The Roanoke Colony

The brave spirit of Sir Walter Raleigh resolved to secure to England those glorious countries where the poor French Protestants had suffered so deeply, and a patent was readily granted, constituting him lord proprietary, with almost unlimited powers, according to the Christian Protestant faith, of all land which he might discover between the thirty-third and fortieth degrees of north latitude. Under this patent Raleigh despatched, as avant-courier ships, two vessels, under the command of Philip Amidas and Arthur Barlow. In the month of July they reached the coast of North America, having perceived, while far out at sea, the fragrance as of a delicious garden, from the odoriferous flowers of the shore. Finding, after some search, a convenient harbor, they landed, and, offering thanks to God for their safe arrival, took formal possession in the name of the Queen of England.

The spot on which they landed was the island of Wocoken. The shores of this part of America are peculiar, inasmuch as during one portion of the year they are exposed to furious tempests, against which the low flat shore affords no defence of harborage; in the summer season, on the contrary, the sea and air are alike tranquil, the whole presenting the most paradisiacal aspect, whilst the vegetation is calculated to strike the beholder with wonder and delight. The English strangers beheld the country under its most favorable circumstances; the grapes being so plentiful that the surge of the ocean, as it lazily rolled in upon the shore, dashed its spray upon the clusters. "The forests formed themselves into wonderfully beautiful bowers, frequented by multitudes of birds. It was like a garden of Eden, and the gentle, friendly inhabitants appeared in unison with the scene. On the island of Roanoke they were received by the wife of the king, and entertained with Arcadian hospitality."

The report taken to England aroused high enthusiasm. An expedition was sent, sailing on the 9th of April, 1585, under Sir Richard Grenville, and consisting of seven vessels and one hundred and fifty colonists. They reached Roanoke Island, where they quickly roused the natives to hostility by burning a village and destroying the standing corn on suspicion of the theft of a silver cup.

The colonists, however, landed, and soon afterwards the ships returned to England, Grenville taking a rich Spanish prize by the way. Lane [the governor] and his colonists explored the country, and Lane wrote home, "It is the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven; the most pleasing territory in the world; the continent is of a huge and unknown greatness, and very well peopled and towned, though savagely. The climate is so wholesome that we have none sick. If Virginia had but horses and kine and were inhabited by English, no realm in Christendom were comparable with it." Hariot's observations were directed to "the natural inhabitants," and to the productions of the colony with reference to commerce; he observed the culture of tobacco, used it himself, and had great faith in its salutary qualities; he paid great attention to the maize and the potato," which he found when boiled to be good eating.".

In the mean time, the mass of the colonists, who were rabid for gold, listened to wonderful tales invented by artful Indians, who wished to be rid of these awe-inspiring strangers. The river Roanoke, they said, gushed forth from a rock near the Pacific Ocean; that a nation dwelt upon its remote banks, skilful in refining gold, and that they occupied a city the walls of which glittered with pearls. Even Sir Richard Lane was credulous enough to believe these tales, and ascended the river with a party in order to reach this golden region. They advanced onward, finding nothing, till they were reduced to the utmost extremity of famine. The Indians, disappointed by their return, resolved to cultivate no more corn, so that they might be driven from the country by want, and the English, divining their views, having invited the chief to a conference, fell upon him and slew him, with many of his followers. Lane was unfit for his office. This act of treachery exasperated the Indians to such a degree that they would no longer give him supplies. The colony was about to perish by famine, as the Indians desired, when Sir Francis Drake appeared outside the harbor with a fleet of twenty-three ships. He was on his way from the West Indies, and was now come to visit his friends. No visit could have been more opportune or more welcome.

At the request of the colonists, Drake carried them to England. Yet he had hardly gone before a vessel despatched by Raleigh arrived, laden with supplies. Finding that the colony had vanished, the vessel returned, and it had but fairly disappeared when Sir Richard Grenville arrived with three ships. After searching in vain for the missing colony, he also returned, leaving fifteen men on Roanoke Island to hold possession for the English. Raleigh, not discouraged by this failure, sent out another colony, this time choosing agriculturists, and sending their wives and children with the emigrants. Implements of husbandry were also sent. On reaching Roanoke they found only the bones of the fifteen men whom Grenville had left, while their fort was in ruins. The new governor, Captain John White, proved an unfortunate choice, since he at once made an unprovoked assault upon the Indians. White quickly returned with the ships to England for supplies and reinforcements.]

When White reached England he found the whole nation absorbed by the threats of a Spanish invasion: Raleigh, Grenville, and Lane, Frobisher, Drake, and Hawkins, all were employed in devising measures of resistance. It was twelve months before Raleigh, who had to depend almost entirely upon his own means, was able to despatch White with supplies: this he did in two vessels. White, who wished to profit by his voyage, instead of at once returning without loss of time to his colony, went in chase of Spanish prizes, until at length one of his ships was overpowered, boarded, and rifled, and both compelled to return to England. This delay was fatal. The great events of the Spanish Armada took place, after which Sir Walter Raleigh found himself embarrassed with such a fearful amount of debt that it was no longer in his power to attempt the colonization of Virginia; nor was it till the following year that White was able to return, and then also through the noble efforts of Sir Walter Raleigh, to the unhappy colony Roanoke. Again the island was a desert. An inscription on the bark of a tree indicated Croatan; but the season of the year, and the danger of storms, furnished an excuse to White for not going thither. What was the fate of the colony never was known. It has been conjectured that through the friendship of Manteo (an Indian chief) they had probably escaped to Croatan; perhaps had been, when thus cruelly neglected by their countrymen, received into a friendly tribe of Indians, and became a portion of the children of the forest. The Indians had, at a later day, a tradition of this kind, and it has been thought that the physical character of the Hatteras Indians bore out the tradition. The kind-hearted and noble Raleigh did not soon give up all hopes of his little colony. Five different times he sent out at his own expense to seek for them, but in vain. The mystery which veils the fate of the colonists of Roanoke will never be solved in this world..

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 1)