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.