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.

8 thoughts on “The True Story of Roanoke

  1. Jamestown investors were more interested in their economic well being and survival than saving Raleigh’s land interests in North Carolina….

    Raleigh….Elizabeth….and other major Court players were dead or fading out of power…their was little incentive to find the colonists….and info concerning the Lost Colony colonists being alive was speculative….no documented sitings by reliable sources, no artifacts or settlements found.

    As far as the Indians….anyone going North from Roanoke Island would have been big news among Powhatan’s chiefs as well as the Indian tribes to the West, the copper traders…the Indians had a remarkable communication network covering a vast area…they unfortunately had no written history

    Overall, assimilation is a convenient fate for the Lost Colonists…hope springs eternal… but the real world possibilities must take center stage: disease, starvation, hurricanes, a violent end by hostile Indians …reprisals for prior colonist’s attrocities agains the Secotan Indians, the severe drought creating stress for food as well as massive death from White man’s diseases among the Indians.


    1. Hello Robert; thanks for writing. You’re right that the Jamestown investors had little interest in finding Roanoake, but the colonists themselves would likely have been very glad to find fellow English people who spoke local languages, were accepted by Americans, and had information about whether or where natural resources like gold might be found. You’re also right that Wahunsonacock likely knew about every move the Roanokers made, since he knew exactly where to find them to have them killed when they became a threat to him.

      I don’t know of any European-based epidemic striking Americans in today’s Virginia at that time; the first epidemic I think of was the devastating smallpox that killed about 90% of Americans in today’s New England that struck later, in 1619.

      I also don’t know of any massacre by the English in Virginia at this point. We have to remember that in 1607, the Americans were not threatened by or really afraid of the English. Small groups of Europeans had been coming and going for decades by then, usually fishing or exploring, and never posing much of a threat. The rapid dissolution of the Roanoke colony was just another example of the Europeans’ inability to develop into a real threat, and contact with Europeans that was much like contact with Americans: small bands fought intense, but brief, battles then withdrew to preserve lives and ammunition. The English had guns, but in every other respect they were very much like other Americans in battle. So the conflict with the Secotans was not unusual, and seems unlikely to have led the Secotans to decide to destroy the colonists entirely.

      It does seem likely that the English there were absorbed by their neighbors: taken into a group as slightly lower-class citizens, and neutralized as any kind of threat through intermarriage. Those English people may never have come to accept their fate, or they may have. It was likely a mixed bag of reactions. But humans are practical, and if you’re stuck in America with no hope of leaving, and the alternative is death, you likely make the best of being forced into another culture. And perhaps some actually came to enjoy it. We’ll never know for sure.


      1. Hello – very interesting article. You noted that no European-based epidemics struck the area at the time of the Roanoke settlement. I am no expert (at all!) but have been recently reading of evidence of widespread diseases wiping out 90%+ of the American population before/during the roanoke settlement. Any information on that?


      2. Hello Matt; thanks for writing. There is ongoing research on disease and disaster in pre-columbian and colonial America but as far as we know, no major epidemics in what is now Virginia before Roanoke. Smallpox decimated American populations in what is now New England in 1616, and native and settler populations suffered yearly epidemic disease well into the 19th century. Let us know if you find new information.


  2. The mass genocide/enslavement of a vulnerable immigrant community by a superstitious despot is “a story of cooperation and assmilation and acceptance”. In-group self-loathing at its brilliant best.


    1. Hello Jack; one could read it as the genocide and enslavement being cooperation and assimilation, or one could read it as posted.


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