Lost Colony of Roanoke

The first British attempt to colonize North America ended in mystery after the first colony’s settlers disappeared. The colonists had been plagued by a lack of supplies, an inability to obtain food from the land, internal conflict, little interest in local custom, and a preoccupation with gold.

Summary of Event

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, England experienced prosperity, and mariners were interested in establishing colonies in the Americas. On March 25, 1584, Elizabeth issued to mariner Walter Ralegh a charter to discover and occupy lands in North America that were not held by Christians. In April, two ships, captained by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, left England on a reconnaissance expedition and on July 4 arrived off the coast of the Outer Banks. Roanoke, lost colony of
Virginia, settlement of
Colonization;England of Virginia
Amadas, Philip
Barlowe, Arthur
Dare, Virginia
Grenville, Richard
Harriot, Thomas
Lane, Ralph
Ralegh, Sir Walter
White, John
Drake, Sir Francis
Fernandez, Simon

On the third day after their arrival, the two English captains had their first encounter with a member of the Roanoc Roanocs tribe. He was Granganimeo, brother of the chief, Wingina (Pemisapan). After delivering a welcoming speech to the captains, he was taken aboard their ships for a tour and given presents.

For several days, Granganimeo and other members of his tribe visited the English on their ships and received more gifts. These meetings led to a period of extended trade between the two groups. Granganimeo and his family dined with the English on their ships. After developing a trusting relationship, Captain Barlowe and seven sailors went to the Roanoc’s village, where they received a cheerful and friendly welcome. Barlowe described his hosts as kind and loving. After six weeks of exploration and trade, the English carried back favorable reports and two Roanocs, Manteo and Wanchese. Staying at Ralegh’s estate, Manteo and Wanchese learned English from Thomas Harriot.

On January 6, 1585, when Ralegh was knighted by the queen, he called the land Virginia in her honor and made plans for a permanent settlement. The second expedition of approximately six hundred men left Plymouth, England, on April 9, with seven ships under the command of Richard Grenville. With Manteo and Wanchese, they arrived at Ocracoke Inlet on June 26. Ralph Lane served as governor. They reached Roanoke Island, constructed Fort Ralegh, and built small houses.

After two months of careful exploration, Grenville returned to England with detailed maps. Left with 107 men, Lane spent nearly a year organizing numerous exploratory expeditions that gathered information about the country, its resources, and the American Indians. John White painted many pictures of the surroundings and the inhabitants. Harriot made a lengthy report on the area.

Having arrived too late to plant crops, Lane expected a shipment of supplies from Grenville to arrive before winter. Winter passed with no supplies, however. In addition, Lane’s colony was plagued by internal rivalries, a preoccupation with gold, and a pathetic inability to find food in an abundant region. Efforts to grow sugarcane, wheat, oranges, and lemons failed. Therefore, Lane established a close relationship with Wingina and his people. Harriot learned about local products, including grass silk, worm silk, flax, and hemp. The Roanocs constructed fish weirs for the English, taught them the medicinal properties of local herbs, and demonstrated how to extract flour from chestnuts.

In return, the colonists demonstrated such advanced goods as iron weapons of war, the compass, and spring clocks. Because the workings of such items exceeded the comprehension and technologies of the American Indians, they thought they were the works of gods rather than of humans.

Lane’s men had little interest in learning the ways of the Roanocs. They were more interested in the hints of pearl fisheries farther to the north and of gold to the west. In March, 1586, Lane dispatched an expedition north to find the pearl fisheries, while he took another group to look for gold in the western mountains. Each evening, they stopped at a different indigenous village. They stopped at Choanoke on the Chowan River, where Chief Menatonon of the Chawonoac Kingdom lived. Impressed with the chief’s knowledge of the surrounding area and wanting to learn more, Lane took the chief as prisoner on his expedition. To ensure Menatonon’s cooperation, Lane took the chief’s son, Skiko, prisoner and sent him to Roanoke Island. Menatonon was then released, and Lane took a group of thirty men to sail up the Roanoke River looking for gold.

Lane assumed that members of the Moratuck and Mangoak tribes would provide him with the necessary supplies along the way. The indigenous were forewarned that the English were conquerors; therefore, Lane found their villages abandoned and stripped clean. With little food, Lane and his men decided to return to Roanoke Island. On the way back, they were attacked by American Indians who were dispersed by Lane’s men.

When they reached Roanoke Island in April, Grenville had not arrived, and Wingina, who had changed his name to Pemisapan, had heard of Lane’s activities. After his initial request for the release of Skiko was denied, Menatonon sent a large delegation to Lane seeking his son’s release in exchange for his loyalty to the English crown.

This shattered Pemisapan’s hopes for a unified action against Lane. With the support of Wanchese, he united the different tribes, including the Chanoacs Chanoacs , Moratucks Moratucks , and Mangoaks Mangoaks , in a conspiracy to destroy the conquerors. Instead, Lane, Harriot, and some soldiers made a preventive attack on Pemisapan’s village and killed him and other tribe members.

In June, Francis Drake checked on the colonists. Turning down an offer of supplies, Lane persuaded Drake to take his colony and Manteo back to England. They left in such a rush that Lane left behind an exploratory party.

Immediately afterward, Grenville arrived with the anticipated supplies. Finding the colony gone, he left fifteen men with supplies for two years, but they would not be heard from again. Had Lane waited a little longer, he would have succeeded in establishing England’s first permanent American colony. Instead, he demonstrated that the land was hospitable for the English.

Ralegh sent another expedition to Roanoke in May, 1587, under the command of John White. This group of 110 was to pick up the men left by Lane and Grenville and to establish the city of Raleigh on the Chesapeake Bay. However, the pilot, Simon Fernandez, refused to take them farther than Roanoke Island. When White’s party reached Fort Ralegh, they learned from the evidence at the site and from friendly indigenous peoples that the men left by Grenville had been murdered by indigenous from the mainland. The houses left by Lane were repaired and new ones were built. Manteo, who had returned with White, was baptized and made Lord of Roanoke.

Like the Lane colony, the White colony discovered it had arrived too late to plant crops. Having inadequate supplies and receiving little help from the American Indians, White was encouraged to return home for supplies. He left his daughter and newborn granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first child born of English parents in North America, with the colonists and set sail. Because England was involved in a war with Spain, White could not return to Roanoke Island immediately. After Spain was defeated, White set sail for Roanoke in 1590.


Upon arriving, he found no one, only a stake in the ground with the word “Croatoan” written or carved on it. White assumed his colony had migrated southward to Croatoan Island, south of Cape Hatteras and the birthplace of Manteo. The following day, White set sail for Croatoan Island. A storm developed that pushed his ship into the North Atlantic and did such severe damage that he had to return to England for repairs.

By this time, Ralegh and England had lost interest in building colonies and were concentrating on raiding Spanish vessels directly from England. It was not until the expeditions of the first decade of the 1600’, and the 1607 founding of the Jamestown Colony, that the English expressed the desire to return to North America as settlers.

Further Reading

  • Hunter, John L. Backgrounds and Preparations for the Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1986. Includes chapters on the personnel, ships, food and supplies, and financing of the expeditions.
  • Loades, David. England’s Maritime Empire: Seapower, Commerce, and Policy, 1490-1690. New York: Longman, 2000. Study of the development of England into a colonial power. Places the settlement of Virginia within the larger context of England’s imperial project.
  • Miller, Lee. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. An iconoclastic work that takes a radically different view, arguing that Lane was paranoid and becoming mentally ill and that Pemisapan’s plot was nonexistent.
  • Miller, Shannon. Invested with Meaning: The Ralegh Circle in the New World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Study of the failed New World colonies attempted by Ralegh and his circle. Explains the links between these projects and changes in England’s economy and social structure.
  • Quinn, David B. The Lost Colonists, Their Fortune and Probable Fate. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1984. The first five chapters describe the setting, the relations with American Indians, and the problems among the colonists.
  • Rountree, Helen C., and E. Randolph Turner, III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia’s Powhatans and Their Predecessors. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2002. In the absence of substantial material on the Outer Banks Algonkians, this detailed account of a similar, neighboring society is highly useful.
  • Sinclair, Andrew. Sir Walter Raleigh and the Age of Discovery. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. The first three chapters explain the interest and attempts by the queen and Raleigh to establish colonies in the New World.
  • Stick, David. Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. A detailed description of each expedition and the geography, the indigenous peoples, and principals involved.
  • Trevelyan, Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh. New York: H. Holt, 2004. Exhaustive biography of Ralegh, written by a direct descendant.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

Sept., 1565: St. Augustine Is Founded

Mid-1570’s: Powhatan Confederacy Is Founded

Sept. 14, 1585-July 27, 1586: Drake’s Expedition to the West Indies