North Carolina: Roanoke Island Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Roanoke Island was the site of the first English colony in the Americas. It was first visited by English explorers in 1584 and settled by two English colonizing expeditions, in 1585 and 1587. The latter colony vanished mysteriously. In 1941, one hundred fifty acres in the area were named a National Historic Site.

Site Office

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Outer Banks NPS Group

Route 1, Box 675

Manteo, NC 27954

ph.: (252) 473-5772, 473-2111

Web site: www.nps.gov/fora/

Known as the Lost Colony, Roanoke Island was the site of the first attempted English settlement in America. Two groups of English settlers unsuccessfully attempted to colonize the outer banks of North Carolina. The second group of colonists intended to establish a permanent colony in 1587 but was never heard from again.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Between 1584 and 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh sponsored three voyages to America. These voyages were known as the Roanoke Voyages. The aim of the first voyage was to explore and investigate the area while the aims of the second and third voyages were to establish a colony and to found a settlement. England was eager to claim land in North America before it could be claimed by Spain, which had a substantial head start in the race to explore the Americas. Another motive for the colonization was to establish a base from which to raid Spanish ships carrying gold and other riches back from the New World.

Raleigh inherited the project from his half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who sparked British interest in colonizing the Americas when he obtained a charter from Queen Elizabeth “to inhabit and possess . . . all remote and heathen lands not in actual possession of any Christian prince.” In 1578, he made the first of two attempts to reach what is today Newfoundland. Gilbert died in 1583 during the second voyage, however, and Raleigh obtained his own grant from the queen to establish a colony in North America. In 1584 he dispatched a reconnaissance expedition under the direction of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to investigate the territory.

On July 4, 1584, Amadas and Barlowe landed on Roanoke Island. Accompanying the 1584 expedition were Thomas Hariot and John White. Hariot was an astronomer, a mathematician, and a navigator. He was chosen to observe and chronicle the voyage and expedition. He also became the liaison between the colonists and Algonquin Indians, who inhabited the island. In 1588 he wrote A brief and true report of the new found land of Virginia, in which he described Native American life and the region’s flora and fauna. The second edition of Hariot’s book was illustrated with engravings based on watercolor paintings by White, who would be the official artist on the 1585 expedition. His paintings portrayed the Native Americans neither as base savages nor as noble innocents, but as members of a culture that was worthy of attention and respect.

Virginia Colony

Reports from the expedition in 1584 sang the praises of the rich land. Amadas and Barlowe returned with two Native Americans named Manteo and Wanchese, as well as tobacco, potatoes, and other crops. Based on Amada’s and Barlowe’s report, Raleigh persuaded English investors, including Queen Elizabeth, to finance a colony in North America. The new colony was called “Virginia,” after the Virgin Queen. In April, 1585, Raleigh dispatched seven ships and 500 men, 108 of them colonists, for Roanoke Island. He appointed his cousin Sir Richard Grenville as captain and Ralph Lane as governor of the colony. The journey took three months. The colonists reached Port Fernando at Roanoke Island on June 29, 1585. The colony was to serve as a lookout for Spanish and French ships. The colonists built a fort on the island. The initial relations between the colonists and the Native Americans were good.

The colonists arrived with few provisions because of the loss of their flagship at sea, but most of the colonists were soldiers who knew little about land cultivation. It was too late to plant crops, and Lane, who was most interested in exploring for gold and pearls, had little interest in learning native fishing techniques. The colonists therefore relied on the natives for food and were supplied with fish and maize. Grenville returned to England, promising to return with supplies by Easter.

As winter approached, food became scarce and relations between the Native Americans and the colonists had began to sour. The colonists began pilfering the Native Americans’ food supplies, and European epidemics such as measles and smallpox swept through the Indian population.

By 1586, the colonists were anxious to resettle in the Chesapeake Bay area. After further exploration of the region, Lane concluded that Roanoke was a poor base for privateering. He was also drawn by tales of gold and a possible northwest passage. He led a small expedition up the Moratuc (Roanoke) River to search for precious metals and took Choanoke Indians as hostages in order to ensure their cooperation. Having only a few days’ supply of food left, Lane assumed he could get more from Native Americans living in the area. However, Chief Wingina of Roanoke warned inland groups that Lane had planned to raid them. Forewarned, they took their supplies and deserted their villages. Lane and his men survived by eating their guard dogs and returned to the colony, but by late spring there was open warfare.

Peace had been maintained until this point largely through the efforts of Wingina’s father, Ensinore. When he died, relations deteriorated rapidly. Wanchese, one of the two Indians who had traveled with Amadas and Barlowe to England and returned with Lane, sided with the Indians. Lane soon learned that Wanchese and Wingina were planning an attack on the colonists, and so arranged a ruse whereby he could launch a preemptive strike. At a meeting called ostensibly to air grievances between the two sides, Lane and his men attacked the Indians, burned their village to the ground, and killed Wingina.

Sir Francis Drake Offers Aid

One week later, Sir Francis Drake, who had been raiding Spanish ports in the Caribbean, arrived at Roanoke Island. Drake offered Lane one month’s food supply and a ship, the Francis, to transport the colonists back to England. The disappointed colonists eagerly accepted. They were to set sail for England after Lane had finished his explorations. However, a strong storm forced the Francis to leave the harbor and sank the smaller ships. Drake offered Lane another ship, the Bonner, but could no longer wait for Lane to finish his explorations. On June 18, 1596, Lane abandoned the colony, in his haste leaving behind three men who were off on an expedition. Also, a large group of African and West Indian slaves, who had been liberated by Drake from Spanish control, were left behind in the hurry to create space on the ships for the boarding colonists.

Two days later, a supply ship sent by Raleigh arrived in Roanoke. Grenville arrived two weeks later with supplies and four hundred men ready to fortify the colony and found the place deserted. He left fifteen men on the island and returned to England. The men were left with two years’ supply of rations and instructions to “hold” the colony until a new group of colonists arrived.

The Second Colony

More planning went into the second colony. Raleigh appointed White governor of the colony, and the two decided that the colony’s success depended on a commitment to the land. It was to be an agrarian colony rather than a base of operations against the Spanish. The inclusion of 17 women and 9 children among the 110 colonists to be sent there was a direct attempt to make the colony a long-term, self-perpetuating settlement. Each settler was deeded a five hundred-acre plot and promised a voice in the government. The colony was given a coat of arms and the name “Cittie of Ralegh.” A location was chosen on the lower end of the Chesapeake Bay.

When the ships sailed in May, 1587, the plan was to stop briefly at Roanoke Island to resupply Grenville’s party and settle in Chesapeake. When they arrived at Roanoke in July, the ship’s captain and his crew were eager to travel to the Caribbean and begin privateering, and refused to sail to Chesapeake. The colonists were left to resettle on Roanoke Island.

Like the first attempt, the beginning of the second colony was unfavorable. The colonists had failed to pick up salt and fruit as planned in Haiti. The fifteen men left by Grenville had been attacked and killed; the new settlers found only the bones of one of the men. Relations with the Native Americans were still uneasy. The colonists attacked an Indian village after a misunderstanding over the date of a peace conference led the settlers to believe their peace offer had been rejected.

Accompanying the second group was Manteo, the Roanoke man who had returned from England with the settlers. He aided in restoring cordial relations with the Native Americans. Manteo was baptized on August 13, 1587, and given the title “Lord of Roanoke.” The baptism was the first recorded celebration of a Christian sacrament by English-speaking people in America. Also accompanying the colonists was Governor White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare, who on August 25, 1587, gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first child of English parentage born in America.

Although crops were planted, White decided to return to England for relief supplies the next week. White and the colonists had agreed that, if relocation became necessary during his absence, the colonists would leave the name of their new location carved on a tree, with a cross carved above the name if they moved under attack. White departed for England on August 27, 1587, leaving the colonists behind. He arrived as England was preparing to meet the Spanish Armada in war and was unable to return for three years.

The Abandoned Colony

Returning on board a privateering ship, the Hopewell, on August 18, 1590, White found the colony abandoned. He saw no sign of the colonists except the letters, “CRO” carved on a tree and the word “CROATOAN,” the Algonquin name for the nearby island of Hatteras, carved on a post. Neither a cross nor bodies were found. The houses had been taken down, a palisade constructed, and White’s armor lay rusting in the sand. White wanted to sail to Croatoan to search for the colonists, but the privateers were anxious to begin their raids, and supplies were running low. He returned to England in November, 1590, without discovering their fate.

The search for those who have become known as the “lost colonists” did not end with John White. In the first years following their arrival at Jamestown in 1607, Captain John Smith and the other settlers made repeated efforts to locate them. In January, 1608, Jamestown settlers sent a search party upon hearing rumors that some of the colonists were still living. They later tried again to locate them in the Chowan River area.

Theories About the Lost Colonists

Although no one knows what happened to the lost colonists, there are many theories about their fate. The two prevailing theories are that the colonists traveled to Chesapeake and were killed by followers of Powhatan (chief of the Algonquins), and that the colonists moved to Hatteras Island and intermarried with the Croatoans. In 1959 the three foremost scholars on Roanoke–C. Christopher Crittenden, William S. Powell, and David Beers Quinn–met to discuss their views on the lost colonists. They all agreed that the some of the colonists left Roanoke and moved to Hatteras Island, and others moved to the interior. It was also agreed that the colonists’ destination was the southern area of Chesapeake Bay, that some of them were killed by Powhatan, and finally, that some of the colonists were still living with the natives shortly before the arrival of the Jamestown colony.

According to David Beers Quinn, the failure of the colonies was due more to poor organization and the conduct of the expeditions than to the failings of the colonies themselves. Nevertheless, Roanoke Island proved a valuable training ground for English colonization. The Virginia Company of 1607-1624 emerged directly out of the Roanoke ventures. For the native inhabitants of the Northeast, the events at the Roanoke colonies proved only too prophetic. The same patterns of greed, violence, and disease would be played out again and again as Europeans penetrated the continent. According to Quinn, “the Roanoke colonies can be seen as striking the first blow at [the native] culture in eastern North America.”

Roanoke During the Civil War

Roanoke Island again came to historical prominence, if much less dramatically, several times since the disappearance of the lost colonists. The island was the site of a naval battle during the Civil War. After Hatteras fell to Union forces, Roanoke Island became the last Confederate stronghold defending Albemarle Sound. The Confederates under Colonel Henry M. Shaw engaged the Union army but were forced to retreat and surrender on December 7, 1862.

Forty years later, at Weir Point on the tip of Roanoke Island, Reginald A. Fessenden, of the U.S. Weather Bureau, successfully communicated with a ship off the coast, using a wireless station he had constructed and would shortly patent.

Modern Preservation Efforts

In 1941, the U.S. government created the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, which spans one hundred fifty acres and includes a reconstruction of the small earthen fort built by the colonists. Exhibits at the site explore the history of the colony and depict Elizabethan life. The Elizabethan Gardens were created as a memorial to the first colonists and as an example of the gardens of the wealthy investors of the colony. Lost Colony, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Paul Green, is produced during the summer in the Waterside Theater by the Roanoke Island Historical Association. The play retells the story of the ill-fated 1587 Roanoke colony.

For Further Information
  • Hume, Ivor Noel. The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne, an Archaeological and Historical Odyssey. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. A history of the Roanoke Colony and Jamestown.
  • McCarty, Laura P. “New Findings at the Lost Colony.” National Parks 6, nos. 7-8 (1993). One of the more recent accounts of the Roanoke experience, focusing on archaeological efforts.
  • Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. A comprehensive history of the settlements, based on extensive research.
  • Robinson, Blackwell P., ed. The North Carolina Guide. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955. Although somewhat outdated, provides excellent geographical and historical descriptions of Roanoke Island and the surrounding area.
  • Stick, David. Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. Fills the void between scholarly and fictionalized treatments of the events at Roanoke.
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