 12, 1885, the Fayetteville Observer published an article[4] regarding the Robeson Native Americans' origins. This article states

"......They say that their traditions say that the people we call the Croatan Indians (though they do not recognize that name as that of a tribe, but only a village, and that they were Tuscaroras), were always friendly to the whites; and finding them destitute and despairing of ever receiving aid from England, persuaded them to leave the island, and go to the mainland... They gradually drifted away from their original seats, and at length settled in Robeson, about the center of the county..."

Person County

A similar legend claims that the Native Americans of Person County, North Carolina, are descended from the English colonists of Roanoke Island. Indeed, when these Native Americans were last encountered by subsequent settlers, they noted that these Native Americans already spoke English and were aware of the Christian religion. The historical babies of this group also correspond with those who lived on Roanoke Island, and many exhibit European physical features along with Native American features. Others discount these as coincidences and classify the settlers of Person County as an offshoot of the Saponi tribe.


It has been hypothesized that the colony moved wholesale,Template:Who and was later destroyed. When Captain John Smith and the Jamestown colonists settled in Virginia in 1607, one of their assigned tasks was to locate the Roanoke colonists. Native Americans told Captain Smith of people within fifty miles of Jamestown who dressed and lived as the English.

The weroance Chief Wahunsunacock (better-known as Chief Powhatan) told Captain Smith about the Virginia Peninsula-based Powhatan Confederacy, and went on to say that he had wiped out the Roanoke colonists just prior to the arrival of the Jamestown settlers because they were living with the Chesepian (a tribe living in the eastern portion of the present-day South Hampton Roads sub-region who had refused to join Chief Powhatan's Powhatan Confederacy). Archaeological evidence found at a Chesepian village site in Great Neck Point in present-day Virginia Beach suggests that the Chesepian tribe was related to the Carolina Algonquins, rather than the Powhatans.

Chief Powhatan reportedly produced several English-made iron implements to back his claim. No bodies were found, although there were reports of a Native American burial mound in the Pine Beach area of Sewell's Point in present day Norfolk, Virginia, where the principal Chesepian village of Skioak may have been located.

This hypothesis is somewhat contradicted, since according to William Strachey's The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britanica (1612), the Chesepians were eliminated because Powhatan's priests had warned him that "from the Chesapeake Bay a nation should arise, which should dissolve and give end to his empire." Strachey, who arrived in the Virginia Colony in May 1610 with the Third Supply, was well aware of the mystery of the Roanoke colonists, but made no mention of them in conjunction with his writings about the fate of the Chesepian at the hands of the Native Americans.

Lost at sea, starvation

One possibility is that the colonists simply gave up waiting, tried to return to England on their own, and perished in the attempt. When Governor White left in 1587, he left the colonists with a pinnace and several small ships for exploration of the coast or removal of the colony to the mainland.


Archaeologist Lawrence Stager has suggested that the colony might have been eaten by cannibals.[5]


Another theory is that the Spanish destroyed the colony. Earlier in the century, the Spanish did destroy evidence of the French colony of Fort Charles in coastal South Carolina and then massacred the inhabitants of Fort Caroline, a French colony in present-day Jacksonville, Florida. However, this is unlikely, as the Spanish were still looking for the location of England's failed colony as late as 1600, ten years after White discovered that the colony was missing.[6]

Archaeological evidence

16th-century signet ring in the Croatoan Archaeological Site Collection, Special Collections Department, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, USA.

In 1998, East Carolina University organized "The Croatoan Project", an archaeological investigation into the events at Roanoke. The excavation team sent to the island uncovered a 10 Carat(42%) gold 16th century English signet ring, gun flints, and two 16th century copper farthings at the site of the ancient Croatoan capital, 50 miles (80 km) from the old Roanoke colony. Genealogists were able to trace the lion crest on the signet ring to the Kendall coat of arms, and concluded that the ring most likely belonged to one "Master" Kendall who is recorded as having lived in the Ralph Lane colony on Roanoke Island from 1585 to 1586. If this is the case, the ring represents the first material connection between the Roanoke colonists and the Native Americans on Hatteras Island.[7][8]

Lost Colony DNA Project

The Lost Colony DNA Project is an ongoing effort underway by the Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project at FamilyTreeDNA of Houston, TX. The project will use DNA testing to prove or disprove that some Lost Colony survivors assimilated with the local Native American tribes either through adoption or enslavement. A large percentage of the surnames do exist among these tribes. Additionally, deeds and wills have been discovered to bear this theory out. The project will attempt to locate and test as many potential descendants as possible. Testing is also planned for some of the recovered remains.

Climate factors

Also in 1998, a team led by climatologist David W. Stahle, of the University of Arkansas, Department of Geography, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and archaeologist Dennis B. Blanton, of the Center for Archaeological Research at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, used tree ring cores from 800-year-old bald cypresses taken from the Roanoke Island area of North Carolina and the Jamestown area of Virginia to reconstruct precipitation and temperature chronologies.

The researchers concluded that the settlers of the Lost Colony landed at Roanoke Island in the summer of the worst growing-season drought in 800 years. "This drought persisted for 3 years, from 1587 to 1589, and is the driest 3-year episode in the entire 800-year reconstruction," the team reported in the journal Science. A map shows that "the Lost Colony drought affected the entire southeastern United States but was particularly severe in the Tidewater region near Roanoke [Island]." The authors suggested that the Croatan who were shot and killed by the colonists may have been scavenging the abandoned village for food as a result of the drought.[9][10]

Effect on popular culture

The "Lost Colony" and its fate, particularly the baby Virginia Dare, have had a significant effect on American popular culture. Numerous books and articles (ranging from scholarly to improbably romantic) have been written on the subject, and a number of places have been named Roanoke, Raleigh and Dare.

Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Green in 1937 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World, The Lost Colony is an epic outdoor drama combining music, dance, and acting to tell a fictional recounting of the ill-fated Roanoke Colony. It has played at Waterside Theater at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island during the summer months near-continuously since that time with the only interruption being World War II. Alumni of the cast who have gone on to fame include Andy Griffith (who played Sir Walter Raleigh), William Ivey Long, Chris Elliott, Terrence Mann, and Daily Show correspondent Dan Bakkedahl.


  1. " - Account by Ralph Lane". Retrieved 2009-08-16. 
  2. Neville, John D.. "The John White Colony". National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  3. "zunigamap". Retrieved 2009-08-16. 
  4. "The Croatan Indians of Robeson". Fayetteville Observer. February 12, 1885. Retrieved 2009-08-16. 
  5. Stager, Lawrence "An Investigation into the Roanoke Colony" in the Harvard Alumni Magazine retrieved 8/17/09
  6. "Strange Race Of People". Retrieved 2009-08-16. 
  7. "Croatan Dig 1998-1999 Season". 1999-10-25. Retrieved 2009-08-16. 
  8. "Guide to the Croatan 16". 
  9. Stahle, David W., 1998, The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts, Science, Vol. 280, Issue 5363, pgs. 564-567
  10. Caroline Lee Heuer, Jonathon T. Overpeck, Drought: A Paleo Perspective - Lost Colony and Jamestown Drought 2009-08-16

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