The First Voyage (1584)
An eleven-ship fleet, captained by Gilbert and including Raleigh, set sail in September 1578 but made it only as far as the coast of Africa before turning back. In March 1580, Gilbert dispatched the Azorean-born pirate Simon Fernandes on a reconnaissance voyage to New England and the mid-Atlantic coast before himself leading a larger mission, in June 1583, first to Newfoundland and then to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Unquenchably adventurous and sometimes reckless, Gilbert ran into a nasty storm and died at sea. But by then Gilbert's brother Raleigh was close to the queen, who appreciated his lavish dress and what one observer described as his "strong natural wit" and "bold and plausible tongue." Held fast to London by Elizabeth's affection, Raleigh nevertheless ordered a new mission. Two small ships (their names unknown) sailed from Plymouth on April 27, 1584, one commanded by the short, temperamental Philip Amadas, the other by Arthur Barlowe, a well-read comrade of Raleigh's from the fighting in Ireland. With about seventy-five soldiers and sailors aboard, Fernandes served as chief pilot, while the painter John White and the mathematician Thomas Hariot may have tagged along as something like resident artist-intellectuals.
A Spanish captive later claimed that when the party arrived at the Outer Banks, the Indians attacked them and "ate thirty-eight Englishmen." Barlowe describes no such thing; the Indians' welcome, which came three days after the colonists arrived early in July, appears to have been friendly and ritualistic. Three Indians appeared, Barlowe writes, "never making any show of fear or doubt," and one of them spoke at length, after which he was bestowed with gifts and treated to wine and meat.
Barlowe was extravagantly impressed by Ossomocomuck, praising its "goodly woods, full of Deer, Conies [rabbits], Hares, and Fowl, even in the midst of Summer, in incredible abundance," not to mention "the highest, reddest Cedars of the world." The Indians, who had been suffering through a severe drought and who lacked extra stores of food, were unsure of how to react to the English encroachment. Some may have been as friendly as Barlowe claimed; others were less so. Hariot later wrote of the Roanoke Indians raising up a "horrible crye, as people which never befoer had seene men appareled like us, and camme a way makinge out crys like wild beasts or men out of their wyts." Amadas and Fernandes, meanwhile, took a ship to, probably, the north side of Albemarle Sound, and there encountered hostile Indians.
The Second Voyage (1585)
In London, Manteo and Wanchese took up residence at Durham House, a mansion on the Thames River granted Raleigh by the queen. There, they taught Hariot Algonquian and he taught them English. Raleigh, who was doing everything he could to raise money and support for a large-scale colonizing effort at Roanoke, likely even presented the pair at court. Barlowe prepared a report that emphasized the most positive aspects of the summer's mission and Hakluyt (the younger) presented to the queen and her advisors a sustained and forceful argument for colonization, Discourse on Western Planting. By December, Raleigh had the support of both the Crown and the House of Commons, and on January 6, 1585, he was knighted during a celebration of the Twelfth Night of Christmas; shortly afterward, he assumed a title, Lord and Governor of Virginia, that revealed a new name for the queen's colony.
The Indians, meanwhile, were no less divided now about the English than they had been the year before. During the English absence, Wingina's people had observed a total eclipse of the sun, and immediately upon the colonists' reappearance, a comet had slowly blazed across the sky. The Algonquians thought these to be potentially significant signs, and when villages began to suffer from a quick-moving, often-fatal illness, they saw all of these events as related. On July 3, Grenville sent a pinnace and small crew, including Wanchese, north to Roanoke to announce their arrival to Wingina. Wanchese fled the English to Dasemunkepeuc, where he warned that the colonists could not be trusted. In contrast, Manteo continued to wear Western clothes, perfect his English, and support Grenville.
Later that summer, Grenville returned to England, leaving behind 108 men under the charge of Ralph Lane and expecting a relief mission to arrive in the autumn. (It didn't; Elizabeth had diverted it to the Netherlands.) That winter hungry colonists, likely led by Amadas, sailed to the Chesapeake Bay, where they visited Skicoak, capital of the Chesapeake Indians, and may, in turn, have been visited there by groups from the Eastern Shore. (Historians disagree over whether both White and Hariot joined the expedition, or just one of them did; regardless, they later collaborated on elaborate maps of the region.) Meanwhile, disease and famine took their toll on the Indians back at Roanoke—Granganimeo died early in 1586—so that when Amadas returned in the spring, Wingina was considering whether to attempt wiping out the intruders.
A later account by Ralph Lane accuses Wingina of concocting an elaborate plan by which the weroance would eliminate the English by sending them into the clutches of the powerful Chowanocs and their chief, Menatonon. While possible, it seems more likely that Wingina—who at this time changed his name to Pemisapan, possibly meaning "one who vigilantly watches"—took a middle course, removing his people to Dasemunkepeuc and cutting Lane off from any food supplies. In the meantime, Lane not only met with Menatonon and survived, but the Chowanoc weroance's son Skiko told the colonists of a land called Chaunis Temoatan, beyond Tuscarora territory, where valuable copper was mined.
A relief mission arrived a few weeks later only to find the settlers gone. The same happened to Grenville, who, along with six ships and 200 colonists, landed at Roanoke in July. (One historian speculates that an Indian found hanging from a tree could have been Skiko.) After staying for a few weeks, Grenville set sail again, leaving behind a garrison of fifteen soldiers with enough provisions to last a year.
The Lost Colony (1587)
To make matters worse, one of Fernandes's sailors indicated that White's men were not welcome to reboard the Lion, that they should stay at Roanoke because "the Summer was farre spent." (Fernandes still hoped to make it back to the West Indies in time to loot Spanish ships.) This is one of the great controversies surrounding the Lost Colony. White wrote, referring to himself in the third person, that "it booted [suited] not the Governor to contend" with Fernandes, but the governor's refusal to argue the point—and to carry out Raleigh's explicit instructions for the colony—has long puzzled historians. James Horn has argued that the incident only makes sense if White and Fernandes actually agreed on making the change. White's later account, blaming Fernandes, was therefore intended to deflect his patron's anger over the change in plans.
Whatever the case, Roanoke was where the colonists would settle, at least for the moment. If they were nervous contemplating the apparent deaths of Grenville's men, they must have been more so after the death of White's adviser George Howe on July 28. Howe was found in the woods two miles from camp, dead from sixteen arrows and a gruesome beating. Three days later, White sailed south to meet with the Croatoans, who reported that both Grenville's men and Howe had been killed by Wanchese's Roanokes at Dasemunkepeuc. Manteo's people, meanwhile, promised to support the English on one condition: "that there might be some token or badge given them of us, whereby we might know them to be our friends, when we met them any where out of the Town or Island." It was a reasonable request, but one that would turn out to be tragically ironic.
White asked the Croatoans to spread the word in Ossomocomuck that the English were interested in talking peace if they heard from the Indians within seven days. They did not, so sometime after midnight on August 9, Manteo led White and some of his men across the water to Dasemunkepeuc. There they attacked the town only to discover, too late, that it was occupied by friendly Croatoans, and not enemy Roanokes. (Whatever tokens or badges the Croatoans might have worn were not visible in the dark of night.) Wanchese's people had apparently abandoned the town after killing Howe, and now White's party had accidentally killed the weroance Menatonon and a number of others. Although this turn of events "somewhat grieved Manteo," according to White, the Indian remained with the English; on August 13 he was baptized into the Church of England and christened lord of Roanoke and Dasemunkepeuc.
Queen Elizabeth had been fighting the Spanish on the seas and in the Netherlands, and now King Philip II was ready to launch an invasion of England. Despite a prohibition on all English ships leaving port, Raleigh managed to arrange for a two-ship relief mission that sailed on April 22, 1588, three months ahead of the fearsome Spanish Armada. But a fight at sea with the French left the ships limping back to England, and White was unable to arrange another mission until 1590, when four ships finally sailed for Roanoke. These were privateers; they carried with them no additional settlers or supplies and agreed only to drop off White at the colony. When a storm sank one of the ships upon arrival, they were even more anxious to move on, but on August 18, 1590, White and a company of sailors landed on Roanoke. It was his granddaughter's third birthday.
The camp was abandoned, with the word "CROATOAN" carved on a post. Three years earlier, White and the settlers had agreed that if they needed to move, they would indicate their destination in just such a way; if they were under duress, they would carve a cross above the letters. To White's relief, no such cross could be found. But it was hurricane season, and another fierce storm ruined his plans to sail to Manteo's island. Instead, the privateers, and White along with them, sailed on, first to the West Indies and then to England. The Lost Colonists, as they came to be known, were never found.
Historians have debated the colonists' fate for centuries. Some have assumed that, like Grenville's soldiers, they were quickly killed. Others have found evidence of another scenario: that they survived for twenty years among the Chowanocs and Weapemeocs or perhaps even the Chesapeakes, assimilating into their culture. The settlers at Jamestown had heard rumors to this effect, and during the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614), the Virginia colony's secretary, William Strachey, suggested that the paramount chief Powhatan had ordered them killed. Presumably the chief worried that these former Roanoke English men and women in his midst might join with the new settlers, posing too great a threat. Captain John Smith and others looked but never found them.
The Lost Colony, meanwhile, has developed into one of the great legends of American history. Its story has traditionally focused on English discovery, apparent domination, and sudden disappearance. Virginia Dare has played an important role, too, as the first child born to English parents in North America. Her name is a reminder that the Virginia colony has its roots earlier than Jamestown and to the south. But Dare also serves to deflect attention from the Indians of Ossomocomuck, without whom Raleigh's colonists might never have survived at Roanoke. And although the legend revolves around the loss of white colonists, it's important to the note that the Indians of Ossomocomuck also largely disappeared, the victims of encroaching English and then American culture.
September 1578 - Sir Humphrey Gilbert, commanding eleven ships and 500 men, departs from Dartmouth, England, bound for North America. Three ships desert the mission even before weighing anchor, and Gilbert makes it only as far as the African coast. Walter Raleigh, in a ship piloted by the Azorean-born pirate Simon Fernandes, also turns back.
Summer 1580 - Walter Raleigh fights in Ireland.
Winter 1581–1582 - Walter Raleigh returns from Ireland to Queen Elizabeth's court, and over the next year his position there rises quickly, as does his personal wealth.
Summer 1582 - Sir Humphrey Gilbert raises money for a new North American voyage while actively recruiting Catholics to plant a colony there, possibly in the area of New England.
August 20, 1583 - In the midst of his colonizing venture, Sir Humphrey Gilbert leaves St. John's, Newfoundland, for Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. When his flagship sinks, Gilbert sails for England but is lost at sea.
December 1584 - Walter Raleigh introduces a bill in Parliament to confirm his royal patent for colonizing North America. Capitalizing on the enthusiastic report by Arthur Barlowe of the summer's voyage to America, Raleigh wins support from Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Grenville, even as the bill fails in the House of Lords.
October–November 1585 - An expedition of Roanoke colonists, likely led by Philip Amadas, departs for the Chesapeake Bay, eventually visiting the Chesapeakes' capital of Skicoak and several villages on the Eastern Shore. It is unclear whether one or both of John White and Thomas Hariot go along.
July 1586 - The English colonists from Roanoke Island arrive at Portsmouth, England. At the same time, Sir Richard Grenville, with six ships and 200 colonists, arrives at Roanoke to find it abandoned. He and his men stay a few weeks then return to England, leaving behind a garrison of fifteen men, who are soon killed by Indians.
August 27, 1587 - John White sails for England from the colony at Roanoke Island, leaving behind 117 settlers, including his daughter and granddaughter. He will never see them again.
April 22, 1588 - Two small ships, the Brave and the Roe, plus John White and fifteen settlers, sail from Bideford, England, on a mission to resupply the English colony at Roanoke Island. The two ships are separated and, after a fight with the French, are forced to return to England.
October 1590 - After being unable to find the 117 colonists he left at Roanoke Island three years before, John White returns to England. He will never see his daughter or granddaughter again.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. The Roanoke Colonies. (2014, June 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Roanoke_Colonies_The.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "The Roanoke Colonies." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 13 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 19, 2011 | Last modified: June 13, 2014
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.