The True Story of Roanoke

Part the last of our short series on the lost colony of Roanoke brings us to what really happened to the English colonists, men, women, and children, who had disappeared from the fledgling Roanoke colony in 1589. Again, we’re indebted to James Horn’s fantastic book A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America for the facts herein.

We get our first clues from John Smith, the man who had his finger in every pie of interest in early English colonial efforts in Virginia. In 1608, 19 years after the Roanoke colony was found abandoned, Smith was traveling around the coast of Virginia and mapping it; on his map, he made a note that read “Here remain the 4 men clothed that came from Roanoke to Okanahowan”. (“Clothed” refers to wearing European clothing.) Wahunsonacock (known to us as Powhatan) also willingly told Smith about other survivors—“6 from Roanoke”.

English people had long been speculating on what had happened to the people of the colony. The government maintained that they had never vanished or been killed, but still lived hidden somewhere; the impetus behind this was to keep an English foot in the door in North America. If the English could claim they had a colony in Virginia, they could continue to fight Spanish claims to the entire continent. So Smith’s news was big. If Roanoke colonists really were still alive and living in Virginia, then England had two colonies in North America in 1608. Christopher Newport was sent from England to Virginia to look for them and to take over command of Jamestown colony (to Smith’s chagrin).

The next year, in 1609, another report was made of Roanoke survivors: Sir Thomas Gates, who had arrived at Jamestown with more men, had been informed by the Virginia Company that alleged copper mines in Virginia were not far from where four English survivors lived, ones who had been with “Sir Walter Ralegh, which escaped from the slaughter of Powhatan of Roanoke, upon the first arrival of our colony.”

Who told the men in London that there were Roanoke survivors? Horn posits that it might have been an American named Machumps who went to London in 1608 with Christopher Newport and returned home with Gates. William Strachey told the Company that Machumps had said that the people of Roanoke had lived peacefully for 20 years with the Americans, freely mixing, when Powhatan ordered them killed for no reason. The werowance (leader) Eyanoco saved the lives of seven of the English to work as slaves in his copper mines. Powhatan had killed the English, according to Machumps, because his priests told him they would become a threat to him.

What threat could the colonists have posed? Horn posits that Wahunsonacock may have worried that the survivors would work to ally the newcomers at Jamestown with Americans against him. Wahunsonacock goverened a large area and had to maintain his control over many groups within his rule, while putting down threats to his rule from outside. He also wanted to monopolize the copper trade. If the English, who clearly wanted the copper, worked through the Roanoke survivors/interpreters/go-betweens to organize groups of people under their own rule, this would pose a powerful threat to Wahunsonacock.

So the colonists were hunted down in their new communities, where many had likely intermarried with Americans, and killed so that they could not reach out to their countrymen newly established at Jamestown. It was actually the arrival of the men at the site of Jamestown that triggered the deaths of their fellows, because Wahunsonacock realized the inevitable connection the survivors would make to the newcomers, no matter how assimilated into their new American society they were.

It’s heartening to know that the Roanoke colony was not destroyed by Americans as soon as it was planted. The story of Roanoke is actually a story of cooperation and assimilation and acceptance. It’s ironic that if Jamestown had not been established, the survivors would likely have lived long and happy lives as Americans. It was the arrival of their fellow English that doomed them.

Roanoke disappears

Part 2 of our short series on the lost colony of Roanoke,  deeply indebted to James Horn’s book A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, finds the group of about 100 Englishmen confronted with a conflict with their neighbors, the Secotans, in the summer of 1585. A few small battles were fought between the two groups, and their chief Wingina was killed. Ralph Lane, captain of the English colonists, decided to abandon the colony, sensing that the Secotans would redouble their efforts to drive away the intruders now that their chief had been killed. In June, all but 15 of the men left Roanoke on a ship sent by their patron Walter Ralegh that had been sent to see how they were doing.

So ended Roanoke mark 1. Roanoake mark 2 followed close on its heels, however, as the sponsors organized by Ralegh immediately made a second attempt to set up a colony. The problem, they felt, with the first try had been that it had not been set near deep waters that could accomodate shipping, and its ground was not fertile enough. They quickly recruited new colonists to settle farther north on the Chesapeake Bay, and appointed John White to lead them.

This would be a mixed group of men and women (and nine children), as the sponsors felt that the soldiers they sent the first time had likely been too aggressive with the local peoples. Average citizens would also be more likely to farm and start creating trade goods to send back to England than the soldiers, who had been mostly looking for gold and other types of easy plunder. The new colonists left in May 1586 and arrived in America in mid-July.

They had their ship’s captain stop briefly at Roanoke Island, site of the first colony, to check on the 15 men who had stayed behind and likely take them along on the trip farther upriver to the Chesapeake Bay. But once they stopped at Roanoke, the captain, Fernandes, suddenly refused to take them upriver, claiming he and his men were missing the privateering season in the Caribbean and had no further time to waste in the mid-Atlantic. Stranded on Roanoke, the new settlers suffered attacks from the Secotans, who saw history repeating itself.

The colonists decided that John White should sail back to England with Fernandes and get more supplies and more people from the colony’s sponsors, and let them know that the plan of moving upriver was going to be delayed. Ideally, with more people and supplies they might be able to make the move, but for now, they would relocate inland, where they could find more food over the winter (White would be back in the spring).

White left. He would not return for three years. In his absence, the colony disappeared.

We have no records, so far, left by the men, women, and children he left on Roanoke Island, except for one word White found carved on a tree at the original settlement when he did return in 1589: Croatoan. Baffled and grieving, White and his group searched for the colonists, especially his daughter, Eleanor Dare, who had given birth to his grand-daughter Virginia Dare—the first English person known to have been born in America—in his absence,  to no avail.

What happened, they asked themselves? White had been prevented from returning to the colony by the Spanish Armada attack on England in 1588, when no ship was able to leave an English port. The Armada episode was just one part of the shipping and privateering war between Spain and England that was played out in the Americas. Perhaps the colony had been attacked by the Spanish. But Croatoan did not sound like a Spanish name… the more likely scenario, they felt, was slaughter by the hostile local people.

And so Roanoke mark 2 ended, and to this day most people are not told about some very clear and persuasive evidence pointing to the real fate of the colonists that was reported by the men of Jamestown just a few decades later.

Next time: the fate of the Roanoke colonists

What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

One of my vivid memories of school-based learning is of being in fourth or fifth grade, reading about the early English colonization efforts in Virginia in our Social Studies textbook. This included a paragraph on the Lost Colony of Roanoke: its English colonists were left there with the promise that another ship would come with more people and supplies, the first English baby born in America, Virginia Dare, was born there, supply ships were delayed by years, and when a ship finally did arrive, the colony was deserted and in disrepair, with only the word “Croatoan” carved on a tree. The account ended with the statement that no one knows what “Croatoan” meant, or what happened to the people of the colony, and that Roanoke remains a mystery to this day.

Startled and deeply upset by this closure-free story, I used my fourth-grade knowledge of how to get information: I went to the glossary of the textbook and looked up “Croatoan”, fully expecting to see a sizable entry explaining it. I have to laugh when I remember my shock to find a short entry that said something like “Unidentified term; see colony of Roanoke”. Still holding on, I duly looked up “colony of Roanoke” expecting to find an answer, and was once again brutally disappointed. It was the first time a resource book had ever failed to provide an answer to something for me, and an inauspicious start to my career as a historian.

Over the years since then, I’ve had the same mild interest in Roanoke that most Americans have, idly wondering what happened there, but figuring we’d just never know. Then I read A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, by James Horn (2005), and was exposed to the very likely solution of this mystery.  We’ll explore the whole story in this brief series, drawing on Horn’s fantastic book, starting with the founding of the colony.

Roanoke was originally planned by Sir Walter Ralegh and a group of experienced explorers, sailors, and financiers. It was to be located on the mid-Atlantic coast for strategic reasons: England was looking for a foothold in the continent well north of the Spanish in Florida and well south of the French in Canada. The English had seen French settlements in northern Florida crushed by the Spanish, and knew that the Spanish were well aware of England’s own plan to use Atlantic settlements as bases for raids on the rich Spanish shipping routes running from the Caribbean to Spain.

Roanoke Island was chosen by Ralegh and his team after a scouting voyage to the coast picked it out as a good spot. Ralph Lane led the band of slightly more than 100  men who arrived on the island in 1585. Lane was a soldier, and the first building built was a fort, as much to protect the colonists from Spanish attack as American. The group in fact felt confident about good relations with their American neighbors, as the scouting trip had come back to England with two American guides, Manteo and Wanchese, who seemed to welcome the plan for a colony in their midst.

Through the summer of 1585 the men explored the region, and entered the Chesapeake Bay area (where Jamestown would later be founded). Lane visited Menatonon, chief of the Chowanocs, in Spring 1586, and was told perhaps the first of many misunderstood stories of riches to be found just a little farther inland. Lane, like most European explorers, believed he was being told about hordes of gold in bottomless mines just a few miles west, on the Pacific Coast. (The vastness of the continent was undisclosed at this time to all but a few mostly luckless Spanish explorers.) Lane wrote that Menatonon told him of a king in the west who had so many pearls that “his beds, and houses [were] garnished with them… that it [was] a wonder to see” [Horn 31]. As Horn points out, this was actually a description of Wahunsonacock, known generally to history as Powhatan, because he was the leader of the Powhatan people.

Lane returned to Roanoke with the good news, but it was quickly forgotten, as trouble began brewing with the colony’s American neighbors.

Next time: Secotans v. Roanokes