By the latter half of the sixteenth century, Spain had made great strides in exploring and settling large parts of North America and the Caribbean. However, despite the passing of over 150 years since the New World was discovered, England had made no serious attempts to spread her sovereignty across the Atlantic. In 1578, Queen Elizabeth reversed that stance.
In June of that year, at the urging of Sir Gilbert Humphrey, Queen Elizabeth granted Humphrey the right to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands, Counties, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or people.” Gilbert’s venture did not fare well: while half of his vessels abandoned their mission to pursue more profitable activities (i.e., piracy), the other half turned home for repairs. Gilbert attempted another venture in 1583 that was not only a failure, it resulted in his death off the coast of New England.
However, a sailor on the Gilbert’s first venture petitioned Queen Elizabeth for his own charter. In April 1584, Walter Raleigh’s fleet departed England for the Americas. Master Philip Amadas and Master Arthur Barlowe commanded the expedition. In July, Barlowe sighted land and described the area as “so full of grapes, as the very beating, and the surge of the Sea overglowed them, of which we founde such plentie…that I thinke in all the world the like aboundance is not to be founde.” The exact location where the captains went ashore is disputed, but is said to have been at either Wococon (Ocracoke Island), on the north end of Hatteras or opposite Roanoke Island. During the six weeks that the explorers spent on the island, they encountered the Indians who were native to the region. David Stick notes that “…when some of my (Raleigh’s) people asked the name of that Countrie, one of the Salvages answered Wingandacon.” This became the name used by the English but, in reality, the Indian had simply commented “You wear good clothes.” (pg. 47) The English formed friendly relations with the Indians, who described the surrounding areas up to the Chesapeake Bay and neighboring tribes. Trade was established and the English explored much of the surrounding area, as far north as the Albermarle Sound. Meanwhile, back in England, Raleigh was petitioning the Queen for a second venture to establish a permanent colony.
In April 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh (recently knighted) prepared a seven vessel fleet to sail for the new English colony. Sir Richard Grenville commanded this expedition and the lead ship belonged to Queen Elizabeth herself. Although a detailed accounting had been prepared of every item and worker needed to make a permanent colony a success, the expedition departed with less than the optimal number of ships, men and provisions. About six hundred men set sail that spring, out of the called-for eight hundred.
Almost from the beginning, the convoy was beset by mishaps. Off the coast of Africa, the fleet was scattered by a great storm and Grenville had no choice but to continue on to Puerto Rico, in Spanish Territory, and await his other ships. Since none of the other vessels had arrived before him, Grenville took the opportunity to construct a fort and build another small ship to use on the voyage. Within two weeks, all but one of his seven ships had joined him so the voyage to the colony recommenced. On reaching the shore of Wococon Inlet, the lead ship Tiger was promptly grounded and most of the cargo was destroyed.
Grenville spent several weeks exploring the island, but was not able to decide on a place for a permanent settlement. Using the Indian Manteo (one of two Indians who had returned to England with the first explorers), Grenville surveyed the surrounding area and proved the English dominance to some of the local Indian tribes (burning one village over a supposedly stolen silver cup.) During this exploration, drawings of the local Indian villages were captured by John White, the resident artist (who would play a key role in the first settlement of women and children on the island.) The party soon sailed north to Roanoke Island and resumed contact with the Indians there, with which relations had been established on the first voyage.
By August 1585, a fort had been built and Grenville was preparing to return to England to report on his findings to Sir Walter Raleigh. Captain Ralph Lane was left in charge of the 107 men on Roanoke. Lane and his men became quite familiar with the Native Americans and their way of life and took great advantage of their hospitality, particularly since they had no food of their own planted nor any other sustenance on which to live. During that winter, Lane searched for precious metals and pearls rumored to be near their settlement. Both the rumors of pearls to the north and gold in the western mountains proved fruitless, only leading to Lane take Menatonon, Indian king of the Chawanoac, hostage in an attempt to learn secrets from the Indians to lead him to the gold. The English colonists adopted a practice of retribution and revenge against any village that did not receive them properly, not to mention spreading smallpox and other “English” diseases among the native population.
Easter, the promised time of Grenville’s return from England, came and went. Relations between the English and Natives were at a low, and Lane took advantage of a contrived story of deception and planned attack among the Roanac Indians to enter their village and open fire. Wingina, the Indian king who had accepted the English readily and provided them with food and hospitality, was dead. Not long after, Sir Francis Drake stopped by the settlement, where he found the English foraging for food and generally in a dismal state. It did not take long for Lane’s party to decide to return to England with Drake. Only two weeks later, Grenville arrived with his refreshed ships and supplies. However, after learning of the departure of the other soldiers, he landed only 15 men to stay on Roanoke and returned to England, with most of his men and supplies still on board.
Despite these less than ideal beginnings, plans were underway in England to establish a colony at Roanoke with men, women and children.