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.