Colonial America – Roanoke: The Lost Colony – Part 2

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A watercolor by John White of the fort in Guayanilla Bay in Puerto Rico, which is likely similar to the fort constructed on Roanoke.

In early 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh was raising funds and goods to establish a permanent settlement in Virginia (an area which, at that time, encompassed all English possessions in the New World.) Despite the failure of Grenville and Lane’s attempts at colonization, Raleigh felt that a settlement of English colonists could succeed if the right location and people were chosen. Therefore, he planned to settle families of colonists, instead of soldiers, in a large bay north of Roanoke Island known as Chesepiock or, as it is now known, the Chesapeake Bay.

On January 7, 1587, a charter for the City of Raleigh in Virginia established a body to govern the colony, consisting of Governor John White and twelve assistants. Only one Assistant, Simao Fernandes, had ever been to Roanoke. Manteo, the Croatoan native, also returned with White on this expedition. The other settlers included 85 men, 17 women (two of whom were pregnant) and 11 children. On May 5, 1587, the ships departed England and were almost immediately beset by misfortune. One smaller ship was separated from the group during a storm off the coast of Portugal. White and Fernandes began to quarrel almost immediately, with Fernandes unwilling to stop at any Caribbean islands for White to acquire salt or tropical plants. In July, the ships reached Roanoke where White and the colonists prepared to go ashore. They planned to find the 15 men left by Grenville and to continue on to the Chesapeake Bay. However, once off the ship, Fernandes informed the colonists he would not be continuing on to the Chesapeake Bay as it was too late in the season and he needed to return to England.

With this unfavorable beginning, the colonists began rebuilding fortifications on an island deemed unfit for habitation. They found the remains of one Englishman but there was no sign of the other fourteen soldiers left by Grenville. A few days after landing, one settler was attacked and killed by the local Roanoac tribe. White set out to repair relations with the Croatoans and to secure their assistance in establishing peace with the Roanoacs. When a week went by and neither the Croatoans nor the Roanoacs kept their promised meeting, White decided to teach them a lesson. Early in the morning, White’s men attacked the sleeping village and began to slaughter the unsuspecting Roanoacs. Only when they saw a woman with child did they realize they were attacking the peaceful Croatoans, who had traveled northward for their meeting with White. The Indians forgave White his error, but relations between the colonists and the Natives would never be one based on trust.

After about four weeks, Fernandes was anxious to return to England. At the persistence of the colonists, White left his colony to return to England to secure supplies. He left behind his daughter, Eleanor White Dare who had given birth on August 18 to Virginia Dare, the first child born on American soil. White promised to return in six months and told the colonists that if they needed to move, to carve the name of their destination on a conspicuous tree. If they left in distress, they were to carve a Maltese cross over the name of their destination.

It would be three years before White was able to return to the colony. In 1588, tensions with Spain had escalated to war and Queen Elizabeth called for all available ships to be used for the protection of England. John White was able to slip away that year to try to return to Roanoke, but his ship was taken by a French warship and White was forced to return to England. By 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh had turned his attention to other projects and White was forced to raise money and a fleet on his own. Finally, in February 1590, White once again set sail for his City of Raleigh, three years after he’d promised to return.

Once he reached Roanoke in August 1590, there was no sign of the colonists, only smoke where they had landed. The letters C-R-O were carved in one tree and, nearby, the word C-R-O-T-O-A-N was carved on another tree. There was no indication of distress in the message. White prepared to sail south to the Croatoan tribe, but nature worked against him. A storm blew up while the ships were anchored off the coast, causing two anchors to break off of White’s ship. White was forced to return to England and was unable to find sufficient backing for a return voyage. He never saw his daughter or granddaughter again.

What became of the colonists? There are several possible theories, none of which have been proven.

David Beers Quinn favors the theory that the majority of the colonists left to establish the City of Raleigh on the Chesapeake Bay soon after White sailed for England. The remaining colonists, about 25 men, remained at Roanoke to wait for White’s return. The colonists probably integrated with the Chesapeake Indians after White did not return and the other men moved south and integrated with the Croatoan tribe. (Please see map to view areas inhabited by the Chesapeake and Croatoan Indians.)

In 1608, when Captain John Smith was exploring the area in the southern Chesapeake Bay to establish the Jamestown colony, he met with Powhatan, the powerful Indian leader who was ruler over all of the local Indian tribes. He admitted to killing the colonists that had settled with the Chesapeake tribe when he massacred the Chesapeakes shortly before Smith arrived. This would indicate that all of the colonists were dead, but there are other reports at the same time of seeing an Indian boy, about ten years old, with blond hair and white skin. Others reported that the colonists were living about 50 miles south of Jamestown, and one account says that four colonists, three men and one woman, were living under the protection of Gepanocon near the Roanoke and Chowan river, and that they had survived the Powhatan massacre. However, none of these reports were confirmed.

The Lumbee tribe of Robeson County, North Carolina, claims to be descended from the Croatoans and say that their ancestors were the lost colonists. Much of their language is reminiscent of 16th century English and many have surnames similar to or identical to those of the lost colonists. However, even the origins of the Lumbees have been questioned (they have also claimed to be descended from the Cherokee) but it is certainly possible that the original 14 lost colonists could have integrated with them. Another tribe, in Person County, North Carolina also has legends of descent from the Lost Colony and surnames similar to the colonists. Most of these Indians are redheads or blondes and have gray eyes and deny relation to the Robeson county Indians. However, their descent also remains a mystery.