- 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
Lane had three missions to accomplish during the winter: to find a good base with a deepwater port; to find a passage to the Pacific, which was called the South Sea and was assumed to be just a few days’ march to the west; and to find gold. He sent a party of men north to make a preliminary search for the privateering base they needed. These men spent the winter at Chesapeake Bay, meeting with many Indian leaders, and returned convinced that it would make a better location. The account of their activities is very brief; presumably Raleigh wanted to keep their findings away from competitors, though the excellence of Chesapeake Bay was already as well known to the Spanish as to the English.
The colonists became desperate. When Drake was forced to leave, they all went with him.
Lane himself took on the other two jobs. He learned from Wingina, the Roanoke chief, of a large and powerful tribe to the west, the Choanokes, under Menatonon. Lane arrived at Menatonon’s headquarters during a great council of tribes, which Wingina had said was being held to conspire against the English. Menatonon and his son were captured; the chief was held for two days, during which he and Lane held long conversations about the region. The governor was greatly impressed with Menatonon, who confirmed that Chesapeake Bay was the best site for an English base but warned that the Indians there would resist an incursion. Menatonon also described a rich mine on a huge body of water somewhere to the west.
Lane determined to travel west and find that fortune. He kept Menatonon’s son prisoner to forestall treachery and took a select party upriver. The inability of the English to deal with the wilderness quickly became apparent; the Indians along the route withdrew into the interior, and food ran out, forcing Lane to turn back. The English policy of overawing Indians and forcing their aid must have looked rather hollow by then.
Meanwhile, as spring came on, the Roanokes’ food supply was stretched beyond endurance. Both Indians and English split up into small groups to live off the land, vastly increasing English vulnerability. At the same time, the goods traded to the Roanokes in return for their corn gave them unprecedented power to attract alliances with other tribes.
Spring brought the death of Wingina’s brother Granganimeo, the man most friendly to the English in Roanoke councils; Wingina changed his name to Pemisapan, which implied a watchful, wary attitude. It may have been a war name. The colonists became convinced he was planning a conspiracy with other tribes to get rid of the settlement. Lane struck first, and Pemisapan died in an attack that began with the battle cry “Christ our victory!”
Though the immediate threat was ended, the colonists were desperate: there would be no harvest for weeks, and they could expect no Indian aid. A week after the death of Pemisapan, long after Lane had expected relief from home, his lookout sighted an English fleet; the colonists knew they were saved.
The fleet was that of Sir Francis Drake, who had been privateering in Spanish America almost as long as the settlers had been at Roanoke. He came expecting to make use of their base, but what he found was quite different: a colony in disarray and an anchorage that kept his ships two miles out to sea. He and Lane discussed the possibility of his leaving ships, men, and supplies so that Lane could continue his explorations over the summer, but a great storm so damaged Drake’s fleet that he was forced to leave. The colonists all went with him. The sailor hosts were so anxious to get under way that most of the settlers’ baggage, including Hariot’s notes and specimens and many of White’s drawings, was thrown overboard.
More than possessions were lost; three colonists on a mission into the interior were abandoned. Moreover, Drake had liberated a large force of African slaves and Indians from Spanish control, and they were apparently left behind to make room on the ships for the colonists. Raleigh’s relief fleet finally arrived three weeks later, after a long diversion for privateering, and left a holding party of fifteen men in the deserted settlement. None of them was ever heard of again.
Once the colonists were safely back home, all agreed that a new site on Chesapeake Bay should be tried. Though farsighted men such as Thomas Hariot and the great promoter Richard Hakluyt argued for the development of identified American resources, the governor and many of his colonists were contemptuous of the possibilities of the new land unless gold was found. Lane now saw the land as a barrier and wrote that the* best hope was for discovery of a passage through to the East. Potential backers saw clearly that all income so far had flowed from privateering.
Nonetheless, there were those who felt strongly that with a new site and the proper backing a colony could become self-sustaining and ultimately provide a rich trade for England. John White was pre-eminent among them. He and Thomas Hariot hoped their findings would help attract new backing. Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, a careful survey of resources, was published on its own in 1588 and with woodcuts of White’s paintings in 1590.