- Historic Sites
Four hundred years ago the first English settlers reached America. What followed was a string of disasters ending with the complete disappearance of a colony.
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
Barlowe, who wrote the official account of the voyage, described the land in the most glowing terms: “The soile is the most plentifull, sweete, fruitfull and wholesome of all the worlde.” Though the expedition had done little real exploring or testing, Barlowe recklessly compared Roanoke to Eden: “The earth bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour.” In reality the Outer Banks are relatively infertile, and the location was a poor one for a settlement.
Even before the reconnaissance fleet returned, backers were being signed up for a full colony. Elizabeth gave the project many marks of favor. Though she declined to put government money behind it, she invested her own money and a ship and even allowed the territory to be called Virginia in her honor. She refused to let Raleigh go on such a dangerous voyage, so he chose his hotheaded cousin Sir Richard Grenville to command the expedition.
The composition of the fleet bearing the colony of 108 men, which sailed in April 1585, clearly indicated the investors’ expectations: five large and two small ships carried almost three hundred sailors and as many soldiers. Such huge crews were a sure sign of an intention to go privateering: prize ships were to be boarded and conquered in hand-to-hand fighting and then sent home to England manned by the privateers.
Roanoke initially was planned purely to make preying on Spanish treasure ships easier.
The 1585 venture followed the same course as Amadas and Barlowe’s but remained several weeks in the West Indies while the prospective colonists grew anxious about reaching Roanoke in time to build a settlement before winter. Ralph Lane, who was to be governor of the colony, quarreled so bitterly with Grenville that the admiral threatened to execute him for mutiny. At the end of June the fleet finally moved on.
As soon as the ships arrived off the Outer Banks, it became clear that the location was a mistake. The flagship was driven repeatedly against the shore and was almost lost, and most of the colonists’ food supplies were destroyed. The inlet that gave access to Roanoke Island was so shallow and treacherous that only the tiny pinnaces could be taken through, and then only with extreme care. Medium-size ships could shelter along the Banks, but the largest vessels were forced to anchor several miles out to sea, exposed to dangerous storms.
It must have been a grim council that sat down to decide what to do. There is some evidence that Grenville and his entire fleet were supposed to stay and inaugurate the colony’s use as a privateering base, but that was now clearly impossible. Grenville promised that he would bring supplies in the spring, just as soon as the Atlantic was safe, so Lane and his colonists agreed to stay, spending the winter looking for a better location and learning about the territory. The colonists set to work building a fort, and Grenville and his men went exploring on the Carolina mainland.
We know a great deal about the Carolina Algonquians, on whom the colonists were intruding, because Raleigh was a true Renaissance man whose scholarly interests were as important to him as fighting Spain and making money. He had sent along Thomas Hariot, a young scientist and mathematician recently graduated from Oxford, to study the land and its resources and make a full report on Indian culture. Amadas and Barlowe had returned from their reconnaissance with two Indians, named Manteo and Wanchese, and Hariot had spent a year learning their language and teaching them English. An artist named John White accompanied Hariot to Virginia to illustrate his findings.
Together, White and Hariot created a remarkable record; their maps are said to be the most accurate done in America in the sixteenth century, and White’s paintings of Indian life were not equaled before the advent of photography. They show strong, dignified Indians and a highly successful culture. Hariot’s descriptions allow us to see that culture from the inside.
The coastal Carolina Algonquians were organized in tribal groupings consisting of several towns of approximately one to two hundred people each. The Roanoke Indians had their capital on the mainland opposite the island, under a werowance named Wingina. Werowance means “he who is rich,” but the Indians’ meaning of riches was different from the colonists’. The tribe’s goods, including the novel European trade items, all flowed into the hands of the chief, but his role was redistributing, so that all shared the bounty. If he had tried to control the wealth, he would have lost his people’s respect. Though he moved among his subjects in great state, the werowance lacked coercive power and led by moral authority alone.
Justice and war were also governed by a principle of balance. When an individual or a tribe sustained injury, redress was sought through compensation or the infliction of a similar injury. Warfare was therefore limited and controlled, and generosity was rewarded. Barlowe and Amadas had seen a vivid illustration of this principle in their first contact with the Roanokes. A single man approached their ships and greeted them. He was taken aboard and given a hat and shirt and a taste of wine and meat. When he left, they saw him fishing a short way off: soon he returned, divided his catch into piles, and told the colonists in sign language that one pile was to go to each ship. He would not leave until he had reciprocated their hospitality.