Roanoke Island Settlement & the Lost Colony

British Ship

British Ship

The Lost Colony, 1587

The following year, Sir Walter Raleigh organized another expedition to Virginia under the leadership of John White, who had accompanied Grenville on his voyage in 1585. As opposed to previous ventures, this one was less military and more civilian in nature. Of the 150 people John White assembled for the voyage, 84 men were referred to as “planters”, and the group also included 17 women and nine children. The group included John White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare.

Unfortunately, the expedition was compromised from the beginning. The failures of the previous expedition to find a suitable base from which to privateer, coupled with the lack of discovery of precious metals and other supposed treasures, led many investors to begin withdrawing support. Sir Walter Raleigh himself, even though still supportive of the idea of an English foothold in the New World, began to show a decreased enthusiasm for the venture; the colonization attempt had already cost him 30,000 pounds, a steep sum in the 1580s. Nevertheless, plans for the expedition continued.

John White and the colonists met in London in the spring of 1587 and departed in three small ships in May. After stopping in the Carribean they arrived off the Outer Banks on July 16. On July 22 White and the colonists went to Roanoke Island to confer with the 15 men left by Grenville the preceding year. White hoped to learn about the area and their relations with the Indians, and then return to the ships to sail to the intended site of his colony, the Chesapeake Bay area. The Chesapeake Bay was chosen because it would be a better port and conditions for settlement were more favorable.

The Lost Colony Historical Drama has played in Manteo, North Carolina since by 1937, photo by Carol Highsmith

The Lost Colony Historical Drama has played in Manteo, North Carolina since by 1937, photo by Carol Highsmith

When the colonists arrived at Roanoke, they discovered Lane’s former fort abandoned and Grenville’s holding party missing. They found the sun-bleached skeleton of one of Grenville’s men, who had long since been killed, and suspected that the others had also been killed. Afterward, the flotilla’s captain, Simon Fernandes, refused to take the colonists farther up the coast, with his excuse being that summer was rapidly ending. He then left White and the colonists on Roanoke Island.

Upon discovering the fort overgrown and abandoned, White immediately ordered the members of the colony to refurbish Lane’s former settlement. They began their work optimistically, cleaning and repairing the existing dwellings and building additional shelters so each family would have its own residence.

The colony wasn’t under a military government, but rather, operated under the direction of Governor John White and his 12 assistants, who served as a board of directors. The new colony was called the “Cittie of Ralegh” and the colonists were able to take roles in its leadership and profit from their own efforts. However, the initial optimism was checked within a few days of their arrival when one of the colonists, George Howe, was killed by an unidentified party of Native Americans. But, White placed his hopes on his ability to reestablish good relations with the Algonquian residents and was helped by Manteo, the Croatoan Indian, who had traveled a second time to England with Lane and returned with White.

Secotan warriors in North Carolina by John White, 1585

Secotan warriors in North Carolina by John White, 1585

White and the colonists discovered that three settlements of Native Americans had joined together and attacked 11 of Grenville’s men. The soldiers who survived the assault fled by boat and disappeared. As a gesture of strength, White undertook a punitive expedition to avenge these deaths, raiding an inland settlement and killing at least one of its members. Unfortunately, the group that White’s colonists attacked was unconnected to Howe’s death or that of the soldiers who were part of the holding party. The colonist attack caused the remaining friendly Native American groups to become wary of this second colony.

Another major problem for the settlement was the lack of supplies. Their arrival late in the planting season resulted in inadequate stores for the winter. The local inhabitants had little to share, and this scarcity created more tension.

Despite the tension, the colony celebrated on August 13, when following Sir Walter Raleigh’s orders, Manteo was christened and given the title of Lord of Dasamonguepeuc for his faithful service to the English. Five days later, Eleanor Dare, daughter of John White and wife of Ananias Dare, gave birth to a daughter. Because she was the first child born to English parents in America and the first Christian born in Virginia, she was named Virginia.

Baptism of Virginia Dare

Baptism of Virginia Dare

Having delivered the colonists, the fleet was scheduled to leave in August. The colonists wanted more supplies and for more members to be recruited and asked John White to return to England to act for them. Though White was concerned about the safety of his daughter and granddaughter, he agreed to return. The fleet sailed for England on August 27, but before White left, he arranged for the colonists to leave an appropriate sign if they moved the settlement.

In October, White arrived in England, but his efforts to obtain support were impeded by the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England as well as the subsequent sea war between the two countries. Sir Walter Raleigh, being so close to Elizabeth I, was forced to abandon White’s request to resupply Roanoke. Instead, he assisted with the repulsion of the Spanish Armada that was at England’s front door. Further, Queen Elizabeth I ordered all English vessels to remain nearby in defense of the homeland.

After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Raleigh’s interest in colonization began to shift to Ireland, forcing White to turn to other investors to acquire revenue for the journey. It was not until early 1590 that White was able to convince a group of privateers bound for the West Indies to take him to Roanoke.

Discovery of the word Croatoan at the vanished colony of Roanoke, North Carolina

Discovery of the word Croatoan at the vanished colony of Roanoke, North Carolina

In March 1590, White sailed as a passenger on a ship commanded by the privateer John Watts and finally reached the Outer Banks in August 1590. Upon his arrival, he could see that the colony had been abandoned for some time and found the word “C-R-O-A-T-O-A-N” inscribed into a palisade, which indicated a native group who lived on what is now Hatteras Island. There were no signs of a struggle or of the colonists leaving in haste. Although White could not locate the colonists, he was relieved to discover a sign of their safety.

The ship then sailed to Croatoan but because of stormy weather and John Watt’s impatience, White was unable to continue the search for the missing colonists on the Outer Banks and returned to England.

“About the place, many of my things spoiled and broken, and my books torn from the covers, the frames of some of my pictures and Maps rotted and spoiled with rain, and my armor almost eaten through with rust.”

— John White

Colonists Landing At Jamestown

Jamestown colonists by Sidney E. King, courtesy Colonial National Historical Park

Afterward, White could not afford to finance another expedition to North America, and eventually accepted the loss of his family and the Roanoke colony several years later. Sir Walter Raleigh, however, made one more attempt to locate the settlement. As late as 1602, Raleigh sent an expedition to North America under the command of Samuel Mace to find the colonists. However, the group did not search very diligently and never found these early settlers. After the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, the Virginia colonists attempted to locate their lost countrymen. Although they heard many rumors as to their whereabouts, the search was unsuccessful.  In the meantime, John White all but disappeared from the historical record and is thought to have died, possibly in Ireland, around 1606.

Many scholars have since proposed numerous theories as to what happened to the Roanoke colonists, but their fate still remains a mystery.

Later English Colonization

While the Roanoke Island colony was not successful, it set the precedent for future English colonization efforts in the New World. It also marked the transition from military outposts to settlements of both men and women attempting to establish a permanent foothold in North America.

Elizabeth II, a representative 16th-century sailing vessel in Festival Park in Manteo, Roanoke Island, North Carolina by Carol Highsmith

Elizabeth II, a representative 16th-century sailing vessel in Festival Park in Manteo, Roanoke Island, North Carolina by Carol Highsmith

English vessels began to make reconnaissance voyages along the Atlantic coast and numerous settlements would be established in the decades. These included Jamestown, Virginia in 1607; Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620; New Jersey in 1629, Connecticut in 1633, Rhode Island in 1636, Maryland in 1637, and Delaware in 1638.

The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves the location of the lost colony and commemorates the first English attempts at establishing a colony in North America.

Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, February 2019.

Also See:

Discovery and Exploration of America

Early American History

Exploration of America

North Carolina Main Page


Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

National Park Service Publications


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