Today I have been reading about the lost colony of Roanoke. Roanoke is a small island off the coast of North Carolina and was the site of the first English settlement in North America. On August 18th 1590 the governor of the colony, John White returned to the island after a three year absence to find that everyone had vanished. We still don’t know what became of them.
In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I had granted a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh which allowed him to set up a colony in America. He sort of inherited the charter from his brother-in-law who had drowned whilst trying to do the same thing. Raleigh didn’t go there himself, he sent a deputy. Elizabeth and Raleigh wanted to establish a colony in the Americas because they needed a base which they could use to attack the Spanish ships who were carrying all sorts of fancy stuff back from the New World. Also they were hoping that they might find some treasures for themselves.
There was an initial reconnaissance mission in 1584, which involved bringing a couple of Native Americans back to England. Then the following year, a small fleet of five ships set off from Plymouth under the command of Sir Richard Grenville. When they reached mainland America, there was a bit of an incident. Someone stole a silver cup, someone burned a village. It wasn’t a great start. Despite this and a general lack of supplies, a man named Ralph Lane and 107 other men were left to establish a colony on near by Roanoke island. Grenville and his fleet sailed away, promising to return with more supplies the following April. In April there was no sign of their supplies. In June, they were attacked because of the whole village burning thing. Shortly after that entire community managed to hitch a lift back to England with Sir Francis Drake, who happened to be passing. Shortly after that Grenville arrived and found his colony deserted. He left a small garrison to maintain the claim on the island and sailed home again.
In 1587 Raleigh dispatched a group of 115 new colonists. When they arrived on the island in July the garrison was gone and all that remained was a single skeleton. It didn’t look good. The fleet’s commander refused to let the colonists return to the ship. He insisted that they stay and establish a settlement. This second group of Roanoke colonists also included women and children. Their appointed governor John White was also accompanied by his daughter Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare. Eleanor was expecting a baby and her daughter, christened Virginia, was the first child of English parents to be born on American soil.
The settlers had arrived too late in the year to plant crops and were in danger of running short of food. Fearing for their continued survival, John White sailed back to England to explain their predicament and ask for more supplies. Unfortunately, when he arrived he found a country that was very much under threat from an attack by the Spanish Armada. Every ship would be needed for the conflict and no one was interested in White’s problem.
The following spring, White did manage to engage two small vessels and fill them with supplies. What with everyone so busily engaged with the Spanish it is quite likely that the ship’s captains and crew were not going to be the best. This was borne out by the fact that only one day out of harbour, they began to attack other ships indiscriminately. Before too long they were attacked themselves and had their cargo stolen. White was forced to return to England.
It wasn’t until 1590 that he was able to return to Roanoke. He arrived on August 18th, which would have been the third birthday of his granddaughter Virginia Dare. He found that the settlement was not only empty of people, but all the buildings had also been dismantled and removed. Some of the smaller possessions that remained had been buried but later dug up and scattered. White and the colonists had agreed that if they had to leave they would carve a message stating where they had gone. If they had left by force they would carve a Maltese cross over the name. White found a carved sign that read CROATOAN, the name of a nearby island. The fact that there was no Maltese cross over the name, and the fact that they had obviously had plenty of time to dismantle their homes, meant that White still held out hope that his family and the other colonists had survived. He attempted to visit Croatoan but the ship was unable to land there because of bad weather. It was so bad that they were driven out to sea and forced to return home.
John White died in 1593 without ever knowing what had happened to the settlers. It was twelve years before Raleigh decided to try to find out what had happened to his colony. By that time there was no trace of them. We still don’t know, but theories abound. Perhaps they were killed by hostile tribes, perhaps they joined a local tribe and lived along side them. Of the possible tribes that they may have joined, one was wiped out by smallpox and another was attacked and slaughtered by a rival tribe. There are reports of four English men along with two boys and a girl having been seen at the Eno settlement of Ritanoc. Some Native American tribes claimed to have white ancestors. As far back as the early 18th century there are reports of Native Americans with grey of blue eyes, sometimes even blond hair. So maybe some of them did survive.
No one knows if Virginia Dare was one of the alleged survivors, but people like to think so. Her imagined image has been used to peddle everything from vanilla to tobbacco. She has become a figurehead for all sorts of disparate groups. Sadly among them, as a symbol of race purity. Poor Virginia. If she survived at all it can only have been because of the protection of the Native Americans. Her fellow countrymen certainly didn’t do anything to help her.