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Roanoke: The cursed colony that disappeared without a trace

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: History
Wordcount: 2341 words Published: 29th Oct 2021

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It all started when a British man named John White entered the seas near South Carolina 425 years ago. Before the settlement in Jamestown, Roanoke Island was home to the first group of English settlers in the new world. In the late 1500s, Elizabethan England was eager for a piece of the New World. The vast wealth of treasures of this New World empire made Spain, the archaic enemy of England, rich and powerful, and the English were desperate to establish a strategic point in the new lands, along with the possibility of discovering new lucrative sources of minerals and human wealth. In 1584, the queen's favorite, Sir Walter Raleigh, obtained a license to establish a colony in the new lands. He quickly dispatched an expedition to the newly claimed territory of Virginia. The positively established relations with the natives and the favorable reports induced him to send a colonizing party, and in 1585 the first English colony in America was found on the island of Roanoke (now in North Carolina). Being appointed governor of the colony of Roanoke by Sir Walter Raleigh, White came from England desperate to bring supplies to the area. The problem was that upon his arrival to the island on August 18, 1590, he found a completely abandoned settlement, as the settlers had left there leaving nothing more than a clue: a tree with the word ‘Croatoan’ carved on it.

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The Roanoke colony was located on Roanoke Island, in Dare County. This is where North Carolina is located today. In 1584, explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe were the first Europeans to observe the island. They were sent to that region by Sir Walter Raleigh with the assignment of exploring the extensive sounds and estuaries in hunt of an ideal location for settlement. Barlowe wrote promising information of Roanoke Island, and when the explorers returned to England a year afterward with two Natives, Manteo and Wanchese, London was abuzz with chat of the New World's wonders. It was a late 16th century attempt for England to establish a permanent settlement. He would execute the details of the charter through his delegates Ralph Lane and Richard Greenville. Greenville was a distant cousin of Raleigh. Raleigh's charter specified that he needed to establish a colony in the North America continent, and hoped that the colony would provide riches from the New World and a location from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain. Raleigh never had visited the continent of North America, although he did lead expeditions in 1595 and 1619 to South America. He traveled near the Orinoco River basin to colonization. to search for the legendary city of El Dorado. On April 27, 1584, Raleigh dispatched a journey led by Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to search for the Eastern coast of North America. They arrived on Roanoke Island on July 4, and almost immediately recognized relations with the local citizens, the Sectoans and Croatoans. Barlowe returned to England with two Croatoans named Manteo and Wanchese, who were able to explain the government and natural features of the region to Raleigh. Based on this knowledge, Raleigh prepared a second journey, to be led by Sir Richard Grenville.

Raleigh's first colony, under the Ralph Lane captaincy, was not sufficient. They struggled to find enough food and soon found the neighboring tribes. They eagerly awaited the return of their supply fleet and when Sir Francis Drake, in April 1586, offered them a trip, they decided not to wait any longer and accepted with gratitude his offer of a house lift. 

In 1587, a second group of settlers gathered by Raleigh stopped on Roanoke Island to search for Grenville's men. A surprise came ashore and made a frightening discovery: the only traces of the 15 were the bones of a single man. The local tribe of Native Americans who were still friendly - the Croats from nearby Hatteras Island - explained later that the small group had been attacked and the nine survivors had sailed on their pinnace, so as not to be seen again. On August 18, White's daughter gave birth to a girl, Virginia Dare, the first English person born in the Americas. But tense relations with the natives, personified by the murder of a settler who was collecting shellfish, prompted the settlers to choose to send Governor White back to England with Fernandez to ask for more support and supplies. On August 28 he embarked. White would never see his family again. White tried his best to return to America as soon as possible, but was struck by bad luck. The war broke out with Spain and almost all available ships were requisitioned to protect England against the attack of the navy. When White returned to Roanoke, the place seemed strange. On a tree, on a sandbar, the letters "Cro" were carved. Later they reached the remains of the royal settlement. Since its departure a palisade of tree woods had been erected, but within it all the houses had been dismantled, and only a few thick pieces of lead, iron and iron ore remained. Carved in one of the palisade woods was the legend 'Croatoan'.

He interpreted this as evidence that the settlers had taken what they needed and that the Native Americans had come later and discarded items they did not understand. The ships that had stayed with the colony were also absent. White hoped that the inscriptions on the tree and wood indicated that the settlers had taken refuge with the friendly Native American tribe, the Croatoans, on the island of Hatteras. This was not exactly what they had agreed in their departure, but it made perfect sense. The next day, he and Captain Cooke agreed that they were going to make the short trip to Hatteras Island, but fate and elements intervened. The ships were forced to abandon their attempt to reach Hatteras and had to return to England. Raleigh's patent to explore the territory of Virginia expired in 1590, which may explain why he temporarily lost interest in organizing new trips to America. White finally had to reconcile with the fact that he would never see his family again. He retired to his estate in Killmore, in Ireland. But it was generally assumed that the Roanoke colony, also known as White's company, had survived and was still there, somewhere. Raleigh himself sponsored expeditions that were, in part, search attempts in 1602 and 1603, but both were diverted. Subsequent visitors and settlers in North America made repeated efforts to link with them, particularly the settlers of the next, and most successful, attempt at a permanent colony, in Jamestown, Virginia. In fact, Lee Miller, author of Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, notes that many of the Jamestown settlers shared their surnames with the "lost settlers," and argues that they were probably relatives partly motivated by the desire to find to their relatives. 

John Smith, leader of the new colony, heard stories of Native Americans around Jamestown about other Europeans to the south, but neither he, nor Christopher Newport, who was sent from England in 1607 to help the Jamestown villagers search for White's company, were able to successfully investigate these stories. A 1609 expedition from Jamestown was equally unfortunate. During the next hundreds of years several visitors reported having found or seen people who looked English or who spoke English, or at least Native Americans who seemed to have Caucasian characteristics and some familiarity with English and Christianity, but no one could say definitively that they had located the lost settlers. It seemed that 117 people had disappeared, leaving a persistent mystery. The most obvious explanation is that lost settlers were never found because they were dead. They could have been killed by hostile Native Americans or starved to death. Both theories are plausible. Those who first tried to colonize Roanoke Island did not feed properly, while the Jamestown colony, 20 years later, dangerously approached starvation. Perhaps the lost settlers simply ran out of food and were not familiar with local agriculture or the ability to search for food. This explanation seems much more likely given the publication of a 1998 study on the rings of older trees in the area. However, if hunger had killed the settlers in Roanoke, White would probably have found the settlers' remains on the site, and the colony itself would not have been carefully dismantled and stripped of most of its portable equipment. If the settlers starved to death, it evidently did not occur on the island of Roanoke.

The drought also increases the likelihood that settlers had come into conflict with their neighbors. In a time of extreme scarcity, indigenous peoples would have been less generous and more jealous of their limited resources, and much more likely to question newcomers trying to take, steal, or extort money for food, as the settlers had tried to do. Although the Croatoan Indians were friendly, the other local tribes were not. This period also saw migrations and wars between Native American nations in the area, perhaps triggered or exacerbated by drought. The fact that the settlers had built a palisade in White's absence could be interpreted as feeling threatened; in fact, we know they did it, because this is one of the reasons why White was sent back to England for support. But such construction was probably routine for the settlers, and again, there was no evidence at the site of a battle or sacrifices. It is conceivable that there was a siege scenario and the men were taken one by one as they ventured out of the palisade, in an increasingly desperate search for food, leaving only women and children. They could then have been captured by Native Americans and assimilated to the tribe, as was the custom, but there is no evidence to support this.

The most accepted explanation for the fate of the settlers is that they were killed by the Native Americans, but only after leaving Roanoke Island. The main source to support this is Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony. Smith had relations with the indigenous king Powhatan (father of Pocahontas) and had been specifically told that a group of white men had settled among the friendly Chesapeake Indians, on the south side of the Chesapeake Bay, where they had initially planned to find the "City of Raleigh". Feeling increasingly threatened by the incursions of white men in their territories, and hostile to the Chesapeake Indians, who were not part of their confederation, Powhatan had launched an attack and claimed to have killed most white men. He supported his assertion by bringing out “a musket cannon, a brass mortar, and certain pieces of iron”, for Smith's inspection.

Although, this may not be the end of the story, as there is much evidence that some settlers were assimilated to a Native American tribe in the Roanoke area, possibly because they did not join the group that went to Chesapeake Bay. The most likely candidates are the Croatoan Indians. The settlers had good relations with them, and with their boss, Manteo, who had previously traveled to England and had become a firm ally of the English. Also, of course, this location is suggested by the final message of the settlers, 'Croatoan'. It is now believed that some of the settlers stayed behind in Roanoke and then joined the Croatoans on Hatteras Island, leaving the message for White to find him, but the collective was forced to move to the mainland due to drought. The settlers and the Croatoans married each other and eventually became known by a different name. There’s those who believe that the settlers killed themselves out of desperation and starvation or have may committed cannibalism. But nothing is for sure, this colony even though it is part of history, it remains as one of the greatest mysteries of the New World.

Bibliographic Resources

Miller, Lee. “Mystery of the Lost Colony.” Library of Congress, Dec. 2001, https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0112/miller.html

White, John “The Voyage of Edward Stafford and John White” Encyclopedia Virigina, 1589, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Roanoke_Colonists_Appeal_to_John_White_an_excerpt_from_The_voyage_of_Edward_Stafford_and_John_White_by_John_White_1589

“What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke” History, Aug. 22, 2018, https://www.history.com/news/what-happened-to-the-lost-colony-of-roanoke

Tanya, Basu “Have we found the Lost Colony of Roanoke?” National Geographic, Dec. 8, 2013, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131208-roanoke-lost-colony-discovery-history-raleigh/

Andrew Lawler “The Mystery of Roanoke Endures Yet Another Cruel Twist” Apr. 7, 2017 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/mystery-roanoke-endures-yet-another-cruel-twist-180962837/#qLbHGXzUEYvsZ1Zw.99

James Horn “Roanoke’s Lost Colony Found?” 2010 https://www.americanheritage.com/roanokes-lost-colony-found

Jonathan Hogeback “The Lost Colony of Roanoke” https://www.britannica.com/story/the-lost-colony-of-roanoke


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